Apr 25, 2012

Josephine Jacobsen, "In a Motel in Troy, N.Y.": New Poem, Old Issues

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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Anonymous said...

This was kind of creepy because I use to live in Troy,NY. The photo of the goose is lovely. Did you take that?

Hannah Stephenson said...

Well, I must be in the donkey club, because I almost skipped over the Troy significance.

I do like the poem (elegant, I think), and the strange mood that settles in over the last stanza (and I like the shapes of those).

Jean Spitzer said...

GoofyZeusGooseGeist. Love it.

And the photos.

Banjo52 said...

Anon, welcome. I'd love to hear what it was like there.

Thanks to you and Jean about the photos. Yes, they're mine.

Hannah, thanks for confessing. I feel better. Glad you like the poem. I really do, quite a bit. Hope I don't make you hate when I wax on, probably tomorrow.

Banjo52 said...

Oh, yeah, Jean, thanks on GSGG. It felt pretty stupid, but was pretty fun. Hope no one gags.

RuneE said...

The top swan was very fitting for the subject, but I got interested in the comparison of the swan with a cloud. The placement of the shadow led on to "Rosemary's baby" ...

The name Troy also led me to quite another "animal" famous from that Greek city.

I think I'm getting goose pimples.

Banjo52 said...

So, Rune, Rosemary's baby rides a Trojan Horse into . . . I think I get it, but it's making me shiver.

Anonymous said...

“You wouldn't worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do.” ER

I think using the device of an animal looking at a human, dispassionately and with little curiosity, is an extension of that. The reminder we're just a blip on the world screen.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

give it time - you'll be back in favor again. Malls are tiresome places

AH - kind of like a meaner leaner version of the diddy "what you think of me isn't any of my business" Popular slogan in 12 step. I should listen to them

Banjo52 said...

AH, I like that quote a lot. And to be rendered irrelevant by a swan! Cool.

PA, I bet you're right. It's like new car models in the 50s, every other year.

Brenda's Arizona said...

My two cents. Who is playing cribbage? Women, you say? I thought a family, driving across country, stopping for the evening/night. I pictured the parents telling the children to sit still and "LOOK, LOOK!" The comment of the swan's dirty neck sounds like something a child would say. As the swan lurches and waddles away, the children run to the full window to watch.

Love the photos! And the poem. The swan seems so alone/so lonely...

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