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   


Lovers' Lane