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.32 - January 2019
David Graham's POETIC LICENSE 2019 January No. 32
In Praise of Minor Poems
In Praise of Minor Poems
As noted in an earlier column (http://www.verse-virtual.com/david-grahams-poetic-license-2018-october-no29.html) I’m with Robert Francis in resisting the common, often lazy habit of dividing all poets and poems into the categories of Major or Minor, which as he notes shoves everything into two hemispheres, “separated by a line as inexorable and as imaginary as the equator.” That line shifts over time, of course, and varies from place to place. And mapmakers seldom agree on how to draw the lines, anyway.
I have another objection to this universal habit. It tends to obscure from view all kinds of wonderful poetry. For instance, the typical anthology of American poetry may feature sixteen or twenty pages of Robert Frost and, if you’re lucky, maybe a poem or two by Robert Francis. Or none at all, too often. Now Frost is indisputably a great poet, in my own cartography. But is he twenty times better than Francis? Well, that’s a silly question, when you put it that way, but I find it a shame that few of the standard anthologies bless us with this gorgeous lyric by Francis:
The Apple Peeler
Why the unbroken spiral, Virtuoso,
Like a trick sonnet in one long, versatile sentence?
Is it a pastime merely, this perfection,
For an old man, sharp knife, long night, long winter?
Or do your careful fingers move at the stir
Of unadmitted immemorial magic?
Solitaire. The ticking clock. The apple
Turning, turning as the round earth turns.
As it happens there’s a story behind this piece, and it involves Robert Frost, who was a friend and long-time mentor of the lesser-known Robert. One of Frost’s many indisputably great poems was his sonnet, “The Silken Tent,” a love poem in a single, beautifully crafted sentence. Not only is it a fine example of a modern Shakespearean sonnet, but it’s also a masterful display of syntactical and rhetorical skill. In fact, it’s so graceful that you hardly notice what a tour de force it is.
Frost could be a very jealous, paranoid, prickly individual, though. Francis recounts, in his autobiography The Trouble with Francis as well as an essay called “Frost as Apple Peeler,” that when he showed Frost “The Apple Peeler,” the older poet got strangely upset. He took it as an insult somehow. Probably it was the second line: “like a trick sonnet in one long, versatile sentence.” Frost was apparently angry that anyone would consider his poem a mere “trick.” Francis notes, with some exasperation, that it was as if Frost thought that no other poet had managed to write a poem in one sentence. Frost’s egotism reminds me of his own line about the silly bird in “The Wood-Pile,” “who takes /everything said as personal to himself”). Francis had to point out to Frost that many other poets have written single-sentence poems, and reassure him that in any case he was writing about someone he’d seen actually peeling an apple as described. The line about the sonnet was metaphorical. Frost seemed a bit skeptical of this explanation, but their friendship was repaired.
Personally, I think Frost also misreads “The Apple Peeler” if he thinks it mocks anyone. It’s clearly a poem of praise, is it not, for the “virtuoso” who can pull off the feat of peeling an apple in one uninterupted motion, whose hands display “immemorial magic”? Maybe the adjective in “trick sonnet” could sound dismissive, but Francis clearly didn’t intend it that way. He greatly admired skill in all its forms, as his many poems on athletes also show. Magic and perfection: such terms could indeed refer just as well to Frost’s masterful sonnet, and should hardly be found insulting.
I love the way Francis’s poem allows that possibility, whether or not he was consciously thinking of Frost. Though a single-sentence sonnet could be called trickery of a sort, Francis plainly felt that only a virtuoso could pull off such a feat with such aplomb. So what we have here is one of the most ancient themes, an ars poetica. Like Frost's "Silken Tent," a love poem which can also be taken to be about the freedom of a poem to billow beautifully within the self-imposed constraints of a tight form, Francis's apple peeler is similarly engaged in a seemingly casual display of stunning skill.
What is such skill for? the poet wonders. Is it mere pastime? Is it trickery? No, it is not trickery in the sense of deception or gimmickry, but is instead a timeless amazement. The solitary artisan, whether peeling an apple or fashioning words into lines, reminds us of the interconnectedness of great and small, playful and serious, planet and fruit, and perhaps even jealousy and homage. Or is it just a poem about a pensive old man peeling an apple on a quiet night, clock ticking away? Could be. All successful poetry has an element of the unsayable in it. And that is its magic.
So I don’t really care whether you call “The Apple Peeler” a major or a minor poem. To my mind it is a nearly perfect one.
A different sort of issue is often raised by the lesser known poems of famous poets. In Frost’s case, anthologists present, over and over, the same handful of his greatest hits, such as “Fire and Ice,” “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “The Road Not Taken,” “After Apple-Picking,” “The Death of the Hired Man,” and so on. This habit is entirely understandable: these are powerful poems. But it’s also unfortunate, in the way that we often get sick of a hit song on the radio just because we’ve heard it too often. I wish more anthologists might branch out a little, and give us “The Black Cottage,” “The Subverted Flower,” or “Home Burial” instead of yet another reprinting of “Birches.”
