A Review of Birchsong
And the excuse it gives me to digress on anthimeria, the difficulty of accentual-syllabic verse, Animism, Mary Oliver, etc…
Here’s the book that’s been burning a hole in my conscience. This was forwarded to me in April. I promised to review the book and right about that time I was swamped with work. The book is Birchsong Poetry Centered in Vermont, edited by Alice Wolf Gilborn, Rob Hunter, Carol Cone, Brenda Nicholson, Monica Stillman. If you’re wondering whether there are more editors than authors, there are not. The book is an anthology of fifty-six contemporary poets “intimately acquainted with Vermont”. I’m not one of them. I don’t normally like anthologies, but this is a book to which I would have submitted poetry.
Whether because of the editors’ tastes or because poets in Vermont are more predisposed to draw on the natural world, readers familiar with New England (and the world evoked by Robert Frost) will recognize the landscape and certainly be reminded of the poet. A sense of season and place is strongly evoked in nearly all the poems. Maybe it reflects my own predilection, but I prefer the earthbound imagery of these poets to the more discursive abstractions typical of many (if not most) contemporary poems.
The very first poem, Ah, Spring, by Pamela Ahlen, lets the reader know what they’re in for. They’ll be muddy knee’d, caught in the rain, and end up with a thorn in the thumb. These poems are all about a state where the total population isn’t even half the nearest city.
sweet meadow pranked with green
the red-winged blackbird
yessing a sweet potato sky.
But Mama Nature’s playing
two-stick tricks, paradiddle
pandemonium all shake, rattle
and rain, all flash-frozen roof.
Sweet Mama’s come undone,
her arctic face unsheathed…
What do I like about this poem? What can you learn from it? First off, she uses my favorite poetic technique, anthimeria, to turn ‘yes’, normally a noun, into a verb: “the red-winged blackbird yessing a sweet potato sky.” Historically, especially during the Elizabethan era, the poem was a chance for the poet to show off his ingenuity with language. The coinage of new words and phrases was a point of pride. That original burst of linguistic ingenuity flavored poems for the next 300 years. If new words or phrases weren’t being coined, the poem was nevertheless understood as intrinsically different from prose precisely because its brevity and concentration all but demanded linguistic and metaphoric ingenuity. If not that, then how was the poem justified? So, even though Keats (and later Frost) were no longer coining new phrases and latinisms, they both took great pride in the linguistic ingenuity of their meter and rhyme.
That’s something utterly missing in the vast majority of contemporary poems (which really do little, in terms of language, to justify their existence as anything other than a minor species of prose). So, when I see the kind of linguistic play and inventiveness demonstrated by Ahlen, I enjoy and admire it. I hold it up to the light like a new-stamped coin, all shiny and golden. It’s for poems like these that I write and read poetry.
I also like wildflowers; and Ahlen, in her other two poems, revels in them. I would write more but there are fifty-six poets in this book and 50 of them are liable to wonder why I didn’t mention them. I honestly think there’s something in all their poems worth recommending.
Another enjoyable technique you will find in these poems is an inventive use of imagery. Neil Shepard closes his poem, The Source, with a nice example:
Down at the bottom of the pasture
Where birches bend under all this
White weight, the swamp begins.
And nothing but willows grow
In the boggy hummocks, iced up now,
Their roots lifted up
As if trying to take a first, slow step
Out of the rime and ooze.
To me, it’s those last three lines that ring with the magic of poetry. The poet transforms the land, not just by telling us what he sees, but by going just a little further than Pound’s call for the “direct treatment of the ‘thing’.” Animism is probably the oldest religion in the world – the doctrine that all natural objects and the universe itself have souls. It’s my opinion that the best and greatest poets are all animists. Everyone to an extent, I think, imbues the landscape with their inner emotional lives. When we’re in a bleak mood, the fields look desolate and the woods look dark. When we’re upbeat, the grass is green and forest is light.
Poets go a little further, the best being able to capture our inner lives in the natural world:
From Robert Frost’s Bereft:
From EA Robinson’s Sonnet The Sheaves:
“A thousand golden sheaves were lying there,
Shining and still, but not for long to stay —
As if a thousand girls with golden hair
Might rise from where they slept and go away.”
TS Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky|
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Neil Shepard’s poem and imagery is written in that tradition. He possesses the poet’s ability to transform what he sees, to imbue it with his own inner emotional landscape, and write it. And although I think Dianalee Velie’s poem, Maple, could stand to be a little subtler, I still appreciate the lovely metaphor at the heart of the poem.
