Dec 24, 2013

Billy Collins' "Snow Day" and the Gift of Gab

Sandhill Cranes
It seems everyone wants me to like Billy Collins’ poetry, and for the most part, I do. I especially like what he and the other makers of “the poetry of accessibility” have done for the popularity of poetry. They’ve created a likable product; they’ve even made it sell.

However, when I’m asked if I like Collins, Sharon Olds, Tony Hoagland, and others, I find myself feeling guarded. I think that has much to do with long-ish narratives and the premium they place on humor and charm.

Many “accessible” poems take a long time to deliver their punch, if there’s any sock-'em at all to go with the charm. I’m likely to find more reward, more left hook, more dirt and scabs and tobacco-spit, in addition to more lily-like beauty, in a single line of Hopkins, Dickinson, Yeats, Frost, Bishop, and others.

Why should I not ask poets to try for that power-per-line or at least power-per-stanza? I suppose one answer is that charming, winking, “accessible,” inoffensive poems sell better. So poems are Barbie Dolls? Buicks? Surely that’s a poisonous argument to anyone who cares about the art of poetry. 

Here’s a season-appropriate Billy Collins poem that I don’t dislike—mostly because of the originality and keen perception of the dog that will “porpoise through the drifts.”  Also the radio’s being specifically “plastic” somehow plants me nicely in the poem’s suburban world, although farms and cities probably have plastic radios too.

But I’d drop the first two stanzas entirely, along with some of the ten cute names for elementary schools. If ten is an OK number, why not seventeen?

I’d rather hear more about the meanness of the girls. Should it prepare me for grown women? Should it worry me, especially when evolutionists say the female does the selecting of a mate? 

And by the way, if all the schools are closed, which three girls are plotting? And where? Where is the speaker now, that he might move close enough to hear their words?
And how much does any of that have to do with a snow day? 

Many of Billy Collins’ poems are richer, more urgent than “Snow Day.” If you wish, consider his poem "Silence":

I’ve picked "Snow Day" instead because it might illustrate why some poetry hardliners and old-timers are leery of populist poetry and the apparent argument that poetry might amount to little more than the gift of gab. I hope we all want poetry to sell and poets to prosper, but I also hope we prefer gems to synthetics, poems to fortune cookies. 

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Snow Day by Billy Collins : The Poetry Foundation

Dec 16, 2013

Nov 27, 2013

An e.e. cummings Thanksgiving for Pantheists, Pagans, Generic Mystics, Animists, Deists, Theists, Agnostics, Atheists, and Doubting Methodists

A friend's request to see my photos of the new-to-me golden-crowned kinglet made me think of e.e. cummings’ Poem 53 and hear it as a thanks-giving as well as its more obvious prayer of beseeching and urging oneself. The world is rich and not entirely logical; let me perceive and love it for those reasons, contradictory as they may seem. Poem 53 might be too sentimental for some, but how does one dispute its argument? 

(In my cummings book, Line 7 begins “and even,” not “for even”—I suspect Garrison Keillor’s secretary was typing on Sunday):    

Also consider Poem 53 as a reply to Janet Loxley Lewis’ “Austerity” in my last post. Would she and e.e. cummings have hated each other? Are they actually disagreeing in these two poems?  How bitterly? Which side of the argument are you partial to—cummings’ “little birds” or Loxley Lewis’ “monotony” of stars?

And now that I've caused myself to think in pairs, then, how can I re-post the golden-crowned kinglet without his cousin (I assume), the ruby-crowned kinglet? Do you have a favorite? Do you love one child more than the other? 

You see, this is how football begins: you feel a kinship with a team's location or uniform and soon enough you're a tribalist, betting on Roman gladiators who rumble in the dirt, making themselves metaphors for war. And yet, I'm a fan, sort of. 

It must be Sunday: I'm not making sense; surely I'm wrong. And therefore blessed.

Happy eating-drinking-observing-thinking! 

There wasn’t a lot of commentary when I posted Poem 53 in May of 2010. Maybe it will be different this time.

