Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Garden of History and Verse: Why We Love Mary Oliver's Poetry

            Mary Oliver, who died on Jan. 17 at age 83, was probably America's favorite contemporary poet. As one obituary I read points outs, she was rare in possessing both a large popular following and sufficient respect from the literary prize-givers to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Commentators often used the word "accessible" in explaining her popularity.
            But accessibility is the very the quality that kept some academics at arm's length: Not only does her work offer spiritual consolation, her poems simply weren't 'difficult' enough. They didn't need critics and scholars to explain what they 'meant.'
            One of Mary Oliver's best loved poems, cited in a number of the appreciations and obituaries written since her death, is "In Blackwater Woods." The title itself is an interesting choice, because the poem itself offers so many opportunities for a grander statement. But the poet eschewed grand statements in choosing a title, perhaps wary of the grandiose.
            The poem could have been titled "Fulfillment," "Learning," "Salvation" or even "Spring," or something with that big word 'spring' in it; or of course "letting go." Others have named their poems "Letting Go."
            I think the title was meant to suggest 'no grand claims are being offered here,' though in fact the grandest ones do arrive -- naturally. I think the chosen title understates the ambition of the poem.
            Similarly, Mary Oliver's "accessible" poems don't rely on unusual vocabulary, difficult syntax, or complicated formal structures, but that doesn't mean they are short of artistry.  
            Here's the poem:

In Blackwater Woods

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

(from American Primitive, 1983)

            The poem consists entirely of common words and is structured in four-line, free verse stanzas. The formal patterning of the stanzas creates that 'certain formal feeling' that Dickinson famously borrowed from standard English hymns. The structure also helps establish a certain expectation, the one that reminds us that 'poetry' has the same origins as 'song.' Yet you could write the words and sentences out, just as they are ordered here, in a paragraph, and the result would read like prose. It would be grammatical.
            But this is poetry -- i.e. the intensification of feeling -- not prose.
            The lines are very short, frequently consisting of only two, three, or four words. This is a common approach to free verse, popular for a century or more, reminding us of William Carlos Williams' iconic miniature "So Much Depends." The basic approach to enjambment in this sort of free verse -- where to end the line -- is to follow spoken English syntax. But in this poem the poet frequently breaks syntactical units into even smaller pieces.
            "Look, the trees" therefore stands by itself as a line. The enjambment turns these three words into a (temporarily) completed statement: 'Look! the trees.' Almost everybody who writes about nature has written something like this. It's Thoreau's advice on achieving wisdom and spiritual freedom: look at trees.
            The lines that follow show that each foreshortened statement is a cause of wonder. Imagine this: trees/ 'are turning' -- yes, we think, we know trees turn -- 'their own bodies'...              Imagine that! Sometime human beings do try to turn 'their own bodies' into something else, but it usually involves new clothes
            'into pillars' -- yet another miracle!
            And then -- wait for it -- which is exactly what the stanza break following this two-word line makes us do -- "of light."
            Each of these steps to the completed clause, a grammatically complete statement, is itself a marvel, and the tiny pauses -- which the eye of the reader respects, even if the brain rushes on -- gives the reader's mind pause as well.
            Then, there is the matter of poet's chosen words.
            Patterned syntax keeps the sentence alive in the second stanza. We are often told that poems appeal to the senses; here's an example. Those same trees that wondrously turn themselves into pillars of light, are also, as we read in the second stanza "giving  off the rich/ fragrance of cinnamon/ and fulfillment." Poetry imagines with the guidance of the senses. Because we know the scent of cinnamon, we are more likely to make the leap to "fulfillment." We don't 'smell' fulfillment physically; only metaphorically. And fulfillment is one the themes of the poem.
            Following syntax once again, a new stanza offers yet another completed clause -- all these clause follow the familiar Biblical and classical imperative "Look," the poem's first word. A classical guide would typically follow that word with an exclamation point. A century ago English poet-novelist D.H. Lawrence wrote "Look! We have come through!" -- a poem about not destroying your marriage in the first few months.
            But Mary Oliver eschews the exclamation point for the modest comma, as if to say to the reader, 'you will shortly discover these wonders yourself.'
            This third stanza offers a new clause -- pointing out a new wonder -- beginning with"the long tapers/ of cattails" Again, an appeal to the senses, the word 'tapers' offers a description of what cattails look like, but also suggests another meaning of the word 'tapers' -- candles -- building on the comparison of trees to "pillars of light."
            This stanza then completes with the marvelous metaphor of "the blue shoulders" -- pause for stanza break -- "of the ponds."
            Through the remainder of this short poem, the line breaks largely follow the ordinary divisions of syntactical units, but often vary a single word away from the natural break point. So we learn that every pond "no matter what its/ name is, is/" -- stanza break -- "nameless now."
            The foreshortened syntax, I believe, reflects the interruptions in our conventional thought patterns brought about by the experience the poem seeks to express. The rebirth of nature is the great interrupter of ordinary patterns of thought. Human events are commonly shaped into stories; they have a beginning, a middle and an end. But the life the world -- its trees and its ponds -- exceeds these patterns. Nature, as understood by the seasons, has a beginning, a turn, an end -- and then, guess what? -- a new beginning.
            The last five stanzas of this marvelous poem are almost as pointed in their meaning as a sermon, even incorporating the daringly loaded term "salvation." "Every year," the poem tells us, and "everything" the speaker has learned,
"leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know."
            And as if that were not 'meaning' enough for any poem, much less any beautifully descriptive 'nature poem,' the poet offers a frankly prescriptive advisory on how to live.
            "To live in this world," she tells us, "you must be able/ to do three things:"
            You can go back to the poem and read those three things yourself.
            Then ask whether you have heard or read a better, more economically stated expression of three such important 'things.' Many of us -- readers, that is, who turn to poetry rather than to creeds for sustenance -- are likely to come away (as I am) from this poem resolved to take these words to heart, to remember them, and to live their message.
            And many of us are likely, or at least tempted, to believe (perhaps as a matter of faith) that Mary Oliver did just that.

