29
Aug
15

Quick Notes on Ted Hughes

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.

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Ted HughesTed Hughes (1930-1998) was an English poet, but he surrounded himself with the American Confessional poets of Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath (who was his wife). Despite engaging with the Confessional poets, he was not a Confessional poet, though he did try to find outlets to explore who he was.

One of the first things I notice and latch onto as I read through Ted Hughes Selected Poems 1957-1994 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002) is the use of the “I,” or the lack of it. Hughes is an observer of the world he is situated in. He is both empathetic and sympathetic to it, as he is trying to understand his surroundings. In his early poetry, there is a certain amount of joy and awe, but later the joy will disappear, at least for a short while. Early on, Hughes uses the “I” sparingly, and when he does, it is usually not a stand-in for himself, but, instead, he inhabits another form. For instance, in “The Man Seeking Experience Enquires His Way of a Drop of Water” (from his first collection of poems The Hawk in the Rain (1957)), he allegorically uses a drop of rain as a stand-in for himself, so that with the last line “Blundered the world-shouldering monstrous ‘I’,” that is the rain drop giving the “plain lesson how / Experience has worn or made you anew,” and it speaks for itself, and allegorically for Hughes. The rain drop is announcing its existence, much like I think Hughes is trying to do throughout his poems, but he can’t quite plant himself into the poems.

In his observations, he creates a mythic world, or at least creates a world with a frame in which he can center himself to focus on what’s around him. He is trying to find the “Blood [that] is the belly of logic” (“An Otter,” Lupercal, 38). As said above, the “I” Hughes uses is not him, but the embodiment the “I” uses generates more sympathy for what he is looking at or experiencing. “Wodwo,” in Wodwo  (1967), is good example of what I mean.

     Wodwo

     What am I? Nosing here, turning leaves over
     Following a faint stain on the air to the river’s edge
     I enter water. What am I to split
     The glassy grain of water looking upward I see the bed
     Of the river above me upside down very clear
     What am I doing here in mid-air? Why do I find
     this frog so interesting as I inspect its most secret
     interior and make it my own? Do these weeds
     know me and name me to each other have they
     seen me before do I fit in their world? I seem
     separate from the ground and not rooted but dropped
     out of nothing casually I’ve no threads
     fastening me to anything I can go anywhere
     I seem to have been given the freedom
     of this place what am I then? And picking
     bits of bark off this rotten stump gives me
     no pleasure and it’s no use so why do I do it
     me and doing that have coincided very queerly
     But what shall I be called am I the first
     have I an owner what shape am I what
     shape am I am I huge if I go
     to the end on this way past these trees and past these trees
     till I get tired that’s touching one wall of me
     for the moment if I sit still how everything
     stops to watch me I suppose I am the exact centre
     but there’s all this what is it roots
     roots roots roots and here’s the water
     again very queer but I’ll go on looking

A “wodow” is a wild-man, a half-man and half-animal spirit type entity, like a faun or satyr. This poem is an ars poetica, of sorts, as Hughes is exploring the use of “I” and trying to represent himself and/or locate himself in the world and in his poetry. On an ars poetica level, “What am I to split” indicates the split between Hughes and the subject he is writing about. Hughes wants, seemingly, to write about himself but he has to dislocate from himself and embody another, much like the lines, “Why do I find / this frog so interesting as I inspect its most secret / interior and make it my own?” That seems to be at the heart of most of Hughes poetry until about 1989 in Moortown Diary.

In his next collection Crow (1970), Hughes embodies a crow, and in this collection there is a sudden shift in tone. The tone of the poems, the accumulation of images in the poems is very Merwinesque. Despite the tone changing, Hughes is still trying to center himself in the world, but his observations are mediated throw a crow, who is seemingly godlike and/or omnipotent, which adds to the mythmaking feel. The mythmaking is so Merwinesque, I often feel like I am reading Merwin and not Hughes, and many of the long poems, especially “The Contender,” sound and move just like Merwin’s “The Last One.”

