Dec 22, 2011

"A Hole In The Floor," by Richard Wilbur. Dana Gioia and Randall Jarrell


A Hole In The Floor by Richard Wilbur

In case anyone has become interested in Richard Wilbur as a result of my last post, I’ll add some biographical info I’ve just stumbled onto. It’s written by Dana Gioia (JOY-uh), who, like Wilbur is a poet, teacher, translator, music scholar, and promoter of the arts.
Some specifics relevant to previous posts on Banjo52:
1. As a formalist poet, a graduate of Amherst and Harvard and teacher at Wesleyan, a translator of Moliere and composer of librettos, Wilbur might be thought an east coast elitist. In fact, his parents were of fairly modest (though somewhat intellectual) backgrounds.
2. During his college years, Wilbur spent two summers as a boxcar hobo.
3. Wilbur was in some major combat in World War II, partly because his leftist politics in college made him suspicious to superiors and got him transferred out of Army Intelligence into the infantry.
4. His work (and his own bias?) made him compatible with the New Criticism, which favors formalist, brainy poetry.
5. He had a long friendship with Robert Frost.

I remain partial to New Critical thinking about the limited role, if any, in reading authors’ lives into their writing. I don’t think any of Gioia’s information is essential to understanding or appreciating or critiquing Wilbur’s poetry; a writer’s life can be interesting in its own right, without our insisting upon reading it into the work. 
As for the poetry itself, here is a 1962 take on Wilbur by eminent critic and important minor poet, Randall Jarrell, who often writes more colorful generalizations than he has time to support or illustrate completely. In that way, and in sparking us toward thought, whether in agreement or enraged disagreement, Jarrell reminds me of William Logan, though Jarrell might be less vitriolic, at least on Wilbur:

“Petronius spoke of the 'studied felicity' of Horace’s poetry, and I can never read one of Richard Wilbur’s books without thinking of this phrase. His impersonal, exactly accomplished, faintly sententious skill produces poems that, ordinarily, compose themselves into a little too regular a beauty – there is no eminent beauty without a certain strangeness in the proportion; and yet 'A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra' is one of the most marvelously beautiful, one of the most nearly perfect poems any American has written, and poems like 'A Black November Turkey' and 'A Hole in the Floor' are the little differentiated, complete-in-themselves universes that (sic) true works of art. Wilbur’s lyric calling-to-life of the things of this world – the things, rather than the processes or people – specializes in both true and false happy endings, not by choice but by necessity; he obsessively sees, and shows, the bright underside of every dark thing.”

But you probably came here for a poem, not just commentary. So here again is “A Hole in the Floor."  Notice the way Wilbur begins with rhyme and half-rhyme, then loses it in the middle stanzas. (But be on the lookout for rhyme and other sound play that's internal, rather than coming only at ends of lines).

A Hole In The Floor by Richard Wilbur

I think that struggle to find rhyme implies and echoes the dangerous chaos and darkness Wilbur sees just below the level where we think we live. Yet the return to exact, rather conspicuous rhyme in the final stanza might well suggest the kind of happy ending Jarrell refers to.

Dec 19, 2011

Richard Wilbur's "The House": Elegy and Sensibility

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I think anyone working on an elegy for a deceased lover can stop now. Go watch TV; eat some potato chips. Richard Wilbur’s “The House” has been written. 

The House- - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More

Less extravagantly, I suggest again that fixed form adds elegance to a poem only if the poet has the ear, the intelligence, and the will to control it. In “The House” the very subject matter screams,  “Load me down with sentiment; weep, wail, keen, wallow in grief!” Instead, Wilbur gives us calm and dignity, along with the sense that the speaker genuinely knows the dead wife, her dreams, her longings, her sense of where peace is. He knows her mind and cares enough about her to offer some details; there’s no need for shouting.

