My long two pointed ladder's sticking through a tree Toward heaven still, And there's a barrel that I didn't fill Beside it, and there may be two or three 5 Apples I didn't pick upon some bough. But I am done with apple-picking now. Essence of winter sleep is on the night, The scent of apples: I am drowsing off. I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight 10 I got from looking through a pane of glass I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough And held against the world of hoary grass. It melted, and I let it fall and break. But I was well 15 Upon my way to sleep before it fell, And I could tell What form my dreaming was about to take. Magnified apples appear and disappear, Stem end and blossom end, 20 And every fleck of russet showing clear. My instep arch not only keeps the ache, It keeps the pressure of the ladder-round. I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend. And I keep hearing from the cellar bin 25 The rumbling sound Of load on load of apples coming in. For I have had too much Of apple-picking: I am overtired Of the great harvest I myself desired. 30 There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch, Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall. For all That struck the earth, No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble, 35 Went surely to the cider-apple heap As of no worth. One can see what will trouble This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is. Were he not gone, 40 The woodchuck could say whether it's like his Long sleep, as I describe its coming on, Or just some human sleep.
- Interestingly, in Robert Frost’s reading (or memorization) of the poem, the line: “Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall…” is spoken as “Cherish in hand, let down, and not let fall.”
After Apple-Picking is one of Robert Frost’s great poems and among the greatest poems of the 20th century. The first thing I want to do is to revel in the structure and form of the poem. I’ve seen several references made to Rueben Brower’s analysis of the meter in this poem, and all the sources concur in calling Brower’s analysis a tour-de-force. I have not read Brower’s analysis and won’t until I’ve done my own. I love this sort of thing and don’t want my own observations being influenced. So, if there are any similarities, I encourage you to conclude that fools and great minds think alike. Here we go. First, T.S. Eliot:
“The most interesting verse which has yet been written in our language has been done either by taking a very simple form, like iambic pentameter, and constantly withdrawing from it, or taking no form at all, and constantly approximating to a very simple one. Is this contrast between fixity and flux, this unperceived evasion of monotony, which is the very life of verse… We may therefore formulate as follows: the ghost of some simple metre should lurk behind the arras in even the ‘freest’ verse; to advance menacingly as we doze, and withdraw as we rouse. Or, freedom is only truly freedom when it appears against the background of an artificial limitation.”
Eliot could have been describing Frosts’s After Apple-Picking (though he doesn’t say). Despite the appearance of free verse (which it is) Frost’s poetry moves toward and away from a regular meter, and into and out of rhyme, so that the arrhythmia of free verse and the rhythm of meter co-exist and beautifully blend.
- Unmarked feet are iambic. Yellow is pyrrhic (which I will never learn to spell). Purple is spondaic. Red is trochaic. Green is an amphibrachic foot (called a feminine ending when closing the line).
Worth noting is that the poem is, allowing for the usual variant feet, as iambic (if not more so) than many of his more “regular poems”. The difference is in line length. The alternate lines are trimeter, dimeter and one monometrical line. There are no alexandrines however. Frost seemed unwilling to extend the line beyond iambic pentameter. I listened to Frost’s own reading of the poem so that the scansion would more accurately reflect what he had in mind. Interesting to me is the fact that Frost, when he reads at least, prefers to emphasize the iambic lines. For instance, I was initially tempted to scan the following line as follows:
One can see |what will trouble
That’s two anapests, the second has a feminine ending. Frost, however, reads the first four syllables with an almost equal stress:
One can see what will trouble
This makes me more apt to scan the line as trimeter with two strong spondees:
One can |see what |will trouble
It may be reading too much into Frost’s performance (since he tends to emphasize the iambics in many of his poems) but the poems hard, driving iambics lend the poem an exhausted, relentless feel that well-suits the subject. There is no regular rhyme scheme, but there is a sort of elegant symmetry to the rhyming that’s easier to see with some color and some visual aids.
My own feeling is that one has to be careful when ascribing too much intentionality to the poet. How much of this rhyme scheme was the result of deliberate planning and how much arose naturally as the poem progressed? In other words, I grant that none of the rhymes are accident, but I doubt that Frost sat down in advance to build his poem around a rhyme scheme. The poem has the feeling, especially given the shorter (almost opportunistic) line lengths, of a certain improvisation. When he needed to rhyme earth, he cut short a line (making it dimeter) to end up with “As of no worth”. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s coincidence that we find bough/now just after the start of the poem, and fall/all shortly before the poem finishes. In the middle, as though bracketed by these two couplets, is the triple rhyme well/fell/tell. The effect is to nicely divide the poem and give a certain symmetry.
The last element to include is the phrasing, something I haven’t done in other poems, but will try to elucidate in this one. Part of the art of poetry, too often overlooked, is the achievement of phrasing that, at its best, mimics human speech. We don’t tend to speak in one long sentence after another and we don’t favor an endless stream of short sentences (unless “dramatic” circumstances call for it). Not only was Frost keenly interested in the colloquial voice, but also understood the importance of phrasing, of the give and take of normal speech. A mistake that many beginning poets make, in their effort to so much as fit their ideas into the patterns of rhyme and meter, is to sacrifice a naturalness in their phrasing. A telltale feature of such writing is a poem dominated by end-stopped lines — syntax and phrasing that slavishly follows the line.
So, what I’ve done is to color code what I perceive to be the rhetorical structure of the poem. I’m iffish on a couple details, but let’s get started. The fist five lines are a simple, declarative sentence. Frost (I’ll refer to the speaker as Frost) begins the poem with a scheme called the Italian Quatrain. This only means that the rhyme scheme follows an abba pattern one would find in Petrarchan sonnets. ( I don’t, for an instant, suggest that Frost was thinking to himself: I shall now write an “Italian Quatrain”.) I do mean to suggest that the quatrain has a certain closed feel to it. But the poem isn’t done and neither is the work of apple-picking. In the fifth line there are some apples “still upon some bough” and there is new rhyme, bough, dangling like an unpicked apple.
Frost turns inward:
6 But I am done with apple-picking now. Essence of winter sleep is on the night, The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
The light green and “Dartmouth” green (couldn’t resist calling it that) signify the moments when Frost’s gaze turn inward. This happens four times in the poem. Whereas the first five lines are comprised of syndetic clauses (clauses linked by the conjunctive and), the second clause, the turning inward from the orchard (which places the poem) to Frost’s exhaustion, is asyndetic. The first five lines, with their repeated and’s are the way we speak (and you’ll even notice it in children) when we want to express the idea of endlessness. We might say: I have this and this and this and this to do. In a similar sense, Frost wants to communicate the endlessness of this chore. The first five lines are a rush of description.
When his gaze turns inward, to his own exhaustion, the lines become asyndetic. The fifth line, introducing a new rhyme, is complete in and of itself. The syntax, I think, mirrors Frost’s own exhaustion. The sentences are short. Clauses are no longer linked by conjunctions (they could be).
But I am done with apple-picking now.
By rights, one could pause after that line as though to catch one’s breath. The pause is reinforced when the line completes the rhyme of bough with now, as if Frost had picked the apple. In some ways, one could stop the poem here. The rhymes are complete. We have an Italian Quatrain followed by a concluding couplet. In a sense, the first six lines are the larger poem in miniature. “Essence of winter sleep,” not just the sleep of a night, already hints at a longer hibernation. From there Frost sleepily stumbles onward and the rhymes, like unpicked apples, will draw him. The sentences become progressively shorter as though Frost’s ability to think and write were as curtailed as his wakefulness. The eighth line ends with the simple, declarative, “I am drowsing off.” There’s nothing poetic about such a line or statement; and that’s part of its beauty and memorableness.
- An apple ladder is usually tapered, much narrower at the top than bottom. This makes pushing them up through the limbs much easier. Some are joined, like the ladder in the picture, while others are not. Frost’s ladder was “two pointed”, and so not joined at the top. The ladder going up to my daughter’s loft is an old apple ladder.
The next six lines, beginning with “Essence of winter sleep…” are another set of interlocking rhymes DEDFEF
7 Essence of winter sleep is on the night, The scent of apples: I am drowsing off. I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight 10 I got from looking through a pane of glass I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough And held against the world of hoary grass.
The rhetorical course of the poem links lines 6-8 while the rhyme schemes of lines 1-6 and 7-12 are separate. There is an overlap between the subject matter (in green) and rhyme scheme (purple).
