Mar 25, 2010

Yeats, Lux, Ciardi, Toomer: Can We Pull It All Together?





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”?

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3 comments:

Brenda's Arizona said...

Banjomyn, you went from the salad to a buffet! Four entrees to taste and discuss!

A Little Tooth still sounds like an obit written by a stranger. She was tall. She grew teeth. She had a bad dude boyfriend. We all grew old.

For Instance - I love it. Did you see the movie UP? The first 15 - 20 minutes are a snapshot of Carl & Ellie's life... my husband reminded me that is why we don't go see some movies in the theatre. We both had tears streaming down our faces... Carl couldn't imagine his life without Ellie, and he couldn't imagine how to die, either. Maybe Ciardi's poem could be an obit, too, but it is a touching one. It has sentiment to it.

Maybe that is it: A Little Tooth is too cut and dried. Just the bones. No poetry to the lives. It is as if a stern father is trying to remember his daughter, his wife.
Ciardi's has sentiment, has emotional idealism. He not only remembers the life, but he feels it.

Reapers also has emotional. I read it and had to turn away and let out a big breath - a silent scream. DAMN, I said. DAMN. Ouch. Undo, undo.

Banjomyn, is the field rat supposed to signify the life of a reaper? You think?? Or is it to show a lower life form? Why do I feel pain for a rat but not for the reaper until they innoncently kill the rat? I had no feeling towards the reapers, I was just an observer of their lives, until the blood flowed. Then I ached for the rat and the reapers. Cane led me to a deeper emotion than his first few lines suggested.

If I spew too much, tell me.

Thanks for the buffet. What do you have for dessert?

altadenahiker said...

What Ciardi has that Lux doesn't is the BIG IF followed by the probably not. That gives the poem an aching sadness and the final line the kick in the stomach. It also presents the paradox of learning the lesson that there's probably no lesson to be learned.

BANJO52 said...

Brenda, you do not spew too much. When you really get into one of the poems, it shows, and you can make "Damn, ouch, undo, undo" into a very timely response (well, I wouldn't try it in the Harvard Ph.D. program--not that I've ever been there).

You're seeing "Reapers" very much the way I do. It sneaks up on me, maybe because I'm a sucker for the pastoral, the very guy I was criticizing somewhat in the post.

On second and third readings, I think the sound of blade on stone is what I should have been hearing in those first lines, instead of seeing moderately pretty farm country and noble, quaint farmhands.

I do think we're supposed to see a connection between the rat and the reapers, and hence the irony of the reapers' ignorance of or indifference to the rat. The fact that a lot of readers aren't sure what to think, except something vaguely bad and gory, might mean Toomer has succeeded too well at the old maxim of "show, don't tell."

But the more I read it, the less choice I think I have: the natural process is a matter of work, kill, eat or be eaten, and don't think too much in the process.

By the way, I might like "Banjomyn."
At least I chuckle.

AH, speaking of Ph.D. work, I think your three sentences constitute a dissertation. Your last sentence also hits on the issue of mental toughness, or lack of it. Maybe it's just me or a lot of people I know or people on the news -- wait, is that everyone? -- who fight your paradox tooth and nail. They end up with soft-headed cliches and excuses as escape routes.

And I suspect that a lot of that soft-headedness morphs into the mindless behavior and vapid speech making or rock-throwing that tries to pass for political or religious consciousness.

I think I mean this: paradox is a mentally difficult situation, and most of what we live in the midst of is paradoxical. "What a piece of work is man." Well, Hamlet, do you mean Hitler or Gandhi?

Therefore, many, many people run from complexity, seeking comfort in vapid cliches, knee-jerk reactions, and what have you.

And the lofty Banjo? He memorizes the school colors, nicknames, and locations of colleges all over the country. Or he goes around claiming he's psychic.

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