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.


Sep 13, 2013

Is It Real or Fake, and Do We Care?

Sound on, mind and heart open to a new method of story telling:

Junco Blown Away, Almost, by Comedy

Sep 11, 2013


Students and other humans often want to know why writers seem more likely to be oddballs than people in other vocations or lifestyles. If that stereotype is accurate, were they odd first, or were they writers first, whose craft forced them into unusual existences?
Song Sparrow
Can a writer or artist critique a society in which he’s enmeshed, or must he sit at the edge of the mainstream in order to see it well enough to present it with something like disinterest and objectivity? Artists are a bit like scientists—observers, witnesses, reporters—so they and their subjects must often be at different ends of the microscope.

Most likely, well-researched biographies have already explained all this, and I hope to get to them some day. For now, here are some samples of what Thoreau’s friends said.  Of his face, Hawthorne wrote: ‘[Thoreau] is as ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and rustic, though courteous manners, corresponding very well with such an exterior. But his ugliness is of an honest and agreeable fashion, and becomes him much better than beauty." 

Hawthorne also wrote that Thoreau "repudiated all regular modes of getting a living, and seems inclined to lead a sort of Indian life among civilized men."[91][92]

On the other hand, Hawthorne also sings the praises of the odd and gifted Thoreau. In our age of growing careerism, when students and their parents seem to be seeing high school and college only as another kind of trade school, only a means to materialistic, functional, mundane, blunted ends, I especially like this passage from Hawthorne: 
"Yes, Thoreau showed me things, and though it didn't aid me in the Harvard                     curriculum, it helped me through life.
            "Truly, Nature absorbed his attention, but I                don't think he cared much for what is called the beauties of nature; it was her way of working, her mystery, her economy in extravagance; he delighted to trace her footsteps toward their source .... He liked to feel that the pursuit was endless, with mystery at both ends of it . . ."
Not Every Pond Is Walden

But at some level Thoreau must have sensed an attitude from others about his appearance and his way of being in the world, especially when we hear a similarly critical, even mocking assessment from the principal female thinker at Concord, Louisa May Alcott. From Wikipedia: “Thoreau also wore a neckbeard for many years, which he insisted many women found attractive.   However, Louisa May Alcott mentioned to Ralph Waldo Emerson that Thoreau's facial hair ‘will most assuredly deflect amorous advances and preserve the man's virtue in perpetuity.’”   (Gilman, William, et al, The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson 16 vols. (Cambridge, Mass 1960–). 

And these were Thoreau’s friends. Most likely we've all been this catty and superficial, but these are sensitive, perceptive artists, who, it turns out, were major witnesses to the human condition.  Abolitionists. Reservoirs of morality, humanity, wisdom, fonts of compassionate insight that saw through the inanities of their Victorian era. Serious, eloquent New England stock. Or not.

So I have to wonder if Thoreau, in this elite company as well as the ordinary folk of Concord, had deeply personal motives for seclusion and contempt for so much of human convention and enterprise. Maybe he was driven not only by his abstract thoughts about nature and society, but also by the mockery he sensed from the people closest to him. If this was civil life, surely it called for civil disobedience. 
Young Buck

Once again from Wikipedia, here are today’s final tidbits, which I find both melancholy and inspiring:  When his aunt Louisa asked him in his last weeks if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau responded: "I did not know we had ever quarreled."

Aware he was dying, Thoreau's last words were "Now comes good sailing", followed by two lone words, "moose" and "Indian". He died of tuberculosis on May 6, 1862 at age 44.

Lovers' Lane