The overlap draws attention away from the rhyme scheme (at some level, I think, disorienting the reader). I know I’m flirting with Intention Fallacy, so I’ll try not to draw too many conclusions as to Frost’s intentions when writing a given rhyme scheme. However, whether he wrote these lines on purpose or instinctively, they produce a similar effect in this given poem. The poem’s rhetorical structure, which doesn’t always mirror the rhyme scheme, draws our attention away from the rhymes and may contribute to any number of the poem’s effect, including the feeling of exhaustion. At its simplest, the crosscurrents of rhetoric and rhyme, I think, help to create an organic feeling in the poem — the feeling that it’s not a series of stanzas knit together.
- I’ve probably mentioned this before, but there’s a good article on the 4 deadly fallacies in the New York Times. The editorialist, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt offers up another take on the Intention Fallacy with this nice little anecdote:
”Are you trying to tell me that I don’t know what I’m doing when I paint?” ”Well, not exactly . . . ,” I began. ”My God,” he roared, ”every time I put a brush to a canvas, I have an intention. And I damn well better know what it is, or else the painting ain’t gonna be any good.” He rolled his eyes. ”Intentional fallacy,” he muttered. Then with a weary sigh: ”What do these critics think art is? Monkeys dabbling? Art is nothing but decisions. Decisions, decisions, decisions.”
My response Ben Shahn’s outrage would be to point out that it’s all well and fine for the artist (or poet) to indignantly claim an intention behind every brush stroke, line break or stanza break. It’s another to expect the reader or critic to guess it right. This issue is what was behind the failure of Charles Hartman’s Free Verse, An Essay on Prosody. Hartman was essentially (in my opinion) trying to turn every line break into a prosody of free verse. The problem is that a prosody depends on the reader correctly guessing an author’s intention. Without that, all you’ve got is a game of Russian roulette called Intention Fallacy.
The rhyme scheme of DEDFEF forms a sexain, but Frost’s thoughts veer beyond it.
Just as before, there is one line more than the rhyme can bear: “It melted, and I let it fall and break.” Once again, the analogy of the unpicked apple comes to mind. Is this the analogy Frost had in mind? To say so would be an Intention Fallacy, but I think the analogy works in the context of the poem. Anyway, we’re left with an unresolved rhyme.
But Frost has other matters to address. As if remembering the course of his poem after an aside (a wonderful and colloquial technique that appears in many of his poems – Birches) he seems to gather his resolve with three rhyming lines, short and quick.
But I was well 15 Upon my way to sleep before it fell, And I could tell What form my dreaming was about to take.
Take resolves the hanging rhyme of break. For a moment, both the poem’s rhetorical course and the rhyme scheme meet. There is a moment of resolution before Frost’s dreaming overtakes the poem, and with it an interlocking set of rhymes that don’t find resolution until line 26.
25 The rumbling sound Of load on load of apples coming in.
At this point, the poem will once again pivot. Here’s another image to help visualize what I’m describing.
In terms of rhyme and rhetoric (in the sense of concluding thought and concluding rhyme) the poem could be divided into three parts. Until then, subject matter and rhyme overlap in a way that, to some extent, might subliminally propel the reader.
Magnified apples appear and disappear, Stem end and blossom end, 20 And every fleck of russet showing clear. My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
The word end like the stem end of an apple (or itself another unpicked apple) won’t find it’s blossom end until the next three lines that are (now this gets really cool) the only three lines where an identifiable rhyme scheme isn’t matched to subject matter. That’s to say, most of the other rhymes come in tercets and quatrains (look at the boxes surrounding them). It’s only in the weightless center of the poem where any sort of identifiable scheme more or less breaks down. There’s a kind weightlessness, right after the dreaming and at the center of the poem, seems almost meant to imitate the dreaming exhaustion of the poem itself. I would love to think he did this on purpose.
- I’ve suggested that other poems by Frost can be understood, beneath their surface, as extended metaphors for the writing process. Some others are much more transparently about writing (as much as saying so), so I don’t think such speculation is without merit (though I realize I could be accused of playing the same ace of spades with each hand). After Apple-Picking could easily be read as analogous to the writing process itself — apples being understood as poems. Frost, by this point in his career, may have been feeling like writing poetry was like picking apples. While Frost didn’t think much of Yeats’s description of writing as “all sweat and chewing pencils” he also stated that after getting paid for the first poem he found he couldn’t write one a day for an easy living: “It didn’t work out that way”. Poems were like apples, it turned out. One couldn’t just shake the tree and let them fall. Doing that would leave them “bruised or spiked with stubble”, which is another way, perhaps, of saying that the hurried poem would be the flawed poem. They had to be cherished. Writing the poem, imagining its landscape of imagery, perhaps was like looking through “a pane of glass… skimmed… from the drinking trough/And held against the world of hoary grass.” Looking at the world through a poem is, perhaps, a bit like looking at the world through ice, a distortion that is both familiar and strange.
21 My instep arch not only keeps the ache, It keeps the pressure of the ladder-round. I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
Ache remembers the rhyme of break and take, but is far removed and seems more like a reminder than part of any rhyme scheme. Round is new, and sends the ear forward with the expectation of a rhyme. Bend turns the ear back, remembering end (is far removed as ache from take). The poem “sways”, in its center, like the ladder. The reader is never given the opportunity to truly settle in with any kind of expectation, but like the speaker of the poem, is drawn forward in search of a rhyme’s “blossom end” and, with the next line, is drawn back to a different rhyme’s “stem end”. Rhymes are magnified, appear, then disappear.
- Notice too how Frost divides the central portion of the poem into three of our five (or seven) senses.
SIGHT What form my dreaming was about to take. Magnified apples appear and disappear, Stem end and blossom end, And every fleck of russet showing clear. TOUCH/SENSATION/KINESTHETIC My instep arch not only keeps the ache, It keeps the pressure of the ladder-round. I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend. SOUND And I keep hearing from the cellar bin The rumbling sound Of load on load of apples coming in.
Earlier, Frost touched on the sense of smell with the “scent of apples”. The point here is that part of what makes this poem so powerful are the concrete images and the evocation of our senses. Don’t ever forget this in your own poetry. I know I’ve written it before, but it bears repeating: remember each of your senses when you are writing poetry. Don’t just focus on sight (which the vast majority of poets do) but think about sound, smell, touch, movement, texture, etc… Notice too, how Frost turns the ordinary into some of the most beautiful poetry ever written. There are no similes to interrupt the narrative. There are no overdrawn metaphors. Frost makes poetry by simply describing and evoking the every day; and doing so in ordinary speech. The rhyme scheme knits the poem together in an organic whole. Think how much less impressive the poem would be if it were simply free verse, free verse as it’s written by the vast majority of contemporary poets.
Notice Frost’s thought-process. He muses over “what form” his dreams will take, then expands on it (in yellow). He mentioens the ache of his instep arch, then expands on that (in lavender), then describes what he hears from the cellar bin (in purple). It’s a nice way of writing that reminds me of the rhetorical figure Prolepsis (or Propositio) in Shakespeare’s To be or not to be….
With coming in we arrive at the third portion of the poem.
For I have had too much Of apple-picking: I am overtired Of the great harvest I myself desired. 30 There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch, Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall. For all -- That struck the earth, No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble, 35 Went surely to the cider-apple heap As of no worth. One can see what will trouble -- This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is. Were he not gone, 40 The woodchuck could say whether it's like his Long sleep, as I describe its coming on, -- Or just some human sleep.
Frost turns inward again.The phrase, “I am overtired…” reminds us of his previous declarative statement “I am drowsing off”, inviting a sense of symmetry and closure. This time, though, Frost won’t digress. He is overtired of the great harvest. He will plainly say what exhausts him and why. The rhyming couplet fall/all adds to the sense of symmetry, hearkening back to the couplet bough/now. In both subject matter and form, Frost is recollecting himself. Again, it’s a similar structure to Birches — an assertion, a digression, and a concluding restatement of the original assertion.
The closing rhyme scheme of lines 33-41 is essentially comprised of two Sicilian Quatrains, the same that characterize the Shakespearean sonnet. However, the first Quatrain is interrupted by heap. You can see it above in the overall rhyme scheme (at the beginning of the post), but also directly above. It’s as if the poem is coming out of a sort of fever, a confusion of consciousness, and back to order. The rhyme heap/sleep might have been the concluding couplet in a Shakespearean sonnet, but that kind of epigrammatic finality would have been out of place in a narrative poem like this. Instead, the word heap slips into the first quatrain, another new sound, and the ear perhaps subliminally or subconsciously looks for the rhyme, but it doesn’t come. We finish the first of the two quatrains without it.
