Oct 29, 2012

"Ativan" by Laura Kasischke

I’m not at all confident that I have a handle on Laura Kasischke’s  (Ka-SHISH-key) “Ativan,” but I like its emotional intensity and vivid, evocative imagery. It has the density and precision I’m always arguing for—when I’m dissatisfied with talk-y, prosy “poems”—so I’ll stick my neck out on its behalf.   
Maybe the poem proposes that we take tranquilizers like Ativan because we cannot escape our awareness of the fact that we are doomed by mortality—just as all small, delicate beauty lives in the shadow of a gallows tree and a hanged man’s boots. What’s your take on the poem’s title, as wel as its overall content?   

I hope everyone hears the poem, so please excuse this reminder about meter and music:  an “anapest” is a metric foot whose three syllables are:  unstressed, unstressed, stressed, as in “to a HANGED . . .” bah bah BOOM.  A few anapests in proximity are sometimes called a waltz rhythm. If you weren’t already Strauss-ing around the room, you may now begin.

In the first stanza of “Ativan,” I’m charmed by the musicality of the anapests at the center. It started with a somewhat hard iamb in “That dream” (which could come across as an even harder, stronger spondee (two consecutive stressed syllables), and we finish the stanza with two more iambs:  “-lows TREE.”  But in the middle are some softer minuets, which we can hear as the vulnerability of the cricket:

            in the DARK            of the NIGHT
            at the FOOT
            of the GAL-  lows TREE.

A cricket’s noise might be perceived as somewhat musical, and the poet brackets that little three-four tune with a harder, sharper beat in the iambs of “That DREAM” and “the GAL-lows TREE.”
Red-Bellied Woodpecker, male
Can we conclude that Kasische’s rhythms reflect, and even help to create, the central conflict in the poem:  the perception of delicate beings surrounded and threatened by our awareness of death, which we try to soften with Ativan, among other antidotes.

Like the speaker, we’re likely to identify with creatures like crickets. Like her, we might even call them “virtuous” and “hopeful” and “heart-faced.”  Although science tells us that crickets (and cockroaches and other bugs) will succeed us on the planet, we see the singers as profoundly sweet and profoundly vulnerable—or maybe doomed, more than vulnerable.
(As a FWIW aside, in Kasischke’s phrasing and music, I hear an echo of Keats in “Ode to a Nightingale”:  

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
         I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call'd him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
         To take into the air my quiet breath;
                Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
         To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
                While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
                        In such an ecstasy!
         Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
                   To thy high requiem become a sod.

Kasischke seems at least half in love with her subject, nature’s most fragile creatures; but of course it’s the tiny living things she loves, not the hanged man. Still, I’ll cling to the notion that Kasischke is half in love with crickets and her unconscious might have heard Keats rummaging around in her attic—Wait!   I can’t say that. I’m a quasi New Critic!).

If I had a picture of a cricket, I’d post it. Today’s photos are an attempt to capture additional “Little, hopeful, insistent things,” whether or not their faces are heart-shaped or “lit up by the moon,” and whether or not they knowingly sing to a “hanged man’s boots.” I’m pretty sure the red-bellied woodpecker and the milkweed have not taken the Ativan, yet they seem hopeful enough.

As for the big trees with overhanging branches, let’s not talk about them, neither the autumn orange nor the stripped bare version. 

Oct 15, 2012

"The River" by Gregory Orr and the Villanelle as Form

The River by Gregory Orr : The Poetry Foundation

Farmington River, Connecticut
I was looking for a poem to go with my kayaking photos and came across Gregory Orr's "The River," an impressively natural-sounding poem in a very demanding French form. The villanelle comprises five tercets rhyming aba and a concluding quatrain rhyming abaa. Mind you, that's two rhyming sounds in 19 lines, while the supposedly muscular sonnet has by contrast five or six rhyming sounds in 14 lines--wimpy child's play by comparison.

But wait! There's more. The villanelle also demands an exact- or near-repetition of Line 1 in Lines 6, 12, and 18, plus a repetition of Line 3 in Lines 9, 15, and 19. Most villanelles also follow a roughly iambic pentameter, which adds to the very musical effect of the whole (rhyme added to cadence tends to produce a sense of song). Next time you have five idle minutes, give it a try. Be sure you've got refills on all your meds.

