May 31, 2012

David Wagoner's "To the Farmer," Continued

To a Farmer Who Hung Five Hawks on His Barbed Wire by David Wagoner : The Poetry Foundation

Here are some responses to visitors' comments last time.

Rune, yes, I hear the quiet. And the reversal you speak of. To me, it’s haunting.

Jean, thanks. I like it too, though I doubt it’s sharp enough. It was a lucky shot, and I’m surprised it turned out as well as it did, with the colors and textures, foreground and background.

And Jean, “elegant protest letter,” yes. But I wonder if the speaker has any thought of delivering it. He might get shot. That’s what I don’t like about the inevitable weakness (word choice?) of his position. And that ties into AH and Brenda’s points.

About AH’s point and quotation, which might be easy to gloss over—the farmer’s “strange appetites” and “funny quickenings,” which are not spoken to “the wife.”

I hear the speaker thinking of the farmer as a loose cannon (word play intended) in a number of ways. Maybe we’re to hear that the dead hawks are not merely a murderous display, but also a perversion, one of several perversions for Gunshot Guy. 

So, Jean, I wonder if the speaker would dare to deliver an actual letter to such a guy.

And all that is now making me wonder, even more than I was, if the poem is a character study of the speaker as much as the farmer. That in turn that might lead back to Rune’s point—taking the longer, broader view, the poem might be about more than these two guys. Maybe it’s a comment on two elements in human nature, the aggressor and the moral but silent (passive? frustrated? helpless? cowardly?) observer. 
Yellow-rumped Warbler
I wish I could feel more authorial control over that from Wagoner.  One old, old rule has always made perfect sense to me:  we must never mistake the author for a speaker or narrator. But I think this poem needs to make clearer that it’s about two kinds of human and the complications involved therein. I don’t feel Wagoner’s control over that; it’s too easy to assume he’s the speaker, when we need to feel him holding up both speaker and farmer for our study.  If there’s no difference between Wagoner and his speaker, then the poem really is an impotent tantrum. Moral and creative, yes, but in the end, an ineffectual rant.

So, Brenda, “bottled up” is key. Is it only the speaker who’s bottled up, or is it the author and therefore the whole poem as well? Your paradox of “by doing nothing, something is done”—could you explain that further?  The speaker has exposed the farmer even if he hasn’t stopped him, and that amounts to “something is done”? And dreaming of revenge is a higher road than actually, physically taking revenge? I think those ideas are promising, but intricate. Am I anywhere close to paraphrasing you accurately?

If I put together what all the visitors are saying with what I was saying, does it amount to the point that exposing corruption is often all we can do without becoming another corrupt psycho-aggressor ourselves? Morality is hamstrung by the necessary avoidance of fighting fire with fire?  We hand that job over to our professional warriors?

Does all this tie into a Zen approach or a Christian turning of the other cheek? And does Wagoner’s birthing of these ponderings mean the poem is excellent in spite of what might be its limitations?

 To a Farmer Who Hung Five Hawks on His Barbed Wire by David Wagoner : The Poetry Foundation

May 29, 2012

David Wagoner, "To a Farmer Who Hung Five Hawks on His Barbed Wire"

To a Farmer Who Hung Five Hawks on His Barbed Wire by David Wagoner : The Poetry Foundation

[Please forgive the spastic spacing. Blogspot is having a tantrum.]
In David Wagoner’s “To a Farmer Who Hung Five Hawks on His Barbed Wire,” the speaker imagines a specific and detailed revenge upon a farmer who’s violated most codes of decency or humility about humanity’s place in the universe. The farmer has made an arrogant, thoughtless display of his conquests over some of earth’s most beautiful creatures. What can a moral being do about that? For me, Wagoner’s apparent answer undermines the argument of the poem, in spite of some marvelous images of vengeance.


The speaker wishes the farmer terrible dreams, the details of which force the gun-toting farmer into an unsought empathy with his victims—and more awareness of the process of dying “alone in the wind” than he would experience on his own—without the Wagoner curse upon him.   


The farmer assumes he’s lord of all he surveys and can spend his free-floating anger on any of his god’s creatures. So there’s something delicious about Wagoner’s hanging him out to dry, piece by piece, tuft by tuft. He’d have the farmer think he’s finally dead, then realize there are still more pieces of him left to hang in the weather, “Your claws clutching at nothing,” until the processes of nature have completely blown him away. The farmer will be


                                                    frozen and thawed   
                And rained away, falling against the grass   
                Little by little, lightly and softly,
                More quietly than the breath of a deer mouse.


