Looting Versailles

Looting Versailles
My first book of poems, just released by Alabaster Leaves Publishing

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Meeting of Great Poets and a Novel Form

Recently I revisited - for pleasure - Theodore Roethke's "The Waking." It dawned on me that a remarkable number of great, mid-century (20th) poets writing in English have poems that are highly anthologized and, relative to the rest of their oeuvres, relatively simple. The examples that came to mind did so for two reasons: 1) the poets were writing at a similar time period to Roethke, 2) the poets were writing a villanelle, a form imported to English from the French and becoming relatively popular at the time.

The examples that came to mind ought to be familiar to anyone beyond new to poetry; and to anyone new to poetry, they ought to be read (which will make them instantly familiar):

1) Elizabeth Bishop, "One Art"
2) W.H. Auden, "Time Will Say I Told You So"
3) Dylan Thomas, "Do not go gentle into that good night..."

Another poet and poem that came to mind was Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." I'll get back to this point.

Thomas, despite the appeal of his allegedly drunken, raucous readings, is actually a poet's poet - highly figurative and not afraid to write beautifully and forget about cogency or coherence. See those sonnets about the owl for what I mean.

Bishop is stately and intelligent, literary to the Nth degree; so is Auden. Also, Bishop and Auden wrote many poems far superior with regards to beauty and complexity, bravado and originality, than the examples above. Though for both, these rank highly.

Here's why I think the poems above were written: These highly talented poets were approaching a novel form (to my knowledge) and so by virtue of that, they were taking a poetic risk. Therefore, to prevent further risk, they chose "safe" themes and stuck to simple rhymes and diction.

Bishop: the art of loss -- great paradox built on simple diction, relatively simple rhyme, and the bittersweet subject of loss.

Auden - the bittersweet subject of loss via time passing. Classic...

Thomas - the heroism of facing death bravely, the bittersweet triumph that cannot (write it!) be.

Roethke, I think, plays it less safe: The theme of sleeping / waking is LESS "poetic." What I mean by that is - Love and Death, time, the sun and moon, the stars and the sea - these are present in ALMOST every poem; they are akin to the comedian's farts, dicks and faux pas. But the sleeping-waking dichotomy is minor - the row row row your boat, what dreams may come - it echoes death but is NOT death. It is not a major trope, but indirectly it touches one, and has been used to do so often.

This is an opportune time to turn to Frost -- "miles to go before I SLEEP." Echoing the idea of unknowing and mortality without directly addressing it (although the isolated landscape and snow helps).

I think the historical confluence of great talent and new form were two strains of a three-part happenstance which lead to these pieces.

You have the novel form, provoking talented poets to make safe choices (moving in unfamiliar ground), and the novel form happens to satisfy the RHYME desired (or expected) by a common reader. On top of that, the desired or expected rhyme is decidedly NOT anything like a sonnet, providing the common reader a little bit of novelty without too much.

So in the mid-1900s, four great moderns (Bishop and Auden far-greater than Thomas who's wilder than Roethke) met a great (and possibly intimidating - to the poets at that time) form, and thus four great poems were produced. Kind of great poets taking baby steps; enacting what Roethke says in the writing of these poems: "learn by going where I have to go" -- these poets were literally taking their poetic awakening (into the villanelle dream) slow (by creeping; taking little risk).

Everybody knows Dylan Thomas's poem. Bishop's poem is in every anthology and beloved by those who know it. Roethke's poem is simply Roethke's best, in my opinion (or at least ranks very highly in a slimmer body of work compared to Auden and Bishop; the "lovely in her bones" poem also comes to mind as highly memorable, as long as some about his father's greenhouse). (To my mind, Roethke is one of those rare strong minor poets I think Bloom mentioned once (in my reading) -- like Berryman or Jarrell -- that group is highly similar in their lesser triumphs, lifetime popularity and medicine cabinets, I think. As my reading deepens, I see Berryman's celebrated Dream Songs losing influence and likely not lasting much further into "posterity." Then again, anthologies of other nation's poets are filled with weak poems relative to their shining stars - the French, the Russians. So much pales next to Pushkin and Pasternak. But it seems as you go backward, there are less and less weaklings, as if they - the minors - simply require more time to be shed: there are a LOT of 20th century weaklings in 21st c anthologies; a few less 19th cent weaklings; even less 18th c...then there are only 1-2 poets from centuries 17th and further back.) Auden's poem is probably quite popular with readers newer to poetry who take a look at Auden (as any new reader should relatively early on -- his books are at most book stores and libraries, and most general poetry reading will refer to him often).

I think I can simplify: great poets checked themselves (limited their potential hazards, simplified) while attempting a new form that would (ultimately) prove satisfying to the common reader -- This created a great poem for the common reader: Satisfying their desires (semi-novel rhyme, traditional poetic themes, toned down diction) and thus proved (for now) lasting. I think they seem - in fact, are - accessible; at least the emotion is (communicated before it's understood), as the content rarely strays from the main topic or shocks with a weird metaphor: that emotion connected to loss, O grief be its name, tragedy and despair; love lost.

