Jun 28, 2014

Phillip Levine, "Coming Close": Labor and Place

Here is former Poet Laureate, and native Detroiter, Phillip Levine with a portrait of women who labor. Really labor.  Would you agree that he does not sentimentalize her or the work?


Am I the only one who thinks of a slight connection to Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters, although they strike me as agrarian while Levine’s woman is part of the American industrial scene? 

In “You must feed her, as they say in the language of the place,” the “her” is the machinery. (Right?).  So Levine characterizes industrial machinery as female, then goes on to say, “Make no mistake, the place has a language.” In this place the machinery is female, perhaps a demanding maternal figure who must be fed.

I think Levine's treatment of place and language might be the most interesting idea in the poem. Does a place have its own language? Does our language change according to place and situation? If so, is that about the power of place to shape human language, which amounts to human thought, emotion, and personality?

If our language changes as we move from place to place, are we being dishonest? No? Simply pragmatic? Is pragmatism inherently dishonest? And then of course, the old adolescent question, how much honesty can any of us handle? “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!”  Remember the Jackster delivering that one?

Does the laborer’s laughter at the end amount to meanness, or is it an effort at jolly, rough fellowship?

Is the speaker’s feeling “marked” a bad thing?  What does “for your own” mean? I really don’t know why that’s there.


Jun 16, 2014

Hannah Gamble's "Growing a Bear": Entertainment and Art

First a note on the photos: which of these women might be the poem's speaker? Now, on to the work itself.

In poetry, humor is such a tricky thing, a tightrope—veer left and you fall into superficiality or mean sarcasm or commercial slickness and pandering; veer right and you reveal an underbelly too dark for genuine levity--no belly laughs, no breeziness at cocktail parties, no appreciation of the absurdity of it all. It's all too grave for that, as Dostoevsky knew.

In my college years and into my twenties, I heard more than once that America’s only contributions to world literature were the short story as a genre and American humor. We were supposed to feel bad about that—inferior, provincial lightweights. Well, if those are our only contributions—and how can one make such a claim in the first place?—I say we’ve done pretty well, as I whisk dreary dust off my shirt and visor from long, long, dark, dark European tomes. Especially on the continent, none of the languages have a word for "concise."

So Hannah Gamble’s “Growing a Bear” interests me quite a bit. I hope no one disputes that it’s funny. But is it fluff? We’re back to The School of Accessibility and the constant question it presents: is the work mere entertainment or does it have enough heft to be labeled significant literature—enough insight into and commentary on big issues like the environment or social justice or simply being a lone human with human complexity? And is the work’s expression artful enough to make us take the piece seriously?

After reading “Growing a Bear” a few times, I’m not at all sure what the Bear is, but I think it's vaguely naughty and funny and grave. How would you pin it down? Or would you decline the invitation to pin it down?

And did you enjoy the poem?

Jun 6, 2014

D.H. Lawrence's "Bavarian Gentians" and Dylan Thomas, Follow-up

Here is D.H. Lawrence’s poem, “Bavarian Gentians.” I think I know why it came to mind as I talked last time about Dylan Thomas and “The Force that through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower," but I'm not sure. Ideas?  Which of the two poems do you prefer, and of course, why?

I don't have a photo of a Bavarian Gentian, but I'm including some with important blues or purples and darkening and excess.

My posting twice about the same poem has never elicited much visitor interest, but sometimes I just can’t help myself. Here are some further questions and thoughts about Dylan Thomas’ “The Force That through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower.”

One word that might confuse or alienate readers is “the green fuse,” which I take to mean the flower’s stem. Does Thomas get enough bang for his buck with “fuse” as a metaphor? In exchange for potential confusion in some readers, what, if anything, does he gain by using “fuse”?

Same question for “dumb”?

Why is the poem so full of violence? About a hundred and fifty years before Dylan Thomas came along in Wales, the English Romantics, especially Wordsworth, had conceived of a dynamism in Nature—its potential for destructive activity along with its beauty and spirituality. But isn’t Thomas going further than the Romantics in seeing and insisting upon Nature’s fearsome extremes and thus complicating its beauty with its violence? Thomas’ Nature wreaks such havoc that he cannot express its extremes; he can only give examples and ask us to perceive natural presences as he does. 

Do you think a single force governs the life and death of humans, plants, and animals? Are we that much a part of nature?

Where in the human being would you locate that force? The heart? The brain? The mouth? The hand? The genitals? Or the mind or soul or spirit?—none of which can be located on an anatomical chart.
English teachers are sex-crazed nerds; that’s old news. Therefore, I ask if the poem has anything to do with sex—potency and lack of it, or Freud’s “libido” versus “thanatos.” I’m pretty sure I recall accurately that Freud expanded his concept of the libido from a specifically erotic drive to a broader meaning of life force, a quest for survival, which of course was in continuous conflict with “thanatos,” or death drive.

Thus, Freud, like the Romantics, saw the essential condition of humans as one of tumult,  inner turmoil, conflict, unlike Buddhism’s sense of a calm inner place, nirvana, which we should try to reach. Do you favor one of these views of human nature over the other? If the human is an onion and you keep peeling off layers, what’s at the center—a roiling ocean or a still pond?

Lovers' Lane