Nov 23, 2013

Janet Loxley Lewis, "Austerity"

by Janet Loxley Lewis

 From "Cold Hills" 
I have lived so long
On the cold hills alone ...
I loved the rock
And the lean pine trees,
Hated the life in the turfy meadow, 
Hated the heavy, sensuous bees.
I have lived so long
Under the high monotony of starry skies,
I am so cased about
With the clean wind and the cold nights, 
People will not let me in
To their warm gardens
Full of bees. 

Thanks to The Academy of American Poets' poem-a-day at their website,, for introducing me to this spare, hard gem by
a poet I didn't know
at all. 

I think Janet Loxley Lewis' "Austerity" illustrates the old, valid concept that unpleasant messages can still be gifts because of the beauty and impact in their presentation. Who knew that "turfy meadow" could sound almost like profanity? Or the puffy, losing church-league softball team? Who thinks
of bees as "heavy," 
yet they surely can resemble lumbering blimps, or
pornographic invaders, 
once a good witness points out that they are
"sensuous." And the romantic old "starry skies"
are now demoted to "high monotony." Whether or
not I see the night sky that way, I have to admit
that it's an understandable, plausible perspective. 

A professor at Stanford and Berkeley, Janet Loxley Lewis (1899-1998) was also the wife of famed literary scholar Yvor Winters.
I wonder if that's why she's not better known in her own right.

by Janet Loxley Lewis

 From "Cold Hills" 
I have lived so long
On the cold hills alone ...
I loved the rock
And the lean pine trees,
Hated the life in the turfy meadow, 
Hated the heavy, sensuous bees.
I have lived so long
Under the high monotony of starry skies,
I am so cased about
With the clean wind and the cold nights, 
People will not let me in
To their warm gardens
Full of bees. 


Today's poem is in the public domain. 

Nov 1, 2013

Jane Hirshfield, Beings in the Holes

Golden Crowned Kinglet, a new life bird for me
 Do you remember Theodore Roethke’s villanelle, and hymn, “The Waking” in which he offers, “I hear my being dance from ear to ear”?  Jane Hirshfield’s “Like the Small Hole by the Path-Side Something Lives,” finds something similar, a somewhere within us, other than our conscious awareness, where there are small holes housing unknown critters. They live and die and  go extinct, but we can know they do live and have lived within us.

I wonder if someone will accuse the poem of being Buddhism 101, but I don’t care; I  find its imagery and its mind’s work very appealing. Click here:

Like the Small Hole by the Path-Side Something Lives in by Jane Hirshfield : Poetry Magazine

I like the quirky, homey, perhaps awkward phrasing of the important first and last lines, where I hear a lack of pretension, a kind of honesty, something like an inelegant elegance. Maybe Hirshfield had to work hard for that phrasing, but she’s made it convincing as a humble, likable, trustworthy statement.

Even the music in this realm is heard by something other than ears. Music as we know can be pretty good, but it would be too tangible, too logical and conventional for Hirshfield's realm. The music that matters is going down some stairs, to a place beyond understanding, maybe even beyond hearing—beyond science and knowing. Yet it’s music, and it’s there.
Kinglet, bowing, reveals his golden crown

The self is a “low field” with apples. If you’re not a politician or CEO, full of greedy ambition, that might be a pleasant and reasonable view of yourself. You’d rather be a quiet field than a king, or a gun, or other kinds of machines that are “like loud ideas with tungsten bits that grind the day.”

I routinely get carried away with this or that idea, but how can anyone not love Hirshfield’s comparison of nasty ideas to cold, hard machines—metallic systems that make noise and break things up? Much better to be a field with apples.

But Hirshfield does not abandon or deny what we might call realism or rationality, if those are the words to describe ways of being that include matter and reason, but are not limited to them.

Nor are Hirshfield’s ways and perceptions a pie-in-the-sky, teddy-bear wonderfulness in our souls.  And they feel less bombastic, but no less important, than Wordsworth’s “one soul within us and abroad.”