Hughes continues his observations and world creating with a sort of celebratory tone and feel until Moortown Diary (1989) and Earth-Numb (1979). In Moortown Diary, a harshness develops, as Hughes observes the less beautiful and exposes an unsympathetic nature. In Earth-Numb he experiences the harshness of life and towns and cities. In these collections, it is as if “Pain was pulled down over his eyes like a fool’s hat. / [. . .] He could not understand what had happened. / Or what he had become” (“The Beacon: A God,” Earth-Numb, 208-9). These poems are hung with pain.

By 1986, in Flowers and Insects, he continues with his empathetic observations, but they are less cynical and more prosy. Another turn in his poetry occurs in Wolfwatching (1989), which is unlike any of his other poems, as he explores the suffering of war, especially though his father and his Uncle Walt.

In the end, I don’t know how to generalize Hughes or what poets to group him with, but he is an impersonal poet trying to become personal. I would gather to say he was influenced by the New Critics because of this impersonality, but he’s not allusive or stylistically/technically as tight as one might expect from a New Critic poet, though early on he makes good use of anapests, which almost give his poem a sense of play or fun. Early on at times, too, he feels like D. H. Lawrence in his observations and sympathies, and I think of Lawrence’s poem “Snake,” in particular. Also, early on his poems can be surreal or dreamlike.

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28
Aug
15

Quick Notes on W. D. Snodgrass

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.

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W. D. SnodgrassW. D. Snodgrass (1926-2009) was an American poet who studied under Robert Lowell and with Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. He is also considered a confessional poet, but his confessions are different in form and content.

In Heart’s Needle (1959, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1960), there is a substantial turn in mood, tone, and language midway through the book in the long poem “Heart’s Needle.” Prior to this, we read of a man’s struggles in war, with a wife, with money, and the free-market economy and its push to “advertise  / the ancient pulse of violence” (“A Cardinal”) and mundane lives, as with his predictable parents in the opening poem “Ten Days Leave.” And in this first half of the book, the language is not labyrinthine, but it is knotted at times with delays in syntax or contorted sentence structure to set up a rhyme. The language seems reflective of who is – a bit wound up. And then in “Heart’s Needle,” where, for me the confessional poetry begins, the language loosens up. There seems to be ease, or acceptance, and I think it is because he realizes who he is, or can be or needs to be.

In the first half of Heart’s Needle, the “I,” the speaker, the W. D. Snodgrass, has his masculinity and integrity challenged with the previously mentioned struggles. He is conflicted with the world out there, with the easy poetry (“the choirs of pretty / slogans and catch phrases / that rule us by obsession; / praise what it pays to praise” (“The Cardinal”)) and easy houses or with being true to himself – “That I have forces, true to feel, / Or that the lovely world is real” (“April Inventory”).  There is not much sentimentality in the first half of Heart’s Needle, but then there’s the turn in the second half of the book and its poem “Heart’s Needle” right in the opening line of section I, “Child of my winter, born.” In war, Snodgrass “could not find / My peace in my will,” but he finds peace with his daughter, whom he tells “I am your real mother” at the end of section 3 of the poem “Heart’s Needle.” He’s abandoned his masculinity, or has accepted its new manifestation. The poetry in the poem “Heart’s Needle” becomes more sentimental, too, as at the end of section 2, “You should try to look at them,” (the flowers she and he planted) “Because when they come to full flower / I will be away,” or in section 7’s trope of the father pushing the daughter on the swing who with each push goes “higher, farther” from him but returns to him “stronger.” This confession, however, is less shocking than that of Lowell’s or Plath’s madnesses, suicides, and hospital visits, but I wonder if at the time for a man to announce the acceptance of taking on the mother role was not shocking, or if his tenderness was contrary to the manliness gender-role of the time.

