Jul 25, 2014

The Chipping Sparrow and Richard Wilbur's "Still, Citizen Sparrow" Again



On my walk today, I saw a new bird. He's not rare, but he was my first Chipping Sparrow. (Someone please correct me it that's incorrect). I didn't get a good look at him in real life, but I took a few shots anyway. When I got home and tinkered with the photos (cropping and sharpening), I was glad to find him fairly quickly at the fantastic Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Chipping Sparrow

It's only a small exaggeration to say I cannot compare little birds to big birds without remembering Richard Wilbur's magnificent poem, "Still, Citizen Sparrow." Today I've tweaked my comments from February of 2010. They're still long and imperfect, so read only as much as you want. But I hope you'll read or re-read the poem. Otherwise, you'll miss your chance to be one of Noah's sons, dutiful, noble and glorious, a survivor on Mt. Ararat.

http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88v/wilbur-sparrow.html

Although I predict that several of Richard Wilbur's poems are canon-fodder (that is, immortal--I couldn't resist playing with Falstaff's words), I especially admire "Still, Citizen Sparrow," which offers the scavenging vulture as a hero in whose shadow mere sparrows are told to be still.

In "Still" as the opening word, there is more muscularity of language, more purposeful ambiguity and layered meaning, than I find in many entire poems. First and foremost, I hear "Still" as "Be still," an instruction to the chattering sparrows, who are that most mediocre of things, "citizens." Shut up and behold the hovering vulture as he lords (Lords?) it over trivial you with his necessary, purgative work.

However, that meaning of "Still" doesn't hold up grammatically; we'd need a semicolon or period after the command for "citizen sparrow" to be still. So the literal and grammatically sensible meaning is probably, "Even so, citizen sparrow . . . ."  It's an introduction to the more elaborate argument that follows. It's as if the sparrows, just before the poem begins, have proposed their own cuteness along with the vulture's grotesqueness, whereupon Wilbur's speaker is offering a counter-argument. "Oh yeah? Well, consider this about Mr. Vulture, whom you call ugly . . . ."

I won't continue with this kind of attention to detail or I'll never finish. But do, please, take time to admire the parts you consider to be gems. I'll be surprised if you don't find some. For example:

". . . lumber again to air / Over the rotten office . . . ." What could better capture the rhythm of the buzzard's flight than "lumber" or the brutal accuracy of its mission than "rotten office"? Remove the carcass in order to eat it: ". . . bear / The carrion ballast up . . . ."  And because the vulture's the hero who does the dirty work, he is able to "lie cruising" at the "Tip of the sky."

". . . the frightfully free // The naked-headed one . . . ."   Maybe he's "frightfully" free because what he does seems, or is, "unnatural." It's not just garbage collection; it's also something like cannibalism, yet by virtue of this shredding and munching, the hero "mocks mutability."  Death? He laughs at it. He casually eats Death and cruises on.

". . . childheart . . . bedlam hours . . . slam of his hammer . . . " All of those am sounds are verbal sledge hammers against the chirpy multitudes of sparrows, who, in their small lives, might protest,  "Oh, Buzzard, stop preparing for heroism--we sparrows can't sleep (or chatter) with the slam of your hammer going on and on and on."

And these bits of elegance speak for themselves, I think:

How high and weary it was . . .

He rocked his only world, and everyone's.
Forgive the hero, you who would have died
Gladly with all you knew . . .

Wilbur proclaims that sparrows don't know much. They haven't "rocked" anything; they know nothing of "high and weary" labor that purifies and saves--or the soaring that goes with the work. Trash collectors and undertakers probably know a lot more than most of us. Odd as it may seem, the poem is an apotheosis of those who tidy up after messes, including corpses. And there we find the vulture glorified as the lofty, silent one, the solitary Noah among us nattering nabobs of sparrow-hood..
Turkey Vulture

As something of a skeptic about heroes, I don't know how much I agree with Wilbur's argument, but I admire its creative logic and presentation, the power of its imperatives ("Do this; do that"), the poem's passion bucking against the constraints of its rhymed and metered formality, just as its argument bucks against the expectations of most of us, who might like a sparrow in the back yard rather than a buzzard, never mind that the sparrow makes messes while the buzzard cleans them up, flies away and soars again, looking for more. He's big and other, not at all a citizen like us.

http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88v/wilbur-sparrow.html

Black Vulture



Jul 12, 2014

Guns and Morons, plus Chase Twichell's "Stripped Car"


aka Peace and Wisdom Party
Thirty seconds of this video conveys plenty, but I’m a masochist and watched all four minutes. The film wants to be funny, and sometimes it may be, but I find it a troubling sequence too. When I caught myself smiling a few times, I didn’t like myself. So I wrote the snarky treatise below.

http://www.ijreview.com/2014/07/155132-hilarious-gun-fails-will-make-wonder-lost-cause-shoot-firearms/

What’s the moral of the story in the video, which is passed off as humor?

