Tuesday, November 28, 2006

On poetry

It's been fairly slim pickings round the blog recently, too busy to write much, but I am decadently going to steal a middle-of-the-day hour to do Cam's poetry meme (thanks to Dorothy for putting the idea in my head).

1. The first poem I remember reading was...

"Goblin Market" by Christina Rossetti, which I had in a very attractively illustrated adaptation by Ellen Raskin (also the author, I might add, of the ever-enthralling children's books The Westing Game and The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel)). I found this book absolutely enchanting and read it again and again: the story of the two sisters reminded me of my favorite tale The Snow Queen, or perhaps it is better to say I liked the two for similar reasons, but it was the poem's catalogs of delectable fruits that had me greedily in thrall (this is the goblin cry):

"Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpecked cherries-
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheeked peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries--
All ripe together
In summer weather--
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy;
Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,
Taste them and try:
Currants and gooseberries,
Bright-fire-like barberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South,
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye,
Come buy, come buy."

2. I was forced to memorize (name of poem) in school and...

I don't remember being forced to memorize poetry at school. I memorized poems now and then just because I liked them. When I was a very serious and intellectual (what age would this have been?) maybe eleven-year-old I rather solemnly memorized the whole of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," which I was certain must be the best poem ever. I was also partial to various things in The Faber Book of Comic Verse and the companion volume of nonsense verse: I remember learning by heart for instance also at around that age or maybe a bit older a quite delightful poem (I thought it the height of wit) called The Sycophantic Fox and the Gullible Raven by Guy Wetmore Carryl. I'm pasting it in because it still seems to me very pleasing (I remember I was especially taken with the words "umbrageous" and persiflage"--oh, I must go and see if I can get more of this guy's Aesop adaptations):

A raven sat upon a tree,
And not a word he spoke, for
His beak contained a piece of Brie.
Or, maybe it was Roquefort.
We'll make it any kind you please --
At all events it was a cheese.

Beneath the tree's umbrageous limb
A hungry fox sat smiling;
He saw the raven watching him,
And spoke in words beguiling:
"J'admire," said he, "ton beau plumage!"
(The which was simply persiflage.)

Two things there are, no doubt you know,
To which a fox is used:
A rooster that is bound to crow,
A crow that's bound to roost;
And whichsoever he espies
He tells the most unblushing lies.

"Sweet fowl," he said, "I understand
You're more than merely natty;
I hear you sing to beat the band
And Adelina Patti.
Pray render with your liquid tongue
A bit from Gotterdammerung."

This subtle speech was aimed to please
The crow, and it succeeded;
He thought no bird in all the trees
Could sing as well as he did.
In flattery completely doused,
He gave the "Jewel Song" from Faust.

But gravitation's law, of course,
As Isaac Newton showed it,
Exerted on the cheese its force,
And elsewhere soon bestowed it.
In fact, there is no need to tell
What happened when to earth it fell.

I blush to add that when the bird
Took in the situation
He said one brief, emphatic word,
Unfit for publication.
The fox was greatly startled, but
He only sighed and answered, "Tut."

The Moral is: A fox is bound
To be a shameless sinner.
And also: When the cheese comes round
You know it's after dinner.
But (what is only known to few)
The fox is after dinner, too.

3. I don't read poetry very often because...

I like reading fast and if I want to read something that rewards slow reading it is more likely to be the Wittgenstein-Adorno-Plato kind of axis rather than a poem. But I do quite often read poetry from the past, only if it is pre-1800 I somehow don't think of it as poetry per se but rather as just something good.