With the second quatrain of this third section:
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is. Were he not gone, 40 The woodchuck could say whether it's like his Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
The speaker seems almost recovered from the confused reverie of the poem and once again the poem’s beautiful symmetry is upheld. The poem begins with a Sicilian quatrain and all but closes with a Sicilian quatrain. But there is still one loose-end, one apple that has not been picked. Frost metaphorically picks it in the last line.
Or just some human sleep.
It’s a beautiful moment. The line is short and simple. It’s shortness may remind the reader of the speaker’s own weariness. He doesn’t have it in him to compose a fully Iambic Pentameter line. His sleep may just be some human sleep, and nothing more.
- Frost asks whether his sleep will be like that of the woodchuck’s. The comparison seems almost like a moment of levity after so much profundity. Some critics throw all their weight into these last 5 lines. Because sleep is repeated several time, Conder (as is the habit with some critics I have noticed), take this to mean that “sleep” must be central to the poem’s meaning and that all other considerations are mere trivialities. As example, consider John J. Conder’s analysis of After Apple-Picking. There, you can also find a collection of other essays on the poem. Personally, Conder’s analysis makes my eyes badly cross. Almost every sentence seems like a Gordian Knot. Here’s an example:
I probably haven’t looked hard enough, but while I’ve found lots of criticism of William Logan’s criticism, I haven’t yet found criticism of his poetry. Perhaps one exception is an article in Slate magazine by Eric McHenry. McHenry demonstrates what others have only claimed, and that’s that Logan’s criticisms of others could be equally applied to his own poetry. McHenry writes for example:
“Then there’s the matter of his own poetry. The author of five collections, Logan tends to write a chilly, impersonal line. His poems have all the erudition of his reviews, but little of their vitality and swagger. And he commits offenses for which he’d pillory any other poet. Logan loathes contrived drama in poetry; how would he treat the lines, “The Spanish moss like hunger/ hangs from the dogwood tree,/ and no one pays the phone bill/ of eternity” if they’d come to him in a review copy, rather than in a moment of inspiration?”
I think the impetus behind this kind of commentary, sometimes, is the wish that the critic William Logan would turn his knives on the poet William Logan. That way, at least, all the rest of the poets he’s gutted could console themselves. But it’s a peculiar argument. It’s true that Logan doesn’t always live up to the standards of his own criticism (if ever some might say) but what does this prove? Does this really exonerate the poets whom he’s criticized? Is it fair to accuse the critic of hypocrisy? Probably not, in my view. But it does raise the question: Why can’t he apply his own standards to his own poetry?
Criticism and artistic creation are two different abilities, it seems. It’s a peculiar oddity that though one may have the talent to recognize what is good or poor writing in others, that talent doesn’t always translate into the ability to produce art according to those same standards. You would think that it would, but apparently a superbly honed critical eye, along with an encyclopedic knowledge of any given art and its history isn’t enough. There have been any number of brilliantly prescient critics who were mediocre artists. In short, a capable critical mind is something different than the creative mind. It takes both faculties to result in the genius of a Shakespeare, Mozart or Bach.
- The fact that certain MFA programs often seem to spend so much time fussing over history and criticism (as in critical schools) has always perplexed me. As if knowing Feminism, from Marxism, from Structuralism/Semiotics has anything whatsoever to do with how to write a good poem. Frankly, some of this criticism is, to me, like reading a credit card agreement. If I ever see evidence that a thorough knowledge of semiotics produces a good poem, I’ll change my tune.
Anyway, in lieu of Logan committing ritual seppuku by the tip of his own sword, the establishment (it would seem) chooses to ignore his poetry. (Though Maybe I should add a question mark after that, but it is a matter of record that Logan’s criticism has been variously blackballed.)
The first aspect I notice in Logan’s poetry says more about me than Logan, perhaps. I detest poetry written in the second person singular (because they almost always fall apart under close inspection) and my response to it might go some way toward illustrating why. In the poem On the Wood Storks, the reader (in this case me) is informed that they (I) have “walked to where you [I] wanted to be alone”.
Behind the movie theater’s neon beau monde
cooled the dank waters of a retention pond,
cyclone fenced, palm-guarded, overgrown.
You walked there when you wanted to be alone.
For weeks nothing stirred the blackened reeds,
which were enough, those days you felt in need.
Well, that’s funny, because I have no memory of this. Though I wanted to be alone, the evidence suggests that I wasn’t. William Logan (wow, I really have no memory of this) was obviously not going to let me be. While nothing was stirring in the blackened reeds, he was obviously being a complete butt, scribblng his little, black observations about my every move and thought. Later in the poem (presumably I’m still trying to be alone), Logan observes that a “black-edged wing, in search of food” somehow breaks my “somber mood”. Well, Logan has a fix for that. How about a timely reference to Dante, Hell and the Last Judgment?
Yet on they marched, like Dante’s souls through Hell,
awaiting the Last Judgment’s redeeming bell,
working their way in silence, fallen aristocrats.
Christ, no wonder I wanted to be alone. Apparently (again I have no memory of this) I mumbled something conciliatory.
You said they looked like ladies’ hats,
white as the color of love, if love has color—
bright white, you meant, only a little duller.
“Yes, like love — I mean, you know, if love even has a color. I’m not saying it does, but if it did, maybe bright white? — I mean, not bright white, but duller, okay? Will you leave me alone now?” Ladies hats? I must have been drunk out of my gourd. What analogy was he going to dredge up next? Where do you go after Dante, Hell and the Last Judgment? So, anyway, this is why I detest poetry written in the second person singular. It reminds me of my days before Alcoholics Anonymous—the black-outs, the binges, the benders—and all those damned poets following me around.
But what about the poem, technically? It hints at Iambic Pentameter but the meter (if it can be called that) is like a finicky bird trying to land on a nervous twig. There are too many irregularities. I notice that one can read each line as having five stressed beats. In that case, one could call the lines accentual. It’s a nice feint, but that in itself doesn’t distinguish the verse from prose. It’s the couplets. The rhymes aren’t always full rhymes but I like them like that. The accentual lines along with the couplets move Logan’s poetry beyond the usual pablum of his peers.
Something else worth noting about the poem — it’s practically a study in colors. But here’s the thing, and it’s a quality that I notice again and again, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. There is one description after another and I can’t help be somewhat reminded of Ted Hughes. Any sense of narrative progression is undermined by one seemingly unrelated simile after another.
When bankers review their fat portfolios,
they draw such dark beaks open and closed,
There is, of course, a history behind this kind of writing, but the average reader isn’t going to know or care. The reader is only going to wonder why a banker and his fat portfolio materialized in the middle of a retention pond. There’s something almost Monty Python about it. No matter how the poet rationalizes it, the effect is to make the poem feel more like a patchwork quilt than a unified whole. The other factor that undermines a clean narrative are adjectives. Logan uses adjectives far more than he should, (a whole line is nothing but compound adjectives), and the effect is positively rococo: neon, dank, “cyclone-fenced, palm-guarded, overgrown”, blackened, gathered, Alpine, white, fat, dark, invisible, pale, newly, black-edged, somber, redeeming, fallen, bright. Add to that the adverbs and you’ve got a poem that makes pea-soup look like a noble gas. Consider a poem like A Valentine for Matthew Arnold:
The Seas of Faith are full again with vain
Philosophies, empty orders of gods,
Demons of the mind and heart supplanting
The slow angers of love with hollow stares
And rhetoric. These are not days to love,
When the rare expectations of morning
Will be blackened by the shoddy evening…
If the poet is going to throw this many adjectives into the line, make them good ones, not borderline clichés. As it is, one gets the impression that Logan needed to fill out the line lengths (and there is nothing easier or more expeditious than adjectives). But adjectives are to verse what cholesterol is to a beating heart. Unfortunately, it’s a habit of writing that typifies all the poems that I can find online. One would expect a critic of Logan’s caliber to know better. The oddest thing of all is that Logan’s poetry reminds me of passages in Hart Crane. But no, I’m not going there.