Snodgrass’s poems are also more stylized than Lowell’s or Plath’s poems, as Snodgrass employs rhymes, stanzaic forms, and loose iambs, and the effective use of spondees. Perhaps it is because as he notes of the singing cardinals “Assertion is their credo; / style tells their policy” (“A Cardinal”). Perhaps he’s a man looking for some sort of order in the domestic life of a civilian with no wife and little money. I think he’s a bit attached to symbolism, too, which for a Confessional poet reacting against the poetry of New Criticism seems odd to me. One symbol, for instance, is the land. I somewhat pick up on at the end of section I in “Heart’s Needle”:

     Here lies my hand
     Unmarked by agony, the lean foot
     Of the weasel tracking, the thick trapper’s boot;
     And I have planned

     My chances to restrain
     The torments of demented summer or
     Increase the deepening harvest here before
     It snows again.

Here the land becomes symbolic of his daughter and how he will take care of her. Or later in section 6, “We need the landscape to repeat us.” It’s from the land that they will grow, and when I reread to the book’s opening poem, “Ten Days Leave,” I notice “landscape” again. In this third-person poem, this landscape, however, is a reproduction of an old land. He has returned home, I think, but he feels like a tourist in the familiar ground. The land builds accumulates meanings throughout Heart’s Needle.

Like Lowell and Plath, the reader realizes the “I” is the speaker speaking of events that occurred to them, and what they write feels sincere, and maybe even more sincere in Snodgrass.

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27
Aug
15

Quick Notes on Sylvia Plath

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.

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Sylvia PlathSylvia Plath (1932-1963) was an American poet, who studied under Robert Lowell and with Anne Sexton and H. D. Snodgrass, all of whom are considered the four main Confessional poets. Others also sometimes included among the Confessionals “John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Weldon Kees, Richard Hugo, James Merrill, and [. . .] Theodore Roethke (Middlebrook 636). I will be focusing on Plath’s collection of poems Ariel.

Ariel opens with the poem “Morning Song,” which is about a mother who just gave birth to a child and a short time after that. The baby asserts its own existence with its “bald cry,” and takes “its place among the elements.” That is, it becomes a unique being or individual, like an element is unique in the world of matter. Later the mother listens to the baby’s “moth-breath,” and after that one night, the baby cries again, and as if by instinct, the mother rises to attend to the baby. When she does, the baby creates its own language – its “handful of notes; / the clear vowels rise like balloons.” The importance of opening Ariel with this poem is that the “poem makes of motherhood not a biological relation but a social relation engaged first through the body but crucially renegotiated in the realm of language” (645). Plath is breaking the decorum of post-World War II conventions of how of a woman is portrayed and what a woman can write about. During this time, the woman was objectified and often considered not mentally competent enough to write (641), but Plath is asserting her body (as well as the baby’s) and showing her skills as a writer. A result of a Confessional poem is breaking those taboos of decorum and writing honestly and personally about one’s own unique experience. It’s a reaction to Modernism and the New Critics, where the poem is authorless, impersonal, and the “I” is universal, and where often the woman serves as inspiration for a poem, or male poet, or a as conduit to nature. Plath, along with Anne Sexton, rally against these culturally defined conventions of gender.

Additionally, besides the personal nature of Confessional poetry and confronting the convention of “allowed” poetic content and cultural conventions of gender, the confessional poet deals with the interactions within a family, including their children. Often I, and others, think the confrontation is just with the parents, but it’s not. Plath shows one side of a mother-child relation in the just mentioned poem, but she also shows another side of her relation with her child in “Lesbos,” and in this relation, it is not a loving one, or it seems as if the baby is a bother to her. These topics certainly went against the grain of acceptable things to say about one’s child. Her confession, then, rubs up against the norms that gained “representations of the vicissitudes of family life [in tv shows like . . .]: “Father Knows Best” (645) or “Leave It To Beaver” or any other black and white sitcom of the family at the time. Plath writes:

     And my child – look at her, face down on the floor,
     Little unstrung puppet, kicking to disappear –
     Why she is schizophrenic,
     Her face red and white a panic.

Plath essentially is calling her child crazy. Later in the poem:

     Meanwhile there’s a stink of fat and baby crap.
     I’m doped and thick from my last sleeping pill.
     The smog of cooking, the smog of hell.

