Wednesday, January 18, 2017

In which I place an inordinate amount of value in my ability to parse a single poem

The Spring Forecast
by Shelley Wong (Originally published in Crazyhorse; reprinted in the 2017 Pushcart Anthology)

Soon, the sea. On the city corner,
     a tree asserts I am every
          shade of pink. Like the inside.
    Dresses as transparent
as watercolor. Doors flung open

               to receive gold arrows.
    (stringing the strings)
Skirts flare into bells. Hair
    like bougainvillea.
              Once, a stop sign

before the water. Once, he traced
    the arch of her foot. Girls pack
              their illuminations 
     in butterscotch leather trunks.
The sea rushes

               from the lighthouse. What bloom
    says no? Her hand
petaling open. What you
    would do for a pied-a-terre
               with tall windows and flower boxes.

A head full of leaves.
    Too many bows to tie
              and what of them? Pluck
    the bestsellers. Sandal
ready. A pointed foot,

               pointed feet. Come out, come out,
    ripest peach, offwhite leader.
On the archipelago, you are
    almost new. Don't turn back:
              the girls are walking again. They soak

in their many perfumes.
    (strings up) Soon, the island.

 
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In my last post, I lamented that: 1) contemporary poetry might be too difficult to be socially useful; 2) I myself, although I'm probably more qualified to read poetry than the average citizen, find a lot of contemporary poetry in leading journals too dense to make sense of; 3) There isn't really a community online dedicated to discussion of contemporary poetry that provides support to those trying to decipher poems, which itself seems like a pretty good indication that the poetry community (if there even is one) doesn't even care if it isn't socially useful.

I then assigned myself the duty of parsing a poem I find difficult but intriguing. I guess I should confess that although I might, on paper, be qualified to interpret poetry, I'm not really that good at it. A lot of times, I don't get what songs are talking about, and I have to go online for help. I then read explanations that make me go, "Oh, of course. I should have gotten that." So I know I'm going to miss some obvious things in this poem. But I'll do my best. Here we go. If I can make something out of this, poetry might still have a place in American letters. If I can't, poetry dies for all Western civilization from this moment on. No pressure.

Section One: Headed to the beach? 

Working hypothesis: This is a poem that presents and then subverts common feelings associated with spring, especially sexual excitement, by re-casting it in a dark light. 

Exegesis: Immediately, I have to start guessing. "Soon the sea." Like a lot of this poem, this line has a few possible meanings. First, in line with this being a "forecast," it can be meant to look forward, possibly to a spring break vacation. But I take it a little more literally, like we are traveling through a cityscape, on the way to the ocean. While traveling, we see a tree that advertises its pinkness, its colors symbolizing newness, but also sexually suggestive. The images continue, images of openness, both sexual and literal: transparent dresses, doors flung open (to receive phallic arrows), flaring skirts. wild hair. We then hit a stop sign on our journey, and the symbols of openness temporarily stop.

In passing, I note that the parenthetical (stringing the strings) could be the stringing of a bow meant to fire gold arrows, but there might be an allusion going on here. Wong has also written a "Fall Forecast." One wonders if there are also summer and winter forecasts somewhere out there. Is this a sly reference to Vivaldi's Four Seasons? Maybe not, but either way, feel free to play the music as you read.



  Section Two: from stop sign to self-justification

I have to admit, I can't make much of "Once, he traced the arch of her foot." I feel this might be another allusion I don't get. In any event, we have stepped back from the movement toward the sea, and are now thinking of things in a more general sense. Without understanding any possible allusion, I take this as a recollection of either an artist drawing a woman's foot or a man tenderly--one assumes--running his finger along a foot, perhaps as a form of foreplay or just wooing. The sea rushes from the lighthouse--well, obviously, water retreats, but is it possible that the strong, sexual force of the sea retreats from the light? Is this why girls pack their "illuminations," the things that throw light upon them (maybe what they were learning in school before spring break), away in leather trunks?

Rather than resist the sexual force with her own mind, the female engages in self-justification of the act. "What bloom says no?" (the woman here being equated, nearly, with the pink tree.) Her hand doesn't just open, it "petals" open. She wishes for a tiny home in the city where she can engage in sexual promiscuity with her beloved, one that has high windows covered by flower boxes so that nobody can see in--that is, so her actions cannot be illuminated.

Now fully identifying with the budding flora of the spring, the woman questions what, with her head full of leaves, the point of all her buttons is. That is, why not open up?