A white house? A white gatepost? A rock-lined shore with pines? Won’t someone argue that wife or speaker or both are lovers in a postcard clich√©? For all I know, someone has already said that, but I hardly feel a hint of it. Or maybe I mean that Richard Wilbur walks right up to that line of sentimentality, excess and triteness, then spits in its eye. It’s as if someone’s dared him to over-write; he’s accepted the challenge and triumphed.

Wilbur honors his subject by quietly, thoroughly knowing it, by showing how intimately and completely he has understood the now absent bride. He achieves this by gracing her with his restraint in language and emotion, which are more powerful and more beautiful because they are restrained.

At the end of  “Fern Hill,” Dylan Thomas writes about time, mortality, and aging. He concludes, “I sang in my chains like the sea.”

At the end of Act II of King Lear, in a different kind of mourning, the aged, deeply flawed, and even more deeply betrayed king tries to grit his teeth:

                                                            You think I'll weep;
            No, I'll not weep:
            I have full cause of weeping; but this heart
                                                                    (Storm and Tempest.)
            Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws,
            Or ere I'll weep.   O, Fool!     I shall go mad!

In a way, that’s how I hear “The House,” though it’s even more subdued than Dylan Thomas or King Lear. This is a time in America when intimacy, for most, means sex—how many orgasms? how intense? on a scale of one to ten? how many inches? is less really more? what positions? how creative? after how many dates? Surely Playboy's advice column has vanished?—everything those editors might offer is now revealed in TV sit-coms and Comedy Channel stand-up performances, and it's all about math, measurement, and seismographs, not intimacy, that quaint old notion. Or vulnerability. Or loss. Or shared pleasure, shared secrets, good company, conversation or silence on a two-lane road or a boat.

Richard Wilbur—who has always written from a perspective of elegant restraint, high above such casino, whorehouse stuff—gives us this poem about love.  Probably he’s just sharing, grieving aloud, which is one of the purposes of poetry and song. Or maybe he thinks we need a reminder about other kinds of intimacy, kinds of grace, or even a definition of love, and all the ways of knowing another person. 

The House- - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More 

Dec 13, 2011

"End of Summer" by Stanley Kunitz

Although Stanley Kunitz’s poem is technically about the end of summer, it feels to me more like late autumn or early 
winter—maybe just because that’s where we are now. The poem is probably accessible enough without help or opining from me, but I do want to mention a few marvels I think it offers. 

First, I like the modest personification of “the disenchanted field.”  However, I’m wild about “a small worm lisped to me.”  It’s not merely a talking worm, but also a worm with a minor speech peculiarity. The comic resonance of the image grows when we remember that a worm might have phallic suggestions. This is the kind of wonder that can happen in summer, can become “The song of my marrow-bones.” 

But it’s no sooner said than summer images mysteriously begin to break up and suggest fall and coldness. A hawk that “broke” might have been an especially ominous predator, but a blazing silo roof definitely signals peril.

Finally, I find something special in one straightforward, simple, non-figurative, non-ironic, relentlessly honest statement:  “I knew/That part of my life was over.”  It has the kind of earned straightforwardness I hear in James Wright’s “I have wasted my life.”   

On a certain Tuesday or Thursday, there are things we suddenly know, whether they are epiphanies, with their undertones of religion and usefulness, or simply brute knowledge. These cannot be faked or softened by the adornment of metaphor and other tricks of language and technique. Only the quick, cold stab of a dagger will do. 

That in turn makes me wonder if Kunitz's last line is a bit of overkill. Opinions welcome. 

End of Summer by Stanley Kunitz : The Poetry Foundation

Dec 11, 2011

"Lines for Winter" by Mark Strand

Lines for Winter by Mark Strand : The Poetry Foundation

We talked a bit about Mark Strand's poem last January, but it deserves more than one look.

Also, almost a year later, "Lines for Winter" is reminding me of a question I try to put to myself every once in awhile, regarding honesty:  if I weren't going to tell anyone I did this, would I still be doing it?  Do I really want to go to the Bach concert, or do I want to be able to say I was there?