Here, she removes the innocence and purity from the baby by equating it with feces. At the same time she is showing the unpleasantness of domestic life – there’s “smog” (not steam from cooking a meal) and it’s like “hell,” and the only way she can deal with it is by being “doped,” which is contrary to the blissful images of the time that perpetuated the housewife delighting in her domestic chores. Plath is confessing an unspoken truth – a baby sometimes gets in the way of doing things of desire, or just living.

Plath also shows the commodification of women in “The Applicant,” where the potential wife becomes a possible product for a man to purchase, and the salesperson is doing their best to pitch it because “it [not her] can sew, it can cook / It can talk, talk, talk.”

I’m pointing out things that may be obvious to you, but what I’m learning is that confessional poetry is more than writing in the first-person, exposing shameful or humiliating things about oneself, or writing about going crazy, or about suicide, or being in a mental hospital, or writing as a means of therapy, which was usually how I thought about Confessional poetry, which I have read very little of. I also think that is a common assumption of confessional poetry, along with the strained relationship with the parents. But with Plath I’m seeing a poetry of politics or cultural rebellion. She’s giving a voice to women, where one wasn’t before. She’s making public the “unmentionables,” and many of these unmentionables were probably true for many women of the time, though they weren’t allowed to say so.

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Works Cited

Middlebrook, Diane Wood. “What Was Confessional Poetry?” The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. 632-649. Print.

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24
Aug
15

Quick Notes on Robert Lowell

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.

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Robert LowellRobert Lowell (1917 – 1977) was an American poet, who taught both Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. His book Lord’s Weary Castle (1946) won the Pulitzer prize in 1947 and Life Studies (1959) won the National Book Award in 1960. He was influenced by Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom (who he studied under), and New Criticism, as well as W. C. Williams. His poetry is complex, has allusions, and imagery. At times in his early poetry, it feels like he is channeling T. S. Eliot in technique, such as recurring images to create symbols and even in rhythms. His craftsmanship is top notched and sometimes I get lost in its mastery and forget what’s going on in the poem. His poetry is considered the beginnings of confessional poetry, and despite the mastery of technique, confessional poetry is a reaction against the New Critics as it brings in the personal full force.

In Life Studies, Lowell provides a history of his family so show where he came from and to suggest, perhaps, that this past is part of who he is, while at the same time trying to determine if he has any control over who he is. He is a divided soul trying to find and/or portray his identity. In doing so, in recounting various histories (both familial and personal), “the work frequently takes the reader by surprise as seemingly random images and memories collide and spark into meaning, the coherence that underlies the poems only apparent in retrospect” (Parini 141). The poems in Life Studies according to M. L. Rosenthal “invoked ‘the most naked kind of confession.’ Rosenthal considered the word confessional appropriate, and later said, ‘because of the way Lowell brought his private humiliations, sufferings, and psychological problems’ into his poems, which were thus ‘one culmination of the Romantic and modern tendency to place the literal Self more and more at the center” (Hirsch 125). This culmination arrives in “Part Four: Life Studies,” where it most autobiographical. Many of the poems in Life Studies have a casual and prosaic feel, but sometimes in the midst of the prosy style, they rise up like song. Despite the prosy style, Lowell will chime sounds within lines to give it a more traditional sense of poetry. His main issues or confessions are his relationship with his parents (and which is the better role model) and his time spent in a mental hospital. I’m not sure Lowell finds any cures but maybe he finds hope in the skunks in “Skunk Hour,” the book’s closing poem. These skunks, who, after he states, “I myself am hell; / nobody’s here,” “will not scare” walking around the empty streets under the moonlight and a church, do just fine eating from the garbage. Prior to this book during Modernism, if a poet used the “I” it wasn’t necessarily in reference to the poet and was often the universal “I,” but here the “I,” the speaker of the poem, and the poet are the same. There is no modernist mask wearing. The poet is exposed willingly and deliberately.

