New Yorker Poetry (June 13 & 20) Cheaters Edition

I wasn't wild about any of the poems this week. I didn't think any of them were bad, but all three have pretty big flaws. “The Mare Out on the Road” borrows some of the effect of the pantoum (more on this) but the experience is confused and many of the lines that get repeated are pretty weak. If you're going to say something twice it better be better than “Sliding fast with the brakes shoaling gravel” or “Five meters down, and would the car capsize?” I guess a poem about a crash should feel less arranged.

“An Elegy for My Mother,” take out the first three stanzas and the poem is about the same. Also a bit melodramatic”--language, language--”

“Steady Now” is the best of the three with good control, but too poetic for my taste, “Updraft of oblivion” “world of rain” “rock of ages.” Everything is abstract. We don't get to smell the grass, we “feel the smell of grass greeting.” These are all ideas and I posit that experiencing the world rather than thinking about experiencing the world might solve some of the stability issues. Have a seat on one of those rocks. Pretty stable.

But the first poem did put me in the mind of reading some pantoums and perhaps my favorite is this one, by our own Donald Justice. If you read the brief note before the poem you'll see this is a form that requires a ton of repetition and that's something we're all contending with in some form or another.

I think Dean said something like repetition only being interesting once variation arises. In the case of the pantoum, the line stays the same (or nearly the same) and it is the context (the lines right before and after) that change. So the repeated line gets held under two completely different lamps. Despite my downplaying of subject matter previously, look how perfectly the form manages the Great Depression here. The lines are slow and the repetition introduces the mundane inevitability of “going on and on.”

“Our lives avoided tragedy” is a radical beginning for a poem about the Great Depression. We're not talking about Hoovervilles, stockbrokers, or dust clouds. “Oh there were storms and small catastrophes” but why not leave those alone—you've heard all about that before (Seabiscuit). “Simply by going on and on,” the second time around, isn't, in itself, anything too special, but there is a pleasure as it is now the beginning of a sentence, rather than in the middle of one. It leads into the cut and dry, “We managed. No need for the heroic.” The heroic, along with “tragedy,” “chorus,” “verse,” and “story” puts us in the presence of the Greek plays, which, if I remember right, generally involve some pretty bad stuff. But he doesn't “remember all of the particulars.”

When this line first occurs, it is commenting on the storms and small catastrophes, when it returns, about “ the usual celebrations, the usual sorrows.” This is as anti-sentimental as you can get, which isn't to say unfeeling. You can hear, in the monotony of the repeating lines, the regular line lengths, a desperation and quiet acceptance. You can also feel the mind dwelling, concentrating. “And if we suffered we kept quiet about it.” All of these lines are end-stopped, most by a period. It takes forever to read this poem out loud. Further down the spectacular, “We gathered on porches; the moon rose; we were poor.” So emphatic and some of the only imagery and fellowship in the poem. I love “gathered.” It has the same quality of inevitability. We're people; we're social; we gather.

The two lines that follow this one are interesting. First, it's followed by a question (which was a statement in it's earlier iteration) which feels pleading, amazed, and sad because it has transformed into a question. Perhaps the statement hopes for its opposite, that the story would get told. The question then confirms the truth that it won'y. The second time it (the “We gathered” line) is followed by the first metaphor in the poem, “And time went by, drawn by slow horses.” That's just beautiful. The “We gathered” line changes from being emphatic, almost proud, to being a condition to bear seemingly endlessly. In both cases, it is combined with, “beyond our windows shone.” So even the moon is mediated by a barrier in a sense. This is the great part. The first coupling of the “we gathered” and “Beyond out windows” (6th stanza) is in an abstract setting (pity, fear, audience, story). The second coupling (7th stanza) is full of imagery (moon, slow horses, windows shone, fog). When you finally get to “The Great Depression,” the thing in the background, the tragedy, it is practically cinematic. It is full of sorrow and acceptance, but gorgeous.

Next stanza you have the two imagistic lines, with two more abstract lines. We're winding out of that climax. We end up in the present tense in the final stanza. To be reductive, what got said doesn't change because the Depression ended. Or better, the feeling of the Depression didn't end for those who lived through it. The piling on of the mundane difficulties, day to day life, is somehow more transformative than tragedy. Finally that uneasy rhyming of “tragedy” and “poetry.” No story gets told here. Life ends up being a condition, not a story. I suppose we do tend to think of life as a narrative and this poem undercuts that. But what is the poem saying about poetry? The ending is baffling—any takers?

