Thursday, February 18, 2010

Call and Response