I'm pretty sure we're all guilty, maybe once per decade, of undeserved self-congratulation, self-promotion, self-aggrandizement. Maybe it's like tobacco, and we should cut back on it.

Isn't Strand's poem about that, at least a bit, maybe a little sideways?  In any case, I welcome comments on "Lines for Winter" or other, related ideas.

Last January, Barbaro wrote here in visitor comments:  "You and your poems keep trying to make me hate winter, but I won't do it. So desperately do I love it that I got mildly depressed today because I did notice afternoons clawing their way back, which means those beautiful dark white days near the solstice are behind us for a whole other year. For all its intensity of cold and snow and impatience, Februrary can't touch that sweet spot in late December."

As I walked yesterday and visualized it again today, I realize I failed to endorse that view with sufficient enthusiasm.  Hence these photos.

Dec 7, 2011

Mary Oliver, William Logan: Tenderness, Meanness, and How Much Is Enough

White-Eyes by Mary Oliver : Poetry Magazine

NEW CRITERION,  December 2008

Shock & Awe   


One of my problems with poet and critic William Logan—the Don Rickles or Simon Cowell of the poetry world—is that his wicked humor so often has a legitimate target, and I often, guiltily agree with him. Sometimes I feel as if he and I are the last two people on the planet who believe poetry is a pure, tight, sacred thing that examines objects, thoughts, feelings with the incisive care and intuition they deserve—often gentle curiosity, occasionally blunt force trauma.

But it’s usually with some shame and regret that I find myself in Logan’s camp because his words are often mean. I cannot believe that the poets he tries to marginalize or vaporize are so . . . professional? or aloof, detached, clinical?  . . . that they are immune to his mockery. He seems to want to hurt poets who offend him, and I struggle to find that okay, even as I grin at his jokes.

In speaking perceptively or provocatively, how acerbic is one allowed to be before the words turn back on their speaker and say more about her or him than the intended subject?

Here is William Logan on Mary Oliver’s 2008 book of poems Red Bird:
Mary Oliver is the poet laureate of the self-help biz and the human potential movement. She has stripped down the poetry in Red Bird until it is nothing but a naked set of values: that the human spirit is indomitable, that the animal spirit is indomitable, that she loves birds very much, that she loves flowers very much, that even her dog loves flowers very much.[1] . . .  If we trust the landscape of her poems, Oliver lives in a vast nature preserve she polices like a docent, strolling from bush to bush from beast to beast (I’m told the wildlife of Cape Cod have asked for a restraining order against her).
Let’s not deny it: that's funny stuff, that's awfully clever satire. And those who know poetry can see where Logan is coming from, whether or not they entirely approve of his content or his tone. But is he squashing an ant with an avalanche (or however that boulder-to-bug analogy goes)?

Logan concludes his review of Red Bird by tossing Sharon Olds, Ted Kooser, and Billy Collins into the Mary Oliver mold (onto the poet funeral pyre?), as he suggests that Oliver and, by implication, the others write the way they do for the money:   “The worship of simplicities is not a mean thing; but it is made mean when conducted with such hand wringing, such urgent tears, such Victorian sentiment. Those tears are shed all the way to the bank.”

I find it hard to believe that anyone would choose verse as an avenue toward riches, but I don’t have an insider's knowledge of how such business goes. Are those four writers and others really raking in millions from their verse and their readings? 

Even if they are, does it mean they write the way they do—call it populist verse—in order to get rich or stay rich?  Or do they write that way because that’s their mind and voice—the only mind and voice they have? That’s the way they see the world, and those are the words and sentences they use to talk about what they see. Even if some of us (occasionally? always?) find it inferior—shallow, simplistic—shall we take those putative wannabes downtown and lock them in the Poetryville stocks? And ditto their readers? Lock them up too, for aiding and abetting?

