Oct 31, 2010

Susan Mitchell, "Feeding the Ducks at the Howard Johnson Motel"

Susan Mitchell's poem contains both comedy and darkness. The water in today's pics strikes me as ominous, but my ducks seems entirely comic. I considered this caption: "If you want fish sticks for lunch, raise your butt."

But that seemed immature, or downright moronic, so I kept it to myself.

Feeding the Ducks at the Howard Johnson Motel by Susan Mitchell : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.


Oct 28, 2010

TRIBES, VILLAGES, SPORTS, PART TWO. Thomas Hardy, "The Man He Killed"

The Man He Killed by Thomas Hardy : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

View from Apartment over Citgo station, Middle of Nowhere, Pennsylvania

My friend Viggie reminds me that the lives of those wannabe assassins might be grim—on the job, at home, within their own minds, which are at war with themselves. So I get a few yards down Judge Not road.

But when I see the beauty of most sport—or backyard birds and owls that wink, or, yesterday, the sweating man with a badly injured right arm and leg hobbling down the sidewalk at a workout pace, a man not giving up, a man with more guts than I’d likely have in his situation . . . I become, yes, angry and sanctimonious about mean-spirited, thimble-brained organisms that seem literally to desire the crippling or death of everything that is not their notion of themselves.

In about 1970, in a Southern university, a middle-aged, middle-class white man on the verge of a Ph.D. in English shared an office with a young, middle-class white man (yes, Me).

One day the older man said, in his gentle, churchy way, “You rail against bigotry. Doesn’t that make you a bigot against bigots?”

“No,” I said. “Bigotry is an irrational hatred. A bigot hates with no factual, reasoned basis for hating. Hating ignorant hatred is perfectly rational.”

Fact is, I wasn’t sure that a dictionary would back me on that; there I was, sounding not only self-righteous, but also playing riverboat gambler, fast and loose with linguistics and logic, a skydiver for social justice.

So that night he and I both looked up “bigotry," and to his credit, he volunteered the next day that I was right. He was such an almost-decent guy, but his burning need to hate everything unfamiliar, everything that made him uncomfortable, that challenged his Tribe . . . it got the best of him. And it would violate his self-concept to say what he was really thinking, feeling: if it's new, I fear it; if I fear it, I must hate it, for I hate fear. I am not a fearful guy; to prove that, I'm willing to be a hateful guy.

Am I ready to argue that sports is a microcosm and metaphor for such important human tendencies? Why not? In football, do they still say, "Run to daylight?" But I'll take a breather now and let people catch up.

The Man He Killed by Thomas Hardy : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Oct 27, 2010

TRIBES and VILLAGES. Thomas Lux, "The People of the Other Village"

The People of the Other Village by Thomas Lux : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

In the Visitor Comments here, for my Oct. 25 post, M says, "cities (or tribes) must compete with one another." Although I probably agree, “Must" is a big word.

Also, I'm hearing the word "tribe" more and more in the national parlance. A couple of poets at conferences have referred to their colleagues and the audience as their Tribe. There must be tribes of journalists, print and broadcast, global, urban and village, and so forth. Tribes of M.D.s. Tribes of every damned thing, including New Critics vs. New Historicists.

Maybe it's all too huge to discuss here, much less solve, but the first obvious problem is how far we should take all forms of Us vs. Them business. It's probably an evolved and/or genetic thing, a sensing of danger in any Other, an instinct that’s necessary for survival; but surely our goal should be the prevention of knee-jerk hostility and blind allegiance to Tribe.

Maybe I’m a pessimist, but when I hear references to “my tribe” I feel an intent to exclude and raise arms more than a healthy sense of warmth and welcome into this or that small group or surrogate family.

The Hatfields and McCoys were two Tribes. What did it get them? Nazis were one tribe, weren't they. And our current Skinheads. Or the Amish and the Methodists? The Crips and Bloods? Red States and Blue States? Sunnis and Shiites? Oh my, the Tea Party!

“It takes a village” — to do what? I grew up in a village, where I got, yes, a clear sense of identity, rank, belonging, security, fellowship . . . and, yes, lack of privacy, rank, ample gossip and backbiting, provincial and belligerent thinking about various forms of The Other (certain families, big cities, minorities, other religions, other nations).

Along those lines two old expressions have been . . . born again? . . . in my consciousness in the last decade or so. A person might not be “our kind of people,” and, conversely, a person might “think he is somebody,” in which case he is again not our kind of people.

