Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Not Quite the Eleventh Hour

But it is most definitely the tenth hour for Kate's April poetry challenge. However, seeing as I warned everybody I’d be posting at the last minute, I figure I’m actually early. Also, I have another excuse: it is not easy instituting an ecojustice challenge. How do all those of you out there who create all these wonderful book challenges ever have anytime to do anything like, oh I don’t know, read, for instance? Anyway, during the month of April, I read:

Sandburg, Carl. Berman, Paul, ed. Carl Sandburg: Selected Poems. New York: Library of America, 2006.

One thing I’ve discovered I love about reading poetry collections is that they’re like listening to albums. That leads me to wonder why I’m so resistant to reading them, since I love and have always loved listening to albums. Poetry collections are similar to albums because you don’t have to love every poem to enjoy them. In fact, there are some you might just plain not like or not get. You read them quickly and see what the next one has to offer. Others, you read and think, “Oh man! That’s just incredible!” And you re-read them. And then, maybe, you even re-re-read them. You wander around the house in search of someone with whom to share their profundity.

Funny, though. That other person just may not happen to think this particular poem is so profound. He or she might pick up the collection where you’ve left it, wondering why you’re making such a big fuss, and be mesmerized by something completely different. I’ve always found this to be the same with albums. Meet someone who says “Abby Road is absolutely my favorite Beatles album.” Tell that someone, “I agree.” Then start discussing the actual songs. Chances are, one of you will think “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” is one of the most disturbing songs ever written, while the other one will think it’s one of the most clever.

Before I pulled this collection from the shelf, I knew I was partial to Carl Sandburg, having enjoyed “Fog” when I was a teenager. (I’ve just realized that I keep claiming that I didn’t like poetry as a teenager, had it ruined for me by teachers, and yet almost every time I post on it, I seem to be recalling something from my teenaged years. Maybe I need to re-think the whole “hated poetry as a teenager” spiel.) However, I can’t really tell you if it was “Fog” I so enjoyed or the parody of it my sister Lindsay composed, which was “Frog.” For those of you who may not be familiar with it, here it is:


The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
And then moves on. (p. 22)

Lindsay’s “frog” came on “flat feet” and went on from there.

At that age, I thought of Sandburg as a “modern poet,” and “modern poetry” was the only type of poetry I thought I could stand as a teenager. I defined it as mysterious and obscure and something that did not subject itself to over-the-top flowery language. Modern poetry presented hard facts of life without purposely trying to pull at your heartstrings. (Maybe I’m not so off-the-mark with my hated-poetry-as-a-teenager spiel after all, because it’s quite obvious I hadn’t read much of it if this is what I thought.) You know, modern poetry as a tequila shot, say, and all those romantics and their sonnets as 50-year-old bottles of sherry hidden in your grandfather’s cellar. When I was a teenager, I was doing everything I possibly could to rebel against my genetically romantic and sentimental soul.

I guess I haven’t completely squashed that teenaged notion of “modern poetry,” even though I’ve read enough now to have proven it wrong. Not having read much Sandburg, I automatically assumed he'd be profound, but I didn’t expect him to break my heart. How about a poem that's both profound and heartbreaking? Here’s one that was for me:


I wish to God I never saw you, Mag.
I wish you never quit your job and came along with me.
I wish we never bought a license and a white dress
For you go get married in the day we ran off to a
And told him we would love each other and take care of
each other
Always and always long as the sun and rain lasts
Yes, I’m wishing now you lived somewhere away from
And I was a bum on the bumpers a thousand miles away
dead broke.
I wish the kids had never come
And rent and coal and clothes to pay for
And a grocery man calling for cash,
Every day cash for beans and prunes.
I wish to God I never saw you, Mag.
I wish to God the kids had never come. (pp. 8-9)

If you have a heart like mine (irreparably leaky these days from having been broken and fixed innumerable times reading such things), you read that poem at least thrice and want to meet that man just so you can say, “I know. I know. I know.” But how can you possibly know? You’ve never met Mag. You didn’t fall in love with her. You don’t have this man’s children. You've got plenty of money for the rent. The grocery man isn’t calling you for cash. You hate prunes. But still, you know.