The River by Gregory Orr : The Poetry Foundation

Villanelles, sonnets, ballads, sestinas--there are various kinds of cages poets build for themselves as a way of creating added tension between form and intellect on the one hand and passion on the other. The passion is surging like river rapids, trying to break the banks and smother us with the absence, or even the opposite, of thought and restraint. The brain says all that free-flowing turbulence won't do; there must a balance and blend of reason and passion. T.S. Eliot called it "Felt Thought."

If most of us tried to write about swimming naked with a lover in a river, near rapids, wouldn't we likely end up with soap opera or porn or some other hyper nuisance? Where would brain, judgment, analysis, restraint, decorum and good sense be if we let it all hang out?  I don't much want to read anyone's uninhibited emotions. In fact, I have, many times, and they are consistently puerile and narcissistic, not deep.

Gregory Orr has struck a nice balance in "The River." The demands of the villanelle keep a rein on his feelings, without strangling or sterilizing them. Beyond that, there's the content of the poem, irrespective of form, in which the speaker tries to understand as well as relish the natural, sensual delight he's presented.

The River by Gregory Orr : The Poetry Foundation

Oct 9, 2012

Pick a Favorite: Tony Hoagland, Andrew Hudgins, Franz Wright

I suppose this smacks too much of the classroom, but I'm doing it anyway. I hope you'll take your time and enjoy it. I'm already interested in responses, but no, I'm not lurking in a dark corner, wielding an oak cudgel with the right answer burned into it. My own jury is where it usually is:  lunch.

Here are two Tony Hoagland poems. Which do you prefer and why?

At the Galleria Shopping Mall by Tony Hoagland : Poetry Magazine   

Personal by Tony Hoagland : Poetry Magazine

White-Breasted Nuthatch 8/18/12:

“I took it all quite personal—//
the breeze and the river and the color of the fields . . .
And I cursed what hurt me//
and I praised what gave me joy”

Compare  either of the Tony Hoagland poems to the Andrew Hudgins and Franz Wright work recently discussed here:

 Praying Drunk by Andrew Hudgins : The Poetry Foundation

To Myself by Franz Wright : The Poetry Foundation

Which of the four poems is your favorite and why?

A different question:  which one of the four do you admire most and why?

Near Romeo, Michigan, 10/7/12


Oct 3, 2012

Robert Frost's "The Pasture," a Mayor on Trial, a Boy Fishing

Rt. 4, north of Bucyrus, Ohio
near Corydon, Indiana
Here is a small, fairly well known Robert Frost poem, “The Pasture.” The key to its success, if there is success, is that curious, unexpected refrain, “You come too.” Is that or anything else in the poem sufficient for putting it in the company of Frost’s best known work? We don't know the response of the invited one (wife? child? friend?), and I think that creates a surprising amount of tension. Has the speaker been turned down quite a bit prior to this event? It all seems casual, but maybe a good bit is at stake. What a lot of relationship Frost has worked into half a line that seems about as simple as it can be. 

Yet I wonder: will this physically small poem fit into the pantheon of Frost's most admired works? My jury is out.

The Pasture by Robert Frost : The Poetry Foundation

The Judge, Kent Lake, Michigan, Sept. 16, 2012

Addison Oaks County Park, near Romeo, Michigan, September 30, 2012

Speaking of juries, one of the jurors seated for the trial of ex-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has been dismissed for repeatedly falling asleep during the proceedings—and this in the first week of a trial predicted to last four months. Of course, it’s comic at first. And after the lawyers’ wrangling about venue and a racially appropriate group of twelve, plus alternates, it was tempting to think, “After all that, you give us a narcoleptic!”  One more slap in the face of Detroit, which has no more cheeks to turn.

Then came two important bits of info:  the sleeper is a white woman who’s been working the night shift for some time; her body could not adapt to the demands of a new clock. So even in an urban circus, there was a call for pathos, it seemed to me.

Addison Oaks, Michigan, 9.30.12

And that brought me back to the kindness or affection—or the gentle something—in Frost’s small poem and the fishing boy in my photo. That cast was a lefty backhand, by the way, very smooth, perfect form. 

I hope that Detroit juror can keep her identity secret. There are many ways to be embarrassed, not to mention being overworked (see Frost’s “After Apple Picking,” which I posted and we discussed about a year ago:  http://banjo52.blogspot.com/search?q=after+apple+picking ). There ought to be  many ways to be kind, to say "You come too," even for politicians. 

The Pasture by Robert Frost : The Poetry Foundation

Lovers' Lane