Why a certain poem may draw the reading eye back — back to its page out of the many in a magazine or book; back to the first line again, after the last is reached --
This fails to rise to mind as the full question it is, frequently -- for so often our encounters with poetry occur in well-considered collections, in which the attractiveness of the poems from page to page tends to be a shared quality, in which a feeling of consistent reward dampens the force of the individual poem. I recall encountering a poem by Stephen Dunn in the pages of Poetry magazine a few years ago and being struck by its clarity and self-containment, and its effective striking of a note that seemed born of experience: for the meaning emerging from the poem arose from a narrative element ending in failure. Later when encountering the poem again collected into a book by Dunn, which I was reading against the backdrop of having cast my attention over prior volumes of his, I found the poem again and in it found a continuing attractiveness; yet now I took in its emergent meanings in light of the regular knelling of this particular bell throughout his career as a poet. This and other poems conveyed to the reader -- especially the reader taking a Romantic view that in his writings this poet was wrestling with his life -- that the poet had sought for meaning -- sought to find the vital design that applied in particular to him -- and had failed. This sense disconcerted me as I imagine it must disconcert others: for whatever structuralist or objective notions some critics might wish to foist upon readers I believe most of us dip into the realm of the poem not so much for guidance as for illumination that strikes, as if by accident, not only the path being taken by the poet but the path being taken by the reader. Some of the powers of poetry arise from moments when this dual illumination reveals to the reader a path -- even if only a suggestion or a glimpse of a path -- that the reader had failed to realize she or he was taking.
What may make us as readers return to a poem's first line may be a sense of being shown the New that is not so new as we thought, a sense of being presented the unconsciously familiar view. When we set even a single foot on a path and discover we reached that point unconsciously, we naturally ask ourselves how we arrived here where we suddenly are; and naturally we then glance back, perhaps even backing up to retrace our steps in the hopes we might do so with an ounce more consciousness.
29 October 2012:
I sometimes wonder, in contrast, if the ancient forms of riddle and conundrum may play a continuing role in our poetry reading. Who or what is the poet talking about? And where is the the poem going? The questions seem to arise in the mind, so that the reader goes on from one line's end to next line's beginning, impelled by curiosity. Does aesthetic enjoyment play as greatly into this first reading as in the second, when the reader has reached the ending? With the answer in hand, the reader may go back to re-read in order to see how the riddle played out, line by line -- or how the journey was affected. Since the riddle or puzzle has found resolution -- at least of some kind, definite or vague - the second reading lacks the propulsion of inquisitive curiosity. Instead aesthetic curiosity takes us through the lines again.
In the new November issue of Poetry Idra Novey's "The Visitor" uses the riddle form. One reads forward at first just absorbing the poem's perspective on the "visitor" -- whose actual nature, unveiled at the end, comes unexpectedly. The minor revelation sends the eye back to line one, to follow again the observations that now seem clues. A second poem of Novey's in the issue has something of the puzzle to it -- for the run-on sentences move evasively between apparent subjects. The poem, "La Prima Victoria," after several readings begins to offer the image of a woman discovering a disagreeable inner self. At the same time I half wonder how much I impose on the poem -- in part because "The Visitor" made me anticipate another riddle.
An unexpected function of conventional form made itself evident in reading "As Is," by Nicholas Friedman. I was sitting after supper, tired from a day of mostly working with old oddities and antiquities, as it happens, and had in my hands this issue of Poetry; and while my tired mind took in the word "antique" in line two of this poem, the poem only lightly penetrated my tiredness -- until the ending rhymed couplet. At my sudden thought, "A sonnet!" -- not so common in this day -- my eye went to the top again; and I read with more care and comprehension. Oddments: "Typewriters tall as headstones" puzzles me: I suppose the poem seems to evoke the low slabs near the ground bearing only names and dates. And "art deco bangles bright as harpsichords"? When I studied harpsichord, as I recall, the instruments were brown or black. I suppose the poem might lay claim to synaesthetic effect, with the bangles evoking bright harpsichord notes -- yet I think without much basis. And the phrase "to feign intrigue"? -- which perhaps was meant to convey what the phrase "to feign interest" does to us plebeians. I find it hard to feign interest in such misstepping: for it seems to me less than an innocent mistake.
The ending lines contain the poem's success, or otherwise: "One man's junk is another's all the same./ They don't buy much, but that's not why they came." Younger writers use familiar phrases -- if not more frequently than do older writers, then more obviously. The poem succeeds in its way because of its play on the familiar masculocentrist phrase, "One man's junk is another man's treasure": it succeeds because it diverts, for a moment. Yet to consider the understood phrase the poem offers -- "One man's junk is another's junk" -- the reader collides with negativism, with the transformative suggestion of the hackneyed phrase itself tossed out. Junked. It seems an admission that the poem -- or perhaps the shoppers at this antique barn -- have failed to find significance. They looked, then left. Why then present the scene? The last line offers the puzzle, with its lazy run-on construction and meter-rescue contractions. The line creates a nice surface effect: it rhymes, and seems to reflect some superior knowledge, some arch meaning -- but what arch meaning, exactly? Much could be read into this observation about these shoppers -- one of them after all has a unique way of feigning interest. The most obvious reading, given that feigning, is that this wise-posing final statement points toward their boredom. Cesspool la vie. For one line to suggest a failed search for value, for meaning or for transformation, and the next to suggest boredom, leaves me disappointed. I ask myself: I came this far for this?
And it is but a sonnet.
Friedman, by the way, is one of the five Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellows featured in the issue: also Reginald Dwayne Betts, Richie Hoffman, Jacob Saenz, and Rickey Laurentiis. An all-male slate of, indeed, fellows. Are all lily white? I have no idea: their names appear printed in black, no more. I may re-read them all, later, to see if my first impression of uninviting language came as just a tired thought. That the act of returning to Friedman's poem made it seem less inviting than it did at first I have to admit. I suppose a lesser poem does well by not calling attention to itself with rhymes. (I might well have had this thought after reading the Frederick Seidel poems in the September issue.)
One poem in the issue did make me re-read it instantly. I liked its feel, and still do. The words move along in comfortable meter, and have an inviting appearance of simplicity. The lack of intellectual parading makes it stand out -- makes it, perhaps, an expression that has better chance at moving nearer the vital impulse within it. As it happens I have read this poem several times -- and am only gradually myself moving toward what its impulse, its main notion, may be. So I will do no more than to say it is this: "Toward what island-home am I moving," by Joanna Klink.
Poetry 201:2, November 2012:
Other writers in the issue with poems: Elizabeth Spires, Hailey Leithauser, Vijay Seshadri, Casey Thayer, Donald Revell, Katie Ford, Jim Harrison, David Yezzi, Lisa Williams. I suspect I will re-read more among their poems. Particularly interesting in this issue, by the way, are "Poet Photos" taken from Poetry's files. I feel especially curious about the last image, in which six men stand shoulder to shoulder part-way down a stairwell above which hangs the sign: "The Rejected Generation." Taken circa 1960, the photograph shows six Milwaukee poets who never made it into Poetry. The editors name three among them: Ray Peckner/Puechner, John Schmidt and Jay Robert Nash. The appearance of their being a group, of the informal get-together sort, strikes an intriguing note. A club of rejected poets ... how could I or almost any poet not want to join?