Apr 19, 2010

Robert Penn Warren's Sonnet, "Mortal Limit"


Robert Penn Warren, Mortal Limit


I shouldn't be pleased to have my species, with me in it, labeled "item" and "rot," but I think "Mortal Limit" ends up with a much more positive perspective on mortality and humanity than the Anne Sexton poems did. Maybe because we are only capable of seeing things from an anthropomorphic point of view, don't we identify with the hawk, occasionally soaring upward into a thinness of atmosphere for a glimpse of what is beyond the mountain range and beyond mortality? Barring that, are we not at least cheering the hawk because he has achieved that vision, however temporary it must be?

Notice too that the poem is a sonnet, most obviously Shakespearean because of the rhyming couplet at the end, but also Petrarchan with the shift of thought at line nine, so that there's also the octave and sestet that define the Italian form.

I find that I sound here at the blog as if I favor fixed forms more than free verse, yet I don't think that's the case. I simply ask poetry to be rich and precise in language as well as compelling in thought. The universal themes have been done; that was more or less always true. So the task of each poet and each era is to see those ideas anew--in language or shades of thought or both. As I scout poems for the blog, it just so happens that I've hit on traditional forms more than I expected to. Maybe I do have an unconscious bias in favor of them, but I think there's a lot of coincidence in this too: I like yapping about precision and complexity, and perhaps the traditional forms lend themselves to that more obviously than free verse does.

Maybe this sets the table for our discussion-to-come about confessional poetry, which is easy to see as self-indulgent and sloppy. I think Plath and Sexton put the lie to that, especially since both began their commitment to writing with sonnet after sonnet and other fixed forms. How does one develop from that kind of carefulness to the theatrics and perhaps narcissism of their later work?

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4 comments:

altadenahiker said...

Many lines very beautiful. The word "items" braked me for a moment.

Will you throw Stevie in the mix?

BANJO52 said...

I'm working on Stevie. Maybe in a day or two. Apparently that one poem of hers is the only one I knew.

Brenda's Arizona said...

How he wonders about the hawk - flying high enough that he "tasted that atmosphere's thinness" - will the hawk see beyond the Tetons to the next range? Beyond mortality, too?

I liked this. The simple wondering what the bird sees... or comprehends.

You ask "poetry to be rich and precise in language as well as compelling in thought." I am reverse. I need to think before I can grasp the language. Only AFTER I know what the poet is talking about/writing about do I see the language and any richness of words. If I can't grasp the thought, I sigh and feel like an idiot. Emily Dickinson does this to me a lot.

Sigh...

And maybe confessional poetry is easy to capture, thought wise.
Narcissistic? Yes, always.

BANJO52 said...

Braz, maybe I should have reversed the order. I wouldn't disagree that we all need something to connect to in a poem before we have any desire to keep looking at it for the specifics that might make us like it or be moved by it.

That could be the overall idea(s) or just an impression of the mood and feeling we get from or bring to it.

Or individual words--AH is understandably unsure how she feels about the word, "items." That might keep her at a distance from the poem forever, or it could lure back to the poem to decide for sure how and what she thinks and feels about that single word.

I think problems arise when a poem just sits there for us, as an ITEM of boredom or alienation because we can't connect to anything -- thought, feeling, experience, events, words, rhythms, impressions, shapes -- we share nothing with it and vice versa.

Then the nasty question: have both poem and reader acted in good faith? Have they really tried to connect? And if anyone thinks that's my automatic slam at readers, you're wrong. I think plenty of poems don't even try; plenty show a self-indulgent, arrogant contempt for the reader. But also plenty of readers are impatient or intolerant and want the poem to do all the work.

Braz, maybe they all need a good negotiator?

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