Nov 15, 2009

Poetry: Maurice Manning's book, Bucolics

With two confessed Wordsworth lovers being good enough to offer comments recently, I tried to find a suitable poem of his to post and talk about. But the best Wordsworth is too long, and to my ear, his shorter poems are just too reminiscent of Hickory Dickory Dock, on top of didactic content, even when I try to allow for two hundred years of changing tastes and the fact that Wordsworth’s "language of the common man" was a breakthrough in its time.

But I do like a lot of his more ambitious thinking about nature (The Prelude, “The Intimations Ode,” and “Tintern Abbey”), and as I’ve said before, I feel some attachment to the old guy as one of my first icons when college days dropped the poetry balloon on my head.

So out of regard for both Wordsworth and nature, here’s a compromise. I’ve been posting poems I like or admire, but they’re also pretty famous, safe, mainstream work. For a change of pace, here is Kentucky’s Maurice Manning, a contemporary and unique voice as far as I know, in nature poetry and poetry in general.

Believe me, my skepticism goes on red alert when a poet experiments as much as Manning does. My first question: Does the material need to be presented this way, or is it an affectation, a choice to seem rather than be a new perspective or a new style?

The poems I’ve read in Bucolics strike me as accessible, authentic, and compelling. Of course, I don’t mean that Manning is the primitive, eccentric persona speaking the poems (by the way, his other books don’t bear much resemblance). But the voice he’s found and exploited in Bucolics seems earned and urgent, not some empty or faked gesture at an Appalachian pastoral.

As for form, at first I chose just to accept Manning’s decisions about line breaks as unconventional and arbitrary; I've thought that about plenty of other contemporary verse. Then I looked more closely and discovered a fairly regular iambic tetrameter in poem after poem. So there’s a more traditional music here than we might have expected, a logic governing line structures that might have seemed a chaotic ramble. To my ear and brain, the rhythms help to create in the speaker an actual character, a developed sensibility. It seems right that in his theological conversations, his queries, his wonder, there's a sense of music—maybe country gospel harmonies, maybe mountain music.

Theological? Yes, I think most readers will find themselves seeing the poems' recurring “Boss” as a god, and the poems become a rustic speaker’s questions and monologues directed at his deity.

If you don’t like the poems, you might yell “Fraud!” If you approve, you might whisper, “Magic.” Or, “Holy cow. That took guts.” Or, “How did he do that?” Literally, holy cow. Holy horse, holy pasture, holy rock and stream.

These selections come from the online Virginia Quarterly Review. Whatever else you choose, please try Numbers 1, 5, and 6. I’m really eager to hear reactions—agreement or disagreement. For better or worse, you won’t hear anything like these poems anywhere else anytime soon.

Here’s the link to copy and paste in your browser:



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Brenda's Arizona said...

Boss? I didn't see Boss as a god. Or
God. I fell for #4... Boss has to be his girlfriend! And I want to be just like her!!

So right now, I gotta go read #4 again. And #5.

Banjo52 said...

Interesting! Now I'll be going back to re-think it all (tomorrow). Thanks for going with it!

Anonymous said...

Uh, I like the pony.

But tell me this -- how can you dissect something if it's still alive?

Barbaro said...

I'm afraid I like your commentary better than the actual poems--which is not to say I dislike them, but that I prob. wouldn't have waded through unaided.

Great comparison to bluegrass, gospel, etc.

Can someone page me when the poets of the world remember that eschewing capital letters has been done, and done to death?

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, thanks for #4. That is one of the more completely positive portraits of Boss. If memory serves, Manning usually forces us into more ambivalence--something like: "Boss is good, Boss is great, Why must Boss intimidate?"

Hey, that's pretty good, Banjo.

I see why you'd want to be that girlfriend. Pretty tall order, isn't it?

Banjo52 said...

A.H., I'm not getting your question. Could you elaborate?

And the pony--in my photo or the horses in the poems?

PJ said...

I read the poems and like the way they flow. I recently began a Cormac McCarthy novel, Cities of the Plain, which doesn't use much punctuation and that's disconcerting but this lets the words flow and I like it. I can't say anything about the subject matter as I'm still digesting his Kentucky roots. I'm still wondering what he's addressing.

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