Friday, January 18, 2019

The Garden of Verse: How Should We Talk About Our Lives in Our Poems? Frankly? Not At All?

    How do we talk about our lives in poems? Should we? How frankly? Alan Walowitz 'goes there' in poems about his wife and a therapist. A poem with an arresting title, "My wife says fuck in the middle of the night" combines intimate detail with quotidian annoyance to yield ironic theology.  We go from sexual dysfunction and hot flashes to the annoyingly petty demands of the cat --
"It is the middle of the night.
Nothing is wrong.
Something is always wrong."
 -- to a semi-ironic proof of the non-existence of God. The poem's last line is classic 'attitude.'
            In a second poem, "Truly," a poem about being late for a therapy appointment, personal difficulties are both revealed and mocked. The therapist's nod, the speaker tells us, "says/
she’s working hard to think well of me
but is afraid our time is up." If I had to come up with a term for what is so good here, I think I'd say 'voice.' These poems have a winning voice.

            We could look at Marilyn Taylor's brilliant, funny "At the Cocktail Party as a confessional poem as well, if we weren't enjoying it so much. The poem appears to bemoan the speaker's tendency to choose the wrong partners:
"And yet I’m always heading for
those characters I should ignore—
the ones with habits I deplore:.."
            But what we're experiencing is the poem's joy in answering the implicit challenge of 'how can I continue link all these rhyming end-words together while keeping readers (and myself) interested and amused'?
            The solution is this rambunctiously clever poem.

            The three "Harry" poems by Michael Newell have the fraught, complex, emotional weight of confessional persons, but the weight lies on the shoulders of a created character, a literary device. In "HARRY TELLS HIS DAUGHTER GOODBYE" we are told
"it is a big step, one that looms without pity
before her, and old Harry, tired Harry,
ready to be alone Harry, fears for her, yet
he does not know how to allay fears, hers

or his, and awkwardly pats her shoulder
as she boards the train taking her
to a future where they will seldom see
one another..."
The heavy mood is less redolent of sending-your-kid-off-to-college separation anxiety -- "they will seldom see/ one another" --?! -- and more like a divorce. The effect is both moving and unsettling. These poems make me want to hear the rest of the story. What happens to these people? How does the story resolve?

            There's a strong emotional weight in Steve Klepetar's three January poem, their subjects a shockingly disturbing nightmare, dementia, and a visit by three ghosts who "squeeze through the wall into our living room."
          All three poems have a dream-like quality that feels more convincing than realism -- in the way we can wake from a dream and believe that something in our mind is trying to tell us something important about our lives. More compelling, that is, than an account of an ordinary afternoon, say, in which we are not visited by three ghosts who demand wine and behave like shady characters who drop in from a film noir to mess with your life. In "Wine in the Afternoon" we read:
"We are all tipsy now, and a little sleepy.
The woman has climbed onto her lover’s lap,
and the other man eyes you hungrily.
I light a candle, recite a verse I keep in reserve
for such occasions, Ozymandias, king of kings."
            These poems are compelling, disturbing, and possess the power of an enigma.

