Apr 25, 2012
IN A MOTEL IN TROY, N.Y. by Josephine Jacobsen
Following yesterday’s prelude, here is Josephine Jacobsen’s fine poem, “In a Motel in Troy, N.Y.” from Poetry Magazine (November 1980).
After two or three readings, I wrote a rough draft about the poem, only to end up wondering why Josephine Jacobsen picked a minor and industrial (shirt collars and iron) but not unknown city as the setting for her poem. Fortunately, it hit me before I went public sounding like a donkey in the slow class: “Oh, hell, yes, that Troy. But why?” Wikipedia offers some tidbits and information. "In the post-Revolutionary War years, as central New York was first settled, there was a strong trend to classical names, and Troy's naming fits the same pattern as the New York cities of Syracuse, Rome, Utica, Ithaca." Like so many smaller industrial cities in the U.S., the population of Troy, NY has fallen from about 77,000 in 1910 to about 50,000 in 2010, though it's still home to prestigious R.P.I and the Emma Willard School for Girls. Troy's motto is "Ilium fuit," or "Ilium was, Troy is." (Ilium was the ancient Greek name for Troy). Clearly, the American Trojans have a sense of connection to ancient Greece.
So once I was in on the riddle, I also thought, “Troy, swan—spooky, menacing, yet comical big bird as uninvited guest to a cribbage game in which all the all the players in ‘our group’ might be women, traveling, away from home, maybe tired and worn like Athenians in Troy, a site they don't recall in loving terms. Oh, my, but I’m a donkey with his pants down. Or almost was.” (I don't usually have short conversations with myself).
But maybe I’m a good and lucky DonkeyBeastOfBurden: the episode as a whole illustrates a variation on my watered-down New Criticism, in which the text is everything, not the author’s life or intention—and only as absolutely necessary the author’s time in history or region in the world. The increasingly popular notion that literature is there primarily to illustrate historical and political issues and attitudes . . . is very troubling to someone like me, who compares poems to timeless gems and bullets and birds, objects of beauty and power that last centuries beyond any political or historical epoch.
A poem consists of what its words convey, with minimal or no outside interference. If we need more than an occasional look at the dictionary for a meaningful and legitimate mental and emotional response to a poem, then somebody messed up—the reader or the poet. You’ve heard that before here. If you’ve studied a bit of literary theory, you know I’m just the messenger, though my superiors at The New Criticism Discount Mall are, like me, out of favor at the moment.
I’m sorry if this sounds like a rationalizing and lame defense of my first reading: adding the story of the Zeus and Leda might expand the poem’s range and significance, but what matters, the poem’s core, is there with or without the GoofyZeusGooseGeist. (oh my). What I say in the commentary that follows in a day or two remains a plausible reading, whether the swan is a Greek god or Farmer Brown’s supper, waddling away, on the loose, at some edge of Troy, New York.
I’ll let that do it for today and post my sure-to-be-famous, un-Zeusian discussion in a day or two.
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