So when President Obama said something like, “Let’s talk first about where we can agree, where we can come together,” it struck me as enormously, movingly profound. Though it was a simple and vaguely familiar suggestion, it felt like centuries since I’d heard such a constructive, rational, calming, welcoming thought.

That Warm Fuzzy has pretty much gone to Hell in the last year or so, but it remains one of the reasons I value Obama so much. So when I hear of towns where adults genuinely hate a rival town’s sports team, want to see their players hurt, or at least humiliated, I genuinely don’t understand it. I’m sick of the New York Yankess and New England Patriots, but I don’t wish their players any harm. If you can’t beat ‘em, say so and surrender. Trying, behind the scenes and outside the rules, to kill superior opponents misses the point and turns the wannabe assassins into soulless vermin.

Indeed, the Yankees of Forever and the Patriots of the 2000s are not your kind of people; they’re better than you and yours and mine ever hoped to be. So why not withdraw and improve our teams? Illegally killing the better teams proves nothing except your own lack of character.

Poet Thomas Lux is able to muster more humor on the subject than I have.

The People of the Other Village by Thomas Lux : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.


Oct 25, 2010


I'll be interested in reactions to Denis Johnson's poem, below. It's new to me, and I think it's an interesting take on the ways football can be more meaningful than it seems to those fans or anti-fans who see it as little more than kill, kill, kill.

I'm adding James Wright's classic, "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio," even though I posted it last fall. Like Johnson's poem, it plays beautifully into the . . . meta-discussion . . . of what football is: frolic, fight, art, and minor tragedy, among other things.

Last Sunday, October 17, there were some nasty helmet-to-helmet hits in the NFL, some injuries as a result, and some hefty fines ($75,000 in one case), which led to an orgasm of commentary from the . . . dare I say it? . . . Talking Heads. Should the rules be changed? Would it be enough to simply enforce the current rules?

From there it's a short, obvious step to the question: What can and should be done about the criminal element (as it was once called) among football players at all levels?

After last Sunday's disputed hits on sometimes vulnerable players (especially receivers jumping to catch passes), there were some troubling comments from TV's Talking Heads and some visitors at a blog I visit regularly, Ohio River Life, which is located in an Ohio town near the Pennsylvania border. Some Pittsburgh Steeler fans there were vocal about defending their linebacker, James Harrison, against charges of a cheap, dangerous hit. Some folks were defending recklessly violent contact that seems intended to injure an opponent rather than simply preventing him from getting his way--catching a pass or running for yardage.

From there, it's another short step to worrying that the old, old charge against football might be valid: fans want to see violence, not ballet or strategy or courage or grace under pressure or speed or the arc of a ball in flight or the hometown colors.

The corollary charge, of course, is that there are plenty of players who are happy to oblige, who would just as soon injure an opponent as tackle him, who couldn't care less about another guy's multiple concussions or career-ending injuries or even paralysis. If they were allowed to use sledge hammers and scalpels, would they? If Tommy told you to jump off the roof, would you? If Coach told you to get hold of that guy's injured knee in the pile-up and twist it, hard, would you?

If, in order to win, you must cripple the other team's players, rather than beating them with the skills that define the game, yours must be a piss-poor team. Dude. Psycho.

There is a moral difference between intending to rattle or even hurt another player and intending to injure him. Hurting him means shaking him up, intimidating him, letting him know you are not going away, you will be there any time he invades your territory, you will not give him one inch more than necessary, "you're mad as hell and you're not going to take it anymore," and your refusal might cause him some discomfort. That has almost nothing to do with trying to injure that other player, intending to put him out of that game for the rest of his season or to cripple him forever.

Football is a metaphor for war, not war itself. Fans and players who crave injury need to examine their inner lives. Or simply enlist.

Where does that rage come from? What can you do about it that's more purposeful for you and less damaging to others? Someone should write a post titled "Football, Introspection, Morality and Self-Improvement."

Football will never be injury-free; that's a sad fact about a game that requires of its contestants so much in the way of speed, strength, character, and, yes, brains. But to make injury your objective is stupid and criminal.

There might be no way to know a character's intent, a kid's heart, his sense of what it means to be human; but officials in football must try to do just that, and it is often, not always, possible to determine that leading with a helmet, especially aiming at the other guy's helmet, is avoidable.

