Apr 29, 2012


I’ve postponed posting John Crowe Ransom’s “Blue Girls” because I assumed a lot of people would scream “Sexist!” and be done with it. And I’d get it. Add that to his being a father of The New Criticism and the dubious, perhaps supercilious attitude I hear in his “Janet Waking” and “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” and I wondered if another Ransom poem would be worth the bother. 

But I’ve always liked “Blue Girls,” as many teachers secretly might, given its first two stanzas about students. Of course, any teacher—or any adult over 40—can grump about heedless youth. 

Blue Girls

Twirling your blue skirts, traveling the sward
Under the towers of your seminary,
Go listen to your teachers old and contrary
Without believing a word.

Tie the white fillets then about your hair
And think no more of what will come to pass
Than bluebirds that go walking on the grass
And chattering on the air.

Practise your beauty, blue girls, before it fail;
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish
Beauty which all our powers shall never establish,
It is so frail.

For I could tell you a story which is true;
I know a lady with a terrible tongue,
Blear eyes fallen from blue,
All her perfections tarnished—yet it is not long
Since she was lovelier than any of you.

John Crowe Ransom  http://www.poemtree.com/poems/BlueGirls.htm

It’s in Stanza 3 where “Blue Girls” becomes especially interesting to me. Who else would have thought to speak of publishing young women’s unspeakable beauty, or publishing any great beauty? Is publishing what one does with or to beauty? Yet, why not?

Who would think to rhyme “publish” and “establish”?  (Granted, the abba rhyme scheme can take some credit for leading Ransom to that, but he allowed himself to be so led).  And who would think to mix that academic language with the soulful and visceral “I will cry with my loud lips . . .” to extol major but frail human, transient beauty?
I think Ransom's warning in the last stanza is powerful, but in Literature Land there are many powerful warnings about the pitfalls of aging along with the vanity and heedlessness of youth. It’s Ransom’s unexpected and meaningful combinations in the third stanza that are special here, and their plaintive earnestness prevents me from leaping hastily to unpleasant conclusions about the poem or the poet.

How about you? Is there something to forgive or merely overlook in Ransom? If so, do you? 

Apr 26, 2012

Here are some thoughts about Josephine Jacobsen’s “In a Motel in Troy, N.Y.”  without reference to Zeus as a swan raping the human Leda (and Yeats’ poem “Leda and the Swan”). Do you agree that the poem has plenty to offer without framing it in the Zeus-Leda story?
Also, I want to stay on the subject of poems that first and foremost examine things carefully and imaginatively, whatever else they might do.  Maybe this is just another take on the Imagist or Symbolist Movements, but let’s forget about labels and simply realize how important it is to notice what things a poem focuses on, as well as the way those things emerge through the filter of the poets’ minds, whether it’s Digges, Sexton, or Josephine Jacobsen.
In “A Motel in Troy, N.Y.” Jacobsen initially seems intent on accurate observation alone. The opening image of shadows on a cribbage game has some evocative or symbolic possibilities, but I hear it as primarily concerned with precision in setting the scene. “We are playing cribbage in a motel room, when a swan walks up to the window.”

There are minor grammatical issues that are a miniature of the poem’s overall movement.  In “waddles rocking” Jacobsen could have said “rockingly,” but that grammatical correctness and clarity would have been all wrong. “Waddles rocking” is a little off in the jarring way a swan’s gait is off—awkward, comic, and in a way, childlike.

That sentence is immediately followed by the poem’s closure, which is technically a sentence fragment. The verb phrase “Sets sail” has no subject. It could easily and naturally have been introduced by a comma instead of a period, and thus been added to the previous sentence with no grammatical puzzle. Jacobsen’s choice, however, leaner and more efficient, thus adding a bit of action to a quiet scene.

