Friday, August 06, 2010

Trying to Read a Poem

(NB: Most of the links here are ridiculous.)

I’m trying to find a poem by a particular poet. Any poem of his will do, but I can’t remember who it is. Here’s what I know about him:

He’s male. I think he’s British. I think there is an “A” in his name, though maybe not the first letter. I read a poem by him once, it had perhaps three stanzas, and I liked it. Perhaps he is from the late 19th century.

I’m pretty sure he isn’t A.E. Housman, although I often confuse Housman with almost everyone. I thought his “When I was one and twenty” poem was by Hardy. I like that poem in spite of the fact that it makes fun of youthful conviction, which is a mean thing to do. Kids have to make their own mistakes, even in matters of love.

And anyway, how old was Housman when he wrote it? No more than 37, which is when he self-publishing it in his book, A Shropshire Lad.

Self-published! See, the manuscript was rejected several times. This I know from Wikipedia, where I also learned that the book’s success is due in part to musicians who set melody to the words.

But I cannot think of a way to effectively Google, “Who is that poet I’m thinking of,” so instead what I’ll do is wander attentively through the writers who spring to mind, and perhaps by the end of this essay I’ll connect to the one on the tip of my tongue.

Relatedly, and inexplicably, I can never remember the actor who plays in The Prince of Tides. It isn’t that I confuse him with Gary Busey; that’s dumb. And I have a very good knack for remembering the names of celebrities. And I like this guy and admire him as a great actor. But that I always flounder when mentioning him is a true thing.

This is not a problem that I typically have with this poet. It’s only been a couple days that I can’t remember his name. Prior to that, though, I may never have tried.

I can’t remember why I read that poem of his. Perhaps it was for a class, though I doubt it. My poetry education is bad. It is regrettable. In the course of earning my MFA, I purchased fewer than ten books of poems for my classes.

One of the books was an uninspired anthology. Most of the poems were American, light verse. One of the books was about the various forms available, with explication and examples. One was Robert Pinsky’s The Sounds of Poetry. The most ambitious syllabus, for a class I ended up accidentally not registered for, included collections by Anna Swir, Yusef Komunyakaa, Carolyn Forché and a couple others I can’t remember. I have them on my shelf and I’ll read them one of these days.

I’ve read that Plath poem, “Daddy,” like four or five times. “You do not do you do not do” or whatever, but I don’t really like it. I only say this to show how bad my poetry education is: we never once read Plath in school, anywhere.

For me, working diligently consists of sliding a mouse around on a small pad. Efficiency means you barely move your hands as you type. I have grown distracted, so I Googled “poetics.” Aristotle is not who I am trying to remember, but it is fun to let the Internet think for you. I do it all the time.

I tried to read “Daddy” again. Couldn’t. Where will I stop next on this adventure? Might as well look in on Hardy, as I confused him with whom I confuse who it is I’m trying to think.

The Darkling Thrush” includes the line “In blast-beruffled plume,” which wholly justifies my day. But the poem doesn’t smack of this day, August 6, 2010. It’s hot outside, and sunny.

Maybe the guy I’m trying to remember is very Catholic. I’m tempted, as I heap word upon word, to scour the contents table of some Norton Anthology, but it is too soon, too soon.

Yesterday I copied into a notebook that hammock poem by James Wright. The one where he describes his surroundings with lines like, “The droppings of last year’s horses/Blaze up into golden stones” and concludes, “I have wasted my life.” It is extraordinary. Perhaps now I will try to find out what Harold Bloom thinks about that trope.

Nothing, apparently. At least, not from my cursory research. However, in Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds (sheesh), Bloom does reference Wright’s statement that Fernando Pessoa is “the true heir of ‘our father Walt Whitman’,” though it isn’t clear from Google Books if Bloom is referencing Wright’s statement in terms of Whitman or Pessoa.

And at any rate, who is William Duffy—aside from the guy who owned the farm that brought James Wright to such crisis? I know his name. It’s right there in the title of the poem, which, okay, is “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, MN.”

It’s cool when poetry things happen in the American Midwest, as opposed to New England. But probably, after New England, then San Francisco, the middle states are the US’s most poetry-concerned.

William Duffy, it turns out, was a pretty awesome dude that got chastised for mentioning prostitution to his middle school students, and ran a poetry magazine with Robert Bly called The Fifties. He wrote rejection letters that would make Lee Klein, the Eyeshot editor proud, saying things like, “Your poems remind me of false teeth.” I got this from a website with the URL,, and if you care about poetry or friendship, you’ll look it up right away.

In the Sewanee Review, James Wright’s first book was compared to Keats, and Wright decided then to quit writing poetry. He didn’t though.

Which reminds me of that chestnut from Rilke about a poet being a person who must write. I’ve always hated that. Flannery O’Connor said a writer is a person who can write, and that makes more sense to me.

I am no closer to remembering the name of the poet whom I want to read now. This net is too wide, perhaps, so I’m resigned to using “British poet” as my search term. He is not there. He is not Blake or Byron, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth. He is not Rosetti, though I ought to read her. Why not? Her name is Christina Georgina Rosetti, she must be good.

I’m back. I read her. I like her. I like how those people back then used to make points. I mean, arguments. There are four stanzas in “I watched a rosebud.” In the first, the speaker watches a rosebud bloom. In the second she watches a bird’s nest with anticipation, but the birds orphan the eggs and they don’t hatch. In the third, the conned speaker breaks the branch and nest from the tree, but in the fourth stanza she feels bad and reflects “what if God,/Who waited for thy fruits in vain,/Should also take the rod?”

Rosetti factors in Nicholson Baker’s fantastic novel, The Anthologist, but my elusive poet doesn’t come up once. That is odd, because Paul Chowder, the protagonist, prizes rhyme most highly, and this poet has complicated rhymes all over. Slant rhyme and end rhyme and all that.

My friend Joe just emailed me a new version of the song, “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine,” this one by The Dirty Projectors. I emailed him back about what I was doing, and that I was getting frustrated. I’ve been Googling all willy-nilly for a while but without result—except to learn that Bruce Springsteen may be the greatest Catholic poet.

Joe named my poet in two guesses, though.

At first he said Browning. I’ve not read Browning, at least not that I can recall. Or, in fact, I recall reading Browning as an undergraduate student, but it would be impossible for me to name one of his or her poems.

How exciting, though, finally, to have the mystery solved, and to be rewarded that all my clues were accurate. And how great to have a friend to help in the chase. That, I think, is the best part. Poetry ought to happen with friends.

1 comment:

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