On Robert Frost’s After Apple-Picking

      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.
Frost reciting After Apple-Picking:

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  • 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 frostsources 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.

After Apple-Picking (Scansion)

  • 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.

After Apple-Picking (Rhyme Scheme)

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.After Apple-Picking (Phrasing)

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 apple ladderturning 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).

After Apple-Picking (Overlap)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.

”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.

After Apple-Picking (Overlap-2)

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.

After Apple-Picking (Rhyme & Rhetoric)

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.

aerusset

…every fleck of russet showing clear.

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:
But if the speaker’s dream and sleep exist in life, then to assert that, after his labors, the speaker “is now looking not into the world of effort but the world of dream, of the renewal,” is to oversimplify the poem. This view identifies the dream (interpreted as pleasurable) with the sleep (seen as a time for contemplation as well as renewal) and in the process limits both. Such a reading qualifies the word “trouble” into insignificance (to be troubled by a lovely dream is to be superior to the woodchuck, who cannot dream) and oversimplifies the speaker’s attitude toward his experience. Given the feats of association that he makes, given the fact that he speaks in contraries, the speaker’s attitude toward his sleep is far more complicated than at first seems clear, and his trouble far more real than might be supposed.
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And here is Conder’s entire essay much simplified:
Conder AnalysisAnd now you don’t have to read the essay. (You can thank me by e-mail.) You’d think the poem should have been called: Before Going to Sleep.  My point, besides having a little fun at Conder’s expense, is to argue that it’s possible to read too much into Frost’s comparison of his sleepiness to that of the woodchuck’s. My own feeling is that he’s not suggesting a sweeping metaphor of man, sleep and nature, but that the analogy is what it is. He’s overtired. He’s almost feverish with exhaustion and speculates that the only sleep to recover from that kind of weariness (the weariness of a whole season of apple growing) might be a whole season of sleeping – the hibernating sleep of a woodchuck. It’s an earthy, slightly sardonic, reference in keeping with the colloquial tone of the poem.
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I also resist the temptation to draw comparisons between apple-picking and the apple in the Garden of Eden. I won’t go so far as to say that close-readers who suggest this allusion are wrong, but where do we honestly draw the line? Is every single mention of an apple, in every work of literature, an allusion to Genesis? Really? Really? That just feels facile to me. In truth, the myth of the Garden of Eden could be suggested as “alluded to” in a disturbingly large portion of literature. But so be it. I’m not going to go there (if only to be contrary). There’s not one quote from Frost, that I’m aware of, that suggests any of these readers are correct, so just keep that in mind when making comparisons to Genesis.
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Lastly, there’s no doubt that Frost delighted in the close readings his poems were subjected to (what poet wouldn’t be flattered), but we also know that he expressed more than a little frustration and exasperation. The usual defense (which I get a little tired of) is that Frost was a dark, disturbed, calculating and suicidal man. Ever since Lionel Trilling described Frost as a “terrifying poet”, critics (William Logan among others) have taken that as open season. There’s always the urge to look for the “darkness” in his poems. There is undoubtedly much darkness in Frost (as there is in all of us) but I think this too must be treated with moderation. It’s possible that a reference to a woodchuck is just  that — an old New Englander’s sardonic reference to a woodchuck — not the sleep of man-out-of-nature, nature-out-of-man, or the sleep of death.
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In her (strongly to be recommended) book, Robert Frost: The People, Places, and Stories Behind his New English Poetry, author Lea Newman has this to say:
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“The reference to the woodchuck and his long sleep in the concluding lines of the poem has confused many readers. Frost probably found the idea of comparing humans to woodchucks in Emerson’s essay “Nature,” where readers are told, “let us be men instead of woodchucks.” A discussion of hibernation in another Emerson essay, “Fate,” may have been the source for the term “the long sleep”. In terms of the dream-ridden and exhausted speaker state of the speaker in Frost’s poem, he could be seeking the dreamless sleep of an animal or the month-long sleep of hibernation.”
·
My point is that you are free to interpret the poem how you will. No one but Frost knows what Frost meant.

On the Poetry of William Logan

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 WilliamLoganWilliam 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 Poetry

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 was obviously not going to let me be. While nothing was stirring in the blackened reeds, he was obviously 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  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?” And then ladies hats? 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.

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 the cholesterol of verse. 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…”

Anamnesis

“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…”

Joseph Conrad

“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…”

Medusea

“…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…”

Monocular

“…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”.)

Queen’s Square

gilt silhouettes, the bars of soap..”

Song

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…”

The Object

“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…)

Thoreau

“as the fall’s chancels/ darkened…”

To a Wedding

“Miami sky turned gray as a blanket…” (Think blank or that it ‘revealed no sun’…”

Totenlieder

“..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 grab-bag of pale 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, 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).

Christmas Trees

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:

robert-frostStopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

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 dies a pale death. 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:

John_Fletcher_from_NPG[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. 20th 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.

Not One Thing

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 Locke_NotOneThing_lgwith 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 C. Lockefamiliar 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]

Or this:

“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 wabisabi. 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 Bashos Narrow Roada 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 Nakagawa.

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
mountain tears

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.

Nine centuries—curved
lines pooling around one sqaure
in this shallow plate.

Page 34

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

victories & foiblesOn 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!

Butterfly recalls
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:

Excavating for
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.

patternprintsjournal05gorey

Boston Orchestra
kettle drummer misses beat
…thousand backs stiffen!