Thursday, March 4, 2010

John Ashbery

(b. 1927)

“They Dream Only of America” (1962)
“Street Musicians” (1977)

On “They Dream Only of America”:
This poem seems a good bit hard to understand, and maybe it is meant to be that way, but I get a sense of bitter-sweetness to it. Stanza 1 seems to be full of hope, ‘dreams.’ Stanza 3 has the idea of first getting to drive, ‘”Please,” he asked willingly.’ (10). Stanza 4 has the idea of now ‘having’ to drive (15). The lines ‘through dandelions’ (14), ‘pillars of grass’ (2), ‘honey…burns the throat’ (3-4) make me think of allergies; that’s where I think his headache comes from. In stanza 5, we see him trudging through and making it home. Stanza 6 delivers the bitterness. It’s kind of like he turned on a TV that strangely reflects his situation: “What is it to be back/ Beside the bed? There is nothing to do/ For our liberation, except wait in the horror of it.” (22-24). He sits sadly. Not even his bed brings him comfort. He is waiting for something that seems like it can or will never come, yet the idea hangs there onto the edge. That idea keeps him going, ‘I am lost without you.”’ (25). Thus I get bitter-sweet from my reading.

I think that it is interesting that so much smoke imagery in involved in this poem. Ash tray. Cigar. Thirteen million pillars of grass (2)… hiding from darkness in barns (5)… sounds like tobacco farming. A person would ‘murder’ (7) a cigarette by smoking it. So together, it seems like the speaker is saying the young person’s dream has gone up in smoke. Beware trusting in things that are only temporary.
Margaret Atwood
(b. 1939)

Happy Endings

I’m a little hesitant to draw illustrations from ‘The Matrix,’ but no matter how tired something may be, if it’s accurate, then it’s accurate. As Morpheus’ explains the history of the Matrix to Neo, Morpheus states that the programming they currently see in the Matrix is not the original one. The first program was idyllic in its design, but the inhabitants rejected that construct. I don’t know whether this is to reflect the fall of man in Eden or just to say that sometimes the American dream can feel false, inauthentic. Atwood definitely picks up on this point in ‘Happy Endings.’

But is joy truly a dream? Are movies like “Pleasantville” and authors like Anne Sexton right to dismiss notions of community and family happiness? Well, pain is a part of natural life, and a smile all the time can seem saccharine. But there is a joy and there are things that we can hope for that are good. Let me do one more reference. On ‘Family Matters,’ the Winslows, you know Carl and Harriet, they had some hard times, but they also could get steamy. Carl saw a man shot in front of him; Harriet had her Dad come back into her life—ain’t paid a lick of attention to her for thirty years—but came back. Life isn’t about always having good times, it’s about what gets you through the rocky times. And there is joy in marriage and that marriage points us to that we don’t have to be afraid to trust.

Elizabeth Bishop


“The Man-Moth” (1946)
“One Art” (1976)

I read this poem as a female persona; male works too, but the details of losing rivers and a continent seem autobiographical of Bishop’s time in South America.

It seems like this was a therapeutic thought. At the end, we see that the speaker has lost her love, and this opens up the rest of the poem. The speaker seemed to have been building strength through remembering earlier losses. She seems to brace herself against the pain. The dash opening the last stanza shows her giving a little. Then she halts on the last line, ‘though it looks like”, and forces herself to continue, ‘(write it!) like disaster.’ (18). She is steeling herself against her feelings, and yet we feel her pain.

Langston Hughes


“Negro Speaks of Rivers”
“Park Bench”
“Dinner Guest: Me”

On “Dinner Guest: Me” and “Park Bench”
I don’t know whether this poem is supposed to bite at the grievances being experienced by African-Americans or if it is supposed to denounce the indifference that can come with wealth. In my first reading, I thought “The Negro Problem” (2) was just the topic that came up in conversation. At this classy event, the injustice that Black Americans were living with was discussed with moderate concern that tapered off into inaction: “Solutions to the Problem,/ Of course, wait.” (22-23). On my second look at the poem, I saw something perhaps more sinister. If the Negro Problem is a person being wined and dined, then the flow of the last stanza seems to indicate disregard on his part as well. “To be a Problem on/ Park Avenue at eight/ is not bad./ Solutions to the Problem,/ Of course, wait.” (19-23). If this is true, then this poem might better be a condemnation of wealth, that it can distance someone even from their racial ties. Although, it could be that this person is simply trying to be an ambassador, raising support for his fellow African Americans, the sluggishness of these people to help based on their affluence would be a sober warning to the man in Park Bench. That man has his eyes on a suite on Park Avenue, next door to a man with a butler and a maid. If that man disregards him now (forgetting “race” for a second), what is the hope of our rags-to-riches man that he will not develop the same indifference?