The man with the loud gun will hang and rot as quietly as a mouse.

That sounds so very fitting, but the problem for me after a couple of readings is this:  in dreaming of doing to the farmer what the farmer has done to the hawks, Wagoner runs the risk of sounding silly and pointless in his rage. “You offend nature; therefore, I shall wish you bad dreams. I don’t know if you’ll actually have bad dreams, and surely you’ll never become a moral human. You won’t even know I’ve wished nightmares upon you, but I will know, and I guess that’s enough.”


As good as this imagined revenge might feel for a moment, the farmer will never feel it; he will wake from each nights’ sleep as refreshed (perhaps) by his own venom and thoughtlessness as he always was.


Imagined vengeance as creative in its details as Wagoner’s is surely pleases at some level. But in the end it is impotent, a perfect illustration of the country expression, “piss in the wind.”


Once, a long time ago, I went to a conference on counseling teens. It was led by five Harvard shrinks, one of whom gave a talk about anxiety and worry in adolescents. A self-proclaimed wit, the psychologist said, “Worry is like masturbation; it feels good while you’re doing it, but it doesn’t really get you where you want to be.” Elsewhere in his speech was a more serious, perhaps more useful axiom: “Worry precipitates action.”


Does that mean David Wagoner—or his speaker—should mosey over there and beat up the offending farmer instead of indulging—masturbatorily—in an American-Gothic variety of voodoo? I doubt it.


If there’s a useful lesson here, it might be the pointlessness—but also the inevitability—of our human need for vengeance, which is the trashy cousin of justice and morality.  However, neither Wagoner nor his speaker seems aware of the futility of such empty gestures.


Consider the logic: “In my imagination, I made you pay; therefore, you have paid.” Isn’t that a reasonable paraphrase? And isn’t it full of holes? What good does it do anyone to lie awake wishing injury to an offending, murderous farmer if that farmer doesn’t know or feel that injury. All the shame and humiliation you’ve wished upon him as been for naught—and probably poisoned your own sleep.


One might argue that there’s an element of magical realism in the poem, and we’re to think it’s plausible that the bad farmer will indeed be terrorized by nightmares because the speaker wished it so. However, I see no evidence that Wagoner has put us in a world full of magic, so we’re back to Square One, being asked to think that wishing makes it so. 


“Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.”  Theology and modern psychology are full of wisdom (and clichés) about the pitfalls of vengeance, but that rage is such a natural and human instinct that we seek it time and time again, plunging into personal wildernesses that are neither beautiful nor good, that are more like the impotent fury of a child’s tantrum.


After the fourth or fifth step toward imagined revenge, the whole project probably stops feeling satisfying. But how we withhold those steps is anyone’s guess.


I wonder if I’m the only one who finds this problem in a poem that’s otherwise so appealing in its details of poetic justice. I think of the old verse:  “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.”


To a Farmer Who Hung Five Hawks on His Barbed Wire by David Wagoner : The Poetry Foundation




May 22, 2012

e.e. cummings, "[in Just]": Notes on Experimentation and Spring

[in Just-] by E. E. Cummings : The Poetry Foundation

Detroit Riverwalk

Central Ohio, Rt. 4, when the world is mud-luscious and puddle wonderful

I guess I’ve been posting spring-y photos without labeling them as such and without adding spring-y poems. So before the season is over, here’s a work about spring. I did a half-hearted search for a piece that was new to both B52, but decided nothing matched E.E. Cummings’ “In Just.” It’s been here before. Can you forgive me? 

Speaking of forgiveness, I have a hard time forgiving poets (or wannabes?) since Cummings who think they’re being terribly, terribly avant garde by screwing with capitalization, grammar, punctuation, and word invention. They are usually young beginners, but they still need to be aware that Cummings was experimenting in those areas in the 1920s. It was meaningfully new then, a breakthrough, pepper spray in the eye of the establishment—and more importantly, a new way of seeing and presenting experience. 
Stage Nature Center, Michigan, late April
Well, folks, that was a century ago, more or less. If you want to be new, just to be new, then you need to . . . be new. You know? You need to try something else, for a good reason. Sonnets can still work; see the A.E. Stallings poem a couple of posts ago. So try to be new only if it’s an improvement on the tradition and only if it means seeing and expressing experience more effectively. Otherwise, you’re just wearing the poetic equivalent of a trendy four-day growth of beard; it looks dumb and accomplishes nothing.

