Since this whole “Boston Comment” affair erupted, I’ve been hyper-conscious about my own critical motives, worrying that my dismissals of certain tendencies in mainstream poetry might be no more rational or balanced or constructive or whatever than Joan Houlihan’s blanket dismissal of experimental poetry. So when I saw that Aimee was recommending Linda Pastan, I at first thought to myself, well, maybe I’ve had a closed mind, maybe I should go into this as much as possible without any prejudices and try to let the poem do what it does on its own terms and evaluate it from there. The poem Aimee reproduces is
I want to write you
a love poem as headlong
as our creek
when we stand
on its dangerous
banks and watch it carry
with it every twig
every dry leaf and branch
in its path
when we see it
that even as we watch
we must grab
and step back
we must grab each
get our shoes
soaked we must
grab each other
Upon reading this two or three times I thought: not bad, not great either, some effective phrasing (the repetition of “grab each other,” mostly), a nice sense of spontaneity but nothing really arresting or specific. So, I figured, maybe I should look at some more of Pastan’s work, and then I’ll have more of a context in which to appreciate this piece. I followed Aimee’s links and came across the following poem, among others:
When they taught me that what mattered most
was not the strict iambic line goose-stepping
over the page but the variations
in that line and the tension produced
on the ear by the surprise of difference,
I understood yet didn’t understand
exactly, until just now, years later
in spring, with the trees already lacy
and camellias blowsy with middle age,
I looked out and saw what a cold front had done
to the garden, sweeping in like common language,
unexpected in the sensuous
extravagance of a Maryland spring.
There was a dark edge around each flower
as if it had been outlined in ink
instead of frost, and the tension I felt
between the expected and actual
was like that time I came to you, ready
to say goodbye for good, for you had been
a cold front yourself lately, and as I walked in
you laughed and lifted me up in your arms
as if I too were lacy with spring
instead of middle aged like the camellias,
and I thought: so this is Poetry!
I have problems with this poem on at least three levels: style, argument, and meter. (I guess that covers just about everything, doesn’t it?) My most immediate negative response is to the poem’s rhetorical style: I wince slightly at little anthropomorphisms like “the strict iambic line goose-stepping” and “camellias blowsy with middle age,” and slightly more still at their opposites, the phrases comparing people to weather and seasons. I’m not sure whether it helps or makes it worse when the speaker likens herself to the camellias, which, by virtue of being described as “middle-aged” in the first place, are already implicitly likened to her. I think by that point the poem is such a mess it doesn’t make any difference.
But I get ahead of myself: these stylistic objections must finally be considered subjective, and I haven’t yet fully addressed the other things that make the poem a mess in my opinion. Its “argument” would appear to be that the principle behind skillful iambic pentameter (and by extension, Poetry in general?) is one of surprise, of expectations that are either run aground as in a shipwreck or miraculously rescued. This “either” is crucial, since it’s not clear that the analogy the speaker offers really works: the frostbitten flowers are a cruel shock, whereas the suddenly affectionate lover is a happy relief. We might exercise the faculty of generosity and suppose that the transition from negative to positive is itself intended as an example of the kind of surprise in question, but my generosity is strained at that point. More importantly, the poem’s pivotal definition of what makes meter work, “the tension … between the expected and the actual,” is incomplete. This is part of what happens in good iambics, certainly; but it is inadequate as a summation, as it neglects rhythm, which this poem sorely lacks.
This brings us to the poem’s own meter, if one can call it that. Although three or four of the lines could be said to scan fairly smoothly, for the most part the only organizing structural feature is that most lines have somewhere between nine and eleven syllables—and some go over. There’s just enough regularity to suggest that the poem is trying to match form to content, but not anywhere near enough to demonstrate any “tension … between the expected and the actual.” It’s all just dully, shapelessly, actual. In fact, it’s much more shapeless than a well-crafted poem written in skillful open form, because one is constantly aware of the metrical architecture it tries to invoke but fails to inhabit. No expectations are ever raised, so none can be undermined.
It’s an old, cheap trick, but I think it’s useful here—I’ve taken out the line breaks and turned it into prose in order to demonstrate a) the arbitrariness of the verse arrangement and b) the overall laxity of the language just as language, period:
When they taught me that what mattered most was not the strict iambic line goose-stepping over the page but the variations in that line and the tension produced on the ear by the surprise of difference, I understood yet didn’t understand exactly, until just now, years later in spring, with the trees already lacy and camellias blowsy with middle age, I looked out and saw what a cold front had done to the garden, sweeping in like common language, unexpected in the sensuous extravagance of a Maryland spring. There was a dark edge around each flower as if it had been outlined in ink instead of frost, and the tension I felt between the expected and actual was like that time I came to you, ready to say goodbye for good, for you had been a cold front yourself lately, and as I walked in you laughed and lifted me up in your arms as if I too were lacy with spring instead of middle aged like the camellias, and I thought: so this is Poetry!