          Michael Minassian's THE MARRIED COUPLE’S POSTCARD, a poem that appears to lament the passage of time, recalls a boat ride down a river:
"Gertrude claimed a plant named
dead man’s fingers could pull lovers down,
but it is the weight of our own lives
that brings too much water."
            While this may not be confessional, since circumstances not spelled out, the poem's sad nostalgia for time lost and unretrieveable is one of poetry's great universal subjects.

         Joe Cottonwood's poem "Measure, Mark, Measure" is pretty frank with the details. A carpenter on a job he tells his employer, a grandmother, that she doesn’t look a day over 35." Then we read -- wondering sort of 'measuring' are we about here? --
"Measure, mark, measure. Saw, hammer.
She removes her top. Are we okay?
I tell her we’re fine.
She stares at me hard. Do I still look 35?
YesI say. (I want my pay.)"
           The poem leaves with the dilemma of how to respond. We think 'thanks for sharing.'

           As in Taylor's rhyming poem, formal qualities move Penelope Moffat's "Bakery Girl" satisfyingly forward. Using three-line stanzas and the repeated refrain "I couldn't see" -- a phrase that brings us closer to what we can and ultimately will see -- the poem's structure slowly pushes forward the telltale descriptive, the man "in soiled white smock and sly mustachio."
            Her poem "Caught Between" sketches a fraught family system in taut mysterious lines. It holds us like an enchantment, a spell.

            John Stanizzi's poems take on a different sort of formal challenge in his "POND" project, flowing from his resolution to visit the same pond each day and record his impressions. The four daily contributions presented here are dense, tightly written, 4-line poems with sharply observed detail and a satisfying fullness. And, oh yes, the other formal challenge is the first words of each line will begin, in sequence, with the letters "P. O. N. D."
And yet there's no sense of forced artificiality in quatrains such as this:
"Piety arrives with a female evening grosbeak.
Offed by chill wind, the leaves cover the wet forest ground.
Nearby, the sound of running water
dazzles like a miniature Topajos, miniature Amazon.

          Laurel Peterson's "WHAT WE SHOULD BE WORRIED ABOUT" -- a title that makes me think, oh, no, we don' t have worries enough already? -- connects the big picture, the cosmic questions, with those here-and-now problems we probably are at least vaguely aware of but don't want to think about. You could call this a confessional poem by the universe, which raises the possibility of getting 'Hale-Bopped' by a wholly unpredictable disaster. A marvelously packed and put together poem.

            Robert Wexelblatt's excellent contribution to the January issue "Advertisement for A Poem " answers all our questions about what to put in a poem:
"This is going to be precisely the sort
of poem you relish most.  The subject
will be one dear to your heart, the diction
not merely memorable but downright
            Like its purported subject, the ideal publishable poem, "Advertisement" is subtle, superior, its mildly acerbic tone just the right corrective to the saccharine tendencies found in those poems whose diction is too familiar, their subjects too mundane -- like lemon cutting through the honey in the herbal tea you're drinking for your cold and sore throat. The content is "subtle, but not esoteric." It finds the middle way "between the cozily
familiar and the jarringly unforeseen"  It doesn't "have too many allusions and
they won’t be insultingly obvious
or tiresomely recherché."
            The entire poem, brilliantly detailed, is a treat to read from start to finish, a wholly effective and credible parody. Possibly, like me, other poets will find some of their own tendencies specified within.
            And readers will find all these amid many other fine poems in January's verse virtual.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Garden of History: TV's 'Victoria' in the Age of Reform