Section Three: fuck it, I'm going to the beach

She decides she will not fight the sexual force of the sea. Instead, she will "pluck" a few brainless novels, put a sandal on her foot--no, feet (a play on the foot of the poem, but also recalling the arch of the foot that the man once caressed).

Section Four: What's the male version of a Siren? Whatever it is, it's calling to her

Some male voice now calls to her (or is this more self-justifying self-talk?) "Come out, come out." The imagery is now changed from pink buds and leaves to raw, sexual fruit. Whoever is doing the convincing here, the argument is that "on the archipelago," that is, leading off into the sea, she is "almost new." It's meant in a positive light, but there is, of course, the corollary that "almost new" is "partly no longer new."

But the girls are walking again--maybe we've been traveling in a pack of girls to the sea the whole time? They are drenched in perfume. Here, (strings up) could mean that the Vivaldian orchestra is done playing (or about to play, following the conductor's command); it could mean that the arrows are about to be fired; or, it could also be a play on the string bikinis the girls wear on the way to the beach. In any event, the island is coming, and that means diving into the sea.

------

I see this whole poem as an acerbic commentary on what most people view with nostalgia as a key part of warmer weather--what, in college, we sometimes dubbed "sperm term." Warmer weather brings rising libidos. Rather than seeing spring break as a fun diversion, the narrator sees it as a time when women give away their newness, their springtime beauty, to put away all the illumination they might have picked up in college to be lured away by a sexual force they are unable to resist, a force that nonetheless ruins them in some sense. They sell their beauty and newness too cheaply, not wanting to think about what they are doing.

It's not unlike William Blake's "Infant Sorrow," from Songs of Innocent and Experience, in which all the usual sentimental hogwash about babies, including sweet cooing and good smells and laughter, is all subverted by experience: "My mother groaned, my father wept/Into the dangerous world I leapt."

I feel about 80% certainty that I'm somewhere in the right ball park with this exegesis. Is this enough for poetry to survive as a viable artistic form, capable of moving people and changing hearts and minds? Have I saved poetry by figuring out a random poem I decided to try to figure out? Who knows? Nobody is going to find this post, because it's about poetry. So I'll never know if my reading has any merit.

10 comments:

  1. I was just googling this poem to see if it was online (it isn't, so thank you for putting it here so I don't have to type it in with all the indents. Indents drive me crazy) and how nice to see you've beaten me to it!

    I haven't read the poem yet, nor have I read your analysis beyond your first couple of paragraphs about strugging to read poetry (yeah). I actually spent most of my time here skimming (rather than carefully reading) your post about the pardons, an issue I'm also rather ambivalent about. There seem to be plenty of people who are absolutely certain they have the corner on morality on all issues, so I don't mind populating the "we're still thinking about it" set. I came to a halt when you got to "cheap grace", one of my favorite themes. Or, least favorite, I suppose it would be better to call it. I think I've learned more about you from these two posts than I have from all the replies to all the stories we've read. And I have to wonder, why have I not been following this blog? I seem to recall a post where you "quit" and maybe that's why (or it might have been someone else and a different blog). But I need to remedy that.

    Anyway, regarding the Spring Forecast - I have nothing to say since I haven't read it yet. But I thoroughly identify with your struggle. And when I read "There isn't really a community online dedicated to discussion of contemporary poetry that provides support to those trying to decipher poems..." I thought, why don't we start one? In fact, I already know of one, though I'm not sure it would work - have I ever mentioned ModPo? Google around. I tried to do a Pushcart read there a couple of years ago, but only a couple of people were interested, and it didn't go very well. I'm ambivalent about trying again (I'm ambivalent about a lot of things) but I would be very interested in trying to work out something to learn more about how to read these poems as they are meant to be read, rather than just slouching through them, hoping something catches my eye (and often failing, as I did with Sixteen Candles - I'm still red-faced from that).

    Anyway, it's something to think about. The benefit to Modpo is that there are lots of people there, some of whom are trained in poetry and/or are poets. The disadvantage is that they're enthralled with Gertrude Stein (Tender Buttons is on its sixth or seventh reading annual reading, I think) and Kenneth Goldman (whom I adore, by the way, so go ahead and throw rocks at me) and not so much with the stuff that ends up in Pushcart.

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  2. You have much better research skills than I do, which is one of the benefits of reading your blog. Even when you don't refer heavily to somebody else's critique of a piece of literature, you at least reference it so I can find it. So your blog is always a good place to start if I am interested enough in something to do more work on it.