Spearing with your helmet is also less effective than a low, hard, shoulder tackle and wrapping up with your arms. Unless you intend to injure a man, or you lack the skill and courage to tackle low and hard, there's no need to go after an opponent's head. It's his legs that speed him down the field, and it's his arms that hold the ball. If you're not a psychopath, why do you want his head? What are coaches telling players? And the younger the players are, the bigger that question is.

So when you have players who want to be the next Jack Tatum (see video clip below--a few seconds will make the point), yes, fine 'em, kick 'em out of the current game, and suspend 'em from X number of future games, without pay. That will make a statement to the criminal element on the field and in the stands--and to little kids of all ages, who need such guidance, whether or not they realize it.

As for bloodthirsty fans, don't share a beer with them. Don't join their slobbering bloodlust. Make sure you're happy enough with your life that you don't need to pin your identity on a football team's success and violence. Shun those fans, who are fans of violence more than football. As far as I know, shunning works for the Amish.

Why I Might Go to the Next Football Game by Denis Johnson : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio by James Wright : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Jack Tatum Darryl Stingley Video | Jack Tatum Video | Darryl Stingley Hit Video | Oakland Raiders Jack Tatum | Buzzy Times


Oct 21, 2010

Richard Wilbur, Maurice Manning, Interstate-80 across Pennsylvania

As exhilarating as the Dodge Poetry Festival was, it's time for me to wind down about it and its poets.

Besides, no matter how stunning an experience is, cities and crowded events wear me out. Everything is a trial. Worming the car into a claustrophobic parking lot behind the hotel (and a second hotel operating as a homeless shelter), getting presentable and taking a busy elevator down nine floors for a breakfast with interesting, upbeat strangers, hearing good jazz while sitting scrunched among nice people in fairly comfortable seats in an elegant auditorium, and then hearing good poetry about the bad and the sad, performed in an absolutely professional way—that constant mix of the difficult and the inspiring is . . . difficult and inspiring.

So the jubilee for me was, is, and consistently has been the open road. Interstate 80 across Pennsylvania has always astonished me with its beauty, and this time I got to cross it in the most dazzling days of the calendar. Bloomsburg, DuBois, Clearfield, Clarion—who needs Paris?

Good Lord, Clarion, Pennsylvania has an Applebees as well as a dozen other primo eateries, big chains and Mom-n-Pops alike. I just might move to Clarion this weekend.

I know, I know, I’m supposed to shun Applebees, along with the Ruby Tuesdays and the Cracker Barrels, but after about 20 miles, with 700 more to go, glory or not, I look for the comfort of the predictable. Judging by the proliferation of these places, America seems to agree with me; for once my tastes as well as my demographic get to be in the majority. And if the majority palate isn’t aristocratic or arcane, or isn’t up to the adventure of Mable’s Grits or The Stroudsburg Diner, so be it. I always choose those places at home, where I know which ones are good and which ones serve braised shoe soles and deep-fried grackle.

So with my pedestrian tastes, the open road—even if shared with semi trucks and a handful of jackass car drivers—is the real festival. In memory of I-80, I offer Richard Wilbur and Maurice Manning today—two poems that are new to me, thanks again to The Poetry Foundation. They are also two poems that feel something like rural highways, more positive than not, despite some tough-minded features. Or maybe I mean that they feel more life-affirming than most of what I heard at The Dodge. I think Manning’s gets away from him toward the end, especially with "shucks," but how does one resist anything that calls God a yam, yet stops way short of hating Him?

A Barred Owl by Richard Wilbur : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

A Blasphemy by Maurice Manning : Poetry Magazine [poem/magazine] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Oct 18, 2010


In case I haven’t mentioned it, I’ve been leery of poetry readings for as long as I can remember. Both the performer and the audience conduct themselves, sometimes, in a manner more suited to a rock star and his groupies.

Listeners and readers can forget that the poem consists of its words, which must last and stay relevant long after the author's death. A skillful orator, a jazzy performer, can inflate those words by singing, chanting, whispering, shouting, or constructing improbable emphases and gestures that induce the audience to gasps—the famous “oooooooohh” after occasional, orgasmic lines. And those other forms of genuflection—“How many cloves do you put in your herbal tea? Do you pray for your pencil? What brand of computer? Boxers or briefs?” And the inverse: good or great poems reduced to mediocrity by a poet who’s not much of an oral performer or self-promoter.