In “For the Union Dead,” the final poem in The Union Dead (1964), Lowell will again move between histories, but this time between personal history and political/cultural history. However, in this case it’s mostly to make a political statement about racism and war and how materialism is undermining long-established values. The poems in this book are more rhythmic and with more definite rhymes – the rhythm and rhymes linger in the head long after reading them. Maybe this is how he reaches out into the world, because this book, on some level, seems to be about him trying to interact with the world he can barely see because of his myopia, a theme of many of the poems. The main confessions in this collection are about his weak eyes, finding meaning, his concerns with lack of sexual drive, and trying to connect with a romantic past that evades him.

In his later books, he writes poems that are scaffolded on the sonnet structure.

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Works Cited

Hirsch, Edward. “confessional poetry.” A Poet’s Glossary. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. 125. Print.

Parini, Jay. “Robert Lowell In Retrospect.” Salmagundi 141/142 (Winter-Spring 2004): 138-144. JSTOR. Database. 21 Aug 2015. PDF.

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22
Aug
15

Quick Notes on John Berryman

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.

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John BerrymanJohn Berryman (1914 – 1972) was an American poet and a contemporary with Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell, and Sylvia Plath, as well as Delmore Schwartz, whose death was very troubling to him as can be evidenced from the many initial poems of book VI of The Dream Songs. Loss is a main theme of The Dream Songs, the collection I will focus on. But The Dream Songs are neither dreams nor songs. The dreams are more like fantasies of what might have been, is, or could be, and many of the fantasies are dark and troubling. Despite the structure of the poems, which usually consist of three six-line stanzas that play off iambic rhythms and rhyme, the poems are too complicated to be sung. There are other complications, too, and these complications grow out of the Modernist poetry tradition.

What is often said of Modernist poetry (and maybe Modernism as a whole) is that it is difficult, complicated, and frustrating, and Berryman’s Dream Songs certainly frustrate. The syntax is complicated and jarring, there are varying speech idioms, and the speaker of the poems (Henry) will refer to himself in the first-person, often in the third-person, and sometimes even the second-person. I find these poems more challenging than Modernist poetry, even The Waste Land. There’s a lot to say about these poems, but I think the opening poem might provide a good gloss of the poems, as a whole.

     Huffy Henry hid     the day,
     unappeasable Henry sulked.
     I see his point, – a trying to put things over.
     It was the thought that they thought
     they could do it made Henry wicked & away.
     But he should have come out and talked.

     All the world like a woolen lover
     once did seem on Henry’s side.
     Then came a departure.
     Thereafter nothing fell out as it might or ought.
     I don’t see how Henry, pried
     open for all the world to see, survived.

     What he has now to say is a long
     wonder the world can bear & be.
     Once in a sycamore I was glad
     all at the top, and I sang.
     Hard on the land wears the strong sea
     and empty grows every bed.

The shift between first and third person is obvious here. There are sentences with interruptions or with delays between subject and predicate, such as in lines 7-8 with the unrestrictive clause “like a woolen love” interrupting “world” and its verb “seem.” Also notice how the tense has shifted from the end of the previous stanza. A similar interruption happens at the end of the stanza. These are just examples of some of the less difficult sentences to parse through. Not to mention the tension between line and syntax. This poem also introduces the big the themes of the book, which includes the tension between the reality he expects and the reality he lives in – or maybe between fantasy and reality. Henry thought happiness possible until “a departure.” Something significant is gone, and the “a” indicates that there were other departures, too, and/or maybe more to come. And here is where I want to make a point for Berryman as transitional figure between Modernism and what comes after Modernism.