In any case, does it matter?  Those poets’ poems are there, on the market, and they offer additional ways to think about poetry. Quite possibly they are only enacting Wordsworth's dictum about the language of the common man. Moreover, they’ve brought tens of thousands of people to the reading of poems, which I like to think makes tens of thousands more observant, thoughtful, less aggressive humans. Maybe a handful will one day migrate to poems even William Logan can respect. 

In the meantime, I'll probably keep reading the man. But not at bedtime--my squirming would keep me awake.

White-Eyes by Mary Oliver : Poetry Magazine

NEW CRITERION,  December 2008
Shock & Awe   


Nov 26, 2011


At the risk of obsessing about John Crowe Ransom’s “Janet Waking” (11/20/11), I still wonder if I'm hearing the poem accurately. While I sense some compassion in the speaker, his dismissiveness overrides it, at least for me.  The poem seems to have gotten away from Ransom; I don't think he hears himself as well as he needs to.

Speaking of dismissiveness and other sins . . . many of you have been with family for Thanksgiving and thus subjected to a panorama of human flaws and grievous affronts, perhaps including dismissiveness.

So, in the context of your families and John Crowe Ransom’s “Janet Waking,” today I offer a classic poem, Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” in which the author is clearly not the speaker, and it’s hard to imagine a speaker who is better controlled by his author, his creator.

This might take a little more effort than the typical Banjo52 poem and commentary, but I hope you’ll take your time, explore slowly, and find it enjoyable, as you encounter one of the most intriguing situations and most interesting villains in the history of human interaction.

My Last Duchess
by Robert Browning in 1842


    That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
    Looking as if she were alive. I call
    That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands
    Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
    Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
    “Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read
    Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
    The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
    But to myself they turned (since none puts by
    The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
    And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
    How such a glance came there; so, not the first
    Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
    Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
    Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek; perhaps
    Fra Pandolf chanced to say, “Her mantle laps
    Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
    Must never hope to reproduce the faint
    Half-flush that dies along her throat.” Such stuff
    Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
    For calling up that spot of joy. She had
    A heart—how shall I say?— too soon made glad,
    Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
    She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
    Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
    The dropping of the daylight in the West,
    The bough of cherries some officious fool
    Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
    She rode with round the terrace—all and each
    Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
    Or blush, at least. She thanked men—good! but thanked
    Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
    My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
    With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
    This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
    In speech—which I have not—to make your will
    Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
    Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
    Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let
    Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
    Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse—
    E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
    Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
    Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
    Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
    Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
    As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
    The company below, then. I repeat,
    The Count your master’s known munificence
    Is ample warrant that no just pretense
    Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
    Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
    At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
    Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
    Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
    Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!
       *                              *                       *

            Was this guy at your Thanksgiving table?  Forgive me if I doubt it.  Few people are this interesting, and I suspect few of us do justice to the importance of being interesting as we size up people we know.

Browning’s speaker is probably Italy’s fifth Duke of Ferrara (1533–1598), and he has had his last wife (My Last Duchess) murdered:  “This grew. I gave commands./And all smiles stopped together.”

Why did he do this? Because she shared her happy disposition with everyone and everything, from servants to sunsets and white mules. Our duke saw her behavior as a kind of betrayal, or even a kind of promiscuity:

                                                                 . . . She had
                A heart—how shall I say?— too soon made glad,
                Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
                She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
                Sir, ’twas all one! My favour at her breast,
                The dropping of the daylight in the West,
                The bough of cherries some officious fool
            Broke in the orchard for her . . . .

 Now, how might such a speaker be charming? How might the poem cause us to withhold our moral judgment of the duke, at least for a moment, and even—horrors!—find him appealing? 

One answer is that he's intelligent, bold, decisive, shrewd, and menacing. He is simply too fascinating to be dismissed with simplistic moral judgment. He is Jesse James and Al Capone, but much brighter, much more articulate, cunning—and in some ways enviable. Somebody piss you off? Have ‘em killed. (Don’t dirty your hands by doing it yourself, of course; that’s for common rogues and peasants).

