Monday, September 17, 2007

Extremely Late Dappled Things Review

(In which I put two poems through the wringer and praise another.)

It's always interesting to see what Catholic poets do with their artistic inheritance. Some imitate medieval poets or classical poets. Some of them follow T.S. Eliot and his unique brand of Modernism. Some of them loathe every sort of free verse and stake their poetic success on a strict adherence to conventional English forms and meters. The list goes on; the rationales for the choices are probably just as various. And the last issue of Dappled Things sets out a pretty good sampling of these different approaches.

Amanda Glass has written a few poems I'm slightly familiar with (I have two of her lines floating through my head just now: "Oh give me then a requiem / To start my day out right!"). Her contribution is Of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. She takes the formalist route: iambic pentameter, ABAB rhyme scheme. The ABAB scheme is very emphatic (English poetry tends to prefer the softer ABCB, where you only have to rhyme the second and fourth lines), and combining it with the familiar iambic pentameter makes for a hard-to-handle form. It's like painting with primary colors: it takes a bold but discriminating hand. Let's see what she does with it:

I think our passage cannot be more plain
to eyes not earthly; and I think they smile
in ways which need no lips, when we attain
our little heights of thought, and pause, beguiled
by glimpses of far brighter realms beyond.
Like children in strange countryside, we cling
together, all-confiding, close and fond,
and with the grace of youth and joy we fling
our baubles: pealing laughter, glances clear
and heady, sweet air-kisses born of souls
which meet from shining eyes. For here
and now we can be lavish - time's grim tolls
have not yet wrecked our readiness to give
ourselves without reserve.
Nevertheless,
we have two ways to go, and each must live
the call which on each heart has been impressed,
and this must be the end of innocence
- or rather, death of childlike liberty.
A child shrinks from a child in self-defense!
I cannot help but take it bitterly
until you speak about the road you'll take,
and I can see its vistas in your eyes.
How could you not all else wholly forsake
for that? (And when will I learn to be wise?)

Some clichés leap out at me instantly: "pealing laughter," "shining eyes," "time's grim tolls." These should have been edited out. There are some awkward enjambments and even some metrical stumbles ("How could you not all else wholly forsake"). The overall theme of the poem is vague; nay, inscrutable. The angels watch us with "eyes not earthly" (one phrase I liked); they understand us and smile at our little epiphanies. Then the poem wanders off into abstraction and bland metaphors: we're all "like children" in a "strange countryside" with an oh-so-interesting vista of "far brighter realms beyond." At first I assumed that the "children" were the whole human race, but then it becomes apparent that they actually *are* children - or young people, anyway. Not little kids. Twenty-somethings. Argh.

Then we find out that there are two roads before each of us. We have to figure out which one we're called to. Up until this moment I had no idea what the two roads were, but now I slap myself on the forehead and realize they are probably the married state and the consecrated life. While you are struggling with the roads, the poem introduces a new character who seems to threaten the speaker. Suddenly the speaker is saying "You... you..." Whoa! Who is she talking to? I am guessing that the new child is a friend or sibling who is becoming a priest or religious. I will conclude by saying that the subject is edifying but its presentation is not very interesting.

***


This next poem is bad in every way. Indeed, is a pure paradigm of my least favorite kind of Bad Poem. Read it if you can:

Argument

I sit in sullen silence
on the sofa, curled up,
wondering
at every rustle and stir
from the bedroom
if you are coming
to find me,
so like a child
crouching behind a hedge
in a game
of hide and seek.

A mosquito lands on my arm
and then on my thigh.
I smack at him
repeatedly and
in futility
but refuse to move,
to get under
the net
that surrounds our bed.

-K.K. Adams

This has not the badness of the Tay Bridge Disaster, which is so bad that it is hilarious. If the Tay Bridge poem is bad like a deep-fried chocolate coated Twinkie, "Argument" is bad like a tofu hotdog.