No, Hirshfield includes predation and extinction, and her landscape is a “low field,” not a snow-capped mountain or a sunset ocean. Her field’s apples are “small and blemished.” Hirshfield is not sloppily sentimental about whatever’s out there, down there, around there, inside all those holes.

If you were a small, blemished apple in a low field, however, you’d see that “a few escape” predation and other bad outcomes. That’s what passes for “a mercy.” It’s a qualified, limited, realistic mercy; therefore, we might dare to hope for it.  

Are Hirshfield’s “self-map,” “self-clock,” and “self-scale” merely new, and New Age, takes on the familiar notion of a mysterious essence beyond physical forms? I don’t think so, but even if they are, the fact remains that she’s making us re-examine all that mystery, giving us new peeks at The Something, the whole possibility that there’s more to us, and everything, than we can understand or explain.

We can’t know if this approach is more valid than the old, hackneyed ways of labeling the streets that run within us, for we are only small holes by the roadside, small animals and blemished apples in a field. But why isn’t that enough?

Like the Small Hole by the Path-Side Something Lives in by Jane Hirshfield : Poetry Magazine

We also talked about such matters here in January 2011:

Oct 24, 2013

Brian Teare's "Separation is the necessary condition for light": New Light on Old Fathers

In Brian Teare’s “Separation is the necessary condition for light,” the central idea and almost all the imagery and phrasing strike me as precise, original, and strong. I like them a lot. The dead father’s empty mattress and hat, the "generic" fathers fathers grouped like unnamed, undifferentiated trees (what an exceptional word “generic” is in this context), the sunset lighting them up and making them "blonde"  (why have I never thought of autumn trees as blonde? Shame on me), and the fatherless adult child as a drifting sail . . .  all of that seems precisely right. (As a temporary survivor, I don’t see myself as a sailboat-survivor gliding over treetops, but it’s a flattering image that makes a lyrical kind of sense).

I’m not sure what I think and feel about Teare's allergy to commas and other punctuation. Also, I wonder what he’s seeing that I’m missing in the alternating left and right stanzas. However, I’m open to the argument that the lack of punctuation and the staggered placement of stanzas suggest the motions of leaves in wind as well as sails gliding dreamily along, where any pause looks and feels nothing like a punctuation mark. Maybe that’s a stretch, but I can live with it.

I struggle harder with "roots / that rise to stem that rise.”  At first I heard it as the trees having flipped, their tops becoming their roots, which I was hearing as an image of death. But that doesn't help me understand the fact that the roots rise in order to "stem"—as in, prevent—another rise, maybe adult children rising toward death.
Or maybe upright trees have risen above the ground—a kind of levitation. Is that an image of immortality? When those roots "stem [squelch] that rise," are they holding the survivors in the ground as they try to rise into the air, as immortal spirits traditionally do?

In "stem," I appreciate the word play on aspects of trees and other plants. Again, we can have “stem” as squelch, as “stem the tide,” or we might hear a newer, fresher sense of “stem” as a verb—the leaves or trees are not only leaving, but also growing new stems, or “stemming.” That makes a better fit for what follows, where the autumn trees are apparently dropping leaves: “rise // to leaf his door and cornices.” To “leaf” is an exquisite image of fallen autumn foliage piling up, but I’d like to know how it develops from the two lines that precede it.

In all, however, the new and lovely features in Brian Teare’s poem more than compensate for the single speed bump caused by “rise” and “rise” and “stem.” Of the several things that draw me to the poem, the foremost might be the notion of fathers' being “generic” in the way trees in a field are generic. I've certainly seen my friends' fathers as a blurry cluster of vaguely appealing yet ordinary, un-special beings. They might be the fathers of students as they gather awkwardly but importantly in school lobbies and hallways on parents' visiting days.