1.  Guns don’t shoot themselves. Unequivocally true.

2.  In spite of some delusions, people can’t fire bullets from their fingers or genitalia. Unequivocally true. 

Solutions: 

1.  Eliminate gun control for people who have never made a mistake of any kind.

2.  Hate
each other over the two unequivocal truths above.

3.  I'm pretty sure  there are 8 billion mountain tops on Planet Earth.  Give each human a mountain top and all the firearms he can carry, which will lead to all the ammo-orgasms he has time for. Or energy. And alone on a mountain top, that’s a lot of time. Food? With all that weaponry, if they can’t find enough to kill, fuck ‘em. Shelter? Ammo-orgasms will keep ‘em warm.

4.  Uh-oh. My research team isn't sure there are 8 billion mountain tops.

5.  Someone also asked about propagation of the species?  Uh-oh.

http://www.ijreview.com/2014/07/155132-hilarious-gun-fails-will-make-wonder-lost-cause-shoot-firearms/

Then I went to Poetry Foundation, typed “guns” in the search box, and was offered “Stripped Car” by Chase Twichell. I’ve liked her work before, so I read it, though it's a little longer than what I usually post here:


Notice white fuzz ball in nest
    I’m not sure every line needs to be there, but the style is breezy, and some of the images were poignant,

    so I stuck with it. Do you like the poem? Respect it? Do you have some favorite lines, images or ideas? How about a “sulking adolescent” . . . “with a silky little shadow-moustache/and a gun”? Or the play of fruit and gardens against the images of metal and violence?

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/181522



Jun 28, 2014

Phillip Levine, "Coming Close": Labor and Place


Here is former Poet Laureate, and native Detroiter, Phillip Levine with a portrait of women who labor. Really labor.  Would you agree that he does not sentimentalize her or the work?
http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15319


http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15319

Am I the only one who thinks of a slight connection to Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters, although they strike me as agrarian while Levine’s woman is part of the American industrial scene? 

In “You must feed her, as they say in the language of the place,” the “her” is the machinery. (Right?).  So Levine characterizes industrial machinery as female, then goes on to say, “Make no mistake, the place has a language.” In this place the machinery is female, perhaps a demanding maternal figure who must be fed.



I think Levine's treatment of place and language might be the most interesting idea in the poem. Does a place have its own language? Does our language change according to place and situation? If so, is that about the power of place to shape human language, which amounts to human thought, emotion, and personality?

If our language changes as we move from place to place, are we being dishonest? No? Simply pragmatic? Is pragmatism inherently dishonest? And then of course, the old adolescent question, how much honesty can any of us handle? “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”  Remember the Jackster delivering that one?

Does the laborer’s laughter at the end amount to meanness, or is it an effort at jolly, rough fellowship?

Is the speaker’s feeling “marked” a bad thing?  What does “for your own” mean? I really don’t know why that’s there.


http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15319


Jun 16, 2014

Hannah Gamble's "Growing a Bear": Entertainment and Art


First a note on the photos: which of these women might be the poem's speaker? Now, on to the work itself.

In poetry, humor is such a tricky thing, a tightrope—veer left and you fall into superficiality or mean sarcasm or commercial slickness and pandering; veer right and you reveal an underbelly too dark for genuine levity--no belly laughs, no breeziness at cocktail parties, no appreciation of the absurdity of it all. It's all too grave for that, as Dostoevsky knew.

In my college years and into my twenties, I heard more than once that America’s only contributions to world literature were the short story as a genre and American humor. We were supposed to feel bad about that—inferior, provincial lightweights. Well, if those are our only contributions—and how can one make such a claim in the first place?—I say we’ve done pretty well, as I whisk dreary dust off my shirt and visor from long, long, dark, dark European tomes. Especially on the continent, none of the languages have a word for "concise."

So Hannah Gamble’s “Growing a Bear” interests me quite a bit. I hope no one disputes that it’s funny. But is it fluff? We’re back to The School of Accessibility and the constant question it presents: is the work mere entertainment or does it have enough heft to be labeled significant literature—enough insight into and commentary on big issues like the environment or social justice or simply being a lone human with human complexity? And is the work’s expression artful enough to make us take the piece seriously?