…now the big maple is down
The six sap buckets, once
clinging to her like children,
brimming with her collected
nectar, lay orphaned
in the sugar-lot…
This is a kind of extended metaphor that I see all too little in modern poetry – it doesn’t always work and may seemed forced, but I admire the poet (the poet-animist) who tries. After all, the extended metaphor is at the heart of nearly every great poem prior and into the 20th century.
Although I didn’t pointedly scour each and every poem, all but two of them appear to be free verse. I find that to be a disappointment, but the quality of the verse holds up in other ways. There are some poems that appear to be syllabic, meaning that each line keeps to the same number of syllables, but I’ve never been persuaded by that kind of “formalism”. Syllabics is to accentual-syllabics what staying off the sidewalk’s cracks is to tight-rope walking. It’s a whole different game. When the poet misses a step, the fall goes further and the landing is harder.
Jean L. Kreiling gives the reader a Shakespearean Sonnet and does it with the skill of a poet who knows what she’s doing.
Wishing for Snow
If only winter’s knife-edged cold would bend
and break and finally disintegrate
in tiny crystal fragments, we’d defend
our driveways, and our walks, and celebrate
our strength. If only this unyielding sky
would soften and dissolve into a mist
of icy flakes, we’d raise an awestruck eye
to watch their fall. But winter likes to twist
the knife, to maximize its penetration
and coolly signal its supremacy…
I have my complaints. For instance, the adjective unyielding is metrical padding and unnecessary given that the same idea is implied by the poet’s plea that the sky “soften and dissolve”. The phrase “we’d raise an awestruck eye” also feels contrived, in a 19th century sort of way – something for the sake of the meter and rhyme. These are the challenges that make rhyming accentual-syllabic verse a walk on a tight-rope; they’re obstacles that free verse poets just don’t confront.
However, there’s praise for Kreiling too. This is a poet who thinks beyond the line. The majority of the lines are enjambed and that gives the poem flexibility and momentum. There’s nothing wooden about this verse. Some close readers might even suggest that the shifting and moving lines are trying to invoke the wind-blown weather that the poem pleas for. I would hesitate to make that interpretation without reading more of Kreiling’s poems.
Kreiling’s next poem, To a Hummingbird, also written in Iambic Pentameter, is near perfect:
…Please teach me how to hover weightlessly,
exquisitely escaping gravity,
and how to reach the speed of shimmering
and shapelessness, so that my movements sing…
My only complaint are the short lines that begin and end the poem: the first line: Oh, blur of bird!; and the last: with pleasures blurred. The exclamation, Oh, strikes me as a bit precious and quaint these days, while the grammatical inversion of the last line (as though solely for the sake of rhyme) feels old fashioned. They feel out of place, to me, given how Kreiling otherwise so beautifully unites a modern vernacular with meter and rhyme – no easy task.
Anyway, these are some the things I think about when I read poetry.
Not all the poems are specifically about Vermont. I assume that some poets are represented because they live in Vermont. Regina Murray Brault gives us a nice little poem that could have been written anywhere. It begins:
In the trailer park
where diapers snap on clotheslines
like flags in semaphore
the child cradled in my arms
lies swaddled in
the rhythms of her world.
She hears a thrust song
from the thicket
and searches with her eyes.
Bird I tell her
and wish her wings…
The tone veers uncomfortably close to mawkishness, but I like the little touches of imagery – the diapers snapping like “flags in semaphore”. And this gives me an opportunity to fire off a shot at William Logan (who’s acumen I worship near idolatry). God knows what Logan would say about some, if not many, of the passages in this anthology. His critique might echo his criticism of Mary Oliver – a “bland, consolatory poetry [that] is a favorite of people who don’t like poetry”. But what Logan criticizes in a poet like Oliver is analogous to what critics have said of Vivaldi. (You readers who listen to Jazz or modern music will have to substitute your own analogy.) Stravinsky once quipped that Vivaldi was the only composer to have written the same concerto over a thousand times. And, in a sense, if you’ve listened to one concerto by Vivaldi, you’ve heard them all. The emotional range from one to the next is as varied as the yellow in dandelions. It was said that Vivaldi could write an entire concerto faster than his copyists could copy them. His trademark was the sequence (or sequencing). This is when a musical phrase is repeated again and again (essentially) up the scale and down the scale.
