Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Invitation Within the Poem

Contrary to what is ingrained in our schooling, the poet is just a normal person. Somehow in our education, we come to see the poet as the "Poet," something almost mystical, which means the poet's words take on a (superfluous) double meaning - there is what is written, and there is what the reader thinks is being hidden from the reader, the real meaning that is a puzzle, a riddle. But don't be so fooled.

Instead, the poet - lower case "p," please - is usually inviting the reader to walk alongside her, to see through the word-images that she writes and be a companion. In almost any poem there is an invitation. Some poets are more complicated than others, and expect more from their companions. But they are not difficult once the reader reads the poet, and by that I do not mean reads into but simply falls into line with the poem's melody, its thinking, and its rhythm, just as you might with any new acquaintance.

Here are two poems that contrast in levels of difficulty, but both, in some way, invite:

A.R. Ammons

It is not far to my place:
you can come smallboat,
pausing under shade in the eddies
or going ashore
to rest, regard the leaves

or talk with birds and
shore weeds: hire a full grown man not
late in years to oar you
and choose a canoe-like thin ship:
(a dumb man is better and no

costlier; he will attract
the reflections and silences under leaves:)
travel light: a single book, some twine:
the river is muscled at rapids with trout
and a birch limb

will make a suitable spit: if you
leave in the forenoon, you will arrive
with plenty of light
the afternoon of the third day: I will
come down to the landing

(tell your man to look for it,
the dumb have clear sight and are free of
visions) to greet you with some made
wine and a special verse:
or you can come by shore:

choose the right: there the rocks
cascade less frequently, the grade more gradual:
treat yourself gently: the ascent thins both
mind and blood and you must
keep still a dense reserve

of silence we can poise against
conversation: there is little news:
I found last month a root with shape and
have heard a new sound among
the insects: come.

This poem has no sense of urgency, no secret underpinning. The best guide to the place where the poet is, is a dumb man "the dumb have clear sight and are free of / visions" and once you have found the poet he will "greet you with some made / wine and a special verse . . . you must / keep still a dense reserve // of silence we can poise against / conversation . . ." poetry is always inflected with silence - with pausing through the middle of language. It is important to remain free of visions.

Here is a more complicated poem, but lovely, and also invites:

As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat
John Ashbery

I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free.
Elsewhere we are as sitting in a place where sunlight
Filters down, a little at a time,
Waiting for someone to come. Harsh words are spoken,
As the yellows the green of the maple tree. . . .

So this was all, but obscurely
I felt the stirrings of new breath in the pages
Which all winter long had smelled like an old catalogue.
New sentences were starting up. But the summer
Was well along, not yet past the mid-point
But full and dark with the promise of that fullness,
That time when one can no longer wander away
And even the least attentive fall silent
To watch the thing that is prepared to happen.

A look of glass stops you
And you walk on shaken: was I the perceived?
Did they notice me, this time, as I am,
Or is it postponed again? The children
Still at their games, clouds that arise with a swift
Impatience in the afternoon sky, then dissipate
As limpid, dense twilight comes.
Only in that tooting of a horn
Down there, for a moment, I thought
The great, formal affair was beginning, orchestrated,
Its colors concentrated in a glance, a ballade
That takes in the whole world, now, but lightly,
Still lightly, but with wide authority and tact.

The prevalence of those gray flakes falling?
They are sun motes. You have slept in the sun
Long than the sphinx, and are none the wiser for it.
Come in. And I thought a shadow fell across the door
But it was only her come to ask once more
If I was coming in, and not to hurry in case I wasn't.

The night sheen takes over. A moon of cistercian pallor
Has climbed to the center of heaven, installed,
Finally involved with the business of darkness.
And a sigh heaves from all the small things on earth,
The books, the papers, the old garters and union-suit buttons
Kept in a white cardboard box somewhere, and all the lower
Versions of cities flattened under the equalizing night.
The summer demands and takes away too much,
But night, the reserved, the reticent, gives more than it takes.

Similarly, there is no secret meaning in this poem, it is all there on the surface. The title might be misleading, if it were "One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat" a reader might expect the image of that to pervade the poem, but the title is a simile, a comparing (in the abstract), so it is "As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat." Everything that is to be determined about what this poem is about is on the surface, in the words.

"A look of glass stops you / And you walk on shaken: was I the perceived? / Did they notice me, this time, as I am / Or is it postponed again?" Those lines may very well be the speaker's own anxiety of his poetry, of being understood - or postponed from that understanding. He offers this to the reader.

