Mar 16, 2010
Dean Young, “Scarecrow on Fire,” continued . . .
I'm suspicious of Young's trail of associations, yet my instincts tell me to trust him, not necessarily because I agree, but because he more or less announces, "I'm guessing about some big things here. Come along and guess with me, if you wish." He's been simultaneously careful and strange enough to make me think, "Okay, I'll keep re-reading. For now, I believe you were being straight with me."
One spot where Young steps away from this credibility is the arbitrary and puerile use of “Hell” in “Hell, even now I love life.” There’s that excessive love of the casual and conversational again, this time barging in on a poem that is otherwise all poem, a hard slider down and away, despite its appearance of chat.
Some readers might also object to Young’s assuming the privilege of grand proclamations about life. In fact, the poem opens dangerously in such a vein: “We all think about suddenly disappearing.” Or in lines 11-12, “We all feel / suspended over a drop into nothingness.” And maybe, in lines 16 – 18, “Whenever you put your feet on the floor / . . . it’s a miracle.” However, those three lines are probably metaphorical enough to rise above didacticism.
A poet is always on a tightrope with declarations like these. Even if the statements are true, who is he to speak for us? But Young more or less gives us a drop of metaphysics, then jumps back to the specific and concrete world and its puzzles, as if he’s aware of how easy it would be to go too far, to step into presumption or pamphleteering.
Along these lines, I also think of Sharon Olds’ line in “On the Subway” (March 9): “I will never know how easy this white skin makes my life.” I think she and Young, among others, are saying things they know to be provocative; maybe they also think we need to hear these thoughts because we act as if they haven’t occurred to us, or we haven’t cared enough about them on our own.
Too many conversational or prosy poems of the last few decades fail to offer this gift-and-challenge package, which I also see as an oath of honesty: "This really is the way I see the world, and this is the only way I can say it. Anything else would be inaccurate or dishonest."
The absence of that oath and those gifts is what I was complaining about back in January and February. Everyone of us is guilty of posturing; that doesn’t mean we have to like or respect it, in ourselves or in a poem. It might mean we should admire poems that are free of it, poems whose voice is genuine, no matter how quirky.
And the wonderful problem is, we’ll never entirely agree on which poems, or even short passages, are the pretenders and which are the real article. Is there anything better than that to talk about, to fight about?