Monday, October 23, 2006

poetry class!

It's a little distressing, how everybody out there EXCEPT the poets are responding to my 'poetry class' posts. Is this because the poets are too busy brooding? Or is it that they consider my choices SO far beyond the pale that they can only feel silent pity for me?

In any case, it's the New Yorker that ran the poem in question today. Some of you will instantly recognize it as a 'Steve poem' - but since the whole purpose of these little tutorials is to broaden that definition, I'm including it anyway:

Memory buries its own,
And of what now forever must be
The longest day of his life
What mostly remained was a blur
Under too bright lights - so he
Could scarcely tell if the things
Sharpest in his mind were
Nothing but fantasies, sewn
Afterwards, out of grief,
And guilt's imaginings.

Yet it seemed memory called up
(After the interminable birth,
As his finger stroked the arm
Of a child who would not last
Even one whole day
And all of its time on earth
Ministered to by vast
Machines that couldn't mend the harm
In a single transcription slip
In reams of DNA)

A look so haunted, so
Haunting, he would not confess
(Not even later, to his wife)
How it stayed with him, on him: the slow
Flicker in a watery eye,
The mute call - through all
The exhausted hopefulness
The condemned come to know
In the end - from animal to animal,
Imploring, Please save my life.

That's called 'Son' and it's by Brad Leithauser, and yes - it's heartbreakingly sad (and about the death of a child to boot). But I also think it's GOOD. And in wondering aloud whether or not it really is, I should stress I'd like to hear also from you genuine versifiers out there.


cottah said...

It’s a poem about a dying child. One does not like to be callous about such things, but if we value quality in art we have to concede that worthwhile emotion doesn’t necessarily lead to worthwhile poetry. There is a famous 3 line (Vietnam era) poem that reads, “the only response / to a child’s grave / is to lie down before it and play dead.” Then there’s the famous Ben Johnson one “ ‘Here doth lie / Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.’ / For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such / as what he loves may never like too much.” It’s high stakes, but I don’t think Leithauser raises them.

“A look so haunted,” “and what now forever must be,” “yet it seemed memory called up,” are all melodramatic. This may not seem like a bad thing, since we’re talking about the death of a child, after all. But a child’s death will always be melodramatic. Is Leithauser a member in a chorus or a soloist?

That said, it’s not—in my opinion—a bad poem. I just think it’s effect is easily won without any spectacular effect (or memorable lines). It made me feel a bit sad, in the same way I feel whenever I read about children dying. It’s a sad subject.

Oddly,, “a single transcription slip / in reams of DNA” seems like the sort of incongruously clinical line that bespeaks a tin ear worthy of John Updike’s sad sallies into poetry land. I had Leithauser pegged for better. But maybe I don’t read enough of his stuff.

me again said...

but, you know, the last couplet's good. I guess I just feel as though if you're going to publish a poem about a dying child, you've got to step up to the plate a little more than this. If it's his child, of course, I'd feel terrible for him, but we're not slapping down three-fiddy to read his diary in the New Yorker, are we?

Steve, you will be alive in two hundred years and I will not. If anyone’s still reading this (the way they will be the two poems I quoted above) I’ll owe you a coke.

steve said...

Well, as I've previously BLOGGED, I'm a big fan of that particular Jonson poem. But that doesn't answer the really important question:

In 200 years when I'm still alive and you aren't, how will I COLLECT your offered coke?

You're about to be THIRTY, after all! At that age, the sperm is just a thin watery drool!

1moreslogger said...

I am not a versisfier, rhyming being not much fun for me at least. I am a poet for my own moments and when someone else trys to capture a moment - my own test of the verse is did I remember such a moment? So though the DNA or words chosen don't approach immortality - the mortal moment he recalls does flash.

Having just finished Billy Budd it is fresh in my mind how that stolen man treated sorely in the kidnapper's vessel carrys more import than the kingdom that stole him.

Perhaps it over reaches in the "Save me" and he could have seached his thought not words above the infants perfect imperfect being - the seconds.

I did not wait two years to comment but here on the bottom of Stevereads wrapped in html is a small weighted hammock of loss too.