Monthly Archives: September 2009

#39 “Thoughts about the Person from Porlock” (Stevie Smith)

And yet, the energy of “Kubla Khan” was limited by an accident. Coleridge said that the poem came to him in a dream (literary critics believe opium was involved).

On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!

The “person from Porlock” has ever since figured, in literary history, as somewhere between the type of all importunate people who prevent academics from getting their “own work done” at best, and history’s greatest monster at worst. After all, if the Person hadn’t come barging in, Coleridge might have given the world the director’s cut of “Kubla Khan,” which might be all the way up at #20 on the Countdown today instead of the lousy #40 where I have it.

But every reaction brings about a counter-reaction. What if the person from Porlock came just in time? That is the suggestion of Stevie Smith’s wonderful “Thoughts about the Person from Porlock.”

This is the one tactical placement on my Countdown. I wanted to include Stevie Smith, and this is the poem of hers that I think most highly of. But it makes no sense to place it before “Kubla Khan,” and if I wait to include it much after, it’s not going to be as effective, either.

It’s a poem about work, and creativity, and rationalization, and excuses, and the wonder of language, and mystery, and depression, and people’s expectations of us, and a little bit about faith, and there’s even a cat in it. Of all the poems in the Countdown, it may be the most eclectic in style. It starts with a free-verse meditation; it continues with a lyric section in couplets; it meditates again; and it ends with a meta-meditation, almost in prose, about whether it was right to write the rest of it. As a poem about writers’ block and its attendant insecurities, it ends brilliantly with thoughts about such insecurities, and our guilt for even entertaining them.

But wait, my department Chair is at my door . . .


#40 “Kubla Khan” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” is one of the most famous, and most frequently reprinted, poems of the past two hundred years. (Well, 212 to be exact, but close enough). By ranking it 40th on the Countdown, I hope I’m not disrespecting Coleridge. At times I’m pretty sure I could turn the Countdown on its head and go from 1 to 64 without noticing the difference; the poems are all that good.

Nevertheless, I am not including anything on this Countdown just because it’s historically important and nine out of every ten English professors would expect to see it here. “Kubla Khan” is not just famous for being famous. It’s a great achievement in language, carried out with the maximum possible panache.

“Kubla Khan,” as is apparent a few lines in, lies in the realm of fantasy literature. There was a historical Kubla Khan, of course. Wikipedia, which knoweth all things, situates Kubla (or “Kublai” Khan) as the Mongol emperor of China who ruled, at one point in the 1200s, one-fifth of the inhabited globe. For all that, he would have made little mark on Western culture. But Kubla Khan was the emperor who met Marco Polo – and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Kubla of the poem has almost exactly zero to do with the historical Kubla, to say nothing of the fact that if you tried to get on a first-name basis with Kublai Khan, he would probably have had you disemboweled. Coleridge’s speaker imagines a compound that has become the type of all crazy paranoid rulers’ private residences. “Xanadu” was the name that Orson Welles used for the obscenely excessive Kane estate in Citizen Kane. Michael Jackson had Neverland, Elvis had Graceland, Nixon had San Clemente, William Randolph Hearst (the model for Kane) had San Simeon.

And every such “pleasure dome,” it goes without saying, is built on a “romantic chasm” which is quite its opposite. You cannot have the greatest artificial pleasure except by contrast with the greatest natural dark energy. Opposites clash in “Kubla Khan” in a style reached only by great movie epics and apocalyptic graphic novels.

And the whole is done in mellifluous language at a breakneck pace. One of the things I admire greatly in the best poetry, and that I think is indispensable from artistic greatness, is energy (what Coleridge’s friend William Hazlitt called “Gusto”). “Kubla Khan” has energy to spare, and that energy has fueled any number of later compositions in language and in stone.

#41 “Jenny Kissed Me” (Leigh Hunt)

Leigh Hunt’s “Jenny Kissed Me” may be the shortest poem on the Countdown: eight lines, and short lines, at that. The three-word title of the poem pretty much sums up the plot. What more do we learn? That Jenny was sitting before the kiss, and jumped up to accomplish it. That the speaker is otherwise fairly defeated by life. That “Time,” personified, keeps a “list,” and loves to put good things down on it. I don’t think this is one of those “My Favorites” lists, though. It think it’s one of those lists with the theme “I’m going to see that you suffer.”