4. A poem I'm likely to think about when asked about a favorite poem is...

All right, it's totally a cliche, but I would pretty much have to say Elizabeth Bishop's
"One Art." I vividly remember reading this poem for the first time--well, the whole Geography III collection, which just blew me away (and "In the Waiting Room" is of course my other favorite Bishop poem, though "Crusoe in England" comes a close second)--in a quite wonderful English elective class when I was in ninth grade, it was taught by the remarkable Deborah Dempsey and the other poets we read closely were Theodore Roetke and Adrienne Rich. We spent a long time looking at that amazing last stanza and trying to figure out if it's tragic or sort-of-redemptive (I was on the sort-of-redemptive side--it's the "Write it!" that brings things back round, I argued the case then and I would do it again now although I think it means reading against the grain of the poem):

---Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (
Write it!) like disaster.

Other favorite poems, off the top of my head: Andrew Marvell's "The Mower Against Gardens"; Swift's "The Lady's Dressing Room"; and (regrettably, because it makes me laugh so much) Wordsworth's "The Thorn".

5. I ...

used to write poetry when I was a Young Person (in fact I won $100 in a poetry contest in high school, first money I ever made by writing) but I took a poetry-writing workshop my first semester of college that was simultaneously quite a good workshop and also the direct cause of me deciding I would never write another poem again. And I never have. And I almost certainly never will--might write some strange prosey things though that would be vaguely poem-like. Also I have rather a yen to write an opera libretto sometime, but that probably doesn't count.

6. My experience with reading poetry differs from my experience with reading other types of literature...

because it happens more slowly, and that makes me irritable! I find myself impatient with much contemporary poetry because it does not seem to meet even the minimum acceptable standard of copy-editing that you would expect from good prose. I like reading bad novels and good novels, but I will only read the very best poetry or else I become excessively annoyed. Which is not good for the soul.

7. I find poetry...

Interesting, appealing, sometimes magical but on the whole inessential. Novels are essential, intellectual prose essential, plays I miss if I don't get them often enough, essays absolutely soothing and often very delightful, but poetry is for some reason the one I can do without. Not permanently without, but I do not require it with a very high degree of frequency. The other thing I find is that new poems are too often either humorless or if they are funny then they are too whimsical (whimsy is my absolute least favorite thing in the world). There are exceptions, but not many (one very happy recent exception was my friend Steve Burt's absolutely lovely sestina "Six Kinds of Noodles" which you must all go and read now, it really is something special).

8. The last time I heard poetry....

Hmmm...I try and avoid hearing poetry, I don't like being read aloud to and I particularly become savagely antisocial and misanthropic when it's middling-to-bad poetry! I remember recording a lot of Donne's poems on a cassette tape the summer I was studying for orals, though, and listening to them again and again on the Walkman while I ran round the reservoir in Central Park.

9. I think poetry is like....

Nothing else. It's not like life, but it's like a feeling you get sometimes that lasts very briefly--oh, I had it yesterday afternoon when I walked outside of my apartment & was struck with the bareness of the trees and winteriness of the sky in the bit of the park I can see over the edge of the stone wall along the west side of Riverside Drive. The reason I am not a poetry-writer (also you can only write good poetry if you are absolutely steeped in poetry, it is an art of allusion in a way that fiction is not--in this respect it's more like philosophy) is that it does not suit my temperament to sit around waiting for that sort of feeling to strike, in fact sitting around waiting is not my strong suit and I am too great a believer in the rational brain to embrace voluntarily a kind of writing that seems to involve giving oneself over to external control!


  1. Cliche it may be, but I should have thought of "One Art" when I did the meme -- it is one of my favorites too.

  2. I'm going to steal this meme, if I may. But I also wanted to remark here that I had to memorize the Ronsard version of the fox and crow fable for French class in high school. Our class then had a contest to see who could recite it most dramatically (mimicking our teacher's inflections, certainly). I was hoping for a win, but came in third behind two people with better accents.

  3. Hello Jenny. I like your site. I do not have one favorite poem, but if I had to pick one that describes where I am in life, it would be "mezzo Camin" by longfellow. I like sonnets.

    Man of Issaquah


  4. "One Art" is among my most favorites, too. How about Yeats' "Leda and the Swan"? But really I wanted to thank you for the sestina. It's delightful.

  5. goblin market: bearparade.com/classics