It contains no interesting language. It makes no appeal to the ear. On the metrical level it is free verse, but a very specific kind of free verse, one that has been widely used for several decades. This "free verse" is actually an accentual meter (one that counts stressed syllables while letting the unstressed ones do whatever). This isn't bad. Accentual meter is *truly* traditional to English poetry - Beowulf is accentual. The problem is that this accentual meter has an average of two stresses a line. A large number of lines will have two stresses, and then there will be some lines with one stress or three stresses to mix things up; but it pretty much averages out to two stresses per line. "Argument" has 1.9 stresses a line, according to my count. It's the most low-key meter possible; the flame of meter turned down to its pilot light.

Take a minimalist meter, combined with aggressively plain diction, and apply it to a boring subject (essentially, "I'm sulking. [beat.] I'm still sulking.") - and you will have a perfect storm of pointlessness. Why should anyone bother to read this poem? The only evidence of craft comes from the line breaks, which seem to have been painstakingly inserted to set the words off to their best advantage. Each stingy line is served up to the reader like a single, delectable scallop in its own shell - a presentation that goes very ill with such austerity.

And that's all I'm going to say about that.

***


It is a pleasure to turn to a poet with a distinctive and interesting style. Here is one of the four poems in this issue by Gabriel Olearnik:

The Builders

Come up and take them.

–Leonidas, king of Sparta, when asked
by the Persian emperor to lay down his arms.
Battle of Thermopylae, 480 B.C.


The gate was almost finished.
In those thirsty hours, a taut rack of earth we raised
With much labor. We packed the soil with shield-butts.
Waist deep in horse-flies, we stretched our lances—
Protean, slender bronze. Our cloaks were red and wet,
The air was old and saline by the end.

The foreman raised the cry. At once we
Scaled the mound and set a fence: women’s heads,
Serpents, chariot wheels, lion’s faces.
Another word and circling, avian spearpoints
Dropped tight against the wall.

Boredom, thighs tensed and rigid, moans of effort
We dredged the final draught of strength
And drew a thread of red gold on the blackness of the pass.
An ox of silk and silver approached to test
The man-stones of our house.

Impact. The charge shook the centre of the line,
Bending the façade back, but this defect
Was long planned by Leonidas, mason, master architect of war.
Our founded sandals took the strain, and each workingman,
Cuirass cushioned by his own mane of hair, pushed.
The ox impaled its trunk on fatal, burnished bronze
And bellowed. Our enemy’s boast of deathlessness
We parlayed down with lizard-killing backhands.



A thousand leagues away, my daughter bides her time
Lays a hand on the table
And opens her palm with a line of blue flint
and the sound of ripping sailcloth.



Envoi. We were what we did. Go, stranger, and say
that Lacedaemon lines are clear. Go, and say
that ruled and parsed law endures.
Go, go quickly.
I fear the thunderbirds of Ahura Mazda.
Their flight will dim the blazing white of day.


This poem does a good job fleshing out the strong governing conceit of its title. I especially liked the image of the warriors as wire-drawers, pulling a strand of red gold through the black draw-plate of the mountain pass. The fortitude and discipline of the Spartans are well honored here. The classical tone reminds me a little of Robert Fitzgerald's translation of the Odyssey, although that ox of silk and silver seems to have wandered in from a Lorca poem. I can't excuse the poem for its occasional carelessness, though. Some of the words don't quite fit ("taut rack of earth"? "we stretched our lances"?) and I think that "circling, avian spearpoints" would be stronger if reduced to "avian spearpoints." The pronouns will not stay put: First it's "We," then it's "I," then "We" returns as the Spartans speak from their epitaph, and the whole thing finishes with another inscrutable "I." Please, decide on third or first person POV already. The fragment near the end ("A thousand leagues away...") does not appear to have anything to do with the rest of the poem at all. I tried very hard to connect it to the Spartans and their battle-craft, but it refused to make sense. The narrative is so short, and the language so ambiguous, that I wasn't sure whether the daughter cuts her hand deliberately or by accident. But even after all these complaints (I can hear you all saying, "Hey, I thought she was going to say something good this time!"), I still like "The Builders." It makes me want to go watch 300.

15 comments:

Santiago said...

"There is no escape from metre; there is only mastery." -- TS Eliot "On Vers Libre"

This is really good.

"aggressively plain diction" :)

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