Notice too that the final stanza opens in the passive voice. That’s not an issue of grammar, but style; as such, might have upset Strunk and White. Yet there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s the right choice. The central thing in the scene, the experience, is shifting from the swan to the larger landscape and its “shadowy girl.”  The swan has been the focus of our attention; that’s changing as the distance and the girl do the acting, pulling the swan into themselves.

This is not a scientific, logical, measurable event; it’s dreamy, irrational, impressionistic, and fits nicely into the softer passive voice. Distance and the shadowy girl are too far away and too amorphous to be clear, defined doers of an action. Also, the transfer of power to them, from the swan, is too gradual to be captured by a strong action verb, with all its vulgar, jagged suddenness.  The swan, girl, and distance blend; it’s not a zigzag or slashing motion. Action verbs can jerk, while this is delicate stuff, a merge without a clear tipping point. In fact, the absence of a tipping point is the point. It is too lovely and mysterious, too spiritual perhaps, to follow rules of rhetoric created by humans (like rules for cribbage?), though the experience is all about the human perception process.
The poem began with shadows falling on a human game, cribbage, which includes a wooden board with holes to receive small sticks for keeping score. Doesn’t that predict the process of the whole poem? A small, mathematical, rational human activity—a game—occurs on something like a platform behind the motel’s floor-to-ceiling glass. The motel room is a kind of theater, staging an entirely human event, full of measured choices and movements. The shadow that falls on that game is very different:  amorphous, fuzzy, soft, dreamy, lazy, irrational, beyond human control. The shadow is also a darkness, or dusk, compared to the spotlight created by the huge window.

In short, the poem’s opening sentence, which seems merely correct and careful in setting the scene, is a miniature of the entire poem.  The swan, traditionally considered graceful and beautiful, is “huge.”  Maybe we take some comfort in its “cumulus-cloud body,” but we’re no sooner comforted than we discover the bird’s “thunder-cloud dirty neck.” Its eyes are “inky.” They are set in a “painted face/coral and black”—a noir carnival face for scaring children? Or a garish Hamburg whore? Those are the eyes that “stare at our lives,” and they sit atop a neck that’s satanically strong and snake-like. 

For now, the only detail that might have a positive connotation is the “coral” bill, and even with coral it’s only the color that might please, for it will also cut you. The swan is mostly menace, maybe nightmare.

It also reveals some moderately comic features—“yellow webs//splayed” and the aforementioned waddle—that might soften its scariness. But add to that what is perhaps the poem’s most remarkable image of all:  “the heavy/feathered dazzle.”  The swan might be scary, but it’s also dazzling. It’s important for us to be willing to say it’s all of these, another mix and mingle:  scary, funny, dazzling. It’s too remarkable to be confined to one effect. All the humans can do is stare.  

Soon the bird retreats, first in comic awkwardness, but quickly morphing into the romantic vision we’d always attributed to it, a creature associated with the far “tip/ of the blue pond,” and a bird that “Sets sail/in one pure motion.” The swan is to be received by two characters—not the distance of scientific, prosaic perspective, but simply “distance,” which is awfully close to personification. The female is not a woman, but a “shadowy girl,” who, like distance, has entered the poem as if by magic, as if inhabiting some fantastic realm “across the water.”

So much for cribbage and other measurable, measuring concerns. In some aesthetically sterile motel room, a human speaker is transported from rationality to romance by an animal that is all at once nightmare, comedy, and spirit-beauty.  With the speaker, we arrive for a moment in some unlikely fairyland by unhurriedly, open-mindedly observing a familiar creature as it becomes a shape-shifter. It lives somewhere beyond grammar, calculation, and everyday, working class, and maybe forgettable Troy, New York.



Apr 25, 2012

Josephine Jacobsen, "In a Motel in Troy, N.Y.": New Poem, Old Issues

IN A MOTEL IN TROY, N.Y. by Josephine Jacobsen

Following yesterday’s prelude, here is Josephine Jacobsen’s fine poem, “In a Motel in Troy, N.Y.” from Poetry Magazine (November 1980). 