We all want to be the duke, but we’re townsfolk in an old western. So we want the next best thing:  to be on the duke’s team. It sounds like a much bigger adventure than the grocer's team, the plumber's team, the farmer's team. Our secret selves wish we could speak one of the greatest lines in all of literature, with the absolute confidence (and honesty!) of our duke: “I choose/Never to stoop.”  But we’re all talk; we suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune—and unpleasant dinner guests. We suffer fools gladly, while the duke simply has them killed.

We beg for work and call it dignity. We seek social standing and call it prestige, or even honor.  But this duke is dignity, is prestige. And as for honor, why, that’s just a serf’s notion of virtue and importance.

The only thing the duke fakes is a democratic oneness with his companion. Up on a grand stairway, looking at art, among which the last and dead duchess is one painting, one of several art objects, the count’s emissary has probably made some obligatory, empty gesture, like, “After You, My Lord,”—to which our duke replies:  “Nay, we’ll go/Together down, sir.” 

Can’t you see the duke smirking? When your favorite nasty athlete talks smack about his opponent, you don’t give a damn about your idol’s honor or morality. You can’t wait till Sunday when he buries his opponent’s face in the mud.  (Yes, Casper, once upon a time, football was played in mud). And you like it because you’re unable to do that to your own opponents.

Remember, the listener in the poem is an emissary from a count who is considering an offer of his daughter in marriage to our duke. Arrangements must be made, dowries negotiated, all things need to be understood, cards on the table. 
In this context, our duke wants his prospective father-in-law to know the score:  when folks don’t please him, he has them killed. To the poem’s listener, the duke is saying, “Be sure to tell your boss that my last wife was an air-headed cheerleader, apple-cheeked and well-liked, but in the end a happy bumpkin, not a woman who appreciated the nine-hundred-years-old name who was buttering her bread and therefore deserved and required all her attention. Tell your boss to tell his daughter what is meant by loyalty here in Ferrara.”

A common reading of the poem says that we are drawn to this, in spite of ourselves, in spite of all our moral abhorrence. Maybe it’s what we call swag these days. And cojones. Muchos cajones. The duke has put a new spin on honesty: “You want honesty? I’ll give you honesty.” I hear Nicolson in A Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth.”  But maybe the duke says it better: “I choose/Never to stoop.”

So I ask again, was there a Duke of Ferrara at your holiday table? Or was it a crowd of obedient clucking sheep, hissing about this and that offense by every so-and-so in their lives? You heard me, clucking sheep. They hiss.

In addition to what you like or hate about the poem, it might be fun to hear about the dukes and duchesses from your own experience (maybe with the roles reversed?).  

(For some basic historical info related to the poem, I suggest starting with good ol’ Wikipedia: )


Nov 20, 2011

Hopkins' "Spring and Fall" with Ransom's "Janet Waking": Children, Mortality, Wisdom

G.M. Hopkins’  deservedly famous autumn poem, “Spring and Fall to a Young Child,” raises a question for me:  how critically may an adult speak of the limitations in a child’s awareness of life’s largest issues and crises, especially mortality?  I’ve posted it before, but here it is again:

Spring and Fall by Gerard Manley Hopkins : The Poetry Foundation

 John Crowe Ransom’s “Janet Waking” takes that question to another, higher (or lower?), questionable level. Doesn’t it? 
Janet Waking by John Crowe Ransom

In what might be seen as an anti-Thanksgiving poem (I know, I know, it’s a chicken, not a turkey), Ransom seems engaged in a competition with himself:  whom shall I mock more, a bee-wounded, dead hen, or the little girl who named her Chucky and loved her?  To whom do I feel more superior, dead chicken or grieving child?

In the first six stanzas, I hear avuncular amusement from the speaker as he portrays little Janet in her distress. If there’s been any doubt about the presence of humor, surely “transmogrifying bee” decides the matter. And that’s soon followed by:

            purply did the knot
            Swell with the venom and communicate
            Its rigour! Now the poor comb stood up straight
            But Chucky did not.