T. S. Eliot


“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915)
“Journey of the Magi” (1935)

This man seems to be too self-conscious, and as a result, he is fearful of normal social intimacy. Is this a normal man? The cheap hotels and saw-dust restaurants (6-7) make me ask, Is he living a wild life, or Is he just a business man perhaps not native to the area and socially connected? Is he trying to put on airs, saving money on food to afford rich neckties (43)? In any case, there is a truthful desire in his heart for conversation, relationship, friendship (92). His whole walk to the house goads him toward this desire. Yet, he is too worried about others perception of him to really enjoy the evening or the company. He is concerned over his bald spot, concerned over rejection (82, 97-99). One idea that might help him is to understand that as a man he is a provider. This not only applies in the monetary sense, but also that he provides conversation, humor, security, insight. This may seem like pouring gas on the fire, but it is simply transfer. He already knows how to work (assuming), and he seems read, like he has ideas (and maybe !aghast! opinions). All he has to do is transfer his interests via his work orientation into this new setting. Simple, but not easy. Yes he may fail some, or even often, but what he pursues is a good thing. He may have the weight of Victorian reservation and non-disclosure against him, but no day’s mermaid compares to a real woman.

Wallace Stevens

(1879 –1955)

“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (1917)
“Study of Two Pears” (1938)

Authorial Intent vs. Reader Response
Often an author has a purpose in his story to tell a message or deliver some insight or a moral or to describe life. We too ass readers are trying to draw meaning from what we read (else why do we read), and since we have a different view on life, the meaning we draw may be different from what the author wanted to say. So who is right? Should we go with the author’s intent or with the reader’s response? I lend toward the intent of the author, but there is some play between these two, as we use wisdom and experience to mediate between the two. The two Stevens poems seemed to embody this idea. “Thirteen Ways…” seemed very open-ended allowing the reader to come to his or her own conclusions, while “…Two Pears” seemed to come to a definite point; lines 23-24 read:

The pears are not seen
as the observer wills.

Robert Frost


“The Need of Being Versed in Country Things” (1920)
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (1923)
“Gathering Leaves” (1923)
“In Disused Graveyard” (1923)
“Nothing Gold Can Stay” (1923)
“Desert Places” (1934)
“Two Tramps in Mud Time” (1934)
“Neither Out Far Nor In Deep” (1934)
“Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same” (1942)
“The Gift Outright” (1942)

On The Gift Outright:
Out of the poems I read, this one was the hardest for me to get, and I think it was because its message was the one I needed most to hear.

“Possessed by what we were still unpossessed by” (6), we living in what would be America were colonials from places we had once possessed, places for which we had once fought. Now here, we applied out energies to other things; the speaker calls our new attention weakness (8). File that away for further thought. Yet, we chose and broke out of this. (Is ‘surrender’ (11) meant to make us primal or noble?). We became “such as we were” (12) and fought for this new land. Afterward, we began a smoldering campaign westward; meanwhile, leaving behind no great art and no great stories. When I first read this poem, I took the ending to be bleak, but some time having past, I took the ending as a reproof, a gentle rebuke. The speaker, in on sense commends action (“salvation in surrender” (11)) and condemns misappropriation (“artless, unenhanced” (15)) He wants us to act but not absent of thought. The speaker calls us to do something, to leave something behind.

This part about rebuke I needed to hear. Can I be open enough to accept life-giving words from another? Can I accept criticism? Is my life so perfect that I don’t need to change? There is so much that I am not and so much that I cannot do. I need brokenness, humility, practice in listening to others, practice at doing an honest day’s work. I need to let this sink in.