Much has been made of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s famous words following the first successful explosion of the atomic bomb, which happened 65 years ago: he supposedly quoted the Bhagavad Gita, “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one,” and “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” But actually, after it exploded, he commented, “It worked.” For some reason these reactions made me think about the ways one can react to a poem, particularly the thought that sometimes the proper inquiry is not, “is it good?” but, “does it work?” Surely this is easier with some poems than others, but some poems produce the reaction, “It worked.” Others require the reach to metaphor, as in the Bhagavad Gita quotation. And we can make the explanation for WHY a poem works as verbose and high-falutin’ as we want, of course.
Here’s a poem by a guy who re-wrote and revised as much as anybody, but still, once in a while, produced poems that speak in an uncluttered voice, seemingly springing from a moment’s thought, and that work.
HE WISHES FOR THE CLOTHS OF HEAVEN
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
-William Butler Yeats
Remember last summer when I fell in love with Frederick Seidel, the
glowering New Yorker with the perverted mind, dark mood, and graceful
line? Well friends, I’m still in love, and not just because his name
spells “sick leer freed id” when the letters are all jumbled up. No,
it’s more that I found this poem in the New Yorker, published July
5th, which suggests to me that if it is meant to be historically
accurate, it must really be about LAST year’s fireworks, which I
watched from Hoboken with members of this forum. Also, he points of
the reason for the change (from East River to Hudson), and LAST year
was the change of venue; if I understand correctly this year the show
just stayed on the left hand side.
In any case, this poem raises many questions, such as what do you
really think of the grand finale at a fireworks show? Cliched?
Awesome? Worth the wait? Overwrought? Also, it reads like a sonnet but
it’s not, really. Who else writing today could fit the line “What a
joy to eat the unborn” neatly into a lyric about fireworks? -ed.
July 4th fireworks exhale over the Hudson sadly.
It is beautiful that they have to disappear.
It’s like the time you said I love you madly.
That was an hour ago. It’s been a fervent year.
I don’t really love fireworks, not really, the flavorful floating shroud
In the nighttime sky above the river and the crowd.
This time, because of the distance upriver perhaps, they’re not loud,
Even the colors aren’t, the patterns getting pregnant and popping.
They get bigger and louder when they start stopping.
They try to rally
At the finale.
It’s the four-hundredth anniversary of Henry Hudson’s discovery—
Which is why the fireworks happen on this side of the island this year.
Shad are back, and we celebrate the Hudson’s Clean Water Act recovery.
What a joy to eat the unborn. We’re monsters, I fear. What monsters we’re.
We’ll binge on shad roe next spring in the delicious few minutes it’s here.