Mar 15, 2010

Dean Young, "Scarecrow on Fire"


Scarecrow on Fire | American Poetry Review, The | Find Articles at BNET

Like Sharon Olds (March 4, March 9 and back on Sept. 17, 2009), Dean Young is one of those poets whose style is conversational (see the discussions here on January 14 or January 31, for example), but his trains of thought are more unusual than other poets we call conversational or "accessible." Young is also an example of a poet who lays a gift or challenge upon us in just about any two- or three-line passage, whether or not we feel we've followed the whole of his argument.

I won't pretend that I always follow his train of thought or emotion, or the trails through layers of subconscious association, but almost always, I'm intrigued by the journey. Most importantly, in today’s “Scarecrow on Fire,” I rarely or never feel that Dean Young is intentionally yanking me around, being narcissistically avante-garde, a mind unveiling itself like a melon full of ellipses.

"Scarecrow on Fire" offers the very kind of gifts as a poem that it talks about in life; it puts "something small / into your hand, a button or river stone or / key to I don't know what." And "I don't know what” is Young’s honest admission that he’s wondering much more than he’s making declarations.

The title's “Scarecrow on Fire” is an image of a fake man, on fire, dying. So the poem might be a farewell from a man who's recognizing the mortality of his flesh and bones, his sticks and stones.

The speaker wonders "What counts for a proper / goodbye." Maybe the poem itself "counts," with its tentative statement at the end, concerning souls. The images of stones, black angels, and ladybugs lead magically to the conclusion that poems are like boiling water that "cajoles" souls into freedom, agitates them out of their comfort with the "solidity of the boards, the steadiness / coming into the legs."

How many lesser imaginations have linked the "breath" of poems to the vapor coming off boiling water—and then that breath and vapor to the human soul? Notice that, with appropriate modesty, Young introduces that whole chain of images and thoughts with "Maybe."

Maybe our bodies, our mortal selves amount to the inert physicality of a stick-man. It's humbling to think of ourselves as that lone bundle out in a field, trying to scare away crows (like ravens, a bird often associated with death). Yet in the end we have souls that can be "cajoled" into freedom.

That's enough for one day; my latest posts have been too long. But I have more about "Scarecrow on Fire" and related matters, might add it tomorrow.

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3 comments:

Ken Mac said...

i feel dizzy

altadenahiker said...

I love this poem. The best writers make you think their thoughts were in your head all along.

BANJO52 said...

Ken, I felt your wooziness. But if you keep holding the poem up like a little globe, turning it around slowly, pondering this and that, its little countries and oceans MIGHT become clear(er).

Or they might not, and that could just as easily be a problem with the poem as a problem in your reading.

Well, once again, I guess I just wrote today's post. But I'll add a poem as well.

How much does Poet X want to COMMUNICATE with a reader as opposed to wallowing in the delight of his own self-expression, no matter who can understand it?

As you might expect, my reaction this time is more like A.Hiker's, but it wasn't so the first couple of times I read the poem (this is my first experience with it). I had an impression there was something attractive there AND something that felt legit--AND something like thoughts of my own--but it took a few readings to able to make a case for it.

That's why I harp about the importance of a poet's offering gems along the way to the Big Diamond Mine in the Sky at the end. The more difficult the poem, the "truer" that is, I think.

Surely the poet has some sense of how difficult or accessible his poem is. So if it's difficult AND he gives a damn about communicating with a reader, shouldn't he try to entice and help and persuade us with intriguing or simply beautiful bits along the path to the whole?

I don't know if I could argue this, but I've always thought Eliot's "The Wasteland" had the bits, but they never built to a whole that said anything more than "Life is bad," even though he was all too proud to say it in several languages WHILE including footnotes--footnoting your own poem is surely the supreme arrogance! It was HIS several-page blurt of despair; screw the reader.


On the other hand, the music and imagery of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" kept me going back to it over and over until I thought I "got" a respectable sense of it. Now it's one of my top ten, and in my own blurts of irresponsible daring, I've called it Number One--that's less heinous than footnoting my own multilingual blurts, don't you think.

By the way, regarding "Prufrock," time and convention have made me submissive about accepting the "I" in "Let us go then, you and I" as his alter ego; so the whole poem is a conversation with himself. But I still wonder if there was a way he could have made a reader feel less confused and suspicious about that--and yes, I do KNOW others who have said the same thing, more or less. I wonder how many readers (maybe students in particular) never read beyond line 8, because they were so sidetracked by their confusion about line 1.

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