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Don’t Quit Your Day Job

By Sharon Kourous

 

The line was "April is the cruelest month." It sat there scrawled in my angular handwriting, the chalk beginning to blur and smudge, ignored by the sweet young things, jocks, nerds, and dumplings in my senior Brit lit class. Then one day as I was sharing with sophomores a thrilling lesson involving drawing one line under nouns and two lines under verbs, my classroom door burst open and Mike from an earlier class rushed in. "Kourous, this stuff kicks ass!"

This is what educators call a "teachable moment."

One of the many ploys I used with seniors was "Find the Poem." I would write a line on the board and the student who could find the poem, bring it to class, read and respond to it was the winner. This was long ago in the days before "google" became a verb. Of course, most students didn’t read the board, so it was not the Irish Sweepstakes, but there were occasional moments:

I should have reprimanded Mike for cutting algebra to go to the library, for being in the halls without a pass, using inappropriate language, and interrupting an important exercise in grammar. It seemed more important to let him explain, especially in front of all those poetry-hating sophomores. It remains one of the coolest poetry lessons I ever taught.

So, while I kept CE’s fine essay on power lyrics in mind as I read for this issue of Melic, I really was looking for poetry that could be as important as that; kick-ass poetry. There’s so little of it around these days. It’s the kind of poetry that makes you forget you’re sitting in Borders, so you jump up and yell "YES!"

Doesn’t happen often.

CE’s on to something I believe. BAP puts me to sleep; IBPC (sorry guys) does not have me dancing in front of the PC screen; I’ve pretty much stopped reading online poetry journals. Poetry boards, which can be fine places to interact and to workshop, have become personality boards or nicey-nice praise-everyone parlors. Our accessible and popular Billy Collins may be a kick-butt poet but he’s not a kick-ass poet, though I think he could be. Early success allows him to be witty, clever, and sort of pseudo-metaphysical. Collins is easy on the reader who comes away thinking he’s been in the presence of deep thoughts, when he’s really been reading about cows in a field in Ireland. (The laureateship has not fallen on brilliant poets in recent years though there is an admirable body of work from both Louise Gluck and Ted Kooser.)

Consider the lines that captured the high school boy I mentioned above– kickass lines. Understand, this senior was captured, enraptured without knowing why. His discussion of the poem focused on "meaning." Fine. Poetry must appeal at the "meaning" level, but also, I believe, must employ skill, craftsmanship, control; must utilize all the complexities of language molded by the intellect and by emotion "recollected in tranquility" – or the "meaning" is nothing. Else one could paraphrase The Wasteland, use Cliff’s Notes, and be satisfied.

Focus on the craftsmanship of these lines.

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

Five lines with "ing" endings! Where would that get you in a workshop? How and why does Eliot choose to do that? Read the lines aloud and note what happens to those ing words, how "breeding" grabs on to "dead land" with its d – how "stirring" laps into "roots" and "spring rain." How the voice lifts over the –ing ending and runs into all those l’s of lilacs, dull, little. Remember, Eliot is turning a tradition inside out. He’s in an argument with Chaucer and the entire tradition of "Aprill with his shoures soote" – and he’s doing it while utilizing the sounds of the tradition.

There’s a lot more here for the student of fine poetry, but I think my point is made. Craftsmanship.

Of course, craftsmanship alone does not a poet make. See Hallmark. Failure of craftsmanship, however is one of the characteristics of weak poetry. The modern poet must master her language, make it work for her. This requires an ear for sound, an understanding that sound affects the mind with an immediacy similar to that of music. Many modern poets have not spent a sufficient apprenticeship with the tools of the trade. Many writers are in too great a hurry, driven perhaps by the speed of feedback available on poetry boards.

Try this one from a poet known more for his seer-like qualities than his craftsmanship:

London
by William Blake

I wander thro’ each charter’d street
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man
In every Infants cry of fear
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

How the Chimney sweeper’s cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.

But most thro midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlots curse
Blasts the newborn Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

 

Power lyrics employ concise language, forcing words to work hard. In Blake’s London, connotation and denotation work together, forcing meaning into lines, making single words compress all the ambiguities inherent in the complex heritage of our tongue. Note the repeated use of "chartered" – a word that reminds us of English Common Law which both frees and restricts the individual. The strong, concise rhythm of the lines seems to restrain the word, and to turn it against itself, to contain its meaning as the concrete Embankment contains the Thames. "Marks" is used both as noun and as verb; an ironic interplay arises between the two uses. Note also the juxtaposition of "blackning" and the cry of the Chimney Sweep; how "appalls" contains the word "pall".

But if you gain nothing else from a rereading of this poem, spend some time with the last stanza, and arrive very slowly and carefully at that master image, the "Marriage hearse." There were whorehouses everywhere in Blake’s city; they were frequented by husbands who could slake their lusts without taxing the good little wife’s sense of propriety; they did bring home STD’s and literally turn the honeymoon carriage into a hearse. But Blake lets us think about the harlot too, about a society which allows/creates chimney sweeps, hapless soldiers, and harlots; a society so deeply "chartered" that "mind-forged manacles" chain daily life.

Not a word, not a sound within a word is wasted in this poem. The paraphrased "meaning" is commonplace enough: life since the industrial revolution sucks; the powerful win while the weak lose. It is the poem as a thing-in-itself which plants the meaning newly into one’s mind and one’s emotional experience. The poem uses language with great care; it is obvious the poet worked hard and made difficult choices.

Something of what goes into a great poem must be thought of as a quality of the writer’s mind; the way she perceives and interacts with the universe; a quality of introspection, an ability to see relationships, a severe attention. Yet…

Well, let’s look at a poem by a person admired for his quality of mind, for his world citizenship, for his essential human goodness.

Considering the Void
by Jimmy Carter


When I behold the charm
of evening skies, their lulling endurance;
the patterns of stars with names
of bears and dogs, a swan, a virgin;
other planets that the Voyager showed
were like and so unlike our own,
with all their diverse moons,
bright discs, weird rings, and cratered faces;
comets with their streaming tails
bent by pressure from our sun;
the skyscape of our Milky Way
holding in its shimmering disc
an infinity of suns
(or say a thousand billion);
knowing there are holes of darkness
gulping mass and even light,
knowing that this galaxy of ours
is one of multitudes
in what we call the heavens,
it troubles me. It troubles me.

This was at the top of a google search for the former President’s poems. Here we have an admirable mind, an admirable message. Yet those qualities which make a poem memorable are absent: concision, compression, craftsmanship: attention to language itself.

See for yourself. Here’s one you all read in school; one with a similar "message."

When I have Fears that I may Cease to Be
by John Keats.

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen'd grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love;--then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

 

Don’t quit your day job, Mr. Carter.

As for the rest of us, working poets who toil away after the day job ends or early before work, who patiently send out envelopes and online subs – who against all reason continue to write: we can’t quit our day jobs either. (I feel a bit hypocritical as I write this, having recently retired from mine – but the point’s the same.) Because it’s the day job, the spouse and kids, the car that won’t start, the neighbor’s greener lawn – it is the acute and original interpretation by the poet’s mind of our common experience that becomes the stuff of poetry. The sweat and frustration, the love and friendship, the pain and anxiety of daily life enter our poems, honed by craftsmanship and polished with growing skill as we practice our "sullen art."

 

 

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