“Just” Narrative

Now, we all know what happens when we assume, but at our meeting on Wednesday, I got the feeling that the overarching opinion of the class was that poems that tell stories are somehow less important, less impressive or not quite as worthy of literary study than poetry that is more vague or symbolic, or anything but a narrative. I would just like to put a word in for the narrative poem – Friedman’s article really spoke to me, particularly when she was talking about the poet as a witness: “one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness” (16). I am by no means dismissing art for art’s sake, because I have no problem with that (in fact, I think it’s great – hoorah for aesthetics!), but I would like to cite the importance of storytelling. It’s how we can learn without making the mistakes ourselves, or feel better about ourselves when we make the mistakes anyway. There are thousands of reasons to listen to and remember stories (“so why do we read literature, anyway?”), and a poetic sequence is a phenomenal way to tell one.

In my own poems, I have been grappling with the problem of including the stories of other people that have, in turn, had an effect on me. I know that when Friedman quotes Morrison as saying “We are the subjects of our own narrative, witnesses to and participants in our own experience, and, in no way coincidentally, in the experience of those with whom we have come in contact” (17) that she is speaking specifically about African Americans, but I’m going to take that out of context for a moment and use it for myself. I was wondering if it was, in fact, ethical to write about the experiences of another, and I have finally come to the conclusion that it is okay: since I was affected by them, they have, in essence, become my own experiences. I guess there really is no truly personal experience, as most everything is caused by the actions of another.

In conclusion, stories are great. Keep telling them, even if they aren’t entirely yours.

Thoughts on Clearances: a generic hybrid?

I was just re-reading Seamus Heaney’s Clearances and had some thoughts/questions:

The embedded words “genre peice” made me think about the ways in which this sequence might draw upon a few different genres. Or resist them, since he claims that it is ‘mine to dispose with now she’s gone.” Because of the opposition between a loose sonnet form and its subject matter (poems remembering/addressed to his dead mother), the sequence straddles a sonnet tradition (about love) and an elegaic one (about death), which is odd yet fitting, because his sentimental reflection is brought about by her death. So he bridges two poetic traditions that initially seem dichotomous (to me).
More multi-generic stuff: I feel like i am stretching when I note elements of Epic in this clearly lyrical piece. I’m always looking for them, but what set me off is the invocation to a dead person, his mother, in the first, non-sonnet poem that is kind of an epigram (I don’t know what to call it). I also feel like we (the reader and the speaker) take a sort of low-key journey, through their relationship, and dabble in after-life experiences (“and a pure change happened”, lyric VII); elements of epic exist here but may be down-played (translated into realistic imagery and language) which seems to modernize them.

But, I feel that this sequence is a kind of collage piece where we see glimpses of mother through the eyes/experience of the son. Only since it ends with death it seems to have a linear trajectory as well. Seeing it as a collage complicates or obliterates any epic impulse that I might be injecting into the poem…but I guess it doesn’t have to; a story can move forward even in snapshots. Am I oversimplifying by equating narrative impulse with any forward-motion in the poem?

Do these sonnets seem to be linear, story-telling sonnets (that make up a larger story) or is it more like a collage? I feel like we aren’t given enough context to place any sonnet before or after the other to really make a “story,” but perhaps I am just overlooking some things.
*Another note: there is something interesting happening with pastoral or natural imagery in contemporary poetry…it seems to get tamed or boxed in like a garden…maybe this parallels the growth of suburbia and the decline of farmlands and people’s everyday experiences with nature as something untamed. I’m not sure, any thoughts? I have to think about it more. This sequence, and the Millay one of course, relate to this (and there are others).


I’m constantly writing down quotes that I want to remember and this sequence had me jumping off my bed to type up a new quote every few minutes. Here are a few that I really liked:

What is fate but a strategy/ for ignoring history “Parable of the King”

Nothing is always the answer; the answer/ depends on the story. “Moonless Nights”

We can all write about suffering/ with our eyes closed. “Rainy Morning”

So it is true, after all, not merely/ a rule of art:/ change your form and you change your nature./ And time does this to us. “Parable of the Dove”

We look at the world once, in childhood./ The rest is history. “Nostos”

On a more reflective note, I thought this sequence interestingly addressed some of the questions about the nature of sequences that we’ve been dealing with so far. I really enjoyed how this sequence linked the characters of The Odyssey as a semi-parallel between roles of the speaker and her husband in their obviously failing modern day marriage. I found her choices of poetic voice and how the several voices create mini-sequences that are all interrelated and their arrangements especially interesting. I think this sequence does follow some kind of order, but I’m not sure how to define it. I think, in many ways, Glück uses the voices and their indirect responses to each other to propel the sequence forward. This goes back to the question of order as an aspect of sequencing which I’ve been thinking about while writing my own sequence, whether it be linear or cyclical or branched. It’s obvious that though there are certainly mini-sequences within this larger work, grouping them together one after another would not accomplish the same synergistic effect as their interwoven arrangement.