After reading “Growing a Bear” a few times, I’m not at all sure what the Bear is, but I think it's vaguely naughty and funny and grave. How would you pin it down? Or would you decline the invitation to pin it down?

And did you enjoy the poem?

Jun 6, 2014

D.H. Lawrence's "Bavarian Gentians" and Dylan Thomas, Follow-up


Here is D.H. Lawrence’s poem, “Bavarian Gentians.” I think I know why it came to mind as I talked last time about Dylan Thomas and “The Force that through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower," but I'm not sure. Ideas?  Which of the two poems do you prefer, and of course, why?

I don't have a photo of a Bavarian Gentian, but I'm including some with important blues or purples and darkening and excess.



My posting twice about the same poem has never elicited much visitor interest, but sometimes I just can’t help myself. Here are some further questions and thoughts about Dylan Thomas’ “The Force That through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower.”


One word that might confuse or alienate readers is “the green fuse,” which I take to mean the flower’s stem. Does Thomas get enough bang for his buck with “fuse” as a metaphor? In exchange for potential confusion in some readers, what, if anything, does he gain by using “fuse”?

Same question for “dumb”?

Why is the poem so full of violence? About a hundred and fifty years before Dylan Thomas came along in Wales, the English Romantics, especially Wordsworth, had conceived of a dynamism in Nature—its potential for destructive activity along with its beauty and spirituality. But isn’t Thomas going further than the Romantics in seeing and insisting upon Nature’s fearsome extremes and thus complicating its beauty with its violence? Thomas’ Nature wreaks such havoc that he cannot express its extremes; he can only give examples and ask us to perceive natural presences as he does. 

Do you think a single force governs the life and death of humans, plants, and animals? Are we that much a part of nature?

Where in the human being would you locate that force? The heart? The brain? The mouth? The hand? The genitals? Or the mind or soul or spirit?—none of which can be located on an anatomical chart.
English teachers are sex-crazed nerds; that’s old news. Therefore, I ask if the poem has anything to do with sex—potency and lack of it, or Freud’s “libido” versus “thanatos.” I’m pretty sure I recall accurately that Freud expanded his concept of the libido from a specifically erotic drive to a broader meaning of life force, a quest for survival, which of course was in continuous conflict with “thanatos,” or death drive.

Thus, Freud, like the Romantics, saw the essential condition of humans as one of tumult,  inner turmoil, conflict, unlike Buddhism’s sense of a calm inner place, nirvana, which we should try to reach. Do you favor one of these views of human nature over the other? If the human is an onion and you keep peeling off layers, what’s at the center—a roiling ocean or a still pond?

May 28, 2014

Spring and Dylan Thomas' "The Force that through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower"


I'm pretty sure I was a college freshman when I first encountered Dylan Thomas' "The Force that through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower," and I'm pretty sure I had no clue what it meant or why anyone would write such a thing or why I was in college or where Wales was or why anybody lived there instead of Ohio.

Well, here is the poem again. I think it's one of the great works about the mysteries and rhythms of all kinds of life. And death. Yin and Yang, I suppose. Libido, broadly defined, and Thanatos?

http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/force-through-green-fuse-drives-flower

In the photos from early May, a Great Egret kept retrieving sticks for his nest. (For obvious reasons, I'm making him a hard-working male). I don't know how it could have been clearer that a natural force was driving him to go fetch and to come back, again and again. And maybe that force is larger and more complex than anyone can explain. Hence, the repetition of "I am dumb."

Dylan Thomas claims it's that same force that drives a flower through its stem (its "fuse") and propels a human through his green age, even though it's also the force that brings death to lovers and to us all. The poem is an interesting combination of elegant, romantic, musical language and thought with a realistic insistence that what lives also dies.

I especially love these lines:

And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

Dylan Thomas may be as romantic and effusive as e.e. cummings about nature, but maybe Thomas is more realistic and complex. Opinions?

http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/force-through-green-fuse-drives-flower






*

May 26, 2014

The Great Speckled Bird . . . Is a Robin?

I'd like to think this is the bird in the gospel song:

What a beautiful thought I am thinking
Concerning a great speckled bird.
It cometh descending from heaven
On the pages of God's holy word. 

However, having seen a nightmare version of a blue jay child in its early
adolescence, my guess is that the splotchity bird in the pic is a juvenile robin growing into her or his plumage. Birders, yea or nay?  I hope this guy only needs some Clearisil rather than major surgery or a feather transplant.

Lovers' Lane