Aug 22, 2013

Gerald Stern, "Bolero" and the Roaring I

Gerald Stern’s “Bolero” is a rabble-rousing poem that stirs me up, incites me almost to internal riot, and makes me want to love it. However, it fails to convey the rational components of its argument. In the end, we sense an emotional logic, but its left-brained component leaves us with as many questions as answers.

    With its run-on lines, its (arguably) run-on sentences, and no commas, no pauses of any kind until the final word,  “Bolero” is a rushing, breathless thing. There’s a lively, appealing gusto and some compelling images, such as an azalea bush that’s “firing” and a Japanese maple
that “was roaring” and the speaker’s stocking feet on the “lacquered floor.” And for me, the final line is the most energetic and appealing of all: “where / were you when I was burning alive, nightingale?”

But I’m almost as full of questions as enjoyment and affection. Here are some, offered breathlessly, perhaps.  

What if a reader does not know Ravel’s Bolero?  Granted, it’s famous, but must one hear or remember it to “get” the poem?

Why the odd line breaks such as “firing / away” or “daylight and / turned”  or “for it was / time”?  Have I already answered this in noting how the poem strives for unbridled energy? Is that energy too intense to pay attention to syntax and the point where its poetic line would normally end?

I do see a rationale for the break at end of Line 2, with “roaring I.” With this enjambment Stern is able to make both the Japanese maple and the speaker  things that “roar.”  A “roaring I” is part of the speaker’s characterization of himself.
One Roaring I (St. Clairsville, Ohio)
It also makes sense to pause at “roaring I,” in order to emphasize it as its own entity; the roaring I is a being, and to build suspense, as it were, we must wait till the next line to hear what this rampaging thing might do.

More Roaring I  (The Speedtrap Diner, Woodville, Ohio)
Some additional, random questions:  What might “sugar and barley . . .  come to”?  Beer?  Bread? In my quick Google search, I found that sugar and barley yield hard candy. I don't see how that's part of the poem, unless Bolero has the feel of candy.

In what way is loyalty relevant? To whom should the speaker be loyal? Ravel? Or his lover or his wife or his son?  Or his own energy in decades past?  What style might be  “too nostalgic”? His dancing style? Or is it Bolero that’s too nostalgic?

Who is the nightingale? Ravel? Or the speaker’s wife, who is not present for his mad dancing in the kitchen? Or a former lover? The speaker’s “burning alive”—is that his own dancing, his feeling the music in the present moment? Or is it a mental picture of himself in the past, along with a thinner waist?

If not, whose waist is “that thin”?  His son’s?  His wife’s? Has he found himself in an old photo? When, in the timeline of the poem, did that happen?

Even the final line, which I love, is full of questions. How does the speaker get from nostalgia to “burning alive” or “nightingale”? Is this burning alive a good thing—a kind of intensity and vitality? Or was he burning up and wasting away in some deathly fever, with unfulfilled passion?
Nightingale!!  Fever

The nightingale is one of the most romantic birds available as an image—is it a term of endearment here, or are the bird and its music somehow blameworthy in the speaker’s burning alive? Isn't that accusation I hear in the final line? Can it be both? Neither? Is the nightingale an actual bird, whose music somehow connects to Ravel and Bolero?
Floating I

Gerald Stern is about as major a living poet as we have in America, so I want to digest every piece of this or any Stern poem. Maybe “Bolero” is one of those poems where a reader cannot explain just what the poet is saying, no matter how attracted he is to the poem’s lively longing. For me, what’s lovable and stirring are the poem’s energy and its homey specific details. It’s full of heart, but its rational head is confused. Or at least my head is confused—enough to prevent being swept by this engaging, rowdy piece that seems to want to sweep me away. 


Jean Spitzer said...

I like this poem, without being able to tell you a convincing story about all of it. Feels like I could read it many times and see different things.

Anonymous said...

I know exactly what he's saying, though I heard a woman's voice. It's that point in life when the ordinary has conquered the extraordinary; wrestled the fantastic to the ground.

Nice as they are, domesticated Japanese Maples don't really roar, an azalea never fires away. And the poet is pretty sure he'll never again burn with the intensity and ecstasy of an irrational and all-consuming desire.

Anonymous said...

And the nightingale ref, that's Romeo and Juliet. "Twas the nightingale and not the lark that pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear." A youthful time when love and passion overpower life itself.

Banjo52 said...

Jean, I agree, and like you and Karin, I'm beginning to like it more and more, even as my questions remain.

And you, Miss Hiker, are on fire here! Great stuff. The question of gender is interesting, and your "Wrestled the fantastic to the ground" is extra nice! So it IS bitterness, mixed with sweet memories, that I hear in that last line? As you know, I usually prefer such tension and ambiguity to clear-cut, oversimplified answers in poems. Most of life's most important experiences, or moments, have that kind of complexity, don't they?

For what it's worth, I've now gone to Ravel's "Bolero" on YouTube and remembered it better than I thought I did. But the point is, I hear a march, something rather military, relentless and ominous, mixed with some sweetness somewhere after the middle, but also some cacophony from the brass at the very end. So as a whole, it's the kind of mixed message I'm hearing in the poem. I sympathized with the drummers, having to keep that pace for so long. I'm ambivalent about going to the source of an allusion (here, "Bolero") to "get" a poem, and I don't think it's necessary here. But for me, it did add fuel to the fire.

Banjo52 said...

P.S. I did not get the Romeo and Juliet allusion, but a friend did, so now there are two of you.

RuneE said...

I read all the comments, and found that the feeling I imagined for the guy was NOSTALGIA in an acute and virulent form :-)

Anonymous said...

Do you take requests? I'd like to explore some Seamus Heaney.

John Evans said...

I think the last line is almost sneering -- "Where were you when passion was running rampant?"

John Evans said...

By the way, You Tube has available Bolero performed on solo piano, arranged by Ravel. How I'd love to sink my playing fingers into that.

Banjo52 said...

Karin, I've never had much luck with Heaney, but I intend to do some more reading. Who knows? Poetry Foundation, of course, has several of his poems.

John, "sneering" works for me, at least in part. I think I hear at least a couple of tones or meanings, and I like that. It's definitely challenging in tone, isn't it?

Lovers' Lane