I hope some of you didn’t find that stool pulled out from under you last week when I once again failed to show up for work. Continuing, to the third leg:
What rankles me the most about Yezzi’s position, as encapsulated in the Sullivan piece, is that it takes us out of it. As we’ve discussed many times in this group, a poem is kind of a thing-not-thing. It’s lines on a paper, it might be a historical artifact, but it exists most richly in some kind of indefinable space between the paper and the reader. And for me to read what may be a quite staid, even a thematically banal, poem in the context of a world that Yezzi says challenges the very foundations of this “condescending sop,” and to not then turn that challenging world onto the poem… well then, perhaps I, in my own banality, have failed. Now: this is not to say that every poem can just be sort of bad and boring, and I must “make it good.” No, it is to say that there are good poems on all types of topic, and within all emotional registers, and if a poem is good, it will typically open itself to the world, even if just a little. A good poem has to have a little richness, a little nuance, a little subtext, a little rhythmic refraction that snaps the reader into its take on things–even boring things. A bad poem, well, as Helen Vendler has said, a bad poem just fails to become a poem.
So let’s look back at the Billy Collins poem (I reprint it after the sign-off, for anyone who wants to refresh themselves). I hope you all agree that it’s a decent example of what Yezzi rails against. And yeah, one could take issue with it, and with another hundred or so of Billy Collins’ poems, by saying that, shoot, it’s not that challenging, these are ruminations I’m inclined to, it’s just that I’m not a clever poet, no one cares about school closings, school closings pale in comparison to other stuff on the news channel, funny descriptions of dogs do not BIG IDEAS make. Well, all those things are tru–no, I can’t say it. All those things are not true.
His description of a dog is a big idea. Look back: “I will put on some boots/ and step out like someone walking through water,/ and the dog will porpoise through the drifts.” Did he really just say that? The dog will “porpoise.” That’s crazy. Did anyone else stop at that word? I stopped, briefly, because it made me shake my head in astonishment, but then I continued, quickly, because the verb made perfect sense there. One of the poet’s jobs–perhaps the most elementary–is description, and Collins nails it there, and in a unique way. I’ve certainly never seen porpoise used as a verb before. His choice performs 2 magic tricks: cross-species description ( a metaphor, I guess), and noun-into-verb. And it works not only in this poem; I don’t think I’ll ever be able to see a dog playing in the snow again without thinking “porpoise.” In that tiny instance, and in instances going forward, the poet has used language in a way that changes the way I look at the world. That’s a big thing, not a small thing. And it’s still just plain funny.
Then I look at the list of schools that lulled Dalia into somnolence. I really liked it, right away. I thought the names of the schools were purposefully precious, kind of like baby-talk, and I found the cumulative effect hilarious. But of course that’s just taste, and one could like it or not like it. Looking back, though, it is kind of strange–what is that full 2-stanza list doing in an 8-stanza poem? People sometimes wonder that about the “catalogue of ships” in Homer’s Iliad, which appears in Book 2, and believe me, is way more tedious than the list of school closings. I’m no expert on the catalogue of ships, but I remember it playing sort of a historical or persepectival function: THIS is how many armies are fighting, and this is how far the reach of the conflict. It’s also just a tried-and-true epic trope, and Virgil and Milton adopted it, too. So why not Collins? He’s playing around a little bit, I suspect, but the joke goes perfectly with the martial theme he sets up at the beginning (a “revolution” of snow) and draws to a clever close (“which small queen is about to be brought down”). The theme is not really all that insistent, I see it in the opening, the catalogue, and the closing, and there are little snippets of vocabulary throughout that keep it alive. But he’s also copied Homer’s paratactic style in stanzas 2, 5, & 6, and somewhere off in my memory is the idea that Homer described the mustering Greek armies as a blanket of snow later on in The Iliad.
So this poem is for nerds, sure, but the point is, there’s a lot there. And some of it is in the in-between, in the wolrd the reader brings to the poem. Rather than being crabbed in worldview, it’s actually epic in scope, while coming from a limited, commonplace point of view. It succeeds in doing what a poem should do, perhaps despite its subject matter or point of view. It would be easy to write a terrible, cliched poem on the same subject. David Yezzi would hate that poem. He’d be right to. But he’d hate it because it’s a bad poem, not because it’s symptomatic of some failure of contemporary poetry to engage with the real world. Bad poems should make everyone mad.
I’ve left large swaths of “Snow Day” untouched. I’m curious to know what other readers find exciting or disappointing there. I’m curious to know if I’ve missed Yezzi’s point–which is certainly possible. -ed.
Today we woke up to a revolution of snow,
its white flag waving over everything,
the landscape vanished,
not a single mouse to punctuate the blankness,
and beyond these windows
the government buildings smothered,
schools and libraries buried, the post office lost
under the noiseless drift,
the paths of trains softly blocked,
the world fallen under this falling.
In a while, I will put on some boots
and step out like someone walking in water,
and the dog will porpoise through the drifts,
and I will shake a laden branch
sending a cold shower down on us both.
But for now I am a willing prisoner in this house,
a sympathizer with the anarchic cause of snow.
I will make a pot of tea
and listen to the plastic radio on the counter,
as glad as anyone to hear the news
that the Kiddie Corner School is closed,
the Ding-Dong School, closed.
the All Aboard Children’s School, closed,
the Hi-Ho Nursery School, closed,
along with—some will be delighted to hear—
the Toadstool School, the Little School,
Little Sparrows Nursery School,
Little Stars Pre-School, Peas-and-Carrots Day School
the Tom Thumb Child Center, all closed,
and—clap your hands—the Peanuts Play School.
So this is where the children hide all day,
These are the nests where they letter and draw,
where they put on their bright miniature jackets,
all darting and climbing and sliding,
all but the few girls whispering by the fence.
And now I am listening hard
in the grandiose silence of the snow,
trying to hear what those three girls are plotting,
what riot is afoot,
which small queen is about to be brought down.