When I think of Modernism, I don’t think of subjectivity. Many critics say the Modernist poet wears a mask or assumes a personae. The reader does not really get involved in the personal life of the poet. In fact, after The Waste Land, as Al Poulin Jr. would say, there are no bodies in the waste land until Ginsberg populates them. This is where Berryman comes in as a transitional figure. He, it seems, is trying to insert a real life person with actual feelings into the waste land. He is telling of his pain and despair in regards to his loss, “a departure.” However, he wears a modernist mask in the form of Henry. Most critics agree that Henry is Berryman, despite Berryman’s protestations. And the “departure” is really the death of Berryman’s father. Even though Berryman is considered a confessional poet, we don’t get to see Berryman as Berryman. We see Berryman as Henry. This is why I consider him a transitional figure. We don’t get the real life person that we might get with Ginsberg, Lowell, or Plath. Berryman is carefully surveying the waste land, before the later poets as people arrive and populate the waste land.

An alternate title for The Dream Songs could be Song of Myself as Henry. The poems are very personal and introspective, but, perhaps, the Henry figure makes them more universal, available, or public. Henry is the archetypal white depressed and dysfunctional male form into which Berryman pours his own pain and angst and sufferings and hopes.

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For more on John Berryman, please read what I noted a few years ago, which I may or may not still agree with: On John Berryman’s Syntax and Other Observations.

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18
Aug
15

Quick Notes on Elizabeth Bishop

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.

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Elizabeth Bishop (1911 – 1979) is an American poet and a poetic descendent of Marianne Moore, a contemporary and close friend with Robert Lowell, she was also in contact with Randall Jarrell and John Berryman, had admiration for Allen Ginsberg (which is surprising), and one of her poetic off springs is Frank Bidart. Her poems tend to written in iambic meters, often rhyme, and are very detailed. She also uses pathetic fallacy, which the Modernist poets one would not think would be done again. With this in mind, I would not classify her as a Modernist poet. For me, a Modernist poets tends to eschew direct representation of the world and they tend to be in favor of free verse. In addition, the Modernists go in one of two ways in dealing with the present (according to my developing hypothesis): the Modernist poet either goes into the past to understand the present (all of the past is in the present, which includes Eliot and Pound) or the poet looks to the future to “make it new,” and these include Mina Loy, W. C. Williams, and Wallace Stevens. Elizabeth Bishop’s poems live in the present.

This present, however, is fictive present, but she uses real details to explore a something. This something is usually set up in the first line, in an epigraph, or in the title. If Monty Python wrote poetry, there poetry would be like Bishop’s, in that both pose a premise and explore in a most unique way the limits of that premise. Unlike Monty Python whose comedic skits might not be able to find an end, Bishop is able to wrap up her poems. Many, and maybe even most, of her poems operate this way. An example of this is “The Man-Moth.” The premise is the misspelling of “mammoth” from a newspaper, but she uses it as a prompt to create a man-moth, but I don’t think this is a typical Bishop poem. Other examples are “The Monument,” which begins “Now you can see the monument? It is of wood,” and then she goes exploring the monument. About half-way through, she realizes she’s drifted so far from the topic, that she has to bring herself back: “ ‘Those clouds are full of glistening splinters! / What is that?’ / It is the monument.” A better example might be “A Cold Spring,” with the epigraph “Nothing is so beautiful as spring – Hopkins,” and the poem goes on to explore spring, or even the paragraph long epigraph to “The Riverman.”

I think her poetics can best be summarized with the title and beginning of “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance”:

     Thus should have been our travels:
     serious, engravable.
     The Seven Wonders of the World are tired
     and a touch familiar, but the other scenes,
     innumerable, though equally sad and still,
     are foreign.

Bishop won’t go after the big things, like “The Seven Wonders of the World,” because they are too familiar. She is going to get into the details of the often overlooked, and a complete concordance would have plenty of details.

I want to note two more traits: pathetic fallacy (as mentioned above) and her use of “or.” The Modernists turned away from pathetic fallacy as part of their turning away from Romanticism and Georgian poetries, but also because the Modernists (maybe as a result of the Realists and Naturalists) don’t think nature and the living things in nature have feelings, especially sympathetic feelings towards humans. But I think Bishop engages with pathetic fallacy because I think she is wholly engaged with the world and that she thinks the world is engaged with humans. I think she tells us this in “Manners,” where her grandfather gives her the following advice:

     “A fine bird,” my grandfather said,

     “and he’s well brought up. See, he answers
     nicely when he’s spoken to.
     Man or beast, that’s good manners.
     Be sure that you both always do.”