After two or three readings, I wrote a rough draft about the poem, only to end up wondering why Josephine Jacobsen picked a minor and industrial (shirt collars and iron) but not unknown city as the setting for her poem.  Fortunately, it hit me before I went public sounding like a donkey in the slow class:  “Oh, hell, yes, that Troy. But why?” Wikipedia offers some tidbits and information. "In the post-Revolutionary War years, as central New York was first settled, there was a strong trend to classical names, and Troy's naming fits the same pattern as the New York cities of Syracuse, Rome, Utica, Ithaca."   Like so many smaller industrial cities in the U.S., the population of Troy, NY has fallen from about 77,000 in 1910 to about 50,000 in 2010, though it's still home to prestigious R.P.I and the Emma Willard School for Girls. Troy's motto is "Ilium fuit," or "Ilium was, Troy is." (Ilium was the ancient Greek name for Troy). Clearly, the American Trojans have a sense of connection to ancient Greece.

So once I was in on the riddle, I also thought, “Troy, swan—spooky, menacing, yet comical big bird as uninvited guest to a cribbage game in which all the all the players in ‘our group’ might be women, traveling, away from home, maybe tired and worn like Athenians in Troy, a site they don't recall in loving terms. Oh, my, but I’m a donkey with his pants down. Or almost was.” (I don't usually have short conversations with myself).

But maybe I’m a good and lucky DonkeyBeastOfBurden:  the episode as a whole illustrates a variation on my watered-down New Criticism, in which the text is everything, not the author’s life or intention—and only as absolutely necessary the author’s time in history or region in the world. The increasingly popular notion that literature is there primarily to illustrate historical and political issues and attitudes . . . is very troubling to someone like me, who compares poems to timeless gems and bullets and birds, objects of beauty and power that last centuries beyond any political or historical epoch.

A poem consists of what its words convey, with minimal or no outside interference. If we need more than an occasional look at the dictionary for a meaningful and legitimate mental and emotional response to a poem, then somebody messed up—the reader or the poet. You’ve heard that before here. If you’ve studied a bit of literary theory, you know I’m just the messenger, though my superiors at The New Criticism Discount Mall are, like me, out of favor at the moment. 

I’m sorry if this sounds like a rationalizing and lame defense of my first reading:  adding the story of the Zeus and Leda might expand the poem’s range and significance, but what matters, the poem’s core, is there with or without the GoofyZeusGooseGeist.  (oh my). What I say in the commentary that follows in a day or two remains a plausible reading, whether the swan is a Greek god or Farmer Brown’s supper, waddling away, on the loose, at some edge of Troy, New York.

I’ll let that do it for today and post my sure-to-be-famous, un-Zeusian discussion in a day or two. 

*                                    *                                    *

Apr 24, 2012

Yeats' "Leda and the Swan" as Prologue

In the context of writing about endings of poems, I said a bit about Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan” back on July 11, 2011. You don't need to re-read it, but in case you're interested:

I’m revisiting that famous poem today for different reasons, which should become clear in the next post, a day or two from now. At that time, I’ll be looking again at poems that observe things and people, probably in more detail and with more imagination than the average citizen does.

For the moment, here again is “Leda and the Swan” in which Zeus, disguised as a swan, swoops down and rapes the human woman, Leda. From that union are born Helen of Troy, the ten-year Trojan War to fetch her her, and then Odysseus’ torturous ten-year journey back from that long victory. That Greek god made one helluva bird.

Leda and the Swan by William Butler Yeats : The Poetry Foundation

Surely you now find yourself on the edge of your seat as you await the next post.

