Jul 7, 2011

"Leda and the Swan": Closure, Cymbals and Dragonflies

The other day, I stumbled onto one of Yeats’ most famous poems, “Leda and the Swan," in which Zeus, disguised as a swan, swoops down and rapes the entirely human woman, Leda. From that union, Helen of Troy is born. 

Leda and the Swan- Poets.org - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More

Yeats’ ominous conclusion, masquerading as a question, made me think about endings in poems, including Robert Lowell's "Skunk Hour," discussed here July 1:

  a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail.
  She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
  of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
  and will not scare.

We’ve heard, at least from Princeton’s James Richardson, that a poem should end standing on one foot.  I think he means that poems’ endings should avoid a bass drum message and clang of truth-cymbals implying that the rest of the poem hasn’t been worth much, has mostly been a charade that was only meant to prep for the fat lady's song of Truth as the curtain falls.

Here again is Keats at the end of “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all   
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'
I tend to agree with James Richardson; poets should not moralize bombastically or condescendingly to their readers. But I excuse Keats here because:  he was Keats; he was young (25); he was writing under a different aesthetic (English Romanticism, around 1819); and I probably agree with his aphorism—Beauty (capitalized) probably is as close as we can come to Truth.

But as I tell myself I want poems to end with a touch of humility, obliqueness, standing on one foot, I think too other endings of poems.

Would I want these or “Leda and the Swan” muted, turned sideways, forced to wobble on one foot, pretending to be tentative about any Truth they offer?  
     Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
         Time held me green and dying
       Though I sang in my chains like the sea. 
(Dylan Thomas, “Fern Hill”)

In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.   
(Sylvia Plath, “Mirror”)

Or how about this chunk of magnificence from Richard Ford’s “Rock Springs,” a short story about a ne’er-do-well trying to set his ship aright, but for now, he's stranded in Wyoming:

What would you think a man was doing if you saw him in the middle of the night looking in the windows of cars in the parking lot of the Ramada Inn?  Would you think he was trying to get his head cleared?  Would you think he was trying to get ready for a day when trouble would come down on him? Would you think his girlfriend was leaving him?  Would you think he had a daughter?  Would you think he was anybody like you?
                                                                                                                (Rock Springs, 27)

These might not be great examples of ending on two feet; but if they are, maybe we shouldn’t be in such a hurry to ask for one-foot landings. The closures above present big music and state, or strongly imply, big Truths; if that renders the rest of the works insignificant by comparison, maybe we should ask for more from the beginnings and middles, rather than less from the endings.

My own jury on this, is, as usual, still out, enjoying fried chicken under a giant tulip tree. Besides, it's almost certainly a case by case matter. Does anyone out there feel strongly about this, one way or the other?



Anonymous said...

"And in the back there were kids' toys and some pillows and a cat box with a cat sitting in it, staring at me like I was the face of the moon."

That's how I remember the end of the story. I don't think it needed any more.

Brenda's Arizona said...

It is fun playing with Keats' words "Beauty is truth, truth beauty". Like in "Beauty is sunset, sunset beauty", etc. We play this game on road trips all the time.

Love your last thoughts - "maybe we should ask for more from the beginnings and middles, rather than less from the endings". Exactly why I love James Bond movies - I wait for that guy's voice to come on at the end and inform us that Bond will be back soon in a new movie titled 'whatever'. Those words make the whole rest of the movie viable.
Really. Only then I can re-watch the movie and care about the beginning and middle. Because if nothing else, the two footed ending happened...

Banjo52 said...

AH, I like that--that IS how cats can stare, but it suggests things beyond that as well. What's the source?

Brenda, That's some cool, brainy road-trippin! I swear, I do not remember that about Bond movies, and I've seen several. Is another one coming out soon?

Speaking of movies, in case I don't get a review posted, everyone ought to see Buck if it comes to your area (it was in an art theater here). It's about the real horse whisperer, which means it's also about teaching--and the connections among, management of, people in general. First rate.