Maybe the speaker doesn’t want us to think he is taking the whole scene too seriously, so he uses preposterous, pompous diction for humor and emotional distance. 

But I hear it as snotty. And if I weren’t sure, the ever so scholarly, condescending conclusion clinches it for me. Little Janet "would not be instructed in how deep/Was the forgetful kingdom of death."

I'll go this far with the speaker:  little Janet will probably grow up about death someday, become a little hardened,  philosophical, religious. But now? At her age? Minutes after she’s discovered her dead pet? In what way is it right or reasonable to mock her grief?  Can we like or respect a mature man who speaks this way about childhood trauma?

Yes, I might feel as he does toward a hysterical child, but aren’t there things you don’t say, even as one adult to another? How important is honesty?  In each and every situation? If he showed more empathy and respect for Janet, would we find him foolish? 

Moreover, if those last two, didactic lines are all he has to offer in the ways of Solomon, about death, just how wise is he? 

If we could feel that the author had invited us to criticize the speaker’s bombast, the ironic disparity between writer and speaker could be a major portion of the poem’s purpose:  look how insensitive and supercilious an adult can be in responding to a child’s hysteria. In that case, we'd sense a wise, compassionate author presenting a speaker who shows no effort at empathy, at remembering how limited his own understanding of death was when he was a child.

However, I don’t feel any of this from Ransom.  I don’t feel him critiquing the speaker’s condescension; I only hear a speaker looking down at the child, and he sounds cold and mean. 

Nov 17, 2011

"Love Song" by William Carlos Williams

Nov. 1, 2011

Amy Lowell, here’s another view of the color yellow, and it’s not entirely different from your take, posted here the other day.  There’s too much of yellow; it eats things.

Ladies, damsels, women, broads, chicklets, has your beloved recently called you a stain? An excess? A smear? A saffron spoiler of all the colors of the world?  If your rake and rambling man, your very own hunkadoobie did call you such things—accused you—did you dig it? Would this poem work for you?  On you?  
Nov. 16, 201

Wannabe poets, have you tried writing a three line poem interrupted by a 14-line parenthesis of emphasis, a bracket of great force, vigor, torque?  Did it work?

William Carlos Williams, how does one decided when a fairly ordinary word, like “heavily,” deserves to be its own line? 

Nov. 16, 2011

Nov. 16, 2011

Nov. 16, 2011

Nov 16, 2011

"In November" by Lisel Mueller

Willow, Mid-November

 Here is a quiet and positive poem, which suits the season.

In November by Lisel Mueller : The Poetry Foundation

Nov 13, 2011


"Autumn" remains my favorite of the dozen or so Amy Lowell poems I've read in the last few days, but here is another with merit: 

The Garden by Moonlight by Amy Lowell : The Poetry Foundation
I’ve also found some information about Amy Lowell. Most of it is at this website, along with a selection of her poems, including “Autumn,” which we discussed a little here November 9.

Isle of Lesbos: Poetry of Anna Seward

For those who don't read the article, I must mention two points of information I came across. First, Amy Lowell was such an admirer of Keats that she wrote a long, unfinished biography of him. So my placing the two writers side by side last post, based only their autumn poems, was a stroke of luck.

Secondly, Amy Lowell suffered from a glandular problem that caused her to grow more and more overweight as she aged (she died at 51). When she tried to learn more about Imagism from Ezra Pound, generally considered brilliant as a critic and insane as a human, he thought she was trying to preempt his exalted status as Lord of Imagism and attacked her verbally, including the epithet “hippo-poetess.”

For those who like to read biographical backgrounds into poems, Lowell’s lesbianism might be, or seem, a clarification of the puzzling  “They” and “You,” who have “taken . . . / All I once possessed” in the closing of “Autumn.”  As always, however, I resist reading biography into literature any more than is absolutely necessary, and I don’t think we are required to see this poem’s “They” as friends or relatives who betrayed her because of her sexual orientation (Of course, I’m betting such things did happen; they happen still, a hundred years later).

