Friday, August 21, 2009

New Yorker Poems - Aug 24, 2009 : Dunn, Digges, and Carson

Stephen Dunn's If A Clown is better than your average New Yorker poem. The piece is nearly as funny as you might hope. And it's a breezy but serious consideration of comedy, foolery, jesterhood and their location in life, which is sometimes ruled by disappointment and fear.

What could be sadder, my friend thought,
than a clown in need of a context?

That line really gets me. Because all clowns are out of context, which is what makes them funny, and clowns at all. And all clowns are sad. So I like.

But some lines are unearned. Referring to a clown who needs a ride, the narrator asks...

would the connection
between the comic and the appalling,
as it pertained to clowns, be suddenly so clear
that you’d be paralyzed by it?

First off, we don't need to hear "as it pertains to clowns." I don't know how the NYer editing process goes, but that one slipped by everyone, don't you think? And without that little insert, the line is very serious and not really in context itself. Hard to explain without reproducing the rest of the poem, but follow the above link and tell me if you agree that there is a jarring, contrived suddenness to that line.

I mean, I want the connection between the appalling and the comic to be made and explored, but it's sort of name-checked and not fulfilled. The imaginary tear is a great touch, but the idea at the end that the birthday boy's relationship to disappointment would be forever altered seems to me too big a claim. I'm probably being a philistine (again) but that's another unearned bit to my mind.

Overall, though, the piece is a nice consideration of the role of the joker, and should be a prose poem. What's with the needless line breaks in this one?

The late memoirist and versifier Deborah Digges' The Wind Blows Through the Doors of My Heart is pitifully facile.

The title is the opening line, already revealing her preference for redundancy. (I know, some great poems do this, but it's really a wasted opportunity, I think.)
Check out the rampant cliche and needless repetition that follows.

The wind through my heart
blows all my candles out.
In my heart and its rooms is dark and windy.

And here's Digges on her dresses...

And my dresses
they are lifted like brides come to rest
on the bedstead, crucifixes,
dresses tangled in trees in the rooms
of my heart.

I guess it's hard to like a poem when you consider its central metaphor a cliche and its style, a mixture of refrain and expansive tone with mannered syntax, obnoxious.

Come the bees now clinging to flowered curtains.

Come the bees? Really? Finally, she relaxes a bit, and then ends on a note of strange semi-foreboding with direct tones of mortality. I just don't have any idea how this fits...

It is cool here, quiet, a quilt spread on soil.
But we will never lie down again.

I will look at Digges' other stuff to find out why she was acclaimed.
Anne Carson has a power unlike most poets writing today. The intimacy of her poems jolts us, and yet doesn't remind me of the confessional poets. I think that's because her work seems both more grounded and more phenomenal, archaicallly elevated. But I'm writing here of her book Glass, Irony and God, instead of the subject at hand which is her recent NYer poem Epithalium NYC. The poem begins with a bracing moment...

I washed my hair the morning I got married put
red boots found license woke C. set off for City

Then she observes an arguing couple on a bench next to theirs in the park, and an older man speaking to his late wife as he sits alone on another seat.

She includes the Statue of Liberty at the end for reasons that could be stretched to make sense but really shouldn't be. The poem promised more to me in its opening lines than it delivered. I wanted to hear something more about her marriage (presuming the narrator is a woman, of course) and less an anecdotal portrait of other couples. It was like a scene from a movie - newlyweds get hitched quick, and then think twice when watching a bickering pair shortly thereafter.

I think I expect too much of Anne Carson.

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