I include Frost because his poem achieves something similar, though I'm not sure it's for the same confluence of issues. He writes a novel form of the terza rima, adding a 4th line to make each stanza a quatrain and ending on a quatrain. So it's a variation on the terza rima. The theme and diction are rather simple, the accessibility seems to be there. And that final line completes the terza rima in an unusual way - a couplet, actually blues couplet really: a 100% faithfully repeated line. Only again - he reminds the reader "sleep" is not just the temporary kind. Thus, simple emotion, simple diction, classic themes - all safe territory CONTENT-wise in the relative terra incognita of the Novel Form.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Auden approximating Shakespeare, etc

As a deep reader of poetry, I'm confused by a recent finding: Auden's "Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue," and the fact of it being (relatively) little spoke of, championed, praised. Maybe I'm wrong, but I have read little to really buttress and strongly recommend this long poem. I recently read it, I think inspired by Auden's large role in Merrill's "Mirabell's Books of Number." Another inspiration for reading it, I think, was Auden's role in Hollander's long poem I'll refer to as "Cupcake" ("Reflections on Espionage: The question of Cupcake," is the full title).

The Age of Anxiety, I think, reaches peak-poetry - the equivalent height reached by Shakespeare and, IMO, the lyrics of Donne and Dickinson, and the exceptional "essays" of Pope; I'd probably consider Wordsworth's Prelude there  as well. The Age of Anxiety includes the full depths and richnesses of Shakespeare and Pope's essays. Moore is too mathematico-intellectual and Stevens too exotico-surreal to quite match the all-encompassing strongly Anglo-traditional poetry that extends from Shakespeare to Auden's Age of Anxiety; I mean this in terms of sound and sense. Bishop's lyrics may reach that realm, and Lowell's stronger pieces. Hollander and Ammons too, though Ammons leans the direction of Moore, reaching into the language of logic, science, the dialects and lingoes of specialists. Hollander, I think, is very tongue-in-cheek poetically; he's kind of Stevensesque, whereby he acknowledges the beautiful things he says are "supremely fictive," that is, he says it with a playful wink, but plays by the rules -- he just doesn't toss out unusual, alien sounds (Francoish?) the way Stevens does.

Sadly, about 3/5s of the way through Mirabell's, it really starts to bore, stagnate. It gets too stuck on colors and numbers in the other world, where the voices come from. At times it fascinates, but ceases to enthrall. Sorry Merrill :(

Hollander, at least the long poems, ought to be talked about more. More people ought to read them, as they really extend - in the Stevens vein - the English tradition of music and quizzical figures. Powers of Thirteen is really really spectacular fun.

Ammons' "Sphere: the form of a motion" was really enthralling, and several portions really resonate. I think Ammons succeeds very well at inserting some genuine insights or feelings betwixt obvious nothingness, so that these phrases of sincerity are able to pass in and out without disturbing the trance -- those (what I believe are) authentic, sad truths have rang in my mind (sort of refrain) in past days, long after I finished reading the poem.

In paraphrase, what has stayed with me is he said something about being able to see all sides of an argument, which ultimately demonstrates the lack of truth in a lot of human activity and opinion, politics; both sides build airy castles on baseless foundations. Or both sides are true. Dissatisfaction reigns in, or reins in, the mind of that perspective, what F Scott Fitzgerald would call "first rate." Anyway, the other thing he said is, once a poet gets the accolades they long sough and longed for, all the people he'd (or she'd) hoped to impress or prove themselves to are gone, so poetry as redemptive in the minds of familiars is a moot aim or goal, hope etc.

Something non-poetry that's really enthralled is Michael Pollan's "Second Nature." I highly recommend it - at times it IS poetic, and the reason I took it up again (I've read it off and on for almost two years in iBooks) is because Michael Pollan was referenced by Paul Muldoon in his Oxford lecture series, "The End of the Poem." I figured if Pollan was included in Muldoon's reading (the New Yorker's poetry editor, now) and I liked him, that maybe my fascination was well-founded. Pollan strikes me as an Ammons-type mind - able to see both sides, through the metaphors, into the facts, trying to find a compromise without compromising what's real.

Riffing on my drive to work a few days ago, I realized how many F-words (some four letters) can describe a good poem:

"Formicating, fornicating, forlorn forms; feverishly fictive and fantastically figurative; funereal and fun; self-effacing fathoms, faithful and facetious; farcical on the surface, folly and filial; follicular and  foolish; philo-x-ical... furthering the farthings, far-reaching fortnights" ha ha ha

Main point being:

Auden's Age of Anxiety is Shakespeare-level poetry
Hollander and Ammons are your children's Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moores
Michael Pollan is beautiful non-fiction / botany
Merrill's Changing Light at Sandover epic is proving a bit uneven, but I'm not giving up

Otherwise, Jay Wright's Transfigurations is on the way - I discovered him recently reading some Harold Bloom essays, and was incredibly impressed! Looking forward to reading him.

Still enjoying Don Quixote, and wondering whether Moby Dick or Ulysses will be next...