Mar 16, 2010

Dean Young, "Scarecrow on Fire," Part Two


Dean Young, “Scarecrow on Fire,” continued . . .

I'm suspicious of Young's trail of associations, yet my instincts tell me to trust him, not necessarily because I agree, but because he more or less announces, "I'm guessing about some big things here. Come along and guess with me, if you wish." He's been simultaneously careful and strange enough to make me think, "Okay, I'll keep re-reading. For now, I believe you were being straight with me."

One spot where Young steps away from this credibility is the arbitrary and puerile use of “Hell” in “Hell, even now I love life.” There’s that excessive love of the casual and conversational again, this time barging in on a poem that is otherwise all poem, a hard slider down and away, despite its appearance of chat.

Some readers might also object to Young’s assuming the privilege of grand proclamations about life. In fact, the poem opens dangerously in such a vein: “We all think about suddenly disappearing.” Or in lines 11-12, “We all feel / suspended over a drop into nothingness.” And maybe, in lines 16 – 18, “Whenever you put your feet on the floor / . . . it’s a miracle.” However, those three lines are probably metaphorical enough to rise above didacticism.

A poet is always on a tightrope with declarations like these. Even if the statements are true, who is he to speak for us? But Young more or less gives us a drop of metaphysics, then jumps back to the specific and concrete world and its puzzles, as if he’s aware of how easy it would be to go too far, to step into presumption or pamphleteering.

Along these lines, I also think of Sharon Olds’ line in “On the Subway” (March 9): “I will never know how easy this white skin makes my life.” I think she and Young, among others, are saying things they know to be provocative; maybe they also think we need to hear these thoughts because we act as if they haven’t occurred to us, or we haven’t cared enough about them on our own.

Too many conversational or prosy poems of the last few decades fail to offer this gift-and-challenge package, which I also see as an oath of honesty: "This really is the way I see the world, and this is the only way I can say it. Anything else would be inaccurate or dishonest."

The absence of that oath and those gifts is what I was complaining about back in January and February. Everyone of us is guilty of posturing; that doesn’t mean we have to like or respect it, in ourselves or in a poem. It might mean we should admire poems that are free of it, poems whose voice is genuine, no matter how quirky.

And the wonderful problem is, we’ll never entirely agree on which poems, or even short passages, are the pretenders and which are the real article. Is there anything better than that to talk about, to fight about?


Jeff M said...

I never liked poems that show a poet's assumptions of universal truths. It's simply enough, and more effective, to write it in first person; if it's a universal truth, people will relate --- without being told to.

Anonymous said...

I don't know. Maybe the difference between an English Prof and a lazy English major is that I appreciate the melody. And sometimes when you break it down, tear it apart, you discover the notes but lose the song.

Banjo52 said...

Jeff, probably gets back to the axiom of "show, don't tell." Right?

AH, I wouldn't call it lazy. I think it can go that way. There have been lots of poems I stuck with for the music until I could or couldn't do more in the way of "tearing it apart."

In defense of tearing it apart, however, it can lead to new gems and in rare cases entirely new understandings of a poem or important passage. Of course, that can also mean a new recognition of flaws, real or imagined.

With students I've often used the analogy of a car. Who understands and APPRECIATES a fine car more (say, a '57 Chevy), the mechanical moron Me, or the mechanic who can take it apart AND put it back together again? I'm voting for the mechanic. Some students like that analogy, while some just look at me in that psychiatric manner they have. But I'm standing by it.

Brenda's Arizona said...

I struggle with this poem. The first line caused me to shout out "YES, sure we all think about suddenly disappearing"...
and then I left.

I guess I disappeared and couldn't find my way back to all the places he is describing (why?) Is it the ladybugs stitching a human heart or vomiting wings? Or who is it and why does it affect his thinking of disappearing? Is he just describing a place he used to be, one that he left?

Is 'poem ore made of breath' a typo? Or is he talking about ore?
I thought he meant 'poems are made of breath'.

I got too lost being too literal. Now I can't even see the melody that AH sees.

I know you have moved on to another poem, and maybe it is best that for this one, I just disappear...

Anonymous said...

Ah, you tricky analogist. And does the surgeon best appreciate the beauty of the human being?

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, don't disappear! I'll probably have to retract this, but for now I'll say one should never apologize for wanting the literal to make some kind of sense--maybe surreal sense if the world of a story is surreal, but SOME kind of sense.

I too struggle with the lady bug. Its presence in winter seems a good omen regarding mortality, which seems the poem's central theme. But the stitching a heart and vomiting wings throw me. Do I need to know more about ladybugs to get this--on a literal level? If so, is that "fair"? But I AM comfortable with the general and vague idea of the first lady bug SOMEHOW making life, the other SOMEHOW spitting it out, which add more twists to, images of, the mortality theme.

Yes, the "ore" is a typo. I was working from a different copy, where that word is an italicized "are."

Banjo52 said...

AH, "a tricky analogist"? And I thought I'd been called everything.

As for the surgeon (which I'll take seriously b/c I often wonder about a medical person's perspective on us) . . . I think our beauty would depend on how he sees humanity in the first place. Are we Hamlet's "piece of work" . . . "how like an angel," etc.?

Or, are we one more slab of flesh hanging in a meat locker? If I'm on the surgeon's table, I hope he understands the unbeautiful hunk of meat to be sliced more than some hovering soul he thinks he can commune with.

TMI??? That was an honest way to call myself a hunk . . .

Brenda's Arizona said...

And of course, Banjoman, we all know the surgeon would be a woman. Gosh, it is so hard keeping you in check, haha!!

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