Logan’s choice of imagery is repetitive. There are twenty-six of his poems hosted by the poetry foundation. Let’s take a black & white look:
from Punchinello in Chains: VI. Punchinello Dreams of Escape
“The dream of life is just another dream…”
A Valentine for Matthew Arnold
“Philosophies, empty orders of gods…”
“The slow angers of love with hollow stares…”
“Will be blackened by the shoddy evening…”
“The white robe of the communicant…”
“The cold and the age of the season. Now
“The shirr of the lake under cold wind”
“A hollow loon cry from the water…”
“To the lake, a late walk on a dark road…”
Animal Actors on the English Stage after 1642
“in frenzied howls accepted empty purses…”
“though Cromwell’s ass just muttered empty phrases…”
In December, Thirty-One Moons
“The dark invades the pines…”
“Now the snow in the thin light pales the sky…”
In the Gallery of the Ordinary
“treated that blank pasture of the “heavens”…”
“or sunset a dull, worn-out gilt…”
“The nights there were scumbled with light…”
“Hypnotic moon on black water…”
(Notice how black is frequently associated with water.)
“Under a blank sky…” (There it is again.)
“In the uneasy light” (The word light will reappear again and again as pale, thin, dimly etc…)
“Against Aeneas and his dark Trojans…”
“…the first tentacles of dreams…”
“I dream of a wide sea…”
“I dream of you…”
“And wave in a shifting light…”
“I wake to cold…”
“I see your black hair a snaky tangle…”
“…and the fainter stars wink
“Dimly around them…
On the Wood Storks
“cooled the dank waters…”
“…nothing stirred but the blackened reeds…”
“…through the gathered gloom…”
“eight white ghosts floated faintly…”
“the waters like a chessboard scattered with white pawns…” (The implication being, here, that the waters are, you guessed it, black.”
“the draw such dark beaks open and closed…” (Beaks also appears in a previous poem, but one can only illustrate so much repetitiveness.”
“The pale birds…”
“One lifted black-edged wing…”
“white as the color of love…”
“bright white, you meant, only a little duller.”
Over the Dead Flatness of the Fens
“I watch the canvas of that underpainted sky” (Think “blank”.)
“gilt silhouettes, the bars of soap..”
“It’s darker out and starting to snow…”
The Age of Ballroom Dining
“The hour’s thin contemplations recruit…”
“The flaking mirror wraps gilt faces…”
“they awake from the dream of ambitions”
The Desert of Reminiscence
“…The fragile, unreachable water
“Surrounded us, held us in the arms of the cold.”
The Moth Disturbs the Night
“…the inside light that glows/Duller…”
“Penetrating their white…”
“From a dark wall, a moth has/Fallen…”
“…it resembles/ The black clay…”
“…is as fragile as the/Feathers of blood…”
The New (Upper) Assembly Rooms
“darker in these winter days…”
“in the weak/Reflection of light at dawn or sunset…”
The Other Place
“The sky revealed no sun.” (Yet another euphemism for emptiness or blankness.)
The Tree Frogs
“like dreamers awaking…”
“they hovered abovc the speckled pond’s black mirror…” (Yet again, the black waters…)
“as the fall’s chancels/ darkened…”
To a Wedding
“Miami sky turned gray as a blanket…” (Think blank or that it ‘revealed no sun’…”
“..inviolate as the sulfur sky…” (This theme of sameness and hellish imagery runs throughout Logan’s poetry…”
“These notes, cast down the dark corridor…”
“…a woman/With black hair…”
“…back into the pale saffron dust…”
“Her husband and daughter under a/Cloudless sky in which no wind stirs,/and no music…” (In so many words, blank.)
“…which is like shouting, Shouting into the deaf light.”
So, these are just the poems at Poetry Foundation. It doesn’t take long before the reader starts having that repetitive deja vous feeling all over again. Each poem seems to be assembled from the same little grab-bag of whatnots. Each poem seems to borrow from the other. There’s a monotonous sameness to their imagery and ideas. Has Logan ever seen a sky that wasn’t blank? Has Logan ever seen water that wasn’t black? Although I didn’t isolate every example, the imagery of “dreams” keeps popping up — again and again. Logan’s use of adjectives is unimaginative. Adjectives like black, dark, white, and dull are done to death. It’s no wonder McHenry refers to Logan’s lines as “chilly”. The landscape of Logan’s poetry, at least in this selection, is unremittingly dark, bleak, blank, dull, soiled, oily, black, cold, faint, pale, etc… In Christmas Tree, his parents kiss for a last time. In the ostensible re-write of the poem, The Box Kite, Logan just about repeats the very same closing line, respectively:
“I saw my parents kissing,/perhaps for the last time.”
“…the last time they stood at ease with each other.”
If this is any indication of Logan’s corpus, I think I could spot a poem by Logan a mile away. It would be unremittingly dark, bleak, dank — wait, I’m repeating myself. This too illustrates the problem with adjectives. It’s bad enough that they’re bland. It’s bad enough to use them too much. It’s a criminal offense to use them over and over in poem after poem again and again, repeatedly. Logan once wrote that Cape Cod’s wildlife should get a restraining order to keep the poet Mary Oliver out of their lives. Likewise, I strongly recommend that adjectives, especially a select few, should consider a restraining order to stop Logan from fondling them. Similarly, Logan’s palate of imagery seems to always veer back toward colors, light, dark, black, green, red ,water, liquids, grime, blood, etc…
I mentioned before that Logan’s poems never seem greater than the sum of their parts. My stab at an explanation is that because Logan’s habit is to pile on adjective after adjective, simile after simile, metaphor after metaphor, any real sense of narrative unity is lost. One metaphor or simile may have little or no relationship to the next. Logan seems to write whatever pops into his head. Consider a poem like Christmas Tree. It’s ostensibly a narrative poem — it’s telling a story. But watch what happens. Every time Logan gets just a little bit of momentum, just a little, he gets sidetracked by a simile. It’s like he suffers from a special kind of Tourette syndrome. Instead of barking out obscenities, he barks out similes (in italics). And then there’s the repetitive prepositional phrasing that keeps popping up like whac-a-moles (underlined).
How should I now recall
the icy lace of the pane
like a sheet of cellophane,
or the skies of [like] alcohol
poured over the saltbox town?
On that stony New England tableau,
the halo of falling snow
glared like a waxy crown.
Through blue frozen lots
my giant parents strolled,
wrapped tight against the cold
like woolen Argonauts,
searching for that tall
perfection of Scotch pine
from the hundreds laid in line
like the dead at Guadalcanal.
The clapboard village aglow
that starry stark December
I barely now remember,
or the brutish ache of snow
burning my face like quicklime.
Yet one thing was still missing.
I saw my parents kissing,
perhaps for the last time.
Any sense of narrative flow just doesn’t stand a chance. Besides that, the repetitive phrasing lends a formulaic feel. If we take out all the bric-a-brac, we end up with a very short poem and that’s part of the problem. Logan appears to get so lost in verbosity that he forgets that the snow was falling (and his face was being brutishly burned) and refers to the December night as being “starry”. So what was it then? Was the snow falling or was it a starry December night? Is all that bric-a-brac to keep the rhyme scheme?
There’s a difference between writing poetry and writing poetically. To judge by his writing, a reader could be forgiven for thinking that, to Logan, poetry is nothing more than adjectives, a string of similes and a cup full of metaphors. Compare this to one of the greatest poems in the English language:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
There’s not a single simile in the whole thing. In truth, the whole poem can be read as a metaphor, and has been treated as such. That was one of Frost’s gifts. You’ll never find (or at least I can’t think of one at the moment) a Frost poem invaded by a bus load of similes, verbal and prepositional metaphors. It’s a peculiar thing that the very talent that makes Logan’s criticism a guilty pleasure to read is the pill that poisons his poetry. Here’s Logan dismantling our current Poet Laureate [sigh...], Natasha Trethewey. I’ve italicized all the little touches that ripple like cluster bombs in the black waters of his prose.
Though fond of form, she fudges any restrictions that prove inconvenient, so we get faux villanelles, quasi-sonnets, and lots of lines half-ripened into pentameter—most poems end up in professional but uninspired free verse. Trethewey wears the past like a diamond brooch. She writes of her parents with no fury or sympathy or even regret, just [like] the blank courtesy of a barista at Starbucks. You read the tales of prostitution and slavery without feeling a thing—the slaves might just as well be dressed by Edith Head, with a score by Max Steiner swelling gloriously over a Technicolor sunset. Trethewey’s moral sunniness has all the conviction of Scarlett O’Hara gushing, “As Gawd is mah witness, I’ll nevah be hungry agai-yun.”