Until Brian Teare's elegy, however, I failed to notice just how generic and autumnly blonde they were, even those who were important, or tried to fake importance, and how their future absence, in death, might be visualized as the empty mattress where they had lain or their now empty felt hats. 
I suspect that from here on, I’ll never see or imagine fathers in the same way, at least not as a group. And maybe the yellow-leaved woods in the fall will always be fathers as well as trees, whether I want them to or not. There’s a lot more gift than burden in that, which is what good poems give us. So in spite of one line that’s bumpy for me, I am grateful for Brian Teare’s “Separation is the necessary condition for light,” and I won’t soon forget it.

See also Bob Hicok’s masterful father poem, “O my pa-pa.”

I discussed it here January 2, 2010:


Oct 17, 2013

Shelley, Painted Veils, and Politics 2013

In the midst of our current political debacle, there's a tenuous pause in the government-shutdown danse macabre, but the best news is that most American citizens are finally getting disgusted. As I look back at our 1960s Civil Rights movement and the protests about the American war in Vietnam, I’m still bewildered at how long it took the general public to feel sickened by burning crosses and lynchings at home and body bags abroad, which is our home away from home.

I’m still not sure Main Street worries enough about racial injustice, or class warfare, or the irrational features of every clergicalized religion, or the human fondness for war (while we make Christian or Buddhist noise about abhorring war, turning cheeks, and judging not lest we be judged). But every once in awhile Main Street just says No to mindless meanness, or it behaves in an utterly compassionate way toward another human or animal, and I just can’t quite give up on us. So, with continued embarrassment, I offer more words, words, words and ignore the fact that less is more.  
Something in all the current political idiocy made me think of Shelley’s seemingly apolitical sonnet, “Lift Not the Painted Veil.”

            Lift not the painted veil which those who live
            Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,
            And it but mimic all we would believe
            With colours idly spread,--behind, lurk Fear
            And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave
            Their shadows, o'er the chasm, sightless and drear.
            I knew one who had lifted it--he sought,
            For his lost heart was tender, things to love,
            But found them not, alas! nor was there aught
            The world contains, the which he could approve.
            Through the unheeding many he did move,
            A splendour among shadows, a bright blot
            Upon this gloomy scene, a Spirit that strove
            For truth, and like the Preacher found it not.

I’m not wild about the poem except for its opening and closing two lines, which I’ve remembered since college. Shelley seems to be distinguishing between the material (matter-ial) world—the painted veil—and something like a Platonic ideal or spiritual world behind and beyond the veil.

As human matter—atomic particles and whatnot—driven by appetite, we naturally care about alluring, sexy, tangible veils. (I've sometimes wondered what Shelley would think of Las Vegas). We don’t know what’s behind them, but the little philosopher or theologian in us “would believe” there is something bigger, better, less concrete and crass than gaudy physicality, with its “colours idly spread.” To be idly spread suggests randomness and chaos, so the visual surface would be fetching but ultimately pointless.

Shelley’s sparkly veil is what we call life; we’re satisfied with the surfaces of things. Like crows drawn to shiny baubles, we like a casino on our river. We are drawn to painted masks—unless we are that other kind of seeker, wannabe mystics, oddballs hoping to find a larger truth beyond the appearances of things, beyond matter, like Shelley’s “one who had lifted it” in his search for “things to love.” That guy fails. That “one” ends up wandering in “this gloomy scene” where there was nothing “which he could approve,” as he traveled among the “unheeding many.” It's the thinkers who are likely to end up in this state--only briefly and from time to time, one hopes. 

Sidebar One:  The title character of Hawthorne’s short story, “Ethan Brand,” has a similar problem. He sets out to find “the Unpardonable Sin” and in so doing, he commits the Unpardonable Sin, which consists of setting himself above the masses, even though the masses are a sorry crowd, drunk, disorderly and aggressively stupid. But the story seems to say those are our choices:  be a seeker, which causes the heart to turn to stone, or humbly accept our lot as just one more among the miserable, mindless many.