So imagine my surprise at the 2010 Dodge Poetry Festival when I found myself won over by Sharon Olds, in spite of her cowboy boots, her de rigueur costume, maybe, though she's a longtime New Yorker. I don’t recall what she read that night, but I ended up surrendering to it. I laughed, I cried, I cringed because her poems’ words, delivered without histrionics, led me there. Brava.

The Introducer (Martin Farawell) was right. Sharon Olds looks into the eyes of scary beast-subjects, with a humor and an apparent honesty that the rest of us cannot muster. I surrendered.

It would have been false to resist, though I’m stuffy enough to be troubled by some elements of Ms. Olds’ work. Its leaning toward prose, its confessionalism, its exposure of mental and physical experiences that should perhaps remain private, its willingness to expose in detail the failures of a father, or the personal lives of her children (or “some poet’s children”?)—these are fair game as subjects, and now we add her odes to body parts such as the hymen, the clitoris, the penis . . .

Ms. Olds’ work is indeed ingenious and does indeed behold new frontiers, which she then crosses in ways that might be healthy for readers and all humans to witness, ponder, absorb.

But I need to say too that Sharon Olds’ poems sometimes make me feel like a big, old, empty box, some deserted trailer by the side of the road, beneath a hillside full of people laughing with their mentor, their guru, in a show of color and confidence about how in touch they are with each other and the universal tragicomedy of the human toilet and sex bed.

In the case of the four poems with links posted below, from the 2008 Dodge Festival, I laugh too. Although I am male and the poems often center on female physiology, this might be the openness I claim to wish for, to cut through our silos of isolation from each other. I would be a party-pooping drudge if I didn’t laugh at these hip poems about topics that make stuffy people squirm, a discomfort they deserve, because, after all, they bothered us with their stuffiness, stifled us, judged us—they were not hip in the least.

But sometimes I drift (against my will?) toward stuffy stuff, like wondering when it’s poem and when it’s pandering. Or, to repeat, when it’s poem and when it’s prose. Or when it’s poem and when it’s hootenanny. I'm pretty sure I've never asked these questions about Richard Wilbur or Robert Penn Warren or Yusef Komunyakaa or Karen Volkman or a host of others. I can forgive a bad poem; everybody's been there. But a piece that's faking poemhood feels like a larger violation.

I suppose I need to be more modern, go along to get along, laugh as directed (with an ironic, slanted half-grin that’s something like a sneer). After all, in my very presence, pointless Puritan taboos are being shattered and transformed by the group to gaiety, and we’re all just a big crowd of cool, knowing dudes and babes, gathered in kindly omniscience under a tent, where we can feel the autumn breeze ruffling our skirts and boxers and genitalia. We are the tender and adoring young, the new intellectuals who want it fast and easy. We gather now in fellowship under the big top, in the know.

YouTube - Sharon Olds Reading in the 2008 Dodge Poetry Festival Saturday Night Sampler - 9/27/08

YouTube - Sharon Olds reading two poems at the Dodge Poetry Festival 9/26/08


Oct 15, 2010

The Dodge: Kwame Dawes, Derek Walcott, and Mrs. Scarcelli's "Dueling Banjos"

Photos: at the poetry festival in Newark, there were pumpkins, musicians, youth, greenery and energy. New York's gray complexity was in the background, but never far away.

I mentioned recently that I think Frost’s line, “how leads on to way,” is more complex and profound than it appears.

At The Dodge Poetry Festival, one of several poets new to me was Kwame Dawes. He’s now a prof at the University of South Carolina, by way of Ghana and Jamaica. At one point he referred to Nobel poet Derek Walcott, who, by way of the Lesser Antilles, ended up at Trinidad and Boston University (with a stop in Stockholm, I assume, as well as hundreds of readings and various teaching gigs). I’ve never connected as well as I probably should have to Derek Walcott, but thanks to the internet, I found a little poem of his that I just might like a lot—at least its central idea, about the two selves (at a minimum) we all have and the need for them to be good to each other.

Googling around still further this morning, I somehow got from Dawes and Walcott to Kristina Austin Scarcelli, who has an indirect connection to the banjo and who moved from Ohio to Michigan, like someone else you know, although her route was just a little different from mine. I offer her as a lighter touch on "how way leads on to way."

