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P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
No. 3 - August 2016
“Tangle My Hair Full of Wisps”
When I was just starting out as a poet (I won’t say when that was, but Richard Nixon was President) I ran across a poetry textbook whose title I immediately loved: How Does a Poem Mean?, edited as I recall by John Ciardi. By asking how instead of the more expected what, Ciardi made a crucial point quite concisely. As noted in last month’s column, profound or original themes are clearly not necessary for an effective poem. History provides countless examples of poems that excel not because they convey deep, complex, or new ideas, but because they express some common theme with vigor, subtlety, fine musicality, fresh imagery, striking turns of phrase, beautiful metaphors, or any of the many components of a poem’s How as opposed to its What.
Modernist poetry, despite its many glories, saddled us with a rather limiting notion in Ezra Pound’s famous command, “Make it new.” New is nice enough, I agree, but if you don’t first make it fresh, clear, honest, funny, vivid, etc., it doesn’t much matter how new your ideas, or how brilliant. As for originality per se, I like how Carl Sagan once mordantly dismissed the cult of the original genius: “But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown." Likewise, that arch-experimentalist composer Arnold Schoenberg felt it necessary to point out that “there is still plenty of good music to be written in C major.”
This point has always struck me as obvious. Yet I’m always running into poets who disagree, declaring themselves very tired of nature poems or religious verse; or insisting it’s harder to write on some themes than others; or simply equating experimentation with quality. That attitude has always seemed to me more akin to fashion than art. As the author of The Book of Ecclesiastes knew centuries before Ezra Pound began messing with free verse, there is nothing new under the sun. Thousand of poets down through history would concur; novelty of idea or technique as a prime poetic value is a relatively modern development. In his magnificent plays Shakespeare shamelessly recycled plots and relied on stock characters and familiar themes. His love sonnets break little ground thematically. Still, Shakespeare is Shakespeare because he can spin off lines like “Beauty provoketh thieves sooner than gold” or “How easy is a bush supposed a bear.” And where you or I might write that pain can nonetheless teach you things, he says, indelibly:
Sweet are the uses of adversity
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
I recognize good poetry mainly in its well-turned language, memorable music, vivid detail, and all the rest of poetry’s great toolbox of Hows. I recognize it in Wallace Stevens’s sharp-eyed evocation of a New England winter, with its “ junipers shagged with ice” and ”spruces rough in the distant glitter / Of the January sun.” Or when Emily Dickinson notes that a snake in the tall grass “wrinkles, and is gone,” I am entirely satisfied with that detail. Then comes the poem’s stunning conclusion, with its wondrous untranslatable metaphor for the feeling of almost stepping on a snake:
. . . [I] never met this Fellow
Attended, or alone
Without a tighter breathing
And Zero at the Bone—
What can you say about “Zero at the Bone” but Wow, I wish I’d written that?
One of the few poets who can approach Shakespeare’s incomparable poetic ear, I think, was John Keats. Just read this line out loud, slowly and feelingly: “While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day.”
Go ahead, recite it right now; I’ll wait. Don’t worry if your spouse looks at you strangely. . . .
That’s from his late masterpiece “To Autumn.” Even in that unassuming clause, which just paints a picture, Keats dazzles. For instance, note how out of nine distinct vowel sounds in this line, he only repeats one. At the same time as he’s varying his vowels wildly, he’s repeating consonant sounds insistently. The effect, to my ear, is like a pianist who uses the whole keyboard, not just an octave or two. Maybe read it again now. Hear what I mean?
The poem concludes with a justly famous extended evocation of a rural autumn twilight, somehow gorgeous and melancholy at the same time. Its power comes not from any brilliant or novel insight, but rather from Keats’s masterful orchestration of thickly textured sounds and sharply etched imagery:
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
As my final example I turn to that old gasbag, Walt Whitman. Few poets had ideas as big as Walt (as he boasted, “I am large, I contain multitudes”). Yet many of my favorite passages are deliberately ordinary, simply and lovingly evoking the tang and texture of daily life in language that seems as fresh now as it was in 1855. Here is the entirety of section 9 from his epic of American democracy, “Song of Myself,” a brief word-picture no doubt drawn from Whitman’s own boyhood on a Long Island farm. It simply depicts the sensual pleasures of finishing up chores at harvest time:
The big doors of the country-barn stand open and ready
The dried grass of the harvest-time loads the slow-drawn wagon,
The clear light plays on the brown gray and green intertinged,
The armfuls are packed to the sagging mow:
I am there . . . . I help . . . . I came stretched atop of the load,
I felt its soft jolts . . . . one leg reclined on the other,
I jump from the crossbeams, and seize the clover and timothy,
And roll head over heels, and tangle my hair full of wisps.
I don’t know about you, but I have been that boy, and my hair’s full of wisps I can still feel all these years later. How about you?
©2016 David Graham