Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Art of Being Brief

At long last, I've taken the plunge into the world of Twitter.  While I was at it, I added a few handy dandy features to this blog.  On your right, you'll see "FOLLOW BY EMAIL," which will allow you to get my new posts straight to your inbox so you'll never miss another one.  You'll also see "FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER."  Self-explanatory.  And if you scroll down a bit on the right-hand side, you'll see a button you can hit to share my blog on Facebook. 

Thanks for reading! 

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Prosaic Poetry, Poetic Prose: Reflections on James Wood's "Becoming Them"

In my last post, I highlighted a few phrases from Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem that failed to achieve anything fresh or original.  Those phrases included “equations to solve,” “history to question,” and “the impossible vocabulary of sorrow.”  Then, this past week while reading James Wood’s article “Becoming Them” in The New Yorker, I came upon the phrase, “the plagiarism of inheritance.”

Wow!  It was one of those gong moments where an initial crash subsequently opens out into something larger and more beautiful in its resonance.  I immediately stopped in my reading to let my mind open up all the possibilities of that new and fresh idea.  The plagiarism of inheritance.

So why was Wood’s phrase so effective while those of Blanco’s poem weren’t?  As I said in that earlier post, Blanco’s phrases rely on literal or tired ideas: it’s no secret that we solve equations and question history, while “the impossible vocabulary of sorrow” is just another way of saying “unspeakable tragedy” or reiterating how words so often fail us when trying to console the bereaved or express grief.  None of that is new. 

But Wood’s phrase, the plagiarism of inheritance, pairs two ideas that don’t usually get paired, and what’s even more delicious is that the pairing includes a paradox of sorts. An inheritance is something received by right—someone has dictated that you should have something, and so it is yours.  Plagiarism, on the other hand, means wrongfully taking, or as Merriam Webster defines it, “to steal and pass off as one’s own.”  Inheritance=something given.  Plagiarism=something stolen.  Inheritance involves something one has a legal right to.  Plagiarism originates with something that does not belong to the plagiarizer. There’s also a nice contrast of passivity and activity (to inherit, one does little else except be the one named as receiver; to plagiarize, one actively commits wrong).

So the phrase itself is rich in the texture of its meaning.  But if you read the essay from which it comes, you’ll see that it’s even more brilliant in how it captures the entire point and spirit of the essay in just four words.  As the title “Becoming Them” implies, Wood’s article is about the pain of losing one’s parents paired with the pain and joy of finding oneself, as one ages, to be nothing more than an unoriginal copy of the parent.  Here’s the passage in which the phrase appears:

Sometimes I catch myself and think, self-consciously, You are now listening to a Beethoven string quartet, just as your father did.  And, at that moment, I feel a mixture of satisfaction and rebellion.  Rebellion, for all the obvious reasons.  Satisfaction, because it is natural to resemble one’s parents, and there is a resigned pleasure to be had from the realization.  I like that my voice is exactly the same pitch as my father’s, and can be mistaken for it.  But then I hear myself speaking to my children just as he spoke to me, in exactly the same tone and with the same fatherly melody, and I am dismayed by the plagiarism of inheritance.  How unoriginal can one be?  I sneeze the way he does, with a slightly theatrical whooshing sound….

That one phrase, the plagiarism of inheritance, captures the complex feelings Wood’s article gives voice to of being caught, both happily and mournfully, in the great system of loss and gain, the conflict we all feel of clinging to the familiar while longing to do or say or be something new, original, and entirely our own.  To embed that complexity in a phrase of four words is to achieve the economy of poetry. 

So don’t let form fool you.  Just because something is intended to be a poem does not make it poetic; likewise, keep awake for how poetry can sneak up on you, even in prose.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Post-Walt: Reflections on the 2013 Inaugural Poem

A couple weeks ago, my cousin mentioned he had watched the inauguration, so I asked what he thought about the inaugural poem, "One Today" by Richard Blanco.  He confessed he wasn't fond of it because it jumped around and included everything from puppies to butterflies to rainbows.  I hadn't yet read it or watched it, but I immediately suspected Blanco was going for the sort of wide-ranging cataloging pioneered by Walt Whitman.  There is something very American, after all, in the eclectic and expansive spirit behind such cataloging.