YouTube - Altar: Poem by Kwame Dawes

Love After Love by Derek Walcott

YouTube - Kristina Austin Scarcelli - "Dueling Banjos"


Oct 12, 2010

Dodge Poetry Festival, Jericho Brown, "Tracks, Summertime," Janis Joplin, Kay Ryan

The Dodge Poetry Festival is the largest poetry convention in North America. This year 20,000 visitors were expected. Jaded—or just weary—as I am concerning conferences of any kind, I was shocked at how good I felt at this event.

That’s especially odd for Banjo-Brain because the conference moved this year from a pastoral tent setting in outstate New Jersey to downtown Newark. Some festival veterans (it was my first time) thought the new setting, plus the selection of poets, added a more urban, multicultural dimension. Whether or not that was new, it was present and it was good.

Fifty poets read and offered workshops over four days—last Thursday through Sunday. This included five former U.S. Poet Laureates—Billy Collins, Rita Dove, Sharon Olds, Kay Ryan, and Mark Strand.

On Friday the diverse population included hundreds of high school kids, who were remarkably well-behaved and seemed genuinely interested. I cannot imagine being 16, a New York-ish kid or an outstate rube (more like Banjo) and finding myself bused to some glitzy cultural center, then herded into a room of 500 people, and listening—really listening—to somebody named Kay Ryan, who had a lady “partner” –

(“Gus, does that mean what I think it does?” “Well, I ‘spect.”)—

and this athletic-looking old lady (as old as that Banjo guy, for godssakes), this Kay Ryan was a poet-Laawrrrl-something, as she talked about poetry, and how she became a poet, deciding during a bicycle ride across the country, on a Colorado mountain, and talking about what it meant to be a poet, how it was both an embarrassment and a calling.

(“Gus, you mean like a preacher?” “Well, I ‘spect.”)

All this at 16? Yet listen they did, at least most of them—and asked questions, none of them dumb. It was stirring.

It’s hard to know where to begin reporting on such an important experience, but one way is to mention some poets who were new to me and who sounded good. So today I offer Jericho Brown. He read “Track 4, Summertime,” attached here, and he explained that it’s a persona poem: he’s speaking as if he were Janis Joplin (of Port Arthur, Texas). Maybe these lines from Jericho Brown will tease you into reading the whole poem (it’s only a page):

The band plays. I just belt out, Please. This tune
Ain’t half the blues. I should be thankful.
I get high and moan like a lawn mower
So nobody notices I’m such an ugly girl.
I’m such an ugly girl. I try to sing like a man
Boys call, boy. I turn my face to God. I pray. I wish
I could pour oil on everything green in Port Arthur.

For the whole poem (plus two more), click here: Tracks

And if you'd like a reminder of the remarkable voice and style of Joplin, click here:

YouTube - janis joplin must see or die


Oct 9, 2010

KAY RYAN, "The Edges of Time," Part 2

Student? Footnote. See below.

Photos: another view of things emptying, though not in a frenzy?

Excerpt: 'The Best Of It' : NPR

Sorry to belabor "The Edges of Time," especially since some of you have already noted your preference for seeing a poem as a whole--maybe you would say as an impression rather than a case study. Actually, I think I do too, but when I notice leaves hanging on the tree, I need to talk about them and wonder about their purposes. Are they just decorative, or are they essential to the overall shape, condition, and appeal of the tree? Kay Ryan invites such study in "The Edges of Time."

Other than Kurt Vonnegut (in Slaughterhouse-Five) and Kay Ryan, who thinks of time as viscous? As amber? Who thinks of time or amber as something that holds a swarm of intentions, like bees? And those bees become a “racket of claims” and “A / glittering fan of things / competing to happen.”

I’d never have thought of “unseizing” as a verb, nor time as the amber fist that does the unseizing of those inner bees, nor of things competing to happen, though it now seems that’s exactly what things do. When there’s a frenzy, when we’re late, when time is about to run out, everything competes to happen—to get birthed in a hurry and a flurry.

The bees were in my bonnet, more or less. Why didn’t I hear them till now? I am a fish, very much out of water, which now retreats from sustaining me, though I holler and wiggle desperately on the damp sand.

(Am I a fish with a bonnet full of bees? Apparently do. Try to live with it.).

Notice too that in practically every poem Ryan employs several sound devices, usually rhyme and assonance (identical vowel sounds in proximity). Because the similar sounds are not usually at the ends of lines, where we’re used to hearing them, we might overlook them. Again we must read aloud and go slow, or we’ll miss little gifts like “suspending” and “intentions,” “bees” and “unseizes,” “humming” and “coming.”

