Mar 25, 2010
A Little Tooth - Poets.org - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More
For Instance by John Ciardi : Poetry Magazine [poem/magazine] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.
RPO -- William Butler Yeats : A Prayer for my Daughter
Reapers by Jean Toomer from Cane, 1923
Thanks to bloggers Altadenahiker.blogspot (hereafter, AH) and Brenda’sArizona.blogspot (Brenda) for substantial and clever responses to Thomas Lux and William Butler Yeats poems that I discussed only lightly on March 23. What I say today will make more sense if you check out that day’s exchanges in the Visitors’ Comments and have a look at yesterday’s poem, “Reapers,” by Jean Toomer.
I agree with practically everything AH and Brenda say, except that I wouldn't be as hard on "Little Tooth” as they are.
AH, your comparisons have never been better, including the coffee and salad remark (I won't rush it with today's talk, which is really just part 2 of Tuesday's talk, and thus pretty long, for which I apologize). Your linking of Daisy Buchanan to Yeats’ hopes for his daughter seems right on the money to me.
Or, how about this: Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire aspires to be, or thinks she is, Daisy Buchanan because she lacks . . . what? . . . the character? the depth . . . to think about herself the way Yeats thinks about his daughter? Blanche seems to mistake graciousness and dignity for aristocratic noise (southern style). Or, are Yeats’ hopes almost as aristocratic, muted by a dollop more intelligence and grace?
Also, AH, your comparison of "Little Tooth" to Ciardi’s "For Instance" (see the Feb. 17 Banjo52) is intriguing. Someone (not me) could probably make an interesting argument about the ways one of those poems succeeds more than the other.
Brenda, I think you and AH are both right about reasons the Yeats is not sexist, but I bet there are those who disagree. (I know there used to be such folks).
In Lux’s “A Little Tooth” I see him pulling the camera lens back, looking at all people, families, parents, and all daughters from a distance, and saying something like, "Here's what we look like once you strip away our soft self-interest, our delusions about our importance in the larger scheme of things, and various other sentimentality.”
Even from that sort of cold, scientific or sociological perspective, the conclusion, "Your daughter is tall," packs a wallop for me. It's a variation on the old Latin maxims, tempus fugit and ubi sunt. Or, remember Malvina Reynolds' famous song, "Turn Around”—“Turn around and you're a young man with babes of your own”--isn't that the line? Well, that’s a nice song (which I don’t mean to be dismissive—I’ve always liked it), but if a serious poet tried that, without the music and with different expectations from his audience, it would come off as sentimental claptrap.
The risk for a poet of reigning in his emotions as completely as Lux does (or John Ciardi) is that he might strip the poem of feeling altogether. If most readers agree with AH that Ciardi succeeds in this gamble and Lux fails, the reasons for that are still interesting. Has Ciardi managed to leave his characters with their humanity in a way that Lux has not? If so, how?
So I don't think Lux is as indifferent as you say, especially about a daughter; instead, I think he's saying about us all, with a self-restraint that borders on bitterness, "It was hard. And this is what it all comes to. And the kid got tall. She's gone. So is everything." (I think now of Dean Young’s scarecrow . . . ).
I won't argue that that's a complete explanation of a life or a family, but I think most of us err in the other direction, looking for ways to soften hard truths, letting ourselves off one or another hook. Maybe Lux is trying to look those truths in the eye, which might actually add depth to his feeling for a daughter. "Life is pretty much over—much ado about nothing. What hurts most is her absence, her distance."
Maybe this effort at objectivity is also an element in Jean Toomer’s “Reapers” (see yesterday’s post, March 24). Labor in southern fields is a subject that might tempt us toward idealized, pretty notions of a pastoral idyll. Here, it leads to the death of a rat, blood on the blade, and nary a word of sympathy for the animal or for the workers. In spite of the sensual rhymed couplets, we have a seemingly objective portrait of rural life as a rote process, devoid of compassion.
By the way, the workers are black, and Toomer was black, a figure in the Harlem Renaissance. To what extent is “Reapers” about race? And is its perspective at least a little like “For Instance” or “A Little Tooth”?