Saturday, August 29, 2009

Poem of the Week 7/29/2009: An Upward Look

An Upward Look

Oh heart green acre sown with salt
by the departing occupier

lay down your gallant spears of wheat
Salt of the earth each stellar pinch

flung in blind defiance backwards
now takes its toll Up from his quieted

quarry the lover colder and wiser
hauling himself finds the world turning

toys triumphs toxins into
this vast facility the living come
dearest to die in How did it happen

In bright alternation minutely mirrored
Within the thinking of each and every

mortal creature halves of a clue
approach the earthlinghts Morning star

evening star salt of the sky
First the grave dissolving into dawn

the the crucial recrystallizing
from the inmost depths of clear dark blue

James Merrill

Poem of the Week 7/22/2009: I Know a Man

I Know a Man

As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking,--John, I

sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what

can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,

drive, he sd, for
christ's sake, look
out where yr going.

Robert Creeley 1962

Ezra Pound's ABC of Reading argues that the most descriptive and accurate definitions are those that provide sight of exactly what is in front of one; he provides a definition of a canzone given by Dante: "A canzone is a composition of words set to music." This definition, Pound argues, works from what the audience can see or hear, so that when they hear a certian kind of music accompanied by words, they will know the canzone. No need to infer about the worldview, the meaning, or the greater category of music this form inhabits; the facts are legible, and that, Pound argues, is the most grounded form of knowledge.

So this is one idea about literature given by Ezra Pound, and while he is certainly open to literature of fact and that of abstraction, his idea does raise some interesting questions. First, is he right? There seems to be much literature of worth that is highly abstract and yet beautiful beyond measure, helpful, informative, etc; in one of Coleridge's works, for example, barely a fact remains in the poem, and yet one's encounter with that poem may be as moving or more moving than with Homer, who I regard as writing "legibly," from fact. Not that Coleridge can trump Homer; I am trying to say that they each have their value in whatever class they inhabit.

So it might do to test Pound's hypothesis, to observe it when one has the chance to do so--after all, I, for one, am still trying to work out how to read, and will happily take advice from and test Pound's theory in hope of learning a bit more. I regard this week's PotW, Robert Creeley's poem "I Know a Man," as a stellar example of a legible work, one whose facts are all entirely visible. And in testing Pound's theory for myself, the next step is to see what results from the careful and particular examination of a little conversation between friends.

"I Know a Man" does not stray at all, really, from the event of a conversation-- a conversation in which one man attempts to speak philosophically and sentimentally, and the other replies to go ahead and drive. It's a concrete experience--the attempt to make an abstract statement, to connect with somebody, and yet to Entirely Miss the Point! Which is not to think so hard, possibly. That's it, though we could talk about the syntax a little if I was a motivated person. ....

But here is the real point:

I was stopped for days in the middle of this blog, right before the last paragraph in fact, keeping on "slow roast" what Creeley's poem was a snapshot of; I couldn't recall a taste of this experience, you know? So I couldn't explain the poem other than technically, which can be tiresome. I was stopped, that is, until I really experienced it, that is, until I tried to philosophize with a friend I was trying to connect with instead of just listening and chatting, normally. I was all bent on interfering and look what happened! Exactly what robert creeley's poem promised would happen, no response, really at all. So perhaps Pound's observation does have something meaty to it, though it certainly demands something of its reader!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Poem of the Week 7/15/2009: Watch Repair

Watch Repair

A small wheel
Shivering like
A pinned butterfly.

Hands thrown up
In all directions:
The crossroads
One arrives at
In a nightmare.

Higher than that
Number 12 presides
Like a beekeeper
Over the swarming honeycomb
Of the open watch.

Other wheels
That could fit
Inside a raindrop.

That must be splinters
Of arctic starlight.

Tiny golden mills
Grinding invisible
Coffee beans.

When the coffee’s boiling
So it doesn’t burn us,
We raise it
To the lips
Of the nearest

Charles Simic 1974

This poem is a gorgeous, observant, sincere meditation on a small watch by the former poet laureate Charles Simic. We must wonder whether the watch is a cosmos or a strange pet, for it has both the echo of the universe and a personal, almost cute, character to it. Simic creates a cosmos by introducing a world of actors like the beekeeper-- number 12-- which makes the watch itself into a city or a town. Then, he hints at the universe at large with the somehow successful line, "splinters of starlight."

Then, Simic adds character to the watch using hints of activity, like the "hands thrown up in all directions." This clever line both puns on the hands of the watch and introduces the watchmaker's dynamic interaction with the watch itself. I think the coffee beans, too, add a cuteness that somehow makes the watch more intimate, heavily loud yet nearly infinitesimal in its whirring.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Poem of the Week 7/8/2009: The Skunk

The Skunk

Up, black, striped and damasked like the chasuble
At a funeral mass, the skunk's tail
Paraded the skunk. Night after night
I expected her like a visitor.

The refrigerator whinnied into silence.
My desk light softened beyond the verandah.
Small oranges loomed in the orange tree.
I began to be tense as a voyeur.

After eleven years I was composing
Love-letters again, broaching the word 'wife'
Like a stored cask, as if its slender vowel
Had mutated into the night earth and air

Of California. The beautiful, useless
Tang of eucalyptus spelt your absence.
The aftermath of a mouthful of wine
Was like inhaling you off a cold pillow.

And there she was, the intent and glamorous,
Ordinary, mysterious skunk,
Mythologized, demythologized,
Snuffing the boards five feet beyond me.

It all came back to me last night, stirred
By the sootfall of your things at bedtime,
Your head-down, tail-up hunt in a bottom drawer
For the black plunge-line nightdress.

Seamus Heaney

Poem of the Week 7/1/2009: The Flea

The Flea

Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deniest me is ;
It suck'd me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be.
Thou know'st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead ;
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pamper'd swells with one blood made of two ;
And this, alas ! is more than we would do.

O stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is.
Though parents grudge, and you, we're met,
And cloister'd in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that self-murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be,
Except in that drop which it suck'd from thee?
Yet thou triumph'st, and say'st that thou
Find'st not thyself nor me the weaker now.
'Tis true ; then learn how false fears be ;
Just so much honour, when thou yield'st to me,
Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee.

John Donne 1633

How ought we follow the argument of this poem? John Donne (or the persona of John Donne my professor called "Jack Donne," the lover and lusty scoundrel) writes of a flea who has bitten both himself and his beloved. Such a paltry thing, to be bitten by a flea, and yet in that flea bite the same thing happens as Renaissance folk believed would happen during sex, the mingling of blood. And so, the argument goes, the beloved ought not fear coupling with Mr. Donne.

The narration turns in the second stanza--it looks as if the beloved will smash the flea! The comedy shifts with the action, for suddenly this insignificant little flea is something sacred, "a marriage temple" holding not only its own life, but the combined life of the speaker and his lady. This, of course, is an attempt at seduction as well, evidenced in the beauty and erotic pull of the line, "clostr'd in these living walls of jet." Donne's comedy is born from finely juxtaposing actual desire with the guts of a flea.

In the final stanza, Donne continues to frame the poem as a narrative, recounting the final step in the threesome -- somewhat flirtatiously, the mistress has killed the flea, has "purlp'd [her] nail in blood of innocence." It is seemingly the final word in the argument, the triumph of virginity and thwarted desire. Even Donne seems to admit it; why, he laments, would she have done such a thing, saying that she feels none the worse after all of the poem's pretty talk? And yet as he appears to die, he wins with the argument, "if it was so little, if it affected you so little, so exactly as much honor will you lose in making love with me." Triumph.