Apr 17, 2012

Anne Sexton and Deborah Digges See Things

Cardinal Singing

Song Sparrow Singing
    Humans have been asking forever just what imagination is, what it brings to the table, perhaps compared to the measurements of logic, math, and science. Why must we be bothered with that intuitive, irrational glove box in our Great Jeep of Life, which is our brain—the Jeep with a glove box that spills forgotten items all over the vehicle as we try to move through a day of tasks with as little rejection, defeat, and nightmare as possible.

    But we also know, or sense, the bright side of imagination: it’s not just escape or insanity, but also the tool or vehicle for seeing things anew, for making us think that for the first time we understand something, or at least some important aspect of it.   
Cardinal Pretty Sure of Himself
                                                              If we can consider birds things, we’ve just seen how the imagination of Deborah Digges has transformed them. As if finches weren’t already charming enough, she connects them to paradise and Darwin’s sailors. Here again is “Darwin’s Finches” (this time with a single click!):

    In a very different vein, here for comparison is Anne Sexton as she transforms the ordinary items in one room of a life. 

Yves Tanguy, Shadow Country (D.I.A.)
Is it just me, or is there a comical undertone in Sexton’s exaggerations in the first half or more of the poem? Even when we consider her tragic end, musn’t we hear her winking as well as worrying when she gives us a brother of wood, typewriter keys that are non-stop eyeballs, a Naugahyde dog coffin, a desk that might eat a puppy biscuit? And to me, a rug that’s a conversation of heels and toes feels downright homey. Maybe Sexton has hit on the possibility of Gothic Comedy.

In the end of course, the poem resolves itself on an ominous note. Or is that thunder? And maybe that drama is louder because she’s lulled us—yes, tricked us—with playful, yet not entirely light, stuff leading up to this.
Eastern Bluebird

Whatever lightness or darkness one feels in Sexton’s building individual images, surely we can agree that each reveals imagination at work. Whether comic or grave, our perception of typewriter keys and gold rugs and such has been changed forever—and I’d say enlarged. The next time the details of our own rooms turn scary, we can take some comfort in knowing we’re not the only ones living in a state where “nothing is just what it seems to be.” 

By the way, we mustn’t jump to conclusions about the final outcomes for Digges or Sexton. Digges’ finches of love and paradise don’t predict her death any more than Sexton’s humor foresees hers. Instead of focusing on those poets’ darkness, I hope everyone will set out on the next stroll determined to see familiar details in new, surprising ways. If it happens, I’m all ears. If it doesn’t, take another walk. “Fail better.” (Samuel Beckett)


Apr 11, 2012

Deborah Digges, "Vesper Sparrows" and "Darwin's Finches"

Song Sparrow

 If you’re a regular here, you might remember that I was quite positive about Deborah Digges’ “Vesper Sparrows” on March 7.  Here are the first five lines again:
            I love to watch them sheathe themselves mid-air,
            shut wings and ride the light’s poor spine
         to earth, to touch down in gutters, in the rainbowed   
            urine of suicides, just outside Bellevue’s walls.
From in there the ransacked cadavers are carried . . .
How many poets of any era would have the ear and the judgment to decide that three lines of unqualified prettiness are enough. Maybe Digges was thinking, "Let’s switch to a different key—oh, I don’t know.  Maybe . . . some. . .  'rainbowed/urine of suicides.'” Add in some cadavers from Bellevue, while we're at it.

Will anyone out there claim to have thought of birds sheathing themselves in mid-air, after which their wings are “shut” as they ride “the light’s poor spine//to earth”?  Liar! That combination of accuracy and imagination is stunning. More than once in guides to brids, I've read about the "undulating" flight of finches. So how could I have missed the sheathing of wings in the flight of finches and other small birds at dusk? How could I have failed to see that those wings are then, briefly, shut, like the doors of a car? Ms. Digges, you are more observant, more metaphorical, more incisive than I am. I envy it and admire it.