Why is this a good poem at all, let alone the 41st-greatest poem in the contemporary English language? One of the values that I perceive in so many of these Countdown poems is compression. Huge issues, huge emotions, huge aspects of existence are condensed by great poets into the fewest possible words. Sometimes this results in poetry both compressed and oblique, poetry that talks around feelings too powerful to meet head-on. But sometimes, as in “Jenny Kissed Me,” we see the fullest possible lyric payoff in as direct a manner as possible, with the most straightforward expression.

And it’s the expression of an overwhelming lyric emotion: desire. Or rather, joy at being desired. The speaker of the poem scarcely says what he feels about Jenny. (He doesn’t even identify his own gender, though the poet was male.) But there is one thing that we can’t deny: Jenny kissed him.

And she jumped from a chair to do so. The wording here is so economical, so unexpected, and yet so precisely emotional. I can’t think of another phrasing that would be so inevitable and unmistakable. It conveys a visual image, and also a whole story and backstory in exquisite miniature. Jenny jumps; the excitement of rising to the kiss sends her entire body into motion. No thought is involved, and perhaps the thoughts in the case were opposite ones. I’m going to sit here calmly and shake his hand when he gets in. No, the hell with that.

“Put that in.” If Time is making up an extra-careful list of good things he gets to take away from us, Jenny’s kiss is among the brightest. And the poem confronts the ravages of time by the simplest method possible. Yes, everything will be taken away from us. But it has already been. By writing the good things on his list, Time destroys them. But he also makes an indelible record of them. Poetry is the most ineffaceable way of preserving that record.

#42 “In the Waiting Room” (Elizabeth Bishop)

“In the Waiting Room” by Elizabeth Bishop provides a simple, familiar situation for which we don’t really have a name. It might be termed an “existential moment,” though that phrase is too vague. It’s the moment when you realize that existence, for want of a better word, exists. There’s no way out of it – well, death is a way out, but there is no way out of death itself. The option never to have been is unavailable.

Until a young person reaches that moment, the question of existence or nonexistence is pretty much all the same: not worth thinking about, because it’s never really presented itself as a genuine problem. Such a young person can act like someone who’s passed that watershed, talk like them, read Hamlet like them. But the instant that that existential moment is past, the child enters a different plane of existence.

For Bishop’s speaker (who is called “Elizabeth” and is the same age as the poet, but it hardly matters if it’s “really” her or not) the realization of her own existence is bound up with the realization that she is both connected to and separate from other people, particularly her aunt. (The “real” Elizabeth Bishop did not have an “Aunt Consuelo.”) Not as fused to her as a parent or even grandparent might be, the aunt is nonetheless so close as to seem almost the same person at certain moments – to have the speaker’s voice, her mannerisms. It’s like looking in a mirror, said by some psychologists to mark a crucial moment in development. But it’s a mirror with a mind of its own; it’s a separate person. When we realize that the world is full of free agents, and that we too are free agents, the awe of a single, separate existence becomes instantly alive for us.

I don’t know of any other poems that talk quite so perfectly about an experience we surely all feel but have no words for. There are several others on the Countdown, still to come, that talk about children, maturity, existence, and empathy. But “In the Waiting Room” is a stark description of an essential moment. Since it can’t be analyzed, it’s appropriate to poetry, where the only words are those of feelings, not of clinical psychology.

At the same time, the language is completely plain, not dressed up in the slightest. It resembles that of a child. In fact the child might have said exactly this – but we suspect that it took her 50 years to find the right words.

#43 “The Ball Poem” (John Berryman)

Today’s Countdown poems have comprised a descent into the depths. From peevish loneliness in “Inniskeen Road” through existential isolation in “Desert Places” we arrive at “the epistemology of loss” in John Berryman’s “Ball Poem”.

Berryman is sometimes called a “confessional poet.” He was clinically depressed; his poems are about depression. He would commit suicide at the age of 57; many of his poems, like “The Ball Poem,” contemplate suicide. As with Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” it’s tempting to read the poet’s personal misery into the lavish images of loss in the poem. And to the extent that this helps us feel closer to the author, and to the extent that it’s probably what he wanted (to feel heard and known, especially after his death), there’s nothing wrong with reading such a poem as immediately about its writer.