I had hoped to talk more about repetition, but the poem is fucking hard. It is really resistant. It just means what it means. Maybe I should have savaged one of those other poems.
One more quick thing. There is an AIG insert with poems! in the magazine. The first is perhaps the most American poem, “The Road Not Taken.” American I say because it is has been appropriated for a certain cause while being completely misunderstood. The facing page has the prototypical, rugged individual who has chosen to be unconventional and will thereby become wealthy, happy, and successful by swimming against the current. But the poem isn't called “The Road Taken,” its called “The Road Not Taken.” The obsession is with what could have been (“I shall be telling this with a sigh / somewhere ages and ages hence”). Second guessing (or even analysis of facts), as we're learning, is decidedly un-American. Also, as for being unconventional, the poems says, about the two paths, “Though as for that the passing there / Had worn them really about the same,” or, to modernize it, “Everyone has a pair of Doc Martins.”

I adore the irony here. It's an ad for insurance, loans, and retirement which says, “We can help you prepare for the road ahead.” Oh, and also, the road ahead is full of regret; initial here, sign here, initial here and here. How did/does this happen? It's a clear commentary on the times. There is absolutely no pressure on anyone to pause and think.


dunkeys said...

That's another great job. People are out here reading these things -- and thinking about them -- even if we don't always say so.

Last week you answered a question about what separates poetry from fiction. Anyway: you asserted that the presentation of a poem (the syllables, the sounds, the punctuation) is just as important -- and NEVER less important -- than the content. I dig that distinction:

Poetry: form >= meaning

Poets seem to fight within this concept -- to 'assert' where they belong within that ratio of form and meaning. A lot of (y)our workshop peers chose to emphasize form so much that it sometimes replaced, or "became", the meaning . . . while many more well-known American poets seem to skew heavily toward meaning over form (which leads to other questions, but they can wait).

So here's my quiz this week, hotshot (and other poetry hotshots, too, Nate and all): you're teaching a class of hungry would-be poets, and they need to know what YOU think is the proper relationship between form and meaning . . . and, to be tricky, why. What are some poems that capture your own personal "golden" form/meaning ratio -- and why do you think so? And what are some familiar outliers that go too far in one direction or the other?

No ducking the question. Educate us foolish prosers, fellas.

chad said...

I don't think there can be a proper relationshp that is static. There's going to be some back and forth even within the same poem about which to give yourself over to. Ideally, it would seem you should be shooting for having your cake and eating it too. One doesn't need to come at the expense of the other. Of course, as in prose I'm sure, it it easier to do one thing really well than it is to do four of five things really well simeltaneously.

As for the proper relationship, I think this justice poem is pretty damn perfect. If you look closely there are all kind of little subtle musical things happeheing. Also, all excess has been stripped away--there isn't a single extra word. One of the things i really dislike about poets who prioritize subject matter is that it gives them an excuse to become lax with the language, so you end up with all kinds of uneccesary crap. Or you end up with poems that posit an idea and then simply muse about it, exert a kind of faux-struggle, and then end with a conclusion (they are the sitoms of poems). Pick up a journal and see how many poems make this same move. they tend to being, "I was thinking/watching yesterday/last week/last year and..." The stability poem is a avriety of this.

Poets whose balance I admire:

John Berryman (70% language, 30% sense)

this may not be the ideal ratio, but it is for him: http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/john-berryman/3560

Elizabeth Bishop (70% sense 30% language) See how careful, but how clean: http://www.mrbauld.com/bishoppms.html (especially "Visits to St. Elizabeths" 3/4 of the way down)

Heather McHugh (80% language, 20% sense--except when it's diffreent)
"What He Thought" may be the best poem ever written about poetry.

Really, in looking in these poems, you need to have both of them working together or you're dead in the water. I'm curious to see what nate has to say.

Nate said...

The ratio is 0% to 0% since I think it's impossible to set a general standard for the relationship of form and meaning. Chad's absolutely right: it's a dynamic relationship. Ideally, they discover each other. A poem has to set up its own boundaries, its own needs. A. R. Ammons writes: " Each poem in becoming generates the laws by which it is generated..." I don't mean to back into a subjectivist corner and say it's all relative. Naturally there's a push-pull. This is what I think above all else: The important thing is for a poem to provide an experience of its content, regardless of the ratios of form to meaning, and we as readers have to judge this experience both by former poems' "laws" and by the autonomous structures the given poem establishes. I still hold to the notion that a poem's formal features (which I take to mean not only meter and music, but also rhetoric, i.e. analogy, imagery, etc.) aren't merely in service of some general "meaning" or "content," but are themselves inseparable from that content.

