Sunday, December 21, 2014

What I seem to be up to

Here I am trotting out poems every day or so. It is valid to ask, especially ask myself, what I am up to?  Yes, it is nice to still be able to write at age 80, but if that were all, I could stop after a few of the better ones and try again at age 81, 82 and so on.  My motive is a bit stronger than that.  Years ago in a course on non-dramatic Elizabethan poetry the professor took a liking to me.  It was an evening class and I was the only one there that truly loved poetry.  The rest were teachers taking the class for extra money or out of obligation.  I showed her some of my poetry and she said it was good but no better than some of the other poetry she was reading in the poetry magazines.  That startled me.  What was she telling me?  That I ought to write better than they, or merely that I didn’t seem able to write better?  If she liked what she read in the magazines, my writing as good ought to be a positive thing, but she presented it as a negative.  And I considered it a negative as well. 

I considered writing an epic, something on the order of Hart Crane’s “The Bridge.”  But I found the style I was comfortable with wasn’t suitable to the task, even if I had such a task; which I didn’t.  Robert Lowell went through something like that after Lord Weary’s Castle.  The form of those poems was rhymed iambic pentameter.  But that style was not suitable to what he wanted to do and it wouldn’t enable him to break away from Modernism.  He told William Carlos Williams  he wished he could borrow something of his style, and then did.  The result was Life Studies which is the work considered to have founded the “Confessional School” of poetry – a title none of the “Confessional” poets liked. 

Adam Kirsch proposed the title of his book, The Wounded Surgeon as a more descriptive term for what the “Confessional” poets were.  Kirsch seems perceptive.  He thinks Lowell the finest poet of the age and loves Bishop as well.  In checking him on Amazon I discovered he had published a couple of volumes of poetry but was shocked to learn that he had reverted to the traditional form of writing.  I vaguely recalled hearing of a reversionist school, wondering if their mantra was something like Frost’s, “writing poetry without rhyme is like playing tennis without a net.”  My own opinion is that end-rhyme forces the poet into choosing words for his rhyme instead of being able to choose the most suitable word to use for the poet’s intention.  Certainly fine poets have used end-rhyme but in my opinion that objectifies a poem, Eliot’s “objective correlative”; which is what the Modernists (although they usually didn’t use end rhyme) wanted to do – push it out there so that it was independent of the poet. It didn’t need to mean what the poet meant.  It could take on a life of its own. 

Kirsch describes Berryman as immersing himself in woman-chasing (writing his best poetry when he was chasing or in love) and drinking a lot.  Coming from a suicidal background he didn’t have the stamina to keep it up and jumped off of the Washington Avenue Bridge at the age of 57.  Everyone I’ve read believes The Dream Songs the best thing Berryman wrote.  For Kirsch that doesn’t place him above Lowell and now that I’ve read much more of Lowell’s poetry some of it very good Kirsch may be right. 

In my own case while I don’t believe in end-rhyme unless it occurs naturally in the course of what I want to write, I do believe in internal rhyme.  I think the best poetry should be lyrical in the musical sense of that word.  Also I don’t like simple narrative, although I’m probably guilty of it from time to time.  I need an image to become a metaphor to expand the direction.  In “The Coming of summer” for example there is quite a lot of imagery which may contribute to making that poem more successful.  The poem “Retirement Locations” has but a bit in the last stanza and seems weaker as a result. 

Berryman first published “77 Dream Songs” and Kirsch considers them his best.  He subsequently in the same vein published “His Toy, His Dream, His Rest” bringing the total to 395 and collected as “The Dream Songs.”  Writing 77 strong poems if I can manage, seems worth doing.

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