“Half-ripened into pentameter” is brilliant. I love that. Why can’t he write his poetry like this? And that’s another strange dichotomy. There’s a wicked sense of humor in Logan’s prose. His timing is perfect. His poems? Maybe I’m supposed to read that line about the banker’s fat portfolio as a moment of wry, self-conscious, maybe ironic humor but the timing is all off. There’s a bleak, moribund and oppressive quality to his poems. They’re the place where the wickedness of his humor implodes. Think of the poem “In December, Thirty-One Moons”. Logan sets the mood right away: “The dark invades the pines.” Substitute poetry for pines and you’ll catch my meaning. From there we go to “ruined columns”, “a sky heavy/With clouds”, “chalky moon”, a distant bird, an “arbitrary order”, the moon’s “starved shape”, a “thin light” that “pales the sky”, and then he wonders “if Death is a woman”. Yoiks! “Amid this dormant life,” he writes, “she is a friendly thing.” If we take the poem’s voice as Logan’s, then the poem could easily speak for Logan’s art.
- It’s interesting to note that Logan has criticized Mark Strand’s poetry as being “shorn of metaphors and similes, prosaic as a paper bag”. Logan proves you can go too far the other direction.
If I were to draw an analogy, I would compare a poem by Logan to the music of a composer like Salieri. The center rarely holds. All the right ingredients are there, but all in the wrong proportion. The cake never rises. Haydn once referred to Sammartini (the true father of the symphony) as a “note spinner”. Logan’s poetry can be like that. I haven’t yet read a poem possessed by an over-arching idea, a central metaphor that could be compared to a symphonic melody (or theme the holds the entirety of the piece together). He doesn’t seem to think that way. He piles on his imagery like a John Fletcher (and that’s going to be an equally meaningless allusion so I’ll explain).
A Shakespeare scholar, William Spalding, was one of the first scholars to methodically wrestle with authorship questions in Shakespeare. In an essay called “A Letter on Shakspeare’s Authorship of the Drama Entitled The Two Noble Kinsman“, Spalding uses internal evidence (stylistic) to identify which parts of the play are by Shakespeare and which by John Fletcher (they collaborated to produce The Two Noble Kinsmen). Of direct relevance to Logan’s poetry is the following passage:
[Shakespeare's] poetical images were elevated into a higher sphere of associations by the dignity of the principles which they were applied to adorn. Something like this is always the true function of the imagination in poetry, and dramatic poetry in particular; and it is also the truest which tries the presence of the faculty [talent for poetry]; metaphor indicates strength, and simile its weakness. Nothing can be more different from this, or farther inferior to it that the style of the poet who turns aside in search of description and indulges in simile preferably to the brevity of metaphor, to whom perhaps a poetical picture originally suggested itself as the decoration of a striking thought, but who allowed himself to captivated by the beauty of the suggested image, till he forget the thought which had given it birth, and on its connexion with which tis highest excellence depended. Such was Fletcher, whose style is poor in metaphor. His descriptions are sometimes beautifully romantic, but even then the effect of the whole is often picturesque rather than poetically touching; and it is evident that lengthened description can still less frequently be dramatic. In his descriptions it is observable that the poetical relations introduced in illustrations are usually few, the character of the leading subject being relied on for producing the poetical effect. Fletcher’s longest descriptions are but elegant outlines; Shakespeare’s breastfed metaphors are often finished paintings. Where Shakespeare is guilty of detailed description, [Fletcher] is very often labored, cold, and involved; but his illustrative ideas are invariably copious, and it is often their superfluity which chiefly tends to mar the general effect. [p. 17]
While Fletcher and Logan are obviously very different poets, and an aesthetic is being applied to Fletcher that can’t fully be applied to a 21rst century poet, there are still certain rules that apply. 2oth century poets have chosen to utterly ignore them, if not flagrantly defy them, but we all know how wildly popular contemporary poetry is. I think the majority of the public would rather have their teeth filed than read a book of contemporary poetry from beginning to end. What gravity is to the architect, the human mind is to the poet. What architecture can do successfully is constrained by the laws of gravity. Likewise, what the poet can do, successfully, is constrained by the reader’s capacity to comprehend him. All this is a simplistic way of saying that what made a poem great in the 16th century still makes a poem great in the 21rst century. The observations concerning Fletcher are applicable to Logan.
- If you choose to listen to Logan’s reading, at precisely 1 minute and 17 seconds, a “blank sky” will show up. I kid you not, preceded by “drowned light”. Lest I’m accused of reviewing unrepresentative poetry, this reading is from 2011 and from his latest book. Also, the first poem he reads will end “Of all the things you were, perhaps that would be the last.” There’s that same idea as in the Christmas Tree and the Box Kite. It’s deja vous all over again. In the second poem the lake (read water) is gray rather than black. All the usual primary colors will show up. One could almost make a drinking game out of Logan’s poems. Another black haired woman shows up at 8 minutes. At about 9 minutes a “polluted pond” will appear. I assume that means it’s black or gray? Is there ever such a thing as potable water in his poems? When he reads Summer 1968 at the 12 1/2 minute mark, you’re definitely going to recognize the Logan-ean grab-bag of imagery.
Beneath that chalk-blue sky with iron
stirred through it, the whitewashed windows
burned in faint phosphorescence.
It’s all there. We’ve already seen “chalk” applied to the moon. The light, once again, is faded or pale. In this instance, faint. Do I belabor the point? I guess I’m just surprised by how limited Logan’s pallet remains.
This and That
I think very highly of Logan. He’s brilliant and prolific. His review of The Notebooks of Robert Frost was so matter-of-fact’ly devastating that rumors suggested the book would be withdrawn from sheer embarrassment (or at least until Robert Faggen’s monumentally bad editing could be corrected). I could only wish I were as capable.
I suspect that if Logan is remembered, it won’t be for his poetry.
I’ve exchanged some e-mails with him but I doubt he knows me from Adam. He’s unlikely to ever review my poetry simply because my latest poems will probably never make it into book form. Certainly no publisher has ever deigned to publish my poems individually (and not for lack of trying). At the moment, it’s no longer something that interests me — and was the reason I initially created this blog. So, all this is to say, I’m not too worried about being in his cross hairs. I should be though. I think it’s a pity that he hasn’t delved into the world-wide web. We can all guess the rationale. Poetry that hasn’t been screened by the publishing industry (read editor), is probably poetry not worth reviewing (let alone reading). However, since he seems perpetually disappointed by what he reads anyway, what’s the difference?
I would encourage him to look around.
You should try it, Mr, Logan. There’s more to poetry than is dreamt of in your book catalog.
A while back I ordered a book by poet and author Carolyn Locke. The book is called Not One Thing: Following Matsuo Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior. Locke’s book is modeled after Basho’s famous Haibun, Narrow Road to the Interior. Haibun is genre in which haiku alternate with prose passages. Basho’s haibun is alternately translated as The Narrow Raod to Oku or Narrow Road to the North or Narrow Road to a Far Province. In a translation by Hiroaki Sato, the first paragraph of the forward begins thusly:
Carrying a pack with his writing materials, a few pieces of clothing, and several gifts from friends who saw him off, the poet Basho set out on a hike to the wilds of northern Honshu in the spring of 1689. With his close disciple Sora, he planned to visit places famous as wonders of nature or significant in literary, religious, or military history—and he wanted to spread to the poetry lovers he would meet in the towns and villages along the way his methods of writing renga, the communal linked verse that was his passion and greatest concern in life. [Basho's Narrow Road: Spring & Autumn Passages, p. 9]
Many of the “famous places” that Basho was going to visit were called Uta-Makura. Later in Sato’s introduction to his translation, he explains their significance this way:
In Japan, where the first large-scale collection of verse dates from the eighth century, a great many places were routinely described or mentioned in poetry from the outset, and many of these came to be known as uta-makura, “poetic pillows.” Uta-makura then acquired the same significance as kidai or kigo, “seasononal subjects” or “topics,” each representing a certain idea or sentiment or a trigger thereof. For Basho the purpose of visiting such places was, as he said to Kikaku in a letter, furuki uta-domo no makoto a kan(zu)—to “feel the truth of the old poems.”
Basho is considered by most to be Japan’s greatest poet (their Shakespeare) and his haibun, Narrow Road to the North, is considered a masterpiece of world literature. I’ve read it, in translation, and was moved by its humanity. Because of Basho’s fame, and because most of the landmarks he visited remain and continue to be enjoyed, a little tourism industry has arisen for those want to retrace his footsteps (by bus). And so it was that Locke wrote in her diary: “If I ever return to Japan, the one thing I’d like to do is follow Basho’s travels.”