Gwendolyn Brooks was a terrific poet, yet she wrote many excellent poems besides “We Real Cool,” “The Mother,” and a couple other early pieces. Yet these admirable chestnuts show up again and again in anthologies and texts, at the expense of other, equally striking pieces. For instance, I wish poems like “The Boy Died in My Alley,” from 1981, were better known:
The Boy Died In My Alley
The Boy died in my alley
without my Having Known.
Policeman said, next morning,
“Apparently died Alone.”
“You heard a shot?” Policeman said.
Shots I hear and Shots I hear.
I never see the Dead.
The Shot that killed him yes I heard
as I heard the Thousand shots before;
careening tinnily down the nights
across my years and arteries.
Policeman pounded on my door.
“Who is it?” “POLICE!” Policeman yelled.
“A Boy was dying in your alley.
A Boy is dead, and in your alley.
And have you known this Boy before?”
I have known this Boy before.
I have known this Boy before, who
ornaments my alley.
I never saw his face at all.
I never saw his futurefall.
But I have known this Boy.
I have always heard him deal with death.
I have always heard the shout, the volley.
I have closed my heart-ears late and early.
And I have killed him ever.
I joined the Wild and killed him
with knowledgeable unknowing.
I saw where he was going.
I saw him Crossed. And seeing,
I did not take him down.
He cried not only “Father!”
The cry climbed up the alley.
It went up to the wind.
It hung upon the heaven
for a long stretch-strain of Moment.
The red floor of my alley
is a special speech to me.
Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney has not been dead all that long, and thus we can’t know what anthologists in the future will settle on as his recognized handful of classics. But already, I confess, I am growing a little tired of seeing early poems such as “Digging” and “Death of a Naturalist,” splendid as they are, appearing again and again at the expense of others.
One of those others that I love is this one, from his 2001 collection Electric Light:
Perch on their water-perch hung in the clear Bann River
Near the clay bank in alder-dapple and waver,
Perch we called "grunts," little flood-slubs, runty and ready,
I saw and I see in the river's glorified body
That is passable through, but they're bluntly holding the pass,
Under the water-roof, over the bottom, adoze,
Guzzling the current, against it, all muscle and slur
In the finland of perch, the fenland of alder, on air
That is water, on carpets of Bann stream, on hold
In the everything flows and steady go of the world.
One argument sometimes heard is that to be “major” a poem must be both perfectly made and also profound in theme. I’m not so sure. Many offerings of Mother Goose are, in their way, quite perfectly made, and the gorgeous nonsense of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" cannot be improved on. “Major” or “minor” be damned: I would not want to be without them. Nor must a classic poem be complex, twisty or sophisticated in thought. Heaney's lilting, graceful lyric is a nice example of the beauties possible within simplicity. No one, probably, would think of this poem as among Heaney's most major works, but I would contend it is one of his most nearly perfect.
Heaney's rather straightforward theme can be traced back at least two and a half millennia, to the famous aphorism of Heraclitus: "everything flows," which Heaney quotes in his final line. Of course, this philosophical insight has served as the simple and unsurprising theme for thousands of lyrics down through the centuries. Most of them, like most poems throughout history, are quite mediocre in their crafting. Heaney's "Perch," however, gets very close to achieving the ancient marriage of song and poetry that lies buried in the term "lyric."
Characteristically, Heaney places in his Heraclitean river not some abstract statement regarding Time's Passing but instead an utterly common fish, named marvelously with its colloquial term, "grunts." These "little flood-slubs, runty and ready," are suspended symbolically in the river of time, of course, but only by way of being quite literally suspended--perched?--in the River Bann, a waterway of Heaney's Ulster childhood. Students of Irish history will know that the river is important as a dividing line between Catholic and Protestant sections of Ulster, and so the fish is "perched" not only in its moment of time, but also upon religious and political dividing lines.
The poem could be analyzed, then, for its particular, understated contribution to Heaney's complicated witness to the panorama of Irish history. But its perfection as a lyric lies not in thematic matters but in Heaney's absolute yet seemingly offhanded skill as maker. The poem is stitched tight with as beautifully assured a series of slant rhymed couplets as one can imagine. Heaney's typical affinity for rawly potent Saxon diction provides sonic texture. Phrases like "water-roof" and "alder-dapple" reach back in time to the origins of English poetry, and allow the occasional eruptions of Latinate diction ("the river's glorified body") to shine like jewels in the river mud. He also revels in wringing as much meaning as possible from his primal vocabulary, offering wordplay like the punning juxtaposition of "finland" and "fenland" and the several meanings latent in the word "perch."
Perhaps most impressively, the entire poem unfolds in a single, tensile sentence, whose ongoing syntactical flow is interrupted but not stopped by the density of image and sound in its serial clauses. Like Robert Frost's "The Silken Tent," Heaney's single-sentence poem is a feat of poetic craftmanship, making the difficult appear easy, using art to hide its own artfulness. The overall effect is that the poem's sound perfectly mirrors its sense. The lowly fish, "perched" in its specific time in a particular spot in the great river, is both apart from and part of the greater flow. The poem as a whole thus mimics in its motions its own main idea, summarized in the lovely final phrase: "the everything flows and steady go of the world."
©2018 David Graham
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