And when time is running to its edges, things get frantic. So Ryan hits us with a barrage of short “a” sounds: “stacks . . . back . . . racket . . . flattens . . . fan . . . happen . . . as . . . .” In my ear-mind connection, that short “a” feels thick, over-full, in need of emptying. Maybe I subconsciously hear words like “fat” or “bladder” in other short “a” words. I cannot argue that everyone should hear the short “a” that way, but maybe my ears are not entirely alone.

Then Ryan concludes with an assonance so strong I had to listen twice to notice it wasn’t exact rhyme: “. . . when seas / retreat.”

Finally, I’d argue that these poetic devices are not baubles. Also, Ryan’s perspectives on the edges of time aren’t just new; they also make sense. They’re reasonable propositions, even as they matter-of-factly portray the desperation of victims as time retreats to its edges like an ebbing sea.

“Logic” doesn’t seem quite the right word, but Ryan’s perspectives on all this are at least plausible. When we combine plausibility with the fresh and the new in words and ideas, we get creativity, originality, a way of seeing an experience that’s hard or impossible to talk about in straightforward prose. As poets are fond of saying, someone is "saying the unsayable." We get a rendering of an important idea, and at least for a moment, it seems there is no other way to understand or utter it. It was there all along, but Kay Ryan saw it and said it.

Excerpt: 'The Best Of It' : NPR

(Note: If you're a student using any of these words or ideas, be sure to footnote properly).


Oct 8, 2010

KAY RYAN, "The Edges of Time"

Excerpt: 'The Best Of It' : NPR

Today I heard Kay Ryan read "The Edges of Time" and discuss poetry in general, and I'm back to being an acolyte. Ryan mentioned Emily Dickinson as one of her heroes (first Hopkins, she said--for exposing new ways to stretch language -- then Donne and Dickinson). Like Ryan, E.D. explores the far corners of the mind, with ususual curiosity and apparent accuracy, catching this or that shading or oddness in a psyche or a mental process. Those adventures within and about the human mind plus the shared penchant for precise, sharp language are the two most prominent features that Ryan and E.D. share.

Well, there is also their brevity. In an age when poets (as well as fiction writers) feel free to go on and on, Ryan and Dickinson seem to feel an honorable obligation to density, richness, and power of language--finding the word that is just right--precise, interesting, original, quirky, the word that throws a genuinely new, legitimate, and important light (or darkness) on a subject.

Feel free to look at the other two poems, of course, ("Home to Roost" has appeared here before); however "The Edges of Time" is my primary interest today.

Excerpt: 'The Best Of It' : NPR

Oct 4, 2010

FROST, "BIRCHES." Gifts, Part 3.

(Student? footnote!)

Birches by Robert Frost : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

I realize I’ve grown tedious with analysis—in which we ANAL-eyes everything, as some students sometimes say (the ones who got Ds). But I’ve gone this far, so I’m plowing ahead. Come along if you like. There will be no sprinting.

By the way, my motives aren’t all that self-centered. It’s an old idea (and one I share) that the arts, including poetry, are legitimate new ways to perceive the world we walk through. Or, the arts are ways to “speak” in a particular manner the perceptions we’ve all had, but have not articulated to our own satisfaction. In order to talk about those arts, to get beyond “I like it,” it helps to look at details, which might require some technical thinking and language. So here’s a teaspoonful; try not to slurp.

As counterpoint to the long, prosy look and feel of the lines in “Birches,” there is the rhythm. It’s easy to overlook because we tend not to listen for it, especially in a rushing world of free verse, much of which is merely prose talking. Or yammering. Or belaboring the obvious. Or regurgitating.

Also, Frost achieves such naturalness that we might be surprised to find traditional meter. But in fact “Birches” is written in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter; two syllables of tuh-DUH, more or less, and more or less five tuh-DUHs in each line).

Iambic meter is the rhythm closest to the natural cadence of English speech; even so, it offers an understated musicality to a poem that looks and feels like prose. Or, if it does feel like poetry, we might not realize why.

The first four lines consist of perfectly regular iambs, five per line—therefore, pentameter. Now that we’ve heard that, at least subconsciously, in the very opening, Frost can stray from it occasionally if he needs to, for the sake of naturalness, or for emphasis—or to avoid a childish, sing-song, “hickory-dickory-dock” effect.