“Now, six years later, Laurel Rasplica Rodd, the director of the Center for Asian Studies at the University of Colorado, was calling fro applications for a Fullbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad Seminar in Japan. Sixteen teachers from kindergarten through post-secondary levels would be selected for this month-long “Journey to the Interior,” during which they would study Basho’s famous journals and haiku, and travel through northern Honshu, following the footsteps of one of Japan’s greatest poets.”
Locke was accepted. Her book, Not One Thing, is a haibun modeled after Basho’s. Unlike Basho’s haibun, Locke includes many full-colored photos. In a sense, one could also say that her book has elements of haiga. Strictly speaking, a haiga is a style of painting that incorporates the aesthetics of the haiku. Buson, not Basho, was considered Japan’s greatest master of this form (and also considered, by a few, to be a greater poet than Basho). Buson’s paintings, accompanied by his own haiku, are considered masterpieces of the form. In the 21rst century I don’t see why photographs can’t be an alternative to paintings, and Locke’s haiku are sometimes paired with a photograph.
So, what do I think?
I think that you have to be predisposed to enjoy haiku, familiar with Basho, and be minimally acquainted with Japanese culture to enjoy Locke’s book. She herself states:
“What you will find here is a work of love that explores and honors one woman’s encounter with one of the world’s most incredible cultures ans well as her journey into her own interior world. Written in the form of haibun—a combination of prose, haiku, and images—it does not pretend to be an academic study, nor does it offer a complete explanation of all terms, concepts, and historical references.”
The lack of explanation will probably leave the unacquainted reader somewhat perplexed. On the other hand, that same attribute might spur a reader’s curiosity. I think that if one hasn’t already read Basho’s Narrow Road, some of the enjoyment might be lost. Even so, being intimately familiar with haiku and having read several translations of Narrow Road, I was mildly disappointed that there weren’t more photographs of the actual Uta-Makura. The photographs we do find, let’s admit it, are rather amateurish. They are nicely reproduced but amateurish. Personally, I find that somewhat charming and engaging. This isn’t a pretentious book. You will find pictures of snakes (which terrified Basho), irises, sandals and her own feet in a brook. I was reminded of an older era when the next door neighbor would have a slide show while they soliloquized about their adventures. Locke’s photographs do give the reader some sense of the landscape she traveled through. They’re quirky.
Basho describes his journeys and laments. He can write passages like this:
“The most loyal among his loyal vassals were selected and put up in this castle, but their fame lasted only for a moment and turned into clumps of grass. “The country destroyed, the mountains and rivers remain. In the castle it is now spring and the grass has turned green.” Sitting on our hats laid on the ground, we shed tears for a while…” [Narrow Road to the Interior, Sato, p. 87]
“If left alone the seven treasures would have scattered, the jeweled doors torn in the wind, and the gilt columns decayed in frost and snow, the whole thing turned into dilapidation and empty grass in no time…”
There’s something in the tone that almost hints at Shakespeare’s King Lear. The feeling of loss, transience, and “beautiful sorrow” suffuses Basho’s work — or wabi-sabi. It’s this quality of Basho’s poetry and writing that lends it humanity and power.
While visiting this same area, Locke writes:
“On our trek up to Chuson-hi, we pass one souvenir shop after another, each with glittering charms, prayer plaques, and fluttering banners. Sunday visitors swarm the paths, and it’s difficult to feel any spirituality here. All the glitter and even the gold in the chapel leave me untouched, but I am moved by the scent of the lilies at the foot of the guardian Jizo, by the lotus blooming in the pond, and by the hint of lavender on my Matsushima hat, to which I have added a pink wildflower from the field below.”
Whereas Basho always seems to begin with the particular and move outward, universalizing, Locke more often does the opposite. She begins with the general and often ends by turning her gaze inward. The risk with this kind of writing is that some of the passages can feel a bit like navel-gazing. We sometimes know less about about what she saw than how she felt when seeing it. In this sense, Locke’s book can often feel more like a personal diary than something meant to be shared. This format may be enjoyable for some readers. As for myself, one of my favorite passages was her discussion of the Saint Tetsumonkai who, according to legend, methodically mummified himself, burying himself alive as part of the process. 1000 days later, he was exhumed and lacquered. Every 12 years his clothes are changed (which, by coincidence, is about as often as my children would like to change their socks) . The passage is an exception where, contrary to her forward, she “offers a complete explanation”. I enjoyed it.
R.H. Blythe, if her were still alive, would have a hard time with Locke’s haiku. Blythe preferred objective haiku and considered subjectivity (a trait he misogynisticly associated with women haiku poets) slanderous. She also hews to the 5/7/5 rule of haiku-writing that has been largely discarded by most Western writers of haiku. The result is that her haiku can feel wordy compared to the average Japanese haiku in translation. This reason for this is discussed in the link above but briefly, Japanese syllables are not the same as syllables in English. Writing 17 syllables in Japanese is roughly equivalent to 12 in English.
However, the West has no tradition of haiku. Asserting that we should write haiku a certain way is a bit pompous. If Locke wants to write haiku that are a full seventeen syllables, then why not? But anyway, here’s what I mean by subjective:
Last monk in the curve
of wind—lonely trout swimming
The classical Japanese haiku poet would normally avoid using words like loneliness, words the describe an emotion. Further, the ascription of emotions to animate or inanimate objects ran counter to the aesthetic of the haiku (and to the Zen influenced culture in general). The Japanese poet would normally let the context cue the emotional response. You will also find personification and metaphors (italicized) in Locke’s haiku—techniques much more typical of western poets.
Outside the window
a red roof, slick with misty
Blue umbrellas bob
along the road—shy flowers
bowing to the iris
Swift waters stirring
river mist, sulfur mists:
deep mountain breathing.
Sometimes the haiku can feel more like footnotes than actual poems:
Bracelets of clover
woven in the fields below
graces an old stone.
lines pooling around one sqaure
in this shallow plate.
I don’t make these observations as criticism but more as an effort to describe the kind of haiku Locke writes. I enjoy the variety and experimentation shown by Western writers of haiku, even if the aesthetic spirit of the original form is often lost — whether by choice or inexperience. In Locke’s, the joy she takes in writing haiku, in the Japanese culture and the experience of visiting in Basho’s footsteps, is wonderfully communicated.
Not One Thing is hard to classify. It’s not a book to buy if you want a modern tour and description of Basho’s road to the interior (despite the book’s subtitle: Following Matsuo Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior) . You will likely be disappointed. The photographs surely have strong and enjoyable associations for Locke, but they can leave the reader a with polite smile and perplexed gaze. Part of that is probably due to her decision to omit “a complete explanation of all terms, concepts, and historical references”. I guess the best way to classify the work is as one of those old slideshows in book form. Locke will share from her dairy and read poems as she clicks through the photographs.
You will get some sense of what it’s like to follow Basho’s journey in modern Japan, little glimpses of what you will see; but mostly, if you read the book, you read it to share in Locke’s enjoyment and enthusiasm. To be honest, that was enough for me. I read it in relaxed moods and enjoyed it. I admire the effort and care she took to put her experience to paper. I’d like to see more poets make this kind of effort. The West could use its own haibun.
Victories & Foibles: Some Western Haiku by David Seegal
On the subject of haiku by Western poets, I couldn’t resist adding Seegal’s book to the post. I found this yesterday at our local used bookstore. What a fun little book. My copy was “Made in Japan” according to a little sticker, and was published by Charles E. Tuttle Company of Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, Japan in 1977. (Vermont and Japan, you know… We have a lot in common.) First of all, the physical appearance of the book is lovely. If you can get a good copy, it’s slip case is bound in rice paper and the hardcover binding is cloth. The pages themselves are a rainbow of subdued colors: cream, yellow, brown, blue and various shades of green.
The haiku themselves? They’re more like haikai, I think. In the preface to the book, Seegal makes no secret of this flavoring.
“The following haiku verses, written in an American style, are departures from the exacting nature of this Japanese poem. By relaxing the restraints upon subject and style, the American poet gains the opportunity to experiment with and to possibly enhance the classic Eastern examples.”
