Nov 6, 2011

Responding to Readers Responding to Ted Kooser


Reader visits on the October 31 Shakespeare-Ted Kooser comparison here have probably offered the best, most thoughtful, conversational, perceptive comments and interchange among visitors in the three-year life of this blog. Thank you!  The majority of you prefer Kooser to Shakespeare, which was the opposite of my leaning. So I’ve sent myself back for an additional experience with “A Letter in October,” and that’s been enlightening and rewarding. Thank you!


Before I go on, let me quickly mention that I like the poem’s title. In what way and to whom might this be a letter? I can’t answer that, but I think the possibilities enrich the poem.

Now, here again is “A Letter in October”:    

Ted Kooser is often so quiet it’s easy to write him off, and until this morning, I wrongly did.

By the way, his (apparent) plainspokenness might connect—tenuously—to an issue I’ve brought up before regarding American (or all?) poets:  Are you in the Walt Whitman or the Emily Dickinson tradition?  Yes, that oversimplifies; yes, there’s a vast middle ground. But I still think there’s significant, if incomplete truth in those two columns of tradition, of psyche and style—the loose, casual, and rambling vs. the muscular, tight, and careful.

At first, the Kooser poem was flat for me, but upon a couple of re-readings, I’ve come to like it, starting with the personification of dawn as he watches the light “walk down the hill,” and continues with the light’s placing “a doe there” and stepping upon the pond, which “sows” a “garden” of “reflections.”

That goes well beyond a literal, prosaic way of seeing things. Yet it’s not just decorative; it really imagines, re-creates, and maybe transforms the scene, giving it a new way of being, more interesting and exotic than its prosaic existence, yet a character that’s entirely plausible and appealing.

The continued personification of “Night in its thick winter jacket” doesn’t strike me as charmingly, but maybe that’s just my problem. Communication in metaphorical thinking is subjective like that; it’s rarely a true-false test.
I’m also not sure I like turning the water garden under, though it should work. It extends the metaphor logically, as the poem moves from lightness, delight, strangeness, fantasy, and mystery to less pleasant, more onerous activities involving labor, darkness, and eventually the challenge of introspection.

The “bridle” of leaves on the doe as well as night’s black horse and creaky harness make me feel that Kooser is straining too hard at those figures, forcing them, whereas the earlier images of light felt natural as well as accurate, even necessary and inevitable. I feel I should have seen light creating a deer, and so on; it was there and needed only Ted Kooser to discover it. But I don’t feel that way about the turned garden, or the deer bridle, or the horse; I feel as if I can hear Kooser searching for extended metaphors.

Once I’m clear that the darkness in the poem’s conclusion is early morning and not a continuation of the night, I like what happens. Wanting to look outward at the world’s marvels is a virtue, as well as a pleasure, and it ought to be permitted, given freely as a blessing. And looking inward ought to be a virtue; I’m often wishing people would do more of that. But it’s a burden. Inward lies trickery.  Darkness. Complexity. Fear. All of this, I think, makes an extremely good complication and turn on which to end the poem and deepen the ballet of its opening. 

The language of the speaker’s sighting of himself as “Pale and odd,” wouldn’t seem to be especially surprising or effective, yet to me that description is aptly haunting. Thinkers who see the world as he does—or see in the world what he does—probably tend to be “pale and odd” indeed, as they enlarge the world for the rest of us.

How did I miss some of this in my first couple of readings?  Shame on me. Thanks, visitors.

4 comments:

-K- said...

When it comes to October, I think of James Schyuler:

"October"

Books litter the bed,
leaves the lawn. It
lightly rains. Fall has
come: unpatterned, in
the shedding leaves.

The maples ripen. Apples
come home crisp in bags.
This pear tastes good.
It rains lightly on the
random leaf patterns.

The nimbus is spread
above our island. Rain
lightly patters on un-
shed leaves. The books
of fall litter the bed."


It might be a little too plain-spoken for some people but I appreciate that it's not trying so hard to be poetical as Koosner in my opinion does.

altadenahiker said...

Well, I'd just throw off the covers and High Five K if somebody would get all these books off my bed.

I didn't see a basis for comparison in your two poems, Banjo.

Banjo52 said...

K, yes, it's plain-spoken, but also a good example of how that can be effective. Thanks for sending this. I like S's images and the repetition with a litter of unpatterned, RANDOM leaves. I hear a nice, understated tension between a disorder in the falling leaves and isolated good things--apple, pear, "our island."

AH, what I saw, and see, in both are autumn, aging, introspection, vulnerability, change, mortality, love for a world we cannot hold onto, seeing the Me in the light of (against? beside?) the Not-Me. And in the Not-Me, there's a tendency toward the delicate and the traditionally beautiful and peaceful--WS's baring trees, embers, sleep, and TK's deer (not wolf), garden (not wilderness), pond (not ocean), horse (not tractor).

And then, for contrast, in addition to the differences in character you saw in the two speakers, there are obviously the differences in language that a few folks mentioned. 400 years-- How much of a barrier might they be, must they be? I don't know how far that discussion gets us, but it's certaibly a fact that there's a language between WS's English and our own.

Should I mention that a lot of people seem willing to put up old-timey language in the Bible but not old-timey secular writers?

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I'm disappointed in you Banjo Man. I was hoping you would decipher the tribute on the Donner Monument for me. I don't even think you opened the link

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