How Poems Move #9

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

We spent the second week of class looking at poems that added some variety to our sense of how language, feeling, perception, and more are linked by sensuous qualities of language: the sounds of words, the rhythms of phrases and sentences and lines. We also made conscious note of the mental images evoked in us by words that point to things outside language, and the effect on us of words that do other things (see the two lists of language functions in post #6).

Our poets the first week were Auden, Brooks, Dickinson, Heaney, Komunyakaa, Larkin, Millay, Montale, Rich, Rukeyser, Sandburg and Sophocles in the anthology. (See post #4 for the table of contents.) Just to recap, so I can emphasize the ground work I want to do in this course: in that first week we focused our discussion—for which we have too little time!—on Seamus Heaney’s “Death of a Naturalist,” for the sounds and rhythms and the pleasures of the tremendous specificity of his language. We focused on Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till” in order to take full note of the tremendous compression and symbolic power of that short poem in which so many of the words have more than one meaning or resonance. I didn’t get us to the discussion of Sophocles’s so-called “ode to man,” which is one of the choral odes of Antigone; I scheduled this for the sake of encountering the first poem in western culture that celebrates the accomplishments of human beings (true, it’s “man” in the poem, but that’s another topic) and measures life by these accomplishments, not by a divine standard or law. (I would have also talked about the monumental structure of this poem.) And we focused on Emily Dickinson’s poem #359 in order to look at how her particular sort of narrating—which in this poem encompasses the straightforward and simple actions of the robin and then the turbulence of consciousness as her metaphoric impulse proliferates quickly and wildly. (I see that turbulence as a very subtle instance of the same—but much more explicit—attention that she gives, in many other poems, to the mysteries of consciousness and to her skepticism about how mind—given by god to man—can be so all-encompassing and yet be baffled by the divine. (In many poems she’s skeptical about the divine, too, as is well known.)

The students turned in their first poems—they were asked to describe in only 8 lines a natural place. They turned out (“in” … “out”: a syntactical figure for the sheer pleasure of it) to have been held back (dead metaphor—sorry) by the temptation to abstract, to idealize, to allegorize. A number of the students described a real place as an illustration of a meaning, so they generalized that place out of the range of the mind’s eye. Instead it would have been better to have described a real or even an imagined place so that it is vividly evoked in language. (And that’s what they’re doing in their re-writes.) This is one of the expected difficulties of beginning to write poetry, though, and no cause for anyone’s alarm. In fact, there’s a lot to be learned from talking about it.

This second week our poets were Hopkins, Levertov, Niedecker, Pound, Ritsos, Roberson, Snyder, Tsvetaeva, Turcotte, Williams and Yeats. (How will I ever make it up to poetry itself that there is not enough time in the span of a college course to spend an adequate amount of time on even one poem each by these poets?!) Our focus in class—necessarily much narrower—was on Lorine Niedecker, in whose work we listened to the lovely changes of pace of the speech stresses, the subtle surprises of her line-breaks and her movement of thought, the double meanings of words and combinations of words, the way she so quietly yet effectively, pleasurably, breaks an idiom or surprises our expectation of idiomatic word order (“my brown little stove” and “she gives heat”—in “Swept snow, Li Po”). We looked at she makes one word flower from inside a previous one in these lines (from Fog-thick morning”):





(This is something that Marina Tsvetaeva does exuberantly in Russian, but which few poets do at all often in English. In Joseph Brodsky’s essay on Tsvetaeva, in which he tries to show all of us who have no Russian what makes Tsvetaeva’s work so remarkable, he calls this “root-word dialectics”—which is not an easy idea to take in—but in the little example above there is no common root, only a shared group of sounds: c-a-r-y.)

And we talked about the lovely A-B-B-A (chiasmus) of the simple but reverberating conclusion to “My mother saw the green tree toad,” which suddenly turns the poetic self and her mother, observers of the apparently endangered species of toad, a very “other” sort of living being, into vulnerable creatures just like it:




(A-B-B-A: changed-brown-town-changed)  In the next post I’ll continue this one.

-Reginald Gibbons