           Poor Victoria, and a very worried Albert, are driven from their luxurious London digs at the conclusion of episode one in Season 3 of "Victoria," the PBS Masterpiece costume drama biopic on the life of the British monarch who gave her name to a lengthy period of English (and world) history.
            The problem is not the broken window in the palace. The real problem with the show's Queen Victoria -- and her series -- is that she never really knows what's going on. No one will tell her.            
            "My people love their queen," she says, because that's what her flatterers tell her. No one, apparently, has pointed out that the country is experiencing a major recession and that a significant percentage of the population is near starvation. Albert, who seemed to have a surer grip on reality in the first season, decides he must "find out how these people live" and is shocked, positively shocked, to discover that poor people are crowded together in substandard tenements. Though, in the few seconds of screen time they are given, the 'poor' household rounded up his handlers appears to consist only of people with respectful middle-class manners.
            I don't know what audiences are supposed to make of this disconnect between 'the lives of the royals' and the realities of life for ordinary people. The problem, particularly for American audiences, is the series spends much more time on costumes and royal household snits than on the social, political and economic history of the times. The angry crowd mobbing the London streets and hooting threateningly at the palace gates in the last moments of Sunday's Season 3 opening episode didn't come out of nowhere.
            The show does offer us Albert reading us a sentence or two from Karl Marx, but doesn't connect Marx's theories with the long-brewing popular dissatisfaction with an antiquated political system that preserved the privileges of birth and wealth while offering no political representation to the lower classes. In fact, mass movements demanding political reform stretch back to early years of 19th century.
            The Chartists, the name for the movement hounding Victoria's domestic tranquility in episode one, set in 1848, were successors of an earlier generation's reform movement arising in the wake of the close of the Napoleonic wars in 1815. With the country's industrial revolution in full sway, the demobilization of soldiers worsened a severe manufacturing depression, combined with food prices kept artificially highly by England's Corn Laws. The Corn Laws protected the wealth of the country's wealthy landowners by placing high tariffs on imported grain.
            A suffering populace had no one to bring their troubles to in the English government, because ordinary people lacked both suffrage and parliamentary representation. While industrial growth had created boom cities such as Manchester with tens of thousands of workers, the new cities were governed by ancient institutions such as "lords of the manor" and denied even a single MP (member of parliament). Reformists responded with mass marches and demonstrations in behalf of the goal of parliamentary reform.
            The largest of these turned into the atrocity known as the "Peterloo Massacre" in 1819. The Guardian newspaper's review of Mike Leigh's new film "Peterloo," describes the massacre this way: "On 16 August 1819, at what we would now call a pro-democracy demonstration in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, an excitable band of cavalry and yeomanry – whose commander had airily absented himself for a day at the races – charged with sabres drawn into a crowd of 100,000 unarmed people, many of whom were unable to escape the enclosed space. The troops killed 18 and injured hundreds more."
            In fact the country's power structure was looking for a violent outcome in order to blame the victims for the violence, arrest and jail the movement's leaders, and suppress the 'reform' movement.
            Part of Peterloo's legacy is that it prompted western history's first formulation of the idea of a popular revolution through mass action civil disobedience, articulated by the great 19th century poet Percy Shelley's response to the massacre ("The Mask of Anarchy"):
            "Rise like lions after slumber/ In unvanquishable number" his poem urged. "You are many/ They are few."
            The basic governmental reforms sought in 1819 did not come about until the First Reform Act of 1832, which made parliament somewhat more representative of the country's population and expanded the right to vote from 400,000 to about 650,000 men. That meant about one in five men could vote. Working class regions, especially the industrial cities in the country's north, remained under-represented.
            The popular desire to achieve universal male suffrage for all classes and make deeper reforms in a governmental system still largely dominated by a wealthy upper class, with its ancient privileges and disregard of the 'lower orders,' rose again in the 1840s' to rattle Victoria's cage.
            Chartism -- the name comes from their desire for the enactment of a 'charter' (somewhat similar to a Constitutional amendment, in American terms) -- made a push to establish universal male suffrage and enact some other reforms.

Though inspired in part by the "Revolution of 1848," a series of revolts that drove European monarchs in France, Austria and other states off the throne -- events regarded by the English royals as 'family' tragedies -- Chartists did not seek a revolution. The movement sought changes to make their country more democratic, the chief of these being universal male suffrage.
            Other demands included the adoption of a secret ballot to shield voters from political pressures; the abolition of "property qualification" for MPs so that voters could have a truly free choice of their representatives; and equalizing constituencies to secure the same amount of representation for the same number of electors (or "one man one vote"). These are basic principles in a representative democracy.
            Nevertheless, frightened by the European mass revolutions that overthrew monarchs, and afraid that expanding suffrage would weaken their own power, government leaders refused to accept the Chartists' petition. They rallied a massive show of armed force that blunted the Chartists' plan for a people's march on Parliament.
            I'm probably giving nothing away in pointing out that Victoria and Albert remain safely on their royal seats. Season 3, however, seems determined to make much of the royal household's panicky retreat to an island hideaway on the Isle of Wight.
            The Chartists' key demands were largely enacted, once again a generation later, in the 1867 or "Second Reform" Act, which gave the vote to "all male heads of household," significantly expanding suffrage for men. Women's suffrage, of course, was still a good way off.
            I don't know how PBS's "Victoria" will deal with her country's ongoing social and economic pressures for political reform. Or whether in-house and bedroom dramas will be allowed to dominate upcoming episodes.
            "Victorian" England is popularly known as the age of restrictive clothing, repressive social codes, fear of sexuality, and high mortality rates for children and women. (Also Imperial expansions, slums at home, the growth of a middle class, the birth of the realistic, socially conscious novel, Sherlock Holmes, scientific breakthroughs; the list could go on.)
            In other histories, I have found the period termed "The Age of Reform." But political reform in 19th century England, as perhaps in all countries, took a long time in coming.