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.