But, know what? – no composer, before or after, could do sequencing the way Vivaldi could. As another critic once wrote (paraphrasing): It’s true that Vivaldi’s music might be one sequence after another, but they’re good sequences. Similarly, it’s true that a Mary Oliver poem might be the same one written a thousand times, but what’s good in one is good in another. Here’s what I mean: all of Oliver’s poems, I’ve noticed, are really composed of two very simple types of metaphor – the simile and the prepositional metaphor. (As with the sequence in music, the prepositional metaphor “is the quickest and easiest kind of metaphor to construct” [The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms, p. 181].
Here is the simile (from Their Wings) [italics are mine]:
In summer the bats
fly like dots and dashes…
Here is the prepositional metaphor (from the same poem):
I carried it off into the woods and laid it
in a mossy place, in an old stump, where it died
heart-thumping and hissing
in the slump of its wings…
What the sequence was to Vivaldi, the prepositional metaphor is to Mary Oliver. I think that Logan misses this when he is befuddled by Oliver’s popularity. Yes, Oliver has written the same poem a thousand times and, yes, they are full of the formulaic structure that defines the simile and the propositional metaphor, but they are good similes and they are good prepositional metaphors. They are the stuff of poetry; and if readers don’t read Oliver for her intellectual rigor or depth, reading her for her poetry is every bit as good a reason (and something Logan could stand to learn from in his own poetry). Contrary to Logan’s snarky dismissal, the readers who read Oliver are precisely those who like poetry. There’s something to enjoy in her lines that is missing from, as far as I know, almost every other modern poet. There’s a reason why she can make a living writing poetry and Logan can’t, except by criticizing it. Basta,
If you read Birchsong, you will find some of this same poetry:
Jack Gundy, Spring Harvest:
Their voices marry
with the thin blood of trees
to sweet liquid amber.
Arlene Distler, The Case Against Mums:
I prefer autumn’s tawdry mix
of unkempt rows,
sunflower’s swollen prose,
arcs of green
turned shadowy wisps…
Partridge Boswell, Just I Remember I Knew You When:
…Could he hear his own
lightly dredged laughter at parties, cynical
lemon twist of luck he wished a recent graduate
brace enough to admit she was trying her uncalloused
hand at short fiction? Could he taste the gelignite
of early fame rising in the back of his throat…
Ivy Schweitzer, Snow Day, February 14,
They come, then, smoldering
orange petals with blazing yellow
throats, pitch black at the center,
erect three lobbed stigma
ringed by six slender stamen,
their anthers dusty with pollen and curved daintily outward,
splayed cups of exultation
penned in for their own protection.
Naturally, readers will find some examples better or worse than others, but this all stuff of which poetry is made.
However, having written this much, here is what I like most about the poetry in this anthology – and the kinds of poems I like best: the poetry of the concrete, tactile, and sensual, poems joyfully aware (as I wrote at the outset) of season and place. Here is the close to Janice Miller Potter’s poem Potato Paradise:
One evening, then, when burnt yellow vines
had fallen in tangles upon the ground,
you pulled the fork from where it stood
like a scarecrow among the corn,
and called me to come and to share –
you could not harvest this work alone.
Mapping a circle around a stem,
you plunged sharp tines into the earth
and gently parted its fragrant threads.
Where one potato eye had lain,
now lay a multitude of dusky forms.
So on we fared – with fork and with hands,
exclaiming at our row of new potatoes.
From slivers, I sang the miracle of girth.
But you, with your tenderness for lesser gods,
bade me to gather in the small ones, too.
If this kind of poetry is to your liking as well, then you will find more like it in Birchsong. As the subtitle states, these poems are Poetry Centered in Vermont. If you live in Vermont, then reading this anthology will be like an afternoon talk with your neighbors about familiar things; and if you used to live in Vermont, then the poems will feel like a visit to a familiar place with its cold winters, short summers and the ever present presence of nature:
Harvest Time by Kimberly Ward
Red moon this morning.
I am walking barefoot
in puddles and find
the hogs have been killed
In terms of the book itself, the poems are beautifully presented, a poem to a page, readable and accompanied by the occasional artwork of Betsy B. Hubner. The height and width of the book is generous, meaning that the poems don’t feel cramped. There are a 112 pages and brief biographies of all the contributing poets is included in the final pages. Enjoy.