By the way, I think that when I like and respect Cummings, which is surprisingly often, it is to some extent in spite of his challenges to the tradition, not because of them. Some of his imagery—and “In Just” is a case in point—is fresh and compelling all these years later. And it would still be fresh and compelling in more standard formatting, though I think his new lineation and other visual experiments do add to many of the poems’ purposes.

[in Just-] by E. E. Cummings : The Poetry Foundation

May 18, 2012

Ben and Joy's, Mt. Sterling, Ohio, near Deer Creek State Park

In Mt. Sterling, Ohio, revisit the 1950s and have a great breakfast or lunch (or supper) at Ben and Joy’s Restaurant on the corner of the main intersection in town (Rts. 62 & 56).  Sandwiches are around $4.00. Grilled cheese and grilled bologna (how long since I’ve had that!) for $2-something. 
The lunch buffet was $9.00—a good deal. We were there a little after 1:00, and, though the food was a bit tepid, it was tasty. The fried perch and chicken were moist and tender, in spite of sitting out awhile, and the baked beans were excellent. There was plenty to choose from at the salad bar.

When we entered, the place was still about half full, and it seemed every customer was local. The familiarity and good cheer among the people were right out of Mayberry. I’ve eaten at quite a few Mom & Pops, but no place surpasses Ben and Joy’s for an amiable atmosphere and good food.

About 7 - 10 days ago, these wildflowers were all over south-central Ohio, along two-lane roads and at the park itself. What are they?

May 16, 2012

A.E. Stallings' "Fishing": Follow Up Discussion

Blogger Kelly said...
...thanks for posting the poem. I just read it and enjoyed it. (I liked the "sun ...sweating gold" too, and didn't need those last two lines either.)

I've never been to Deer Creek but have often wondered what it's like. I need to head up there one of these days.

May 13, 2012 11:54 PM
Blogger RuneE said...
To me, this poem was "easy":
As a father of three girls and and a boy, I know the situation all too well. :-) Being with your parents doing what you used to love, but now feel that you are growing out of - only you haven't. The relationship and the fun is still there. It's all about the process of growing up and getting independent. You discover that blood is still thicker than water and that you have more in common than the family name. Oh - beautifully written (I'm sure I have lost many of the nice details) with fitting photographs :-)
May 14, 2012 2:23 AM

Blogger Jean Spitzer said...
The first photo is my favorite.  As for the poem, I read it before I read your commentary and also felt let down by the last lines.
May 14, 2012 9:31 AM
Groundhog, Woodchuck: What's the Difference?
Blogger Hannah Stephenson said...
Interesting...I think the less heavy-handed the end of a poem (especially a rhyming one, especially a sonnet, the better.
Cedar Waxwing

I see what you mean about the ending. I think it hangs on the word "weighing"...

I thought of that Elizabeth Bishop poem, "The Fish," which is not at all my favorite poem of hers (but perhaps one of the most often anthologized). I think there is something to this....that there is a trope of the fishing poem. Maybe?

The poet Marita Dachsel has a strong fish poem ("Fish Stories"). I can't find the full text....just these lines: "The gills were still moving when my father inserted his knife/…when he scooped out the organs he saw the heart still/ pumping. He said nothing…and then/ placed it in my open palm."
May 14, 2012 11:51 AM
Blogger Pasadena Adjacent said...

"Life and death weighed in the shining scales,
The invisible line pulled taut that links them both"        

Those two lines in and of them selves have a rather pleasing appeal.Yes, they do seem jagged and contrived placed where they are.

It's always a pleasure to watch you map out a poem into it's rules and regulations via that hard light. I always regret that I wasn't able to grasp (or be exposed) to those kind of concepts when I was young.
May 14, 2012 8:54 PM
Blogger altadenahiker said...
Oh, this poem makes me hurt. You are underestimating that last line. It means something other than you think.
And I respond:

Kelly, great minds think alike? About Deer Creek—I prefer the hillier locations of Salt Fork and Mohican (and Shawnee, but it’s farther away), but D.C. is brighter, has better rooms, more on-site walking trails and maybe slightly better food. 