Not much literature of any genre is this rich and dense, sudden and dramatic, yet there's nothing cheap, undeserved, or melodramatic in Digges' shifts of subject, mood and tone. In those five lines, she demonstrates why free verse at its best owes no apology to fixed forms of rhyme and meter. Here once again is the whole poem:  Vesper Sparrows by Deborah Digges : The Poetry Foundation

Gold Finch after Evening Bath
Today I offer another Deborah Digges poem, “Darwin’s Finches,” which I find lovely, yet not quite the achievement of “Vesper Sparrows.” To attempt to support my point, here is Section 1, which I’ve laid out as prose. Why? To suggest that it might be as close to prose as it is to poetry, which is the risk free verse always takes. Does it need to be poetry? Does it deserve to be poetry?

Well, “Darwin’s Finches” probably does, hence its usefulness as an example. This makes for pretty rich prose, but it still raises the question, does it need or deserve to be broken into lines of poetry?  Look at how natural it sounds and feels without line breaks:

Darwin's Finches by Deborah Digges

My mother always called it a nest, the multi-colored mass harvested from her six daughters' brushes, and handed it to one of us after she had shaped it, as we sat in front of the fire drying our hair. She said some birds steal anything, a strand of spider's web, or horse's mane, the residue of sheep's wool in the grasses near a fold where every summer of her girlhood hundreds nested. Since then I've seen it for myself, their genius— how they transform the useless. I've seen plastics stripped and whittled into a brilliant straw, and newspapers—the dates, the years— supporting the underweavings.

House Finch

[For some reason, Blogspot has dictated that I keep on italicizing. What Blogspot wants . . .  Anyway, from here on, it's just me, not Digges, and in a just world it would be plain text. You may go to the following site for the whole poem. I'm sorry I couldn't find it in the form of a single click; please copy and paste this address--it's worth it]: 


Simply by shifting and expanding the subject into a Section 2, Digges builds some energy and interest. Then the shifts within it further deserve the label of poetry—good poetry at that. The subject of mortality and an afterlife have rarely been conveyed with more  surprise--and an appropriate delicacy.
Did You Know the Cardinal Is Also a Finch?
But it took all of Section 1 to get this. Or did it?  How much of Section 1 is essential if we’re to arrive at Section 2, both nourished by that first body of information, and surprised, in a good way, at the switch to a love poem and a tenderly complex meditation on mortality?

      I like and admire both poems, and I don't mean to make everything a competition. However, "Vesper Sparrows" comes out sprinting, charging, and challenging from Line 1 onward, while "Darwin's Finches" takes its time. It might be more elegant and gracious, befitting its themes, but "Vesper Sparrows" astonishes me somewhat gently in Lines 1-3, then turns my head into a punching bag in Line 4 and never lets up. Call me a masochist, but I like that. I'd rather not wait for a poem to find its energy; that's part of my harping about a gift in every line. However, it would be nice to have make such distinctions about kinds of excellence and power in every pair of poems I come across. 


Apr 4, 2012

Kid with a Bike: Movie Review

(Le Gamin au vélo, French subtitles)
Samantha  -   Cecile De France
Cyril – Thomas Doret

Kid with a Bike is a Belgian film, though I’m not sure how important that is—Cyril, the kid in the title, is 12-ish and might live anywhere. He's obsessive about his bike because it’s what’s left after his father has abandoned him in a state-run orphanage. The bike is also a vehicle into which he can pedal the energy of his rage and grief.

See this film. Despite its flaws, it’s moving and interesting. There is gravitas without an oppressive load of dark message (though I wasn’t sure I’d feel that way after the first fifteen minutes—don’t leave early).

Fatherless homes have become such a common situation in the U.S. that some might question just how much a paternal presence matters these days. Kid with a Bike offers one answer, although that’s skewed by the unexplained fact that Cyril's mother is absent as well. This mystery is a weakness in the film, and it could have been prevented in a sentence or two of dialogue.
Cyril’s father is a handsome, fit-looking, blonde, defeated nebbish. Full of self-pity, he's an easy target for our judgment. But he’s also genuinely down on his luck and may not be entirely wrong in deciding he’s unable to care for Cyril. But of course we want him to want to care for Cyril, and the scenes between them are wrenching. Yet there’s some restraint there too; a lesser movie might have given us a one-dimensional, abusive ogre of a father, a man even easier to hate.