The poem itself is engaged in the act of writing: "I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free" is the attempt to write. Then there is the invitation for you, the reader: "You have slept in the sun / Longer than the sphinx and are none the wiser for it. / Come in."

And then, as Ashbery always does, he whirls away from that invitation - alighting on the idea before whirling away from it. Ammons wants to sip wine with the reader, Ashbery wants to waltz. What is lovely about this is that it is your right, as a reader, to decide which poet you will accept the invitation from. And nothing about that is restricting.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Srikanth Reddy and the "It" in Po-it-try.

Yes, that's the title.

Here's a poem I read this morning and thought I could write about. It is from Srikanth Reddy's first book, Facts for Visitors.

"Evening with Stars"

It was light. Whoever it was
who left it under the gumtree last night
forgot to close the gate. This morning when I stepped
out on the breezeway I had to shoo off a she-pig
& three rag-pickers before I could tell
what it was they were carting away
through the leaves. I had the houseboy bear it
into the sunroom. After attending to my & my employer's
business, I returned sometime after midnight
to examine it. A pair of monkeys
were hoisting it over the threshold
toward a courtyard of fireflies. When I shook my fist
they dropped it & I settled down at last.
It was gilt. It was evening with stars.
Where a latch should have been, a latch
was painted on. Over the lid, a procession.
Chariot. Splintered tree. Chariot. Chariot.
In the lamplight the hollows
of the footsoldiers' eyes were guttering.
I'd say they looked happy.
Tired & happy. Their soil-flecked boots
sank down to the buckle in weeds
& lacquered nettles, six men to a burden.
It was light. I could see
in the middle distance a bone priest
picking his way through crop rows
toward the wreckage of an iron temple.
Scarlet clouds moving out. Jasper clouds moving in.
Here, on a cistern, a woman
keeps nursing her infant.
She is unwell.
The workmanship is astonishing.
You can pick out ever lesion on her breast.

Mostly, I am alone.

Twice in the poem the clause "it was light," is written. When we set down to read the poem, we imagine that "it was light" refers to the day - just becoming light, or near dawn. However, the second sentence throws us off. There is a neutral subject and object in the second sentence "whoever it was / who left it under the gumtree . . ." The vagueness of these objects is not without import in the poem itself. But more on that below.

By the third line we have had to adjust to a world that is perpetually without specifics. Was the "it" in "it was light" refer to the the "it" - the object in the second line? Does it really matter? Not so much. What is this object that seems to be making a fuss, not just for the speaker, but for the monkeys and rag-pickers and a pig? When the speaker finally sets down to study it, we learn "it was gilt. It was evening with stars," a beautiful line, one that could be an adjectival phrase or be the power of the object itself. While maintaining the neutral second we are torn from a reality within the poem: we may assume "it" is a box, but "it" could be anything and therefore "it" takes on the reality of the universe ("evening with stars").

Note how we have had until the speaker sits down with the poem no real focused understanding of the situation. The speaker is somebody's employee, but what he does, we're not sure. The monkeys are absurd and the image of them carrying the object out is startling only in its absurdity. Then, however, we have a scene melt before us, giving way to a scene painted on the whole of the box. It's beauty is what is painted on, not what is inside (the "it was light" may also refer to the box being empty - after all, there are no latches, only painted on latches).

What is even more startling, is that the scene painted on the box moves. The images are given movement through the participle phrases (the soldiers eyes' "guttering," the priest "picking his way," the woman "nursing") and a sort of moral judgment being made on the part of the speaker that we as readers trust.

This is ekphrasis, the dramatic description of a visual work. Keats' "Ode to a Grecian Urn" and the chapter in The Iliad of Achilles' shield are famous for their ekphrasis (the description in Homer is amazing). It is when the piece of art (that is still) is given dramatic life (and even consequence) as it is being described through words. What I enjoy most about "Evening with Stars" is how dull and two dimensional the world is before the speaker enters into the artwork surrounding this box and escapes into it. There is a history at work in the art that the speaker sees for himself and draws consequences about. There is also a history in the speaker's real world, but one he is less willing to see (to callously call most things with the neutral second is to not pay attention to life), and one renewed by this mystical workmanship.

It is easy to find a copy of Keats' "Ode to a Grecian Urn," and here is a link to the part of chapter XVIII of the Iliad that refers to the making of Achilles' shield.

Enjoy it! It's beautiful.