There. That’s enough of the academic biz for awhile. I hope somebody out there will comb through the poem for other gifts from Frost. Good and great poetry must offer them, whether as music, or word pictures, or depth of emotion or intellectual reasoning. But speed reading will miss too many. We don’t go to Gregorian chants because they’re zippy and easy.

I was late in arriving at respect for Frost, and one reason is that I thought he was simplistic. Now I’m sure he’s anything but, even in popularized poems like “Stopping By Woods” and “The Road Not Taken.” So I hope there will be some scouting out there—of Frost or other poets. Life is short, but the gifts are many, and poetry’s cheap. So hie thee thither and get ye to gathering. And remember, the tortoise will gather more than the hare.

Birches by Robert Frost : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Oct 3, 2010


(Any student using any of these words or ideas should be sure to footnote properly).

Birches by Robert Frost : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

These are some pics from northern Michigan, which unexpectedly cued Frost’s “Birches” for my previous post and again today. So let me comment on what I like in the poem, though it certainly has plenty of fans already.

In addition to the literal portrait of a boy swinging on birch branches, I hear Frost trying to show how we all might want to experiment with the infinite—which in the mind and spirit of the boy is the upper air where the birch branch takes him.

But note that Frost is careful to announce that he doesn't mean any kind of death wish. The speaker wants just a taste of whatever's next for humans, but he also wants to be sure he returns to earth, the right place for love.

I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return.

The poem feels somewhat long and talk-y, and I wonder if Frost considered breaking it into stanzas (or verse paragraphs, as they’re sometimes called in cases like this). White space can make writing more inviting.

That might sound simplistic, but I’ve heard a lot of intelligent readers mention how much they like dialogue in novels. White space might be only part of the explanation, but it’s a factor. (You might have noticed that I try to keep my Banjo paragraphs short if at all possible—and it usually is).

From another angle, however, the length of the lines and the argument in “Birches” also illustrate a hobbyhorse of mine for any poem: there must multiple gifts for the reader along the way. Anyone who goes slowly and reads aloud, will probably not go more than five lines without finding something unusual or appealing or rewarding.

Consider the first five lines:

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy's been swinging them.
But swinging doesn't bend them down to stay
As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them . . .

In spite of the abundant birches in Michigan, I never noticed, or paid attention, to the way a line of birch bark sometimes crosses darker branches of other trees (or vice versa), as if the two species are in a kind of tension or conflict.

And wondering whether a swinging boy or an ice storm caused that bent branch is something I feel I should have wondered about. I’m glad Frost took care of it for me. Reminding us what we could have, or should have, noticed is often what poetry does for readers, if they open themselves to it. “You must have seen them,” Frost says. It’s as if he knows I didn’t see them. I feel gently chided by an avuncular voice and spirit.

Here are lines 6 – 10:

Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun's warmth makes them shed crystal shells

Do you like the fancy word, “onomatopoeia,” which denotes a word that sounds like the thing it refers to? Isn’t “click” a magical example? And Frost won’t let up; we also are knocked with other “k” sounds: “many-colored, cracks, crazes, crystal.” Does anyone care to dispute that the hard “k” is a sound of vigor, if not violence? So, as pretty as the images might be in lines 6 – 10, there is also something like the sound of attack, or at least force and breakage. There is nothing gentle in the “k” sound, and that creates a kind of counterpoint to the pictorial loveliness, as if to say, "Don't get too sappy: the birches are nice to look at, but there's some upheaval and menace going on as well. There's about to be shattered glass . . . . "

In lines 6 - 10 there is also sibilance—a few “s” sounds in proximity of each other. That’s usually considered unpleasant, once again to prevent our acceptance of everything as just lovely, just lovely.

I can hear someone yelling at me for splitting hairs. Look. If I had to wake you at 5:00 a.m. for some difficult, unpleasant journey or task, should I say, “ooooohhhhhhh” (like warm, melting chocolate, maybe) or “sssssssssssss,” like a rattler about to strike.

One more thing: when you see ice-coated trees, do you think “enamel”? Me either. Don’t you think we should have? Look what we missed. That’s one more reason that he’s Frost and we’re not.

Part 2 tomorrow or soon. Hope the anticipation doesn’t keep anyone awake.


Lovers' Lane