Also, I’ve been thinking about the stand-alone quality that we’ve considering when looking at the success of sequences, like in Jess’ last entry. One of the things about this sequence that I really appreciated was that I think the connection to The Odyssey makes this work more than a confessional piece about a divorce. That being said, could the poems written in the speaker’s contemporary voice stand alone in their own sequence without the comparison and connection to Penelope and Odysseus? Though it’s pretty weird to have a poem about a guy in a purple bathing suit next to a literary character from Ancient Greece, I think her consideration of these characters’ feelings as well as her reflection about her own relationship are made stronger by the presence and connection to the other. What do you guys think?

On Sequence and Visual Art

I’ve been doing some more thinking about poetic sequences and corresponding visual art. The two main sequences I was going to look at were Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, and Williams’ Pictures from Breughel. I was comparing them, and at first I felt that Blake’s sequence was stronger because his poems could stand alone, without the corresponding artwork, and only grew more interesting when one viewed the plates along with the text: the art acted like part of the sequence itself, serving to futher the poetry’s meaning. Williams’, on the other hand, does not function very well as a sequence without the art to which it is referring, and I originally saw this as a serious downfall, especially since there was no mention of the paintings anywhere, not even in a footnote. But then I realized that because Williams did not publish his work with replicas of the paintings I had to go elsewhere to view them, and in the process learned a great deal more than I had anticipated. I don’t know if that was his intention, but the fact that through his poetry I was led to a completely different genre of art is an important one. Williams gave new meaning to Breughel’s paintings through his words, and through his words I found Breughel as a painter.

As a side note, I would just like to mention that I seriously like the title “Pictures from Breughel:” because they are so descriptive, the poems are like textual pictures, and the sequence is literally about pictures (duh). My first thought, before I knew that he was an artist, was that Breughel was a place and the poems were little pictures from that place. I still kind of like to think that, even though now I know better. Any other ideas about this? Or an argument for Blake? I feel like I slighted him.

Possible Gig

hey everyone, i have been asked by my friend Sean to find people who would be willing to read poetry (their own, at least primarily their own) at the folk show next friday. if that sounds like fun to you, tell me and i’ll pass it on to Sean (Placchetti, you might know him). i’m not sure if i’ll do it myself, because i’m shy and would rather find someone with a guitar and do some harmonica/guitar folk music. but i might, so. i don’t know.

Yes, that’s interesting, but so what?

In my quest for a paper topic, this is the question I find myself asking over and over again: “Yes, Katie, that’s interesting, but so what? Do you have anything to say about it other than the fact that it’s there?” I found this to be the case especially with the Edna St. Vincent Millay sequence, “Sonnets from an Ungrafted Tree”. Here are some things that I noticed.

Pairings of opposites seemed to be the main point of the sequence to me. The biggest and most obvious one is life and death, since the sequence is about a woman taking care of her dying husband. Many of the other pairs of opposites seemed to be shadowing life and death. For example, in the first poem, bright colors (the red geraniums and blue creeping-jinny vine flower) are compared to the dull ones (rotting stalks and thin log). The geraniums seem to represent her husband, once alive and colorful and now dead, and the creeping-jinny vine seems to represent her, attired in an apron and doing the necessary chore of planting seeds for the spring when life returns again.

Speaking of spring, nature has a very strong presense in this sequence. Many of the poems take place outdoors and involve nature metaphors. A similar metaphor to the first poem takes place in the eleventh poem, in which an apron that fell off of the clothesline in the winter is discovered when the snow thaws in the spring. There are more obvious life and death setups in this poem: freezing and thaw, winter and spring, and her realization that spring is coming and she must prepare for it. There are also lots of connotations behind aprons which are carried throughout the sequence which I will address in a bit.

The second poem ties nature to sound, another motif that is played with in this sequence. It describes the rhythmic noise of rain and compares this noise to that of mowing the lawn, locusts rasping their wings, and hummingbirds. The woman cannot remember living without this constant background noise, a suspension of one note, much like the state of her life since her husband started dying. The idea of a steady background noise is addressed again in poem 14, where the woman is frightened of noises in the dark, and keeps the kettle on for the company of the noise. In the eighth poem, the demands of passing time, chores (I swear I’m going to address housework; it keeps cropping up without my permission!), and other people are expressed through the noise of a clock, hens and the pump, and voices respectively.

Housework and daily chores are also used throughout the sequence. In poem six, there is a line, “…Treacherously dear / and simple was the dull, familiar task.” Such dull, familiar tasks are given metaphorical weight in the examples previously mentioned, as well as in the third poem where the woman is impatiently fetching wood that burns instantly and quickly, suggesting a rapid movement towards an inevitable end. In poem seven, she cleans the kitchen until it sparkles, leaving her reluctant to make dinner in it and get it messy again. However, this scouring is described as an outlet for her and an expression of what she would like to do with her life.

There are some definite sexual overtones in this sequence, particularly in poem four where stoking the fire in the fireplace is a metaphor for stoking her husband’s sexual passion. However, her passion for both tasks is in vain: “She thrust her breath aganist the stubborn coal, / Bringing to bear upon its hilt the whole / of her still body … there sprang a little blaze… / A pack of hounds, the flame swept up the flue!-” And the crowd goes, “…awww :(“. In poem five the woman is hiding in the cellar from the grocery delivery man, and the phrase, “…Sour and damp from that dark vault…” is used, which in context of the previous poem suggest female anatomy to me, but maybe that’s because I’m starting to get punchy.