But when I read Blanco's poem, I confess that I, too, was disappointed.  I shared my reasons with several friends who do not have poetry backgrounds, and I realized that I take the skill of close reading for granted.  So in case any of you out there had a similar negative reaction to the inaugural poem but couldn't quite put your finger on why, you might enjoy taking a look at my thoughts.  And if you have a close reading or opinion of your own, please share it in the comments section below.

To articulate why Blanco's poem leaves me cold, I'd like to continue the comparison to Whitman.  You'll find listing and cataloging throughout Whitman's works; "I Hear America Singing" offers a good and manageable sample.  You can read the poem here

Now take a look at a stanza from Blanco's poem:

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches 
as mothers watch children slide into the day.

Look at that first line: "All of us as vital as the one light we move through."  There's a very prosy and prosaic quality here that falls flat, and it falls flat because it delivers its message in a direct, blatant manner.  Compare that to Whitman, who never says "All of our songs are vital to America"; instead, that message is embedded in the spirit of the poem, and he never uses the hackneyed imagery of "light" over and over as the above stanza does.  Lest you think I'm picking on this piece of Blanco's poem unfairly, check out the final stanza where you'll find even more tired ideas: stars, mapping constellations, hope.  

In the stanza above, the diction itself is unoriginal: equations to solve (check, yes, that is what one does with equations); history to question (again, nothing fresh here); the impossible vocabulary of sorrow (unspeakable tragedy, anyone?).  How prosaic; how predictable; how it fails to sing.  An advocate of Blanco's poem might argue that the mundane quality is part of the point of his vision of America, but I don't see support for such a reading.  Instead, the poem strives to create a sense of awe towards the varied world, as in the "gorgeous din of honking cabs, buses launching down avenues" in stanza  5.   Phrases like these seem to ask us to find the poetic in the everyday, but to me, a descriptive verb like "launching" or an adjective like "gorgeous" sounds more like the effort of a student completing an exercise in descriptive writing than the authentic ring of originality.  Blanco, like Whitman, writes in what we would call American plain style.  The difference is that Whitman never tries to contort a verb into imprecise description that sounds vaguely poetic, like "yawning to life" (stanza 2) or "crescendoing into our day" (ibid).  

Clearly I'm not a fan of "One Today," but I'm even less a fan of it as an inaugural poem because it is, in my opinion, unforgivably tied to the self.  Lines like "my father’s cutting sugarcane so my brother and I could have books and shoes" and "ring up groceries as my mother did for twenty years, so I could write this poem" insert the poet himself, Richard Blanco, into the poem.  The "I" in Whitman, by comparison, is a sort of universal or bardic "I," not I, Walt Whitman.  

Whitman, of course, never wrote an inaugural poem.  But Frost's "The Gift Outright," which was an inaugural poem, uses a poetic, bardic voice, not the voice of Frost the individual.  (Notice, too, how it leaves the reader with an emotion, a sense of the country's past, and a thought-provoking twist in those final lines.) Like Frost, Elizabeth Alexander, last term's inaugural poet, spoke in terms of "we", and when "I" surfaces in her "Praise Song for the Day," it is in the voice of others who have come before: 
We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.
I know there’s something better down the road.

Perhaps all this talk of American poetry has left you hungry for more.  Or better yet, maybe you want to exercise your own close-reading muscles.  You might enjoy picking up a copy of The Poets Laureate Anthology, which represents America's poets laureate from 1937, when the first Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress was named, to 2009. Yes, I worked on the book as permissions coordinator; no, I don't benefit from your purchase of a copy.  I can simply vouch for it as a quality book, and one that comes to mind when thinking of poetry and American government.