    I'll have to look into the ModPo idea. I'm probably too lazy to be out front leading on this. Getting people moving isn't my strength. Any social functions at work that rely on me to plan them are always failures. But if someone else gets it going, I'd probably help push once they overcome the initial inertia.

    You are right, BTW. I did quit blogging for a year or so. I wanted to just write fiction until I either succeeded or quit for good. Now, I've decided I like to just write, no matter the format, so I do. Blogging actually sometimes gets me going on a story. So I'm back at it.

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  3. Thanks for your blog! I posted comments on your post on Karen's blog.

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  4. I'm so sorry to be a downer, but this poem is modernist junk. Poetry is already dead. I thought the age of writing nonsensical poetry had passed in the 20th century, but apparently it is still with us.

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    1. I kind of picked this one at random from the Pushcart Anthology, because it happened to be the next one I was going to read. It's not the poem in that anthology (or any other) that most strongly resists interpretation. But it's probably too much work to understand that I'd have worked that hard under normal circumstances.

      I don't know what direction poetry ought to go. It shouldn't be so simple that it's just greeting card poetry or jingoism or something that just repeats what we all already think we know back to ourselves. But there must be sweet spot between incomprehensible in normal discursive ways and so challenging it ceases to be enjoyable.

      Thanks for your comment.

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    2. I probably shouldn't have swooped in with a negative comment (what I call a "drive-by shooting") without familiarizing myself with your blog first. Also, my comment that poetry is dead was unwarranted since I write it myself.

      Good poetry is whatever poetry you love; and if you are bothering to read it, then I am sure you've found many poems that you love (unless you are a very casual reader). Personally, every poem that I love gets put into a WordPerfect file of other people's poetry, and I read that file occasionally. The mistake, in my opinion, is looking for and/or believing in the validity of poetic trends. The only good trend I have ever encountered is the move towards normal, colloquial language and away from poetic (i.e., contrived) language. There have always been poets among us who understand that. For example, Donne's poem "The Expiration" reads as well today as it did when he wrote it (if you like that kind of finely crafted poetry), whereas a lot of Keat's poetry sounds pretentious (to me, at least). Poetry must always be intelligible. What makes it beautiful is simply the compelling way that the words are arranged -- and, of course, there needs to be a nugget of wisdom in each poem. The very best poems crystalize an idea or experience in perfectly suitable words. If poetry is being "ruined" today, what's ruining it is that it's ubiquitous now. Two centuries ago, you had to buy a book to read it (and books were expensive). Today, it's everywhere. Today, it's just one more type of entertainment. Also, everyone expects to be able to write it (and to have their poetry respected), so the standards have been lowered. The T.S. Elliott/Sylvia Plath phenomenon of writing nonsense poetry arose, I think, because it SEEMED that everything had been written and there was nothing new to write, which was never true. Even more likely is that those writers were simply not very talented, so they came up with a new trend, the trend of nonsense poetry.

      Keep reading and you'll find lots of poetry that you love.

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    3. Comments are always welcome, drive-by or otherwise. I'm concerned for the future of poetry, too. It ought to have more of an audience than it does. It's been around for thousands of years for a reason. If nobody cares about it anymore, we must be doing it wrong.

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  5. Hi. This is Perry. (For a technical reason, I am calling myself "Me" on my blogs these days.) I thought you might be interested to read my new article on poetic trends:

    http://calebmurdock.blogspot.com/2017/09/article-parsing-todays-poetic-trends.html

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    1. I keep trying to convince myself that maybe I'm missing something. It so happens I'm reading through a book of poems right now. There are two winners of this year's Washington Writers' Publishing House Contest: one for fiction (me) and one for poetry. I'm reading the poetry winner's book, because we'll both be reading together now and again, and I want to be familiar with her work. Some poems I find approachable, some I'm really having a hard time finding a point of entry.

      I have to imagine that poetry will shift back to an art of the people at some point. It can't be that poetry, after thousands of years, suddenly became unlikable.

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    2. If you do read any of my poetry on my blog, you'll find it accessible -- although at this point, only my early and/or flawed work is posted. Generally speaking, formalist poets all write very accessible poetry. I do believe that some day the pendulum will swing back to meaningful poetry. Writing gibberish is easier because you don't have to work hard to make it mean something, and no one can critique it.

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