Monday, January 30, 2006

Poem of the Week 1/27/2006: First Song

First Song

Then it was dark in Illinois, the small boy,
After an afternoon of carting dung
Hung on the rail fence, a sapped thing
Weary to crying. Dark was growing tall
And he began to hear the pond frogs all
Calling on his ear with what seemed their joy.

Soon their sound was pleasant for a boy
Listening in the smoky dusk and the nightfall
Of Illinois, and from the fields two small
Boys came bearing cornstalk violins
And they rubbed the cornstalk bows with resins
And the three sat there scraping of their joy.

It was now fine music the frogs and the boys
Did in the towering Illinois twilight make
And into dark in spite of a shoulder's ache
A boy's hunched body loved out of a stalk
The first song of his happiness, and the song woke
His heart to the darkness and into the sadness of joy.

Galway Kinnell 1960

Oh poetry about love. This poem melds form and content; I hope to show you here how the form twists in on itself, cradling and loving its song. That its title is "First Song" is not surprising, given the music Kinnell achieves through unity of form. His images sing with the rhyme, which reinforces the repetition which emphasizes the content. The harmony of form and content make this poem beautiful.

You ask, can she argue that the poem is or is not beautiful? In some ways, yes. In my aesthetics class right now (I have a feeling that several future PotWs will contain that phrase), we are read an essay by Clive Bell. Therein, he argues that all true art will have "significant form," which is basically a self-consciousness of structure. Now I disagree with Bell on his argument and several of his other claims, but I agree that, fundamentally, art is concerned with form. And if I can explain why I see the form as beautiful, then perhaps you might agree. My discussion might add to your view of the poem. Or you might think that the form is beautiful in other ways, or perhaps not beautiful at all, and that is one reason why we talk about poetry and art. We are discussing why we think something is beautiful (unified, graceful, coherent).

Every word is a workhorse in "First Song," accomplishing multiple tasks. In the first stanza, the oft-used internal rhyme like "Illinois" and "boy," "dung" and "hung," "thing" and "crying," establishes unity from line to line and casts a childlike feel onto the poem. The unity presages the connectedness the boy eventually experiences, and the innocence underlines the final message of pure joy. Then, too, this is the most compressed internal rhyme in the poem, perhaps reflecting the boy's extreme tiredness. The diction in the first stanza articulates this empathy as well. The phrase "a sapped thing" tenderly regards the exhausted boy like a wilted flower. We imagine that all he can do is sit and listen.

"Weary to crying," his intellect retreats, allowing his elemental parts to tune in. The pond frogs "call on his ear" as if coming to court him out of his misery. The concert turns into a dance when two boys come out of the cornfield bearing "cornstalk violins / And they rubbed the cornstalk bows with resins / And the three sat there scraping of their joy." The sweetness and whimsy of it come through in diction like "rubbed" and "scraped" and images like "cornstalk violins." I love that cornstalks can't actually produce a melody in the conventional sense; they rustle. That's all. But, the narrator notes, it was "fine music."


glo said...

i love also the "sadness of joy."

Safa said...

I don't know why, but for some reason the boys "bearing cornstalk violins" makes me think of crickets at night...I also like how the boy's hunched body "loved out of a stalk/the first song of his happiness." It's not often that you "love" something into being, if that makes any sense, but I like it. :)