Anonymous said...

One graf up from where Richard Ford actually ended it. It's a small quibble, but I thought he went on because he was worried that we wouldn't understand.

They're wonderful stories, though.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Banjo52 said...

I'm only a little surprised I missed it--haven't been back to the story in a few years and only remembered what I included in the post. It would be fun to have a competition between these two endings and/or additional candidates, but then everyone would have to access and read the whole story.

Normally, I'd be on your side here, and I can't actually disagree--Earl is the face of the moon to most people, maybe everyone. But Ford's last sentence/question continues to blow me away, even if it is a two-foot landing. Earl wants empathy, or just pity, so much that he might be asking that last question out of something like sincerity.

And of course, how different from Earl ARE the rest of us? I hope it's a lot, but sometimes I wonder.

Thanks, AH.

Birdman said...

Now, you've got me thinking. BTW, love Yeats too.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I'm not familiar with the story and multiple endings. We call this idea in the visual arts "open-ended" Allowing the audience to have a certain freedom in coming to their own conclusions. Sometimes this can go wrong.

Beauty may be truth to Yeats but I tend to think of it as seduction at the service of artiface. What we call a beautiful sunset today may have been part of a visual language for ancient people that had more to do with survival then leisure.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Did I tell you how much I love that first photograph of yours? the daisies tipping about in that inky stew has me swooning.

PJ said...

Ah, yes, endings. Not if there are do-overs and I think poetry implies there usually is the chance of one. I think that when we feel there isn't one then that's a Truth but how it illustrates Beauty, that's in the eye of the beholder. I'm always on a slippery slope when it comes to Absolutes, they always seem to be slipping out of view.

Banjo52 said...

Birdman, good. But thinking wants companionship, doncha think?

PA, super interesting on ancient people and beauty. In the contemporary world, I tend to get sappy about farm scenes—while driving by, seated, not laboring, in a temperature-controlled car.

I feel sure we can be conditioned into beauty (maybe I’ve said that here?), at least much of the time. Now maybe you raise the possibility that we can (or cannot) EVOLVE into aesthetic appreciation, take what was once a survival mechanism and develop it into a leisure activity. Huge idea. Surely it relates in some way to the old function vs. form business?

“Daisies tipping about in that inky stew” that would be a great image (and comment) no matter whose pic it referred to. So double thanks! I don’t know what the orange flowers are. Do you? I tried to look them up, but there were too many possibilities. Also, I kind of wish I’d made them a smaller portion of the photo, made the bulk of it the inky stew. Might do some cropping toward that. Opinion?

Paula, yes. I’m always surprised (maybe I should stop there?). I’m always surprised at people’s ire about the prospect of moral or cultural or other kinds of relativism. And so now, aesthetic relativism too? Well, of course! Old vs. New, East vs. West, Male vs. Female, and on and on. Of course, I too get harrumphy about things at times, but I try to hear myself doing it, do feel embarrassed, back off if I can, etc. It makes for quite a conversation within one head. Two or more heads become volcanic, I suppose . . .

Brenda's Arizona said...

PA, your comments are excellent and very provoking. Banjomyn, I see our local library has the Richard Ford book in the stacks... hopefully curiosity will be addressed.
And tonight's sunset? That story has yet to be written.

Banjo52 said...

Something tells me that's about to change. Go for it.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

When you think of our current form of female esthetic beauty... impossibly thin elongated women, flat chested, flat bottomed and devoid of pubic hair. Certainly a far cry from the Venus of Willendorf. But in context it's rather simple to trace. Gay men run the fashion industry and the "look" we've evolved(?) to accept is based on male adolescence. It's a form of artiface with little to do with evolution. Those women's fat levels are often so low that they don't have cycles, therefor no babies/therefor no species

Banjo52 said...

PA, fascinating! I've heard a little of that, but certainly not the whole thing.

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