Now let’s define understatement. If “American style” means glib, tongue-in-cheek, and smarmy, then Seegal is the acknowledged master of the American haiku. He’s almost managed to turn the haiku into a kind of harmless and truncated limerick. Expect lots of exclamation points—a bit like those folks at the party (whom we’ve all met) who nervously laugh at their own jokes as if to remind you that you should be laughing.
Night on city street
strangers excuse bumps in fog…
…no man an island!
former caterpillar days—
“Those were ugly times!”
Sunny spring morning
there’s that same old frog winking
at me…. I wink back!
One gets the impression of an author who is inordinately pleased with his own cleverness. Every once in a while Seegal takes a stab at something like seriousness, but even there, one isn’t quite sure:
new courthouse in Salem town—
a frayed hangman’s noose
Or how about this little gem:
Prison gate behind—
walking in spring sun he stops
to touch dogs, horses…
The etcetera at the end of that haiku should worry us all. I ask you, will the dogs and horses need years of therapy?
And then there are the hallmark moments, the kinds of one-offs that belong on those little signs hung on kitchen walls:
Ah the warm pleasures
for aged upon finding
new facts and new friends
Why no exclamation point? — I ask myself. Anyway, the book is an object lesson in how not to write haiku if your aim is anything remotely related to the Japanese originals in either substance, style or merit (let alone poetry in general). So why do I mention the book? Because it’s so bad it’s a work of genius. It has to be intentional. It’s irresistible It’s like an 82 car pile up (the number pages). You just can’t stop watching. You can’t. The way each hurtling haiku demolishes the next arouses an almost morbid fascination. Or think of it this way: The entirety of the book could be compared to a compilation of YouTube fail videos. You know how each little video is going to end, but you just can’t stop watching, cringing, and grimacing with a voyeuristic delight.
You just can’t consistently back into this kind of genius.
The book is a masterpiece of irony and satire. We can only mourn the fact that it wasn’t illustrated by Edward Gorey.
kettle drummer misses beat
…thousand backs stiffen!
[The Vermont Poetry Newsletter is not produced by me but by Ron Lewis, by whose permission I post this. PLEASE NOTE: I have edited his newsletter so that links are provided rather than text. Please contact Ron Lewis if you would like to receive his Newsletter in full, have questions concerning its content, or if you have revisions or corrections.]
Vermont Poetry Newsletter
Your Poetry & Spoken Word Gateway
In The Green Mountain State
September 10, 2013 (Previous issue: April 20, 2013) –
In This Issue:
- About VPN
- Newsletter Editor/Publisher’s Note
- Writing Assignments/Suggestions/Exercises/Prompts
- Compass Music & Arts Center
- Writer’s Center of WRJ: Simply Time for Poetry
- Library Book Sales
- Seamus Heaney Passes Away
- Green Mountain Poets House
- Ruth Stone Trust/Foundation
- Poetz.com Discontinued
- New Books From Angela Patten & Daniel Lusk
- Burlington Book Festival
- Brattleboro Literary Festival
- Bread Loaf on iTunes U
- Poetry Magazine’s July/August Issue Stats
- John Hollander Passes Away
- The Magic of Touching the Text
- Man Returns Frost’s Bust 26 Years Later
- Guardians of Historical Memories
- Against Conceptualism, Calvin Bedient
- Towards a Conceptual Lyric, Marjorie Perloff
- Vermont State Poet Laureate Sydney Lea’s 2013 Calendar
- Great Poetry Links: Afghan Women’s Writing Project
- Northeastern University Showcases Typewriter Exhibition
- Poetry Quote – Seamus Heaney
- American Life in Poetry Poem
- US Poets Laureate List
- Vermont Poet Laureates
- US Poet Laureates From Vermont
- New Hampshire Poet Laureates
- US Poet Laureates From New Hampshire
- Contact Info for Editor/Publisher of VPN: Ron Lewis
- Vermont Literary Journals
- Vermont Literary Groups’ Anthologies
- Vermont Poetry Blogs
- State Poetry Society (PSOV)
- Year-Round Poetry Workshops in Vermont
- Other Poetry Workshops in Vermont
- Year-Round Poetry Writing Centers in Vermont
- Other: By Correspondence
- Other Writing Groups in Vermont
- Poetry Event Calendar
1.) About the Vermont Poetry Newsletter Network
The Vermont Poetry Newsletter Network is made up of people of all backgrounds, ages and skills who appreciate the craft of poetry and want to promote it in the beautiful state of Vermont. The network consists of a free e-mail list, an eventual web site, workshops, open mics, poetry performances and other literary events. The network provides opportunities to meet local poets, talk about and enjoy poetry, and motivate and inspire yourself in whatever writing projects you are involved.
The mission of the Vermont Poetry Newsletter is to foster the poetry arts community in the Green Mountain State, home to more writers and poets per capita than any other state in the nation. Its goals are to serve as a resource for and about VT poets; to support the development of individual poets; and to encourage an audience for poetry in Vermont.
Dating from 2009, the Vermont Poetry Newsletters are being archived on a blog maintained by poet Patrick Gillespie at Poemshape.
- This reading is a paid commission and has brought me a little ways out of my funk. Commissions are open. That is, anyone is welcome to commission a reading of their favorite poem or even just a poem.
So, since I’m on a short time line, let’s get right to the poem, written by the late Canadian poet Irving Layton. You can read some of Layton’s biography at Wikipedia. The poem itself can be found in the book Irving Layton: A Wild Peculiar Joy. The book can also be perused at Google Books. It’s from the latter site that I copied the poem, just to be sure I had it right. And here it is:
I have seen respectable
served up like bread and wine
in stores and offices,
in club and hostel,
and from the streetcorner
I have seen death
Against this death,
this burly sun,
of your breath,
rose and lovely,
and the secret
of the imagination
When possible, I like to know a poet’s biography. Within limits, it can be helpful trying to get behind the poets words. In the case of Irving, what caught my attention was his humanism, his interest in politics and social theory, his reading in Marx and especially Nietzsche. He joined the Young People’s Socialist League when young. Marx considered religion to be the opiate of the masses and Nietzsche famously wrote that the last Christian died on the cross. Nietzsche wrote On the Genealogy of Morals, a book that all but eviscerates the pretense of morality in Christianity. I certainly don’t know the degree to which Layton adopted the world views of these authors, but his reputation as a humanist argues that something brushed off.
I have seen respectable
Why respectable? It’s a strange way to refer to death. Respectable can mean “esteemed, deserving regard; of good repute”; but there’s also a more socially loaded sense of the word. For instance, when one refers to a respectable woman, there’s also the unstated but implied condemnation of all the women who are not respectable. In this sense, a respectable death might be “characterized by socially or conventionally acceptable morals”. In other words, respectable death can be understood as referring to a certain kind of socially and conventionally accepted conception of death.
served up like bread and wine
in stores and offices,
in club and hostel,
When is death served up like bread and wine? At the Eucharist.
“The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper; the solemn act of ceremony of commemorating the death of Christ, in the use of bread and wine, as the appointed emblems; the communion.” The Collaborative International Dictionary of English v.0.48
In most denominations, the bread is understood as being (or representing) the flesh of Christ and the wine is his blood.
“For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me”. (1 Corinthians 11:23-24)”
But Layton first locates us in stores, offices, the club and the hostel. Since the Eucharist isn’t something that’s celebrated outside of church, the reader is forced to read “bread and wine” figuratively (and also with a sense of irony).
Note: Understanding “bread and wine” in its figurative sense means interpreting the phrase as applying to any activity in which our preoccupation is with death rather than life. In other words, when we sit in a club and colorlessly exchange our zest for life for a socially condoned fear of death, we embody the”respectable death” of the indoctrinated.
Catholics refer to the Eucharist as a sacrament (through which Christ bestows salvation), but protestants prefer the term ordinance, viewing the Eucharist “not as a specific channel of divine grace but as an expression of faith and of obedience to Christ”. If understood in this latter sense, then partaking in the poem’s “bread and wine” may more broadly be understood as professing obedience to death’s preeminence over life.
This is ‘respectable death’ or a proper and societally approved conception of death.
Respectable death, like the respectable woman, refutes anything like a celebration of the flesh — its pleasures, joys, inherent flaws and decadent habituations. Supremacy is given to mortality and God’s judgment. We are, by the “bread and wine” of tradition and fear, made respectable and conventionally moral. Even in the mercantile stores, the industrious offices, the raucous club and the youthful hostels, death is given preeminence.
and from the streetcorner
After figuratively secularizing “bread and wine”, the poem denies the sacred pretense of the Eucharist. That is, the “bread and wine” of the Eucharist is no different, in effect, than the moral indoctrination served up in stores and offices. This sacred and secular indoctrination are, in intent, one and the same.