Spread out this way, stripped of its poetry-disguise, this text even more clearly reveals all its unfinished surfaces and ill-fitting joints. The first ten or eleven words sound more like quacking than English; phrases such as “I understood yet didn’t understand / exactly” and “until just now, years later” are barely grammatical banalities; the vehicle of the cold front simile (“like common language”) too loudly broadcasts the tenor (prosody) for which the cold front itself—and really, the poem as a whole—is a vehicle; and the poem’s final epiphany (“so this is Poetry!”) is ambiguous in the most unmotivated way, making it unclear whether the revelation occurs at the moment of witnessing the dead flowers or at the moment of being embraced, and even more unclear that either possibility is interesting. Just to be fair, I’ll admit that I like the line “as if I too were lacy with spring”: it has a pretty, wistful sincerity.
Now, back to the problem I started with. How is what I’m doing here different, if it is different, from what Houlihan has been doing to experimental poems in “Boston Comment”? Or what she’s been doing to mainstream poems for that matter. I wouldn’t be surprised if she felt the same way about this piece that I do. We pretty much feel the same way about poets like Billy Collins, Sharon Olds, et al., and use many of the same kinds of arguments to make our case against them. So why do I find her attacks on poets like Christine Mengert so wrongheaded?
It’s not just, as some have suggested, that Mengert is a beginner and deserves to be cut some slack, whereas the veterans of the poetry world are grizzled enough to handle tough criticism. Houlihan fails to acknowledge a crucial distinction between two types of poems: those that carry with them a relatively intact formal apparatus for their own interpretation, and those that do not. It’s like tinned fish: some comes with its own key, and some requires a can opener. Some may just have to be bashed open on a sharp rock. Some may not be destined to be opened, like the can of pink salmon that sat ornamentally on the ledge of my bachelor apartment for months and months in 1985, and for all I know may still be rusting picturesquely somewhere. A large percentage of poems in the Anglo-American tradition have keys firmly glued to their lids, and when the keys work, and what’s inside is tasty, it can be a beautiful thing. Pastan’s is one of those keyed poems, but like too many others, its key breaks when you try to pry it off, or the lid itself chips under the key’s pressure before opening fully.
Houlihan assumes that when poems come with keys attached, it’s reasonable to expect the keys to work. I agree, especially when it’s reasonably clear that the key isn’t some kind of deliberately ineffectual meta-key or whatever. What she has no category for, and therefore cannot tolerate, are poems that are indifferent to interpretation as such, or at least interpretation as it is defined in certain dominant critical models. Pastan’s poem, on the other hand, loudly announces its compatibility with these models, but then fails when put to the test.
My bashing of Pastan’s “Prosody 101" was (as a couple of people pointed out) a bit of a swerve from the poem Aimee originally posted, and so I want to try to redress that situation a bit. As I said before, I don’t think “love poem” is that bad. For what it is--a slight, offhanded bit of verbal cuddling--it has a considerable amount of integrity, in that it avoids obvious cliches, its language is direct and unaffected (the archaic sense of scruple as used here sent me to the dictionary, but I found this to be one of the most effective images in the poem, partly because of its etymological exoticness), and as pure sound it’s not unpleasant.
If this praise seems condescendingly littered with negatives and reservations, maybe I’m resisting something other than the language as such. Maybe it’s the overly familiar scenario of romanticized passion, in which the intimate address between two lovers assumes an importance that, in our late-capitalist age of global crisis, for readers who have long since surfeited on such pastoral idylls, must seem overblown and irresponsible. Or if this is too austere and Adorno-y an objection, maybe it’s that the poem could be argued to fail formally in achieving the speaker’s own stated ideal: it is hardly “headlong,” hardly “swollen with runoff,” but rather a gentle trickle of mildly cascading sentiments. The idea that its “banks” might be “dangerous” to stand on is ludicrous. OK, like, if we’re talking about a couple of really old people with weak hearts or whatever, sure. But you know. Come on. If the speaker had said “I want to write you a love poem as soft and furry as a baby raccoon,” that might be closer to the actual effect.
The poem appears to be attempting to simulate said headlong quality via its lineation, using short lines to create a skinny, stream-like column, and heavily enjambed line breaks to evoke a continual, over-lapping current, as of water in a creek. To some extent, this technique works, but only to some extent; ultimately, I don’t get the same feeling of necessity from the breaks that I get from those in a poem by Williams, or Creeley … or even O’Hara, whose breaks are ostensibly arbitrary, dictated by the margins of whatever cocktail napkin or memo pad he happened to be writing on. To me, Pastan’s breaks feel inert, “unjustified,” much of the time.
Just as I did with “Prosody 101,” I’ve reproduced the poem here minus its line breaks:
I want to write you a love poem as headlong as our creek after thaw when we stand on its dangerous banks and watch it carry with it every twig every dry leaf and branch in its path every scruple when we see it so swollen with runoff that even as we watch we must grab each other and step back we must grab each other or get our shoes soaked we must grab each other
Experiment: re-introduce line breaks, which I’ve removed, to this poem. No fair peeking at the original. Where do you think they work best? Do you have a rationale, or do you “just go on your nerve”? If the latter, can you still reconstruct some kind of logic to your choices after the fact? Are there several acceptable ways to break the lines, all of which are equally effective? Or is there a special vibration that you can reach, like hitting the right notes on a musical instrument, when you arrange the lines a certain way, and only that way? Or are the materials not worth the trouble?