So the identity of the person(s) giving her the dahlia is relatively, or completely, unimportant. Nor do I think “They” or “You” must be an offending lover.  “You” could be, but it's the season of autumn that the poem is trying to see as the offender, a bright, bold flower whose vitality betrays, wounds and offends the “barren” speaker.  
The poem centers instead on the emotional effects of the flower in its unlikely, startling embodiment of the colorful fall season; the folks who brought it are secondary.  Granted, the undisclosed identity and motives of those people might amount to a tease, an elephant in the room; but if so, I suggest it's a problem in the design, completeness, and artistry of the poem, rather than a biographical puzzle that readers should spend time trying to solve.

Isle of Lesbos: Poetry of Anna Seward

The Garden by Moonlight by Amy Lowell : The Poetry Foundation

Nov 9, 2011

John Keats and Amy Lowell, Day Two: Yellow, Yellow, Yellow

To keep the comparison in mind, here again are both poems from yesterday:

To Autumn
by John Keats (1795-1821)

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,   
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless   
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,   
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;     
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells   
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees, 
Until they think warm days will never cease,    
For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells. 

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?   
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,   
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,   
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook    
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep   
Steady thy laden head across a brook;   
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,    
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.  

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?   
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,--
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,   
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn   
Among the river sallows, borne aloft    
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies; 
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;   
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft  
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,     
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.


by Amy Lowell (1874 – 1925)

They brought me a quilled, yellow dahlia, Opulent, flaunting.
Round gold
Flung out of a pale green stalk.
Round, ripe gold
Of maturity,
Meticulously frilled and flaming,
A fire-ball of proclamation:
Fecundity decked in staring yellow
For all the world to see.
They brought a quilled, yellow dahlia,
To me who am barren
Shall I send it to you,
You who have taken with you
All I once possessed?

So Amy Lowell’s “Autumn” is at the other end of the spectrum from Keats. I’ll begin by mentioning that I don’t know who Lowell's “They” might be, and I wonder briefly if the poem should make that clear. But by then, the scene has made me understand that the “round gold/ Flung out of a pale green stalk”--“frilled,” “flaming” and fecund--brings hurt and rage to a woman who sees herself as the empty opposite of female fertility and beauty. 

Surely we have all known autumn days, or entire seasons, that seemed offensive, an intrusion of golden glory,

when our day or season was grey, full of sterile, hollow routine, or was downright sad, as in actual grieving. And just as we were deciding we could cope with all that, some rosy-cheeked, Halloween-loving, cheerleader type comes along, sticks a pom-pom in our face, and demands we say rah-rah for the pretty leaves.

So, with Amy Lowell, we say to the amber season and to Them That Brought It Whoever They Are, take your yellow ball and go down the road. How dare you plop that thing on my table, you with your calm  guarantee of death just around the bend.

Can a season be an affront, feel like a personal insult, a mockery of who and what we are? There’s not a doubt in my mind.

I hear you, Amy Lowell. I still hear Keats, but for me there’s a new kid on the block. Her story isn’t gorgeous like young Keats’; after all, he was gorgeous about most things. In fact, Lowell presents The Boldly Anti-Gorgeous. It hates all that luxuriating, in love with itself and everything, converting earth to a sumptuous woman, the breeze in her hair, sitting in hippie contemplation over there on the granary floor. 

Lowell’s flinty argument is as plausible as Keats’ adoration, and I’m listening to both.  

Again, I hope visitors will talk about which poem, or which parts of poems, they like more, as opposed to what they admire more in terms of poetic achievement. The experiment is skewed by the different times and circumstances of the two poets. But we're not going for world peace here; we're just saying what we like and what we admire, recognizing that there might be a difference.  Sometimes I think of the incredible skill I see in some musicians, yet the actual music they produce can be, to me, little more than a frantic tangle of notes.


Lovers' Lane