Sidebar Two: Although Shelley and Hawthorne are concerned with philosophical and theological issues, I’m feeling a parallel in politics. If there’s a star in that sordid arena, “A splendour among shadows” as Shelley labels him, as well as Shelley’s oxymoronic “bright blot,” how is that hero to proceed among the “unheeding many”? 

Politics is a painted veil in the sense that it’s a dance of psychopaths, liars and thieves who are concerned only with matter, not self-examination, or transcendence, or love, kindness and compassion. What conservative ideologues in particular care about, when you strip away the rhetoric, is protecting their pile. I wonder if anyone noticed the way knee-jerk Republicans went like jackals for Obama’s throat when he said, a few months ago, that none of us get what we have entirely on our own. We all have had luck and help from someone along the way.
That statement is self-explanatory and valid to people of good will. However, the president should have padded his point with more context and explanation—a rhetorical diaper for all those infantile foot-stompers at the peak of an orgasmic tantrum.

But humans of good will and adequate intelligence knew what he was saying. For example, in America a white male, like me, is given extra help from his culture the moment he emerges from the womb. No matter what his hardships have been, they’ve been less challenging than they would have been for a woman or a minority. Yes, that is changing, but anyone who denies that as our history, so far, is being willfully stupid or deceitful.

Yes, some people work a lot harder than others to achieve their pile, but no one got his pile without luck and help from others. Anyone who denies that is undeserving of the benefits of American democracy and capitalism.

Most of the people crowing about creating their own pile and defending it with many guns are Christians—you know, the religion that says the meek are blessed. It’s the religion whose hero was a hippie born in a manger and hanged with two thieves.  Between the manger and the cross was a lot of wandering, like Shelley’s “one,” and meditating, and praying, and talk of turning the other cheek, and forgiveness, and care for the poor. Christianity is anything but the religion of the rich. I was taught Jesus showed anger only once—when the money lenders (hear, bankers) entered the temple. Oh, and there’s that business about the camel—it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.  How many Christians work on Wall Street? How many are totin' steel in the NRA? No, I mean real Christians. How many conservatives call themselves Christian? Do you see how all that oddness adds up to a painted veil? A theater—devoid of fact and truth?

It’s a “miracle of rare device” that conservatives have turned the essence of Christian self-effacement into the politics of greed, guns, and deception. It’s a miracle of absurdity that politicians now paint the average citizen as a white guy sitting at the kitchen table, paying the bills and feeling victimized by Commie-liberals and people of color.
An even greater miracle is the way Democrats have permitted it, have passively held open the door and failed to demand better behavior and consistent logic. Extremist conservatives love the constitution and the Bible only when it helps them hoard, pile up their pile, stuff upon stuff, and keep undesirables away from their golf sanctuaries (their gulf clubs). 

So, yes, politics is a painted veil. Is Shelley right? It’s “Fear/And Hope, twin Destinies” back there behind the veil--something darker and more absurd even than the veil itself? We might do well to settle for surfaces, if the scene behind the curtain consists of ersatz Christians stroking their guns and raiding Grandma’s retirement funds, while Democrats, the party of godless Commie Libs, are pushing for compassion and being ignored.

And, Percy Bysshe Shelley, when the images on the painted veil can be so gorgeous, maybe we ought to settle for what's there instead of groping for more. And more.

Oct 10, 2013

e.e. cummings, Robert Frost's "Design" and Politics 2013

Design by Robert Frost        

Robert Frost’s Italian sonnet, “Design” is somewhat similar to e.e. cummings' English sonnet, “When Serpents Bargain”   (when serpents bargain for the right to squirm... (22) - Poem By E. E. Cummings - Read Classic Poetry Online) in asking questions about the nature of animals, humans, and the possibility of order in the universe. “Design” tends toward philosophy while “When Serpents Bargain” is a satire on the legal and commercial dealings of humans.

Strangulation in High Places
But both poems convey dark themes softened by lightness, innocence, playfulness in language and tone—more so in “When Serpents Bargain” than the grimmer study of animal behavior and the possibility of cosmic chaos in “Design.”