Rune, the poem may be easy, but the relationship stuff is all pretty complicated, isn’t it. I find the whole “blood thicker than water” thing a great mystery. Of course, there’s the more cynical version:  “you can’t choose your parents.”  Still a mystery!

Jean, thanks. It’s my favorite too. I can’t help thinking the tree should be at their backs, but there’s something unexpected, pleasantly off about the way they seem to sort of fish into the land.

Hannah, I feel that way about the Bishop. She often makes me work more than I want to—which is probably a good thing. But I also wonder if she’s making me work more than I should need to . . .   The Marita Dachsel lines are powerful!  I do not know her at all.  Finally, I also thought there’d be dozens of poems on fishing, but not really—or maybe I just thought the Stallings poem offered more people more subjects to see, relate to, talk about.

PA and AH, can you say more about that last line or two. I take it that the invisible line is their inextricable relatedness to each other, esp. in the context of life and death, but I think you’re seeing more, or other.
Indigo Bunting--juvenile in awkward, speckled molt??

PA, that mapping doesn’t appeal to everybody, when they are exposed to it in youth. It’s probably like grammar and diagramming sentences—some groove on it, others hate it, and others, like you, didn’t get a fair shot at it.  “Mapping” is the perfect word for it—thanks for that. I also think of puzzles and problem solving in general. And now it occurs to me, maybe even genealogy—how is this related to that in a line of words or beings?  

So many kids think it kills the spirit of a written piece to ask such questions, but I think they can be fascinating. Fortunately, so do some youth.

From there, it’s an easy step to all the adults who assail American education and youth because they've missed some point of grammar—when those on the attack flub one grammatical situation after another, if you just sit back and listen to a few of their sentences. Human nature can be quite the little miracle.

May 13, 2012


A.E. Stallings usually or always writes poems in fixed form, and “Fishing” is a good example. In fact, I’d guess she wants it to be an Italian sonnet, although I don’t see the poem’s turn happening until Line 11 or 13, rather than the traditional shift at line 9, creating an octave (8 lines) and a responding sestet (6 lines).  The final two lines of “Fishing” have some of the feel of the rhymed couplets that conclude Shakespearean sonnets, but of course, they aren’t rhymed.

Fishing by A.E. Stallings : Poetry Magazine

Well, whether it’s Italian or Shakespearean or no sonnet at all, I think Ms. Stallings has given us a fine poem for 12 lines. My favorite images are “The sun . . .  sweating gold,” the “sullen summer of father and daughter,” and above all, the father’s lesson: “cast towards  shadows where the sunlight fails.” That’s where the hidden prizes live, the sheltered fish—in the dark parts of the world, the amorphous and mysterious areas, not in the clearly defined facts or rules or measurements that sunlight inflicts upon us, forcing us to see. I hear this sunlight as math, as policy, as religious doctrine, for example. Such brightness might be the best disinfectant, but eventually it fails because the fishes shelter in the undergrowth, in complexity, in murky doubt and contradiction.
Those shadows are the place from which “the unseen strikes,” along with a life and death struggle. Isn’t it usually the strikes of “the unseen” that matter most? However symbolically or literally one wants to read those lines, they make an important, powerful point about the nature of discovery. If a sheltered fish, or peace between a father and daughter, or any other experience is worth pursuing, it’s likely to produce a struggle that will at least seem a matter of life and death.

Lines 1 – 12 suggest all this very nicely, but I find the poem's final two or three lines a bit disappointing. They’re not bad poetry, but I don’t see what they add that hasn’t already been covered—and covered more effectively. I could have lived happily without the play on “scales”—fish scales and the scales of justice, of right and wrong. And I’m not ecstatic about the multipurpose “them” in the final line; it could refer to father and daughter or human and fish or life and death or all of the above, and more; but I thought I’d already pretty much sensed as much in the events and imagery of lines 1 – 12.
That’s a minor quibble about a fine poem, but I wonder if it illustrates a larger point about fixed form: in an effort to fulfill requirements—in this case, the rules or customs of a sonnet—the best parts of a good poem can be diminished by so-so lines that exist primarily to obey some demand of form. Of course, those same demands of form can force a poet into wonderful turns of phrase and thought that would've never occurred otherwise. It's a two-edged sword if ever there was one.

But in the end, would we rather have an excellent poem or a merely adequate sonnet or villanelle? Of course, the poet, through luck and skill, can sometimes have her cake and eat it too. But sometimes she has to choose. I wonder if that’s what's happened in the last two lines of “Fishing,” though I'm grateful for the first ten or twelve.