In ancient Roman religion, Janus was the god of beginnings and transitions, gates, doors, passages, endings and time. He was the god of two faces who faced two ways. These two lines can be interpreted as comparing the Church to Janus. The chuch, like Janus, looks to the future and the past. Here’s how Wikipedia puts it as of writing this:
“Janus frequently symbolized change and transitions such as the progress of future to past, from one condition to another, from one vision to another, and young people’s growth to adulthood. He represented time, because he could see into the past with one face and into the future with the other.Hence, Janus was worshipped at the beginnings of the harvest and planting times, as well as at marriages, deaths and other beginnings. He represented the middle ground between barbarism and civilization, rural and urban space, youth and adulthood. Having jurisdiction over beginnings Janus had an intrinsic association with omens and auspices.”
The one thing, perhaps, that Janus does not perceive is the now. Now is where life occurs. Now concerns itself with neither change nor transition. It is, in a sense, changeless. Now simply is. Living in the now, however, can easily be perceived as a kind of anarchic decadence. A life that cares nothing for the future or the past is going to subvert tradition (tradition being based on a respect for the past) and undermine morals (the latter being based on the fear of future judgment). It’s in this sense, perhaps, that the Church is being compared to Janus. The Church looks both ways too, insisting on reverence for the past while instilling a fear of the future; but cannot and will not perceive or celebrate the now that is life. The church, in this sense, intrinsically distrusts the now.
Note: There are three lines in the poem composed of a single word: death/church/life. (The beauty of free verse is that it allows for this kind of typographical presentation.) Like Janus, the church is typographically centered between death, at the beginning of the poem, and life at the close of the poem. It’s possible and tempting, therefore, to interpret this as meaning that the church is the essential nexus in the transition between birth, life and death. However, this runs somewhat counter, I think, to the theme of the poem. A more likely interpretation, perhaps, is that Layton is emphasizing a choice presented by the two stanzas: death and church in the first stanza verses life in the second. Church can be understood as an institutional symbol of the lifeless preoccupation with death and conventional morality.
By the end of this first stanza, it’s easy to read an ironic and skeptical sneer in Layton’s use of the word respectable.
I have seen death
Ice is nothing if not joyless, humorless and lifeless. Additionally, there is also the implication of an icy and coldy calculating intent.
So, summing up the first stanza, one interpretation might be as follows:
“I have seen “respectable death” (a confining and conventional fear of death) served up like the “bread and wine” of the Eucharist (like a kind of societally approved and deadening indoctrination) in stores, clubs, offices, hostels and the church. I have seen death (the fear of death) served up like ice (coldly and calculatedly).“
The next stanza will refute this preoccupation with the past, the future, death and respectability. It’s possible, if not easy, to read the first stanza as a Nietzschean indictment of the church, but I think that Layton’s indictment is more broad based than that. He is inditing a whole way of thought typified in the indoctrinating and ritualized symbolism of “bread and wine”. Instead, he offers a kind of Dionysian alternative, a full-blooded — not wine — and full fleshed — not bread — vision.
Against this death,
Instead of bread, he gives you the body. Live in the now. Live in the body. Celebrate the pleasures and joys of the body: sleep, sex, drink, debauchery and sheer physical exuberance. Celebrate the body’s nowness,
this burly sun,
of your breath,
rose and lovely,
Turn your mind away from numbing, souless burdens of the past and future. The stores, offices, clubs and hostels and church are all, even at their best, closed, limited and confining. Go into the burly sun. There is nothing more present and in the now than the awareness of ones exhalations — ones breath. To breathe is to live and the reference to breathe could be an allusion to ‘Atman’. In Hindu philosophy, “the word `Atman` is derived from ‘an’ which means ‘to breathe’, which is ‘the breath of life’. The meaning of the word changed with time and it covered life, soul, self or essential being of the individual.” To be aware of ones breath is to acknowledge the preeminence of life. There is also surely a deliberate pun on Rosé. The “rose” in our cheeks is the true wine — the living blood that courses through our veins.
Instead of bread, partake of the body. Instead of wine, partake of the blood in the cheek. In short, instead of the respectable, cold confinement of idea and symbolism, choose (against this death) the life of the body.
and the secret
of the imagination
Think freely. Live the secret life of your imagination. Why is it secret? The implication is that it’s because it’s not respectable. The secret life of your imagination will not be “characterized by socially or conventionally acceptable morals”. Live it anyway! — says the poem. (Knowing that Layton read Nietzsche, one can’t help but suspect Nietzsche’s presence.)
- The drawing of the sun, above center, is by Laurie Gibson and can be purchased here.
The imagination must scheme because the imagination, by definition, will reject the imposition of conventional order and morality. The imagination seeks to create the new and the unconventional. The amoral and unconventional spirit will reject the conventional morality and order implied by “labour and stone”. The stone can be understood as the inflexible and implacable order of the church. The mention of labour, in combination with the stone, is possibly an allusion to the myth of Sysiphus — a rich and appropriate allusion. In other words, the poem is comparing the lifeless preoccupation of the respectable death to the labour of Sysiphus, who will always roll the same stone to the top of the mountain, but will never succeed in keeping it there.
The stone will always roll back to the bottom and Sysiphus will push it, again and again, back to the top. The task is insoluble. Likewise, the Janus-like preoccupation with a respectable death is insoluble. The mystery of death will never be solved. The only solution is to free oneself from any Sisyphean preoccupation with death and live freely in the now, in the rosy and lovely cheek, the exhaled breath, the burly sun, and the body. Leave behind the dessicated symbolism of bread and wine. Free your imagination.
The poem may be understood as contrasting (and preferring) the amoral, anarchic and joyful now of the body against the slow and certain death of a soulless conventionality confined by tradition and fear — what he calls “this death” and a “respectable death”.
August 10 2013 • up in Vermont
My other non-poetry related project, after two summers of disappointment, was the arrival of four ducklings, which is when I realized I had to build a duck house. Being the scrap collector that I am, I had nearly all of the materials on hand (except for the hardware cloth). Most of the frame is made from pieces of treated lumber that had been sitting (and buried even) around my house for a decade or more. My prize possession was an old cast iron wheel (probably from an old 19th century wheel barrow?) I scrounged it out of the metal recycling dumpster (junkyard opportunist that I am). What poet and story teller, after all, isn’t a junk collector in some small sense? I was determined to put together a mobile-duck-home. Fortunately, unlike our chickens, ducks aren’t budding sociopaths and psychopaths. Their will not be blood if they don’t have x square feet of inviolable duck-space. I based the dimensions on a book by Eliot Coleman called Four-Season Harvest. I knew Eliot Coleman and his family when he was the farm manager at the Mountain School (then a full-time high school) and I was a student there. Ducks like each other (for the most part), and that means a duck house can be smaller than a house with the same number of chickens (at least if all the literature is to be believed — along with the behavior of my own chickens). So, here’s what I came up with:
Note the Minnesota license plate. My daughter scored this old “Thousand Lakes” plate from the same metal recycling bin. Doesn’t it make sense that a duck’s idea of heaven would be the land of a thousand lakes? Anyway, notice the “wheel-barrow” handles. They’re cut from treated decking and eight feet in length. Here’s the duck house with the wheel. The roof extension protects the cast iron wheel and wood tines from rain (and rot):
To the right is a close up of the wheel.
Eliot Coleman said that he built in a hardware cloth floor for his duck house (which was also mobile). He used bolts to hold it in place (and to also make it removable). I made mine removable but didn’t want the complications and extra weight of bolts. I designed mine so that the floor slides out. The floor can be easily hosed off. I put burlap on the hardware cloth for the sake of the duckling’s feet (much softer). Burlap can be bought in roles and is very inexpensive. Also, the ability to slide out the floor made the door a touch more complicated. It meant that I couldn’t hinge the door from the sides without some complicated carpentry Kung Fu. Every little feat of engineering genius was going to add weight. I opted for the simplest solution (which I wasn’t sure I’d like) and that was to hinge the door on the top. As it turns out, I like it. I can swing it up and entirely out of the way when necessary.
loves ducklings. the cat’s
And that’s that. While I was cleaning, photographing and moving their house, the ducklings were doing their best to be invisible — and that’s a poor defense with three girls around. Remember:
~ up in Vermont