In my October 2 post on cummings’ “When Serpents Bargain,” I mentioned that I’d been a little cantankerous about the poem back on April 7, 2011.  (No pressure, but it’s here if you’re interested: 


Although I share cummings’ dim view of human wheeling and dealing, in which every serpent-of-a-person is trying to sell a used car in bad repair, it might be childishly romantic (reverse narcissism?) to think we’re crazier than critters in nature. 
We might be trying and failing to deal with complex matters of morality and law (witness our present situation in the U.S. Congress), 
but animals solve their diplomatic problems by eating each other. 
Gunboat Diplomacy

Also, when an animal fails, he dies alone in the field for lack of medical care or food. Birds fall out of the sky. The philosophizing, lawyer-izing verbiage that cummings mocks in “When Serpents Bargain” is our spastic effort to avoid eating each other or dying alone in a field. 

Maybe the animals’ free-market way is good for Republicans, Libertarians and anarchists, but me, I’ll take the modified welfare state, yes, the Nanny state. What’s wrong with nannies? They’re paid to like us when our parents are too busy or too mean for liking. They're paid to be kind. When we get a haircut, we don’t bellow about The Barber State, do we?

I prefer the limited version of Nanny State that encourages earning our victuals and our pleasure, but let’s not go all Tea Party and dump people on the curb to bleed out if they fail or get sick. Alone. Except for the Tea Partier, who is the stranger standing over the fallen man and chanting Bible verses or Christian rock music. The guy on the curb needs macaroni, not a parable. 

Maybe the heroic cardinals have it right. A couple of years ago I mentioned here my cardinal couple, who, for about a week, adopted and fed, beak to beak, an orphaned white-crowned sparrow chick, in my back yard.
Steadfast but Pondering

Tom, my most hard-core evolutionist friend, thinks I’m lying about that. He said, “But John, I don’t see the evolutionary advantage in [the cardinals’] behavior.” As gently as possible, I said, “That’s the point, Dumbass!”

I restrained myself from going all Hamlet-and-Horatio on him, but I was on the verge of reminding Tom that “there are more things in heaven and earth, Tom, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (Everyone should have a friend named Horatio. Look what he did for Miami forensic investigations). 

By the way, my friends and I regularly refer to each other as Dumbasses or worse. That’s one thing I like about us. We tell the Truth on those rare occasions when we can find it. On the other hand, each of us thinks he’s found Truth way more often than he has. I suppose that makes us pretty Tea Party-ish. Once again, irony thrives, even in a world full of blinders and misguided faux earnestness.

The fact remains, I witnessed those cardinals for several days as they fed the Other, the alien, who might grow up to compete with them for food. I called the local Audubon Society, which confirmed that such charity happens in the animal kingdom, and yes, cardinals are among the chief do-gooders. Nanny Cardinals. Baby sparrows.


Oct 4, 2013

Movie Review: Short Term 12 and Robert Frost's "Bereft"

For the old e.e. cummings post, how’s this link? (Please feel no pressure to read it).

Yesterday I saw an awfully good movie about foster teens, which is related to the government shutdown. That is, how does our society treat its neediest humans?  

Short Term 12 was in one of the art theaters here and left today after stay of about three weeks. But maybe you can get access to it where you are, or online, or through Netflix, etc. It stars Brie Larson and John Gallagher, Jr. (he’s Jim on The Network), who play counselor-caretakers in a group home. They are very convincing. There’s enough humor and romance to balance—but surely not to cancel out—the gritty social and personal issues for the caretakers and foster kids alike. This is a first-rate, low-budget indie movie that makes us know and care about the characters.

I've been looking for an appropriate time to post Robert Frost's very big little poem, "Bereft," and now, as I think about that movie's teens and their dark nights (and days) of the soul, maybe "Bereft" is just right. Troubled, abandoned fifteen-year-olds, lonely old men living alone, and all those in-between probably have similar feelings and thoughts at times. I wonder if they--no, we--can be of any comfort to each other.