That is roughly what I got from this sequence 🙂

Cycles in some new sequences

I went to Borders tonight to do some GRE prep; I was thwarted by a folk band in the café and the poetry section. Instead I read Donald Hall’s Without and Sharon Olds’ The Father. Both are confessional sequences tracing the illness and death of a loved one (Hall’s wife and Olds’ father). I’ll get them both on the wiki.

I’ve never read Hall before and I’m not quite settled on my opinion yet, but if nothing else I’d suggest checking it out for the incredibly strong emotional drive and his work with sequence. The first part of the book deals with his wife’s struggle with leukemia and the first poem of the sequence is continued intermittently throughout the sequence. The second part of the book deals with her death onward and the change is reflected formally.

I’ve read a bit of Olds before and expected to like her work, as I did. I was reminded of her last week when I read Clifton’s Mary sequence. The cyclical nature of daughter becoming mother that Clifton explores is also dealt with in Olds’ Satan Says. I see this affinity toward the cyclical child-parent relationship again in The Father.

As it is, the cyclical nature of life, especially as illuminated in sequence, was on my mind a lot last week. If were to argue that sequence has moved from representing the eternal nature of human love to the terminal nature of human love, I’d say that in these contemporary works we’re moving into a cyclical representation. Again, I wonder if sequence as a genre has some special capacity or endurance for repetition that lends itself to exploring the temporal qualities of human existence.

Without and The Father both reminded me of Millay’s consideration of her dying husband. These three sequences are very similar and I’d say that Professor Emerson’s Late Wife responds to them and moves beyond them. Late Wife moves past the loss of a loved one, past the terminal nature of humanity, and takes the position of the next lover, the new, the repetition. Late Wife then is part of this movement toward the cyclical representation of love in sequence.

Obviously I’ve been thinking a lot about these things. Maybe there’s a thesis forming. .

The Musical Sequence?

Building on our discussion in class Wednesday, I wanted to build on the comments Tyler made on (if I am recalling correctly) the possibility of a musical album being “read” as a sequence. So I’ve been studying for my music class test this afternoon and finally reading all of the stuff that I should have been reading for the last month. And instead of continuing to study, I figured I would blog a couple of points which are relevant to our class. . .

I’m up to the chapter on the Romantic period, and the book talks about how the “Song Cycle” flourished. Hmm. . . that sounds familiar and from my understanding, a Song Cycle is essentially a poetic sequence set to music. You can read more information here at Wikipedia. I will try to post an example if I can find a public domain audio file.

In addition to poems set to music, I was also thinking about the nature of the symphony. Is it not a kind of sequence? A symphony is essentially a set of (more or less) four movements that apart can have meaning, yet together form a greater whole.

Just figured I would post a couple of quick thoughts. . . I really should get back to studying.

Brutal Imagination

(For the sake of disclosure, I wrote about Cornelius Eady in Linguistics 305. This is an excerpt from that paper.)

In his poem “Birthing”, Eady combines actual statements from Susan Smith’s confessions with a narrative of the imaginary black man on whom Smith blamed her heinous crime. The narration of this fictional black murderer is before Smith created his identity, a lie, but at the end of the poem, Smith shares that identity with her black character.

The reason this poem, and the other Susan Smith poems, are so powerful is the truth that racism is a ready tool for playing on this fictional conception of the black man as a violent, alien creature who lurks in the night. The metaphor from this poem, “I am just an understanding” has multiple layers of meaning that stems from where ‘I’ and ‘understanding’ intersect (I = an understanding). Both are words of agency and power, and both are subjective, but interestingly enough, the fictional black man does not possess freedom of defining himself by those identifiers.

“I” is a complex word with a number of semantic primitives. “I” is a representation, identity, self, singularity, or ego. Understanding employs tenets such as knowledge, agreement, significance, unspoken, inference, experience, belief, or perception. In this example, the word is a noun. The interesting thing in this metaphor is how the semantic primitives interact because understanding requires a certain agency that is provided by the self of ‘I.’ However, the identification of self required to define the word I also necessitates some type of understanding of context within the world. What “I” is depends also on what “I” is not.

In this case it refers to an imaginary character representing the masculine black face to white America. For this reason, the black “I” is also the not-white “I.” The purpose of Eady’s poetry in the Brutal Imagination cycle is to not just raise awareness that it was wrong of Susan Smith to lie in creating this identity, but also to explore why the fiction worked so well. The answer is in the word ‘understanding.’ The understanding that he is writing about is that between white people, black identity is villanized and othered, which is why Smith was able to perpetuate this story and that it was believable so widely. Whites as the dominant racial group have used their power to create their own prejudiced view of a black “I” and ignored any information that may ruin that simple fantasy. This subtle yet powerful metaphor illustrates what a farce racial tolerance is in America.