But as I’ve noted in class, people write personally because others can relate to their experience. “The Ball Poem” is stripped of individual references. It has almost no specific setting. The situation is reduced to a boy, a ball (we don’t even know how bouncy or how big), a harbor (unusual setting for a ballgame, but generic all the same), a dime, a street, and a whistle. The poem is intensely bare; everything that would interfere with a direct look into the existential situation is stripped away.

Anguish over irretrievable loss can be close to sentimentality. A boy losing a ball is a childish moment. Since everyone has been through such a moment, the banality of the intitiation into adult life can be the source of black humor, callow teasing, indifference, or outright cruelty. The achievement of “The Ball Poem” is to keep fierce restraint on any possible sentimentality. From the loss of the ball to the loss of the speaker’s life comes to seem an inevitable association, not at all an overstatement. From “an ultimate shaking grief” to the concluding realization “I am not a little boy,” the poem’s control in the face of the abyss is beautifully rendered.

#44 “Desert Places” (Robert Frost)

Robert Frost liked to invoke his own name, at least from a distance: he loved to write about winter and spring, with their snow, frost, thaw, and refreezing. “Desert Places” is probably his frostiest poem. In “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” despite the overtones of suicide, there’s at least a pony. In “Desert Places” we are left “with no expression, nothing to express.”

I’d like to digress for a moment to praise a small verbal detail that “Desert Places” shares with many other poems in the Countdown. At several junctures in “Desert Places,” Frost repeats a word, or most of a word, that he’s just used. “Snow falling and night falling.” “Lonely as it is that loneliness.” “No expression, nothing to express.” “Between stars – on stars.”

Think of others we’ve recently looked at. In “They Feed They Lion,” lines like “pounded stumps, out of stumps.” In “Inniskeen Road,” the sequence “being king . . . a mile of kingdom, I am king.” Or in “An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum,” the phrase “Awarding the world its world.”

I am not talking here about the thematic repetition of a key word at several points across a poem, which is inevitable in any kind of focussed writing. Rather, the device I’m pointing to is an immediate repetition of the same word, usually a pretty common word for which there are a lot of synonyms.

In prose writing, this might be a flaw. A teacher might tell a composition student to hit the thesaurus and find some synonyms to use for the purpose of variation. Or maybe it doesn’t even get that fancy: prose writers sometimes avoid repeating the same word just because they don’t want to bore their audiences or sound like their vocabulary is tiny.

As often, poetry breaks the rules. I am struck by how great poems, so often, find that the exact right word is the word that’s just served as the exact right word: and that using it over again makes the language stronger, not weaker.

#45 “Inniskeen Road: July Evening” (Patrick Kavanagh)

“Inniskeen Road: July Evening” by Patrick Kavanagh is the first sonnet we’ve seen in the Countdown. There won’t be many; the sonnet is alive and well, but it hasn’t been a predominant verse form in modern English poetry since the early 19th century.

The trick for 20th-century masters of the sonnet (and Kavanagh was one of the greatest) is to observe formal constraints while writing a natural-sounding language. There’s almost nothing in “Inniskeen Road: July Evening” that the poem’s speaker (a rural Irishman of the mid-20th century) mightn’t have said in his everyday speech.

The setting of the sonnet is not literary (a dance in a barn, an uninvited poet). The references in the poem are not recherché. “Alexander Selkirk,” the only unfamiliar name in the poem, is a pretty plain allusion. Selkirk was the castaway who became the model for Robinson Crusoe. He stands here for isolation, in a very direct way. (We call this kind of figure of speech “metonymy,” where an example or a directly connected item stands for something else; it’s the opposite of “metaphor,” where an unlike thing stands for something else. Selkirk is a metonym for being cut off from other people.)

Sonnets like this one fall into a four-part pattern, with 10/11-syllable lines rhyming ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. The pattern gives the poet a chance to craft three long sentences (or short paragraphs), each with a vivid idea, and then to round the poem off with a climax in the final two-line couplet. There’s usually a break in subject or idea between the CDCD and EFEF quatrains, as here where the speaker, who’s been describing a social situation, suddenly uses the word “I” for the first time and reveals that he’s been excluded from the party.

There’s irony here. A noisy party is no place for poets, yet all the poet wants is to be part of the fun and forget about his lonely calling for once. But there’s also mystery (a word that appears in the poem’s third line). Why is the poet uninvited? Why isn’t he asked in to participate in the clannish, clubbish, exciting (and dimly, sexually provocative) dance?

We don’t come close to knowing. As so often, a great poem works its magic by virtue of the things it leaves out.