Oct 1, 2013

e.e. cummings, "when serpents bargain." A Little Drummer Girl.

Some politicians are at it again. I'm baffled.

The video below is a partial antidote for me, even better than poetry. Maybe it will be for some of you too. If you're short on time, be sure to skip ahead to the two-minute mark to hear the kid take off in a kind of pleasure (rapture?) that's rare. Watch her face. Even her old man on piano has an oddly winning way about him.

I was going to say you should not play this at a funeral or a library, but it might be just the thing:

If, in the privacy of your rooms,  that father and daughter are no help, I wonder if something big is wrong at your place. 

Or maybe I'm just your poetry-shoeshine boy, in which case here's an e.e. cummings that might be relevant.

e. e. cummings
"when serpents bargain for the right to squirm"

when serpents bargain for the right to squirm
and the sun strikes to gain a living wage--
when thorns regard their roses with alarm
and rainbows are insured against old age

when every thrush may sing no new moon in
if all screech-owls have not okayed his voice
--and any wave signs on the dotted line
or else an ocean is compelled to close

when the oak begs permission of the birch
to make an acorn-valleys accuse their
mountains of having altitude-and march
denounces april as a saboteur

then we'll believe in that incredible
unanimal mankind(and not until)


If you'd like some commentary, I wrote about the poem in April of 2011. My post is a little cantakerous, but its point of view is worth keeping in mind as we tend to romanticize about the romanticizing e.e.  He has a way with words and feelings, but his thinking can be a little . . .  loosey-goosey?;postID=4864430106143452219

Sep 24, 2013

More Berries: Galway Kinnell and Seamus Heaney

Here is Galway Kinnell's "Blackberry Eating," which I offer as a comparison to Heaney's "Blackberry-Picking" last time:

Today I'm going to be wild as a berry and declare that Kinnell's poem engages me more than Heaney's, though I like both. I'm leery of competition in poetry and the other arts, but it's just a reality that we see most things in comparative terms, which is to say competitive terms. The awards that Heaney received are the same awards that other good poets failed to receive, though they might be just as deserving. How many times have I heard: Who is your favorite poet? What is your favorite poem? Whom shall we put in the canon today? If the poetry gods and Main Street alike get to rank poems and poets, why can't I?

The main strength of Kinnell's poem is the central comparison of blackberries to words--sumptuous, wild words, the juicy words of poetry, to be rolled around in the mouth, savored. By implication, there's a similar process in the mind, heart, soul. I think the berry-as-words metaphor is a viable comparison and adds a dimension, a figure, and a surprise that are a bit richer than Heaney's offering, which is musical and delicious, but not very . . . daring or dangerous. Intellectually, the boy's tears about the unfairness of mortality might amount to the only idea in the poem.

Daring? Dangerous?
Reaching for Berries?

After a first line that’s about as pleasantly plain as a line can be, Kinnell loads four adjectives onto the blackberry wheelbarrow, even though he surely knows we're supposed to limit ourselves to one or none. He scoffs at such laws. He's an outlaw. He'll do what it takes, legal or not. 

Moreover, one of those modifiers is a repetition of the “black” in “blackberries.”  This is exacerbated or enriched, depending on your point of view, by Kinnell’s indulging in the word “blackberry” three times in the first six lines. What an abundance! What a saturation! It may seem simplistic, but what better way to make us absorb the power of the berry than repeating the word, with its rich, slow b sounds.

If we’re to love the blackberry, why add that it’s a “prickly . . . penalty” and part of a “black art”?  Besides, how is it a black art? Probably because it brings sensual pleasure, and we know what religions think of sensuality. These berries are so brazen, such hussies, that they “fall almost unbidden to my tongue.” These word-berries have a will of their own, and like some words, they feel “peculiar,” or special, calling attention to their own flavor and uniqueness. Some words are something like a pucker or a squeeze:  “strengths or squinched.” Berry-words may be simple, but they are thick: “one-syllabled lumps,” which are to be squinched open so they will “splurge well.” When does the sensual pleasure of biting into a berry start to become sexual in connotation?