Or maybe that one didn’t do it for you. Maybe your heart would break for “The Junk Man,” which didn’t do much for me. Or possibly “Francois Villon Forgotten” would send you searching through the house for the nearest pair of ears to listen to you read aloud. I don’t know. You’ve got to pick up the collection and see for yourself. I do dare you, however, to read “They All Want to Play Hamlet” without finding it the least bit profound.

So, how about you? What profound and heartbreaking poetry have you been reading? I'd love to know.


Anne Camille said...

When I first read of Kate's Challenge, I had just read a particular poem for the first time. I decided there that I would post on it. But, here it is April 29th, and I still haven't. However, the link to Michael Ondaatje's poem The Cinnamon Peeler's Wife is on my computer's desktop and I've read it many times in the last month. I still have one more day to write as part of the challenge, but, even if I don't, this particular poem will be with me for a long time. It's an amazing poem: profound, heartbreaking, absolutely lovely.

Anonymous said...

Loved this, Emily. Beautifully done as ever. I'm really frustrated - I recorded a podcast for Kate's challenge and I can't get the stupid thing to post on the host site. Grrr!

Anonymous said...

Inspired by Kate's challenge, one of the poems I've been looking at is Italy by Derek Walcott. One of my favourite lines is:

... because we are never where we are, but somewhere else ...

- I confess though that there are some bits I still don't understand. For example, the reference to 'furled sails' on the last line. (If it was to the 'homecoming boats' themselves, that I would get but the 'furled sails'? Anyway ...)

As I recall, you're fond of Emily Dickinson and so though I discovered this before the challenge, I can't resist mentioning one of my favourites ...

The brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.

The brain is deeper than the sea,
For, hold them, blue to blue,
The one the other will absorb,
As sponges, buckets do.

The brain is just the weight of God,
For, lift them, pound for pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
As syllable from sound.

'wider than the sky' and 'as syllable from sound' - that's just so good, words fail me!

Emily Barton said...

Cam, so you sent me in search of The Cinnamon Peeler's Wife. You're right: it's amazing. If you'd searched through the house to read it to me, I would have completely understood.

Litlove, and now you know why I don't attempt such things as podcasts. How very, very disappointing! I'm sure it's terrific.

Lokesh, thanks for sharing. That one line from "Italy" IS great, as is the Emily Dickinson poem. But then, how can it NOT be when it's Emily Dickinson? (She asks, ignoring the fact that there are plenty of Dickinson poems she doesn't get.)

Eva said...

I went to college in Carl Sandburg's hometown, and he was born/grew up in this tiiiny little house that is the epitome of every Midwestern stereotype ever. lol

And I think Akhmatova breaks my heart the most consistently. Her poem about her husband was the first Russian poem I ever memorised, and I still love it!

Susan said...

I had forgotten about Fog, but I seem to remember it now from a long time ago. I love it. And now Meg, and you've broken my heart with it, because I know, and I think we all know, what that man in the poem is going through. Isn't poetry beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time? And why it has to exist, because the world is beautiful and heartbreaking simultaneously too.
one of my favorite poems is ee cummings 'somewhere i have never been', that ends with the line, "and nothing, not even the rain, has such small hands." Yes, poetry is beautiful, and I am glad you did your post on it at the 11th hour!!! Lovely post, Emily. thanks for it!

Emily Barton said...

Eva, well now I've got to go find some Akhmatova.

Susan, you're welcome, and yes, poetry IS both beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time, which is why I'm still mystified as to why I tend to think it isn't something I like. e.e. cummings was another one of those poets I liked in high school (you know, during that period when I came to hate poetry so much).

Eloise said...

I was exactly the same as a teenager, the idea of reading poetry that rhymed appalled me. I hated the Romantics and Pope, and pretty much every poet that I love so much now. The one that defined 'modern' poetry for me and that I still adore today is 'Do the Dead Know what Time it is?' by Kenneth Patchen. I was going to write about it for Kate's challenge but got distracted and then it was May!

Emily Barton said...

Eloise, I'm off in search of Kenneth Patchen now!