Poets I admire in this regard:

Frank O'Hara -- hardly ever considered on formal grounds, especially because he so willfully turned his nose to convention, but his best work really provides a formal experience of the poem's content. Think of "The Day Lady Died" (http://www.creighton.edu/~spoko/writings/ohara/lady.html). This poem's all about emotional shock coming about amid the clatter of an urban environment, an environment in which one must be especially guarded against sensory shock (Freud talks about the stimulus shield in this regard). The poem's in a lose, talky free verse. The first stanza's really shaky -- stresses shooting here and there, all over the place, quite irregular, as if the motors are just getting started, but once we get to the second stanza ("I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun") things start to regularize and we can hear an iambic pentameter hovering like an apparition behind these lines. The iambic ghost keeps you going, keeps the poet walking on his way, guarded, steady, unconcerned. In a weird way it provides a completely paradoxical experience to this poem's "content" (which is why I think it's so wonderful). That is, the shock implicit at the end in seeing the announcement of Holiday's death is wholly absorbed by this relatively steady, albeit quick, rhythm: "...casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton / of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it". Instead of a wham-bam dramatic moment (which, I suppose, would entail some spondees [two heavy stresses in a row] or trochees [reverse of the iamb, stress, unstress] or something, O'Hara then glides into an internal space, the memory of an after-hours performance:

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

Check out how regular that first line is (esp. if you grant "of" an unorthodox stress-- well, really not that unorthodox since, relative to an 'ing' the word 'of' gets a lot more). But I'm amazed to scan the second line: not a single iamb: trochee, pyrrhic, spondee, pyrrhic, spondee. Third line, beautiful, elegant iambs with one variation: "whispered," a trochee. Then, (and here's the kicker for me) the final words, "stopped breathing," are a spondee. The metrical intensity doesn't come in the flux of O'Hara walking through the city discovering the singer's death, but in his internal space, this particular memory, this appropriately uncanny, deathlike moment in which the singer seems temporarily to kill an entire room of people.
Of course, you can't treat O'Hara's work like formal poetry. But applying just a bit of scansion really brings out some of the finer points. I think this is a perfect example of a poem in which sound and sense are one and the same thing. One could also think about the way the poem's frantic syntax, propelled by conjunctions, and the jarring enjambments contribute to the poem's urban "walk." I won't go on and on.

And I won't go on with these other poets, but I wanted to through them out there:

Robert Creeley (http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/184). Shit, don't get me started. With Creeley you simply cannot separate what's being said from how it's being said.

Kenneth Koch (http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/75). So often seems lax, long-lined, a-formal. But again, he can't get away saying what he does without his stately, balanced line. Check out "One Train May Hide Another" in this regard.

Well, I don't think I really answered the question much, but I said something. I think.

chad said...

Of course you're right but this sort of thing is fun. who is a 50/50 poet? Eliot maybe? Probably justice right? Stein (120% music -20% sense?). Great read on the O'hara--there is also the rhythm of those proper nouns everywhere which always get a lot of punch--such a cliche now to use brand names. I've been writing about sales manegment for like three weeks now. Your exegesis was like bathing in milk.

Nate said...

Interesting point on the proper names--I think O'Hara's so gutsy for using so many proper names and foreign words because they have a tendency to completely mess with rhythm and meter.

And I wanted to say that Justice poem is amazing.

I think it might be the most brilliant boring poem I've ever read. It's downright flat, and his genius is to make that the poeticizing -- thus a sort of antipoeticizing which meshes with that last line. It's an odd, paradoxical move.

Yeah, Eliot, probably as close to 50-50 as we'll get.

Justice too.

Stevens? 65 music, 35 sense? Try explaining the sense of the Idea of Order at KW!!!

WCW - 40 music, 60 sense?


Um, how 'bout Dean? 60 Sense - 40 Music? Or maybe those are the wrong terms for his work-- 60 association - 40 sense???

craigt said...

MARE OUT ON THE ROAD I found interesting for employing the repeated form in what may be its only really good match to material -- the car crash.

The repetition about "not believing in accidents"appears to me to be coyly self-reflexive, teasing the resort to irony iterative formal poems like this have as their raison d'etre and that’s perhaps a weakness as well as one of the formal pleasures of the form.