Her grandfather points out to her that creatures of nature do indeed have feelings, including manners, which one would think is a human invention. Despite these sympathies, not to mention her iambic rhythms, however, one wouldn’t classify Bishop as a Romantic or Georgian, as she creates or recreates the world using the facts of the world. Her poetry is only mimetic in the details she draws from, assumes, supposes, or speculates.

The last stylistic device I notice is her use of “or,” which occurs in many poems. In the highly rational world of modernity, there is the divisive thinking of “either/or,” a binary thinking. Something is either this or it is that, but Bishop’s “or” subverts that binary thinking. Bishop’s “or” is not use to make clear distinctions or definitions, but rather it shows uncertainty in her epistemologies and phenomenologies. She’s not quite sure what something. Returning to “Over 2,000 Illustrations . . .,” we read:

     Always the silence, the gesture of specks of birds
     suspended on invisible threads above the Site,
     or the smoke of rising solemnly, pulled by threads.
     Granted a page alone or a page made up
     of several scenes arranged in cattycornered rectangles
     or circles set on stippled gray.

The “or” indicates uncertainty, not the certainty of “it’s either this or that.” It’s like she is saying, “maybe it’s this or perhaps it’s this other thing, or maybe even some other thing. I’m not quite sure but it is perhaps somewhere among those descriptions.” Sometimes the “or” comes in the shape of “nor” or “perhaps” as in “Manuelzinho” towards the end when the poem reads:

     You paint – heaven knows why –
     the outside of your crown
     and brim of your straw hat.
     Perhaps to reflect the sun?
     Or perhaps when you were small,
     your mother said, ‘Manuelzinho,
     one thing: be sure you always
     paint your straw hat.’”

Here the “or” and “perhaps” are more like speculations, and perhaps that is what all the “or”s are doing, and perhaps that is the best way to describe Bishop’s poetry – speculations based on a premise.

One last thing, for a writer of iambs, many of her lines begin with a stressed syllable.

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18
Aug
15

Quick Notes on Philip Larkin

These are mostly notes and observations I am writing for myself as I prepare for the Contemporary Poetry section of my comps. I will try to do this with each poet I read. Maybe the notes will be useful to others, too. Again, they are notes and observations. They are not thesis-driven arguments.

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Philip Larkin (1922 – 1985) was an English poet, and one of England’s most favorite poets. He’s also canonized. In his time, he released four collections of poetry: The North Ship, The Less Deceived, The Whitsun Weddings, and High Windows. He works well with iambs and anapests, and is best with his biting, sarcastic wit. He follows the Modernist poets and even the second wave of Modernist poets in the 1930s, who returned to the romantic a bit and wrote more accessible poetry. Larkin, however, goes even further. His poems are essentially surface poems. Allusions, if any, are rare. Not that allusions make for good or even Modernist poetry, but that is an example of how his surface poems turn from the two waves of Modernism. His poetry can be fully understood with one reading. There is nothing to look up (aside from an occasional word), nothing to ponder, not much tension in the language. In fact, his poems feel like they are a hobby of his, which a critic pointed out and seems right to me. I’m not really sure who the audience is for sure, but it feels like he is just writing to entertain himself of a few friends. If it weren’t for some words and contemporary references, I would think he was Georgian poet or a Romantic poet. He’s a poet out of time, and I don’t gather how his poetry is so admired. It’s almost like he’s England’s version of Robert Frost, but without the depth and integrity. With all that said, “Aubade” might one of the best English-written poems about death.

//




The Cave (Winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013. Forthcoming in late Autumn of 2014.)

The Cave

Poems for an Empty Church

Poems for an Empty Church

The Oldest Stone in the World

The Oldest Stone in the Wolrd

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Pre-Dew Poems

Pre-Dew Poems

Negative Time

Negative Time

After Malagueña

After Malagueña

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