Heaney’s poem finds plenty of physical beauty and pleasure in the berries, but aside from his rat, I don’t find anything as intriguing as Kinnell's “black art” that bumps up against the libidinous. 

Too Many Berries

Like so many opinions, this might amount to personal preference. We can’t usually measure what’s good and bad in poetry as if it were a math quiz. This time, for me, Kinnell wins the Irish berry war. But notice that both poets rely on rich imagery and the sounds of words to capture the sensuous beauty of the berry. Heaney's "big dark blobs" stand beside Kinnell's "one-syllabled lumps" that "splurge." Who's to say one is better than the other? Also, we could argue that Heaney’s emphasis on rat-faced mortality has more philosophical heft and danger than Kinnell’s conceit of berry words that can squinch. 

So, reader opinions are especially welcome on this issue. Is one poem's shotgun filled with more buckshot and chocolate than the other? Why?

By the way, I find blackberry flavor . . .  okay. But all this ecstasy about the fruit? And aren't those seeds annoying? So what is it with the Irish and their blackberries?

Sep 21, 2013

Seamus Heaney, "Blackberry-Picking": the Language of Sensuous, Mortal Beauty

Here’s a response to the request for a poem from Seamus Heaney, who died August 30, 2013 and won the 1995 Nobel Prize, among many achievements. I haven't read much Heaney, but I’ve seen “Blackberry-Picking” before, so maybe it’s one of Heaney’s better-known works.
Sorry, no blackberries today

My first thought is that the poem is of a kind with Hopkins in its extravagant language and play with sounds. It also reminds me of Frost as it draws on homey, agrarian material. In both the linguistic richness and the emphasis on nature, I also hear echoes of Dylan Thomas. Of course, I don’t mean that Heaney is a plagiarist, but it’s interesting to consider how each of those poets was similar to and different from the other three. Jean Toomer's rich, early 20th Century, Georgia poems in Cane might also fit into the discussion. 
Cedar Waxwing, Berry Lover
The main strength of “Blackberry-Picking” is the way its language sometimes grows as saturated as the berries, especially in the sounds of words. The following ought to sate anyone’s need for words made thick and juicy by back vowels and hard consonants:

                                     glossy purple clot
       Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.

      Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it

                          on top big dark blobs burned
      Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
      With thorn pricks, our palms sticky

       A rat-grey fungus, glutting . . . 

Go ahead and try to hurry through “on top big dark blobs burned.” Each syllable is a word, and each syllable is stressed. The three p  sounds, along with b three times (bilabial monosyllables if you really care), the short o three times, and the guttural g and k simply cannot be rushed. If we try, we’ll gag. Heaney demands that we wallow in the juice of the berries, and he follows that with the shocking change in “a plate of eyes.” I hear fish eyes there, but whatever eyes those are, they undercut the sumptuous sounds that led up to them. Appetite and the fullness of physical beauty have a discomfiting flip side; the berries look back at us as we're about to gorge on them. 
Cooper's Hawk--Waxwing Eater?

Several times here I’ve pushed for the notion that, if a piece of writing is calling itself a poem, it should offer gifts along the way—images and sounds, pictures, music and ideas, that startle us out of laziness or complacency. These of course might be pungent or murderous as well as sensuous or gorgeous; but they are not indifferent, casual, generic. The poet has been moved into writing about something, and he should want his readers startled into a similar new awareness.

I’m not sure a boy’s tears about the “unfair” rotting of sensuous blackberries delivers a mind-altering shock, but it might. It’s an introduction to the death of mortal beauty.  I suspect I’ll never see that fruit again without thinking of this poem with its clot, knot, summer’s blood, dark blob, plate of eyes, and the killing fungus that’s not some namby-pamby, boring, non-comittal off-white, mushroom entity; no, it's an aggressive, hideous, “rat-grey” thing, eating up the beauty of what an Irish child beheld and loved.


Lovers' Lane