The photos are from a short trip to Deer Creek State Park, near Mt. Sterling, Ohio, 30 miles south of Columbus. The morning temps were high 30s to mid 40s, but there were always three or four small boats out, pairs of humans fishing the shallows, casting into the shadows.

Fishing by A.E. Stallings : Poetry Magazine

May 6, 2012

Jack Matthews, "Things"

Unidentified Painting, a gallery in Florida
November 1980 : Poetry Magazine

In recent posts, Emily Dickinson, Deborah Digges, Anne Sexton, Josephine Jacobsen, and less directly, John Crowe Ransom and Yeats have been concerned with things and observation—or witness, as the poetry world tends to call it. Of course, most poetry focuses on things and the perception process to one extent or another. Jack Matthews’ “Things” (it might open slowly, but it's only a matter of seconds) is a bit more direct than some other work we’ve seen here; maybe it’s downright preachy or prosy. But I very much like what he’s saying, and I think the aforementioned poets would too. Which of the last half dozen or so poems about seeing, naming, and considering things in a detailed, imaginative way is your favorite? And of course, why?

Sorry to repeat this one, but I could not resist its relevance
November 1980 : Poetry Magazine

The robin is also the "American Thrush"

May 3, 2012

Ransom, Day Two, and Yeats' "When You Are Old"

  When You Are Old by William Butler Yeats : The Poetry Foundation

Looking back at visitor comments on my last post about “Blue Girls,” it appears there’ll be no Fan Club for John Crowe Ransom forming here. Still, AH and I actually like the poem, and the criticism from others is not vitriolic, as I thought it might be. Here again is the poem:

Blue Girls

Twirling your blue skirts, traveling the sward
Under the towers of your seminary,
Go listen to your teachers old and contrary
Without believing a word.

Tie the white fillets then about your hair
And think no more of what will come to pass
Than bluebirds that go walking on the grass
And chattering on the air.

Practise your beauty, blue girls, before it fail;
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish
Beauty which all our powers shall never establish,
It is so frail.

For I could tell you a story which is true;
I know a lady with a terrible tongue,
Blear eyes fallen from blue,
All her perfections tarnished—yet it is not long
Since she was lovelier than any of you.

John Crowe Ransom
PA, Stickup, and Jean, maybe it’s not just a predictable protest about aging and the passing of youthful beauty, but also a warning:  have something in your life beyond physical beauty, which will “fail," even in the most charitable of situations. That’s where the girls might have done well to believe and not just courteously, obediently listen to “old and contrary” teachers, who might get them started on ways to fill the void left by feminine beauty and vitality.

What if a teacher convinced a teen to pursue art or art history and not “just” a modeling career for artists?  I feel uncomfortable in suggesting the poem is, in a peculiar way, about career counseling, yet why else advocate that kids believe their teachers? 

The twist might be that believing in science or literature or history or general intellectual curiosity might become some kind of adequate or even wonderful replacement for beauty, or self-esteem based entirely on a physical package. Given such pursuits, a girl, or anyone, can be more than a bluebird “chattering on the air.” 

It’s surely easy to rip on teachers, who have so many words and offer them much too freely. Even teachers rip on teachers, their old ones and their current colleagues. But, listen here, Blue Girls (and Hunk-Boys), when the time comes, what will you do to fill the void where your beauty, vitality and identity once were?  “Go to Trade School” sounds like a weird answer, but it’s actually just a variation on the old adage, “Follow your bliss.” First, find your bliss, then follow it. What are your alternatives?

It’s ironic that a poem on the cusp of sexism is also a potential antidote to sexism. I hear Ransom saying, “Don’t be an Air Head.”  However sad it is that the exquisite bloom of youth must fade—and it is sad; let's not underestimate it—there’s another urgent cry on the poet's “loud lips” too; it says, WAKE UP. Go down to the Meaningful Store and fill ‘er up with something that lasts.
For comparison, here’s Yeats on a similar subject. It’s early Yeats, which is academy-speak for sentimental, not-yet-adequate Yeats. I guess that’s why so many people include “When You Are Old” on their list of favorites. Where does any poem get its power? Now there’s a question to keep you up late. 
When You Are Old by William Butler Yeats : The Poetry Foundation

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