Cyril’s addictive need for such a flawed father is instructive. He probably feels the kind of rejection that adults do after a serious but failed romance with a flawed partner, and the boy's desperation becomes an impressive fury. In the movie’s first half-hour or so, Cyril is pretty much a wild animal; later he’ll be nicknamed Pitbull, and that feature of his characterization is as at least spellbinding and worrisome as anything else in his psyche.

Kid with a Bike is a fine effort at fleshing out with real humans all those statistics about fatherless homes, juvenile delinquency, gang violence, and the like. Bottom Line: Cyril is a statistic and a real live boy. In the U.S. we’re likely to think of gangs as ethnic groups—black, Hispanic, or neo-Nazi.  So it’s informative to be reminded that Cyril is a Caucasian kid who might falls prey to moral drift and criminality in an unnamed Belgian city.
But the boy is only 12, and the movie isn’t over yet. Don’t worry—these writers, directors, and actors won’t lapse into Hollywoodism; they won’t give the enraged orphan a puppy and a sunset to ride into. Nor will it be a completely noir experience. In the end we’re not sure what to predict about Cyril’s future, except that it’s likely to be multidimensional, as most of human experience is.  Kid with a Bike takes place in green summer, and we get some bright splotches of color; Cyril often wears red shirts. In spite of the psychological drama, the characters and settings seem almost average—that is to say, realistic and universal.  

A crucial exception might occur in the person of Samantha, the movie’s second major character. She’s a hairdresser who lives in a tiny apartment attached to her shop, and she becomes Cyril’s weekend guardian. We badly need to know what it is that motivates her remarkable generosity. As is, we pretty much have to accept her as a saint, along with the proposition that goodness and self-sacrifice will forever be mysteries, or perhaps inherent human characteristics that need no explanation.

As Hemingway wrote, “Isn’t it pretty to think so.” For some of us, such saints rode away on Santa Claus’s last sled. If the notion of wondrous generosity in certain humans is the argument, we still need hints about where it comes from, and I saw none of that. I can guess—a child that Samantha lost, or the child she somehow never had, or a series of unhappy love affairs. But that all remains vague and thus distracting.

From the early vision of Samantha’s bra straps, having snuck out of her sleeveless top (or were they arranged that way?), her feminine, but nicely chiseled shoulders made me wonder if a martial arts scene was on its way. It wasn’t—well, not exactly. Samantha does need to be physically fit in a couple of scenes.

But I was left to ponder the possibility of a Hollywood-esque decision to play up her beauty in a superficially sexual way—Samantha, the Saint Who Was Hot. One could argue that that actually works; her natural, understated physical beauty creates a concrete manifestation of her inner, spiritual beauty. Self-sacrificing generosity must be gorgeous. But look how hard I have to work at getting to that—never confident that that's what's there. We should be pulled into the movie’s world and its people, without such distracting, nagging doubts.

There are two other, minor problems in the film. First, a brief musical interlude—the Adagio from Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto—occurs maybe three or four times, and it struck me as self-conscious, intrusive, and irrelevant, albeit gorgeous. 
Secondly, there’s the head-jerking closure, and for those who don’t like it, “minor problem” might sound like an inadequate label. But I think “minor” is accurate—if the ending is a problem at all. I’m not sure it was right, but I’m even less sure it was wrong. It conveys an emotional flatness and sense of query—no harps or choirs of moral conclusion and no endless midnight with demons on every street corner. 

That might make it the perfect ending. Maybe life is a bag of charcoal; maybe life is filled with kids who turn down one street and not another—at least for the moment.

Lovers' Lane