New Yorker Poetry-- May 30, 2005 issue

I'm going to start trying to do the companion piece to Grendel's fiction review. Hopefully I can manage to be as consistent. Anyone know what the rules are on offering the text of the poems here? I'm not going to jail for poetry. Though I suppose I had to get a job because of it. I don't think they are available online.

"Tennis Ball"
Donald Hall

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The narrative poem by Donald Hall describes the speaker's walk through a graveyard on a nice day. His dog notices a couple doing it and then dog and master walk back to the car. The poem is called “Tennis Ball” because the dog has a tennis ball in his mouth.

I've heard the word “accessible” used in reference to poems like this. It is that. It is very clear, not to say lucid, and after reading it one's feels as if one has read a poem. Unfortunately, there is almost nothing here outside of subject matter (death, sex, flowers, trees, and leaves) that makes it poetry.

After several reads I begin to assume that the speaker is visiting the grave of his wife. Very little emotion of any kind is betrayed throughout the poem, so I begin to also assume that part of the point is that death/loss becomes quotidian. A stretch. There are plastic chickens on one of the graves. This gives us the good line in the poem and it sole source of real music, “(Somebody loved somebody who loved chickens.).” This is an interesting bit of psychology and is part of the reason why the dog is along at all; perhaps the dead person loved the dog too. It's hard to tell. The speaker is so removed from the scene that nothing is felt. This is further demonstrated by the flatness of the language. I'm okay with plain language and normal syntax (I'm thinking of Stafford and Justice) but I don't really ever feel the intelligence attaching to the language in such a way as to render emotion. Everything here is passivity. I think I would have liked to have felt acceptance, which requires engagement.

Or surprise. Then the dog notices “a woman's long bare legs” and “a man's body / heaving between them.” “Heaving between them” is not bad on second thought. What is bad though is that there is no surprise or affection or even a realization that they are people. They remain body parts “a man's body” instead of “a man.” Wouldn't it be great to see some people boning in the graveyard? “Boning in the graveyard” would be a pretty good name for your garage band. But the speaker simply, “became the source of coitus interruptus.” Anyway the contrast is pretty obvious. Living and the Dead. They seem to be already dead though, so many arms and legs and later “her / head riding up and down” after the speaker peeks at them from a distance—the only way you'd know he cared at all.

Then I get a little angry at the return to the world of poetry (to be read with an English accent), “It was a fine day, leaves red.” The inversion there lets you know that we're ramping up. Finally, Gus the dog refuses to give up his tennis ball. Like much of the rest of the poem, it is an imaginable observation.

So back to accessibility. If it is, what are we accessing? There is no life on this planet. No one feels anything for anything. I respectfully suggest golf courses after dark over graveyards during the day for amorous trysts.

"Her Creed"
Sharon Olds

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The Olds poem is a conversation between a daughter and her aging mother who is “near the start / of the end of her life.” They are discussing cloning (the mother thinking it's a bunch of gobbledygook and tomfoolery), the miracle of birth, and the afterlife. It is a playful conversation with the speaker in quotes and the mother in italics.

There are some nice renderings of the mother, “a delight that lies near / the center of her nature” and “going gaga so slowly / she makes it look like a natural return / to a state of grace.” And that last one is a nice bit of music with “gaga” glancing off “grace.” I also like the idea of the irrational worry about current events that the elderly sometimes have—especially about things that have almost nothing to do with them. They've lived in the world so long it is more theirs even as they lose, perhaps because they lose, the ability to affect it. My own grandmother is getting more and more confused as the months go by, but has a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of the Michael Jackson case. Such is life.

I feel though that the italic wisdom is pretty cliched. “Not real flesh, she assures me—the men cannot make happen / what happened in her body.” And later, “Not a living / cell with a soul.” Besides that, it's just the chronicle of a conversation. They decide, if they can, that they'll meet on the mother's birthday in the year 3000 (in the year 3000!) to visit the earth.

This might be a good time to talk about Politics and Poetry. There's no indication that they're South Korean, but who knows. The problem is that the poem simply brings up the issue. Cloning. There's a religious angle; it's called “Her Creed.” The word “flesh” is all over the place. And it starts with “I believe” as opposed to “We believe” which is the beginning of the Apostles' Creed? I could be wrong. Anyway they say it at church. But she just thinks cloning won't work, when, to all appearances, it certainly will. Also, there isn't any overt religious argument. So is a poem political if it doesn't take a side? Asking that question felt very Sex and the City. If so, what is this poem saying? “Old people don't like cloning because they are more likely to be religious?” “God doesn't like cloning?” The speaker, our traditional guide through the poem, has no opinion on the matter. Instead there is a rambling conversation where the speaker posits playful impossibilities. On the one hand it brings up a Big Subject and on the other it backs away from it. No Big Shadow.

There are some nice moments in the poem, but it doesn't add up to a lot. I feel like the poem could have been about anything and the relationship between the speaker and the mother would have been the same. I think it's a poem about the mother's decline and the cloning stuff is just running interference.


dunkeys said...

I don't have the New Yorker, but whatever. You mention that the Hall poem lacks anything -- save subject matter (is sex in a graveyard poetic, by the way? Maybe it's more 'rock n' roll. There's an Allman Brothers' Song that came (pun!) from just that -- In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, I think. One of them (Duane? Dickey? Gregg?) was having sex with a girl in the graveyard and saw those words inscribed on the tombstone. Moving on) -- but my question is, what makes a poem?

Sub-questions: what used to make a poem (ie, before free verse) and what makes a poem now (when written in free verse)?

In this place I live, a lot of people who read 'poetry' write 'poetry' that sounds like prose given line breaks. What's the difference between good prose and poetry -- aside from presentation?

Discussing this in terms of the NYer poems might be best, considering the thread. Maybe throwing Derek Walcott into the mix would be fun, too.

Toodles. Poetry rocks.

Grendel said...

First, I'm excited that chad is taking this on. This first post raises the bar for these New Yorker reviews. For the first time I re-read those poems with a fresh perspective.

Second, dunkeys what do you mean you "don't have the New Yorker"?? It's 50 cents a week, man! That's like trying to be a surgeon without, uh, Surgical Weekly, or a cab driver without Cab Driving Weekly or something. Get on the stick, sir. Being in Arizona is no excuse. Your (R) Senator has a nice profile in this week's New Yorker, by the way ... but I guess you wouldn't know that.

Third, I thought that the key to the Olds poem was in the beginning: "I believe / in the creation of / the criminal, / the evil people." And: "Everyone born is a miracle. / How did I know I would have YOU." That cloning is male birth that removes the miracle from the process, the uniqueness of the individual. I love that she wants to protect natural birth because it creates imperfect folks, like criminals, because they are unique, too -- their genes have never been seen before. They're not genetic copies of something; that's what makes them "real." Her fear is that natural female birth is going to someday be replaced by this male scientific malarkey, which creates flesh without a "soul."

The title might be reference to the "Nicene Creed," which kinda sounds like it's talking about cloning and goes like this:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of his Father, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father. By whom all things were made, both which be in heaven and in earth. Who for us men and for our salvation came down [from heaven] and was incarnate and was made man. He suffered and the third day he rose again, and ascended into heaven. And he shall come again to judge both the quick and the dead. And [we believe] in the Holy Ghost. And whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not, or that before he was begotten he was not, or that he was made of things that were not, or that he is of a different substance or essence [from the Father] or that he is a creature, or subject to change or conversion--all that so say, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.

Jane said...

Thanks, Chad, for doing this. I'm an absolute ignoramus when it comes to critiquing poetry--I know what hits me on a gut level, but can rarely explain why--and it's great to read your articulate take on these.

possum said...

I am currently on very strong pain medicine and so will not attempt to write an interesting or coherent response now, but will soon. I would like to say, however, that I fucking hated that Olds poem, and I have good reason. Also, T-Bone loved the Hall poem, and I hope she gets on here and tells you all why. Sharon Olds, I will return!

Patry Francis said...

You and Grendel are helping to make reading the New Yorker even more fun. Now I can read and dialogue.

I like what you have to say about the accessibility of the Hall poem--and in general. It isn't either good and bed of itself: it's WHAT you're accessing.

Same could be said of an obscure poem, but then the reader might just think they just weren't getting it.

Hmmm...probably makes a good case for the writing of obscure poetry.

Nate said...

Chad, bravo for pumping the poetry vein, but why bother w/ New Yorker poetry? That shit's dead from the get-go (makes the graveyard a fitting spot!). I'm more inspired staring for the six zillionth time at Oldfriggn Iron Side on my wallpaper!! I hate the trite insipid crap they publish, would never buy a New Yorker to begin with, and found yr summaries of the poems far more interesting than I've ever found a Hall or Olds poem, which is really pathetic considering a poem should never be summarized. Well, I sound like a crabby schmoe. But I really just meant to say I enjoyed your perceptive readings.

chad said...

Thanks nate. I'd agree these poems are generally not worth reading. On the other hand, I'm very interested in figuring out preciesly why they are so bad in the hopes of never making those mistakes. I'm thinking I may try to offer alternatives from time to time--ie poems that do well what the new yorker poems are trying to do.
A braoder question, which will become cleaer over time, is why would a magazine want to publish these poems. Any one who knows Merwin's (or Simic or the others) work can tell when he's mailing it in. Why do they publish second (or third) rate work from first rate poets instead of first rate work from no rate poets (I happily include you in the latter group)?

Grendel said...

I chose the New Yorker because it really is the Holy Grail for fictioneers -- and because most workshoppers subscribe to it, I'd say, so we all have some common reference point for discussing piece after piece. Maybe it doesn't always publish the best short stories anywhere, but it's hard to argue there's a consistently better venue that many people have access to. Is there an equivalent magazine for poets?

chad said...

I don't think there is an equivalent. we each have our favorite poetry mags, but otherwise, poetry doesn't get published anywhere really. The Believer might be nice (becasue they publish Dean alot) but i don't know anyone who subscribes. In short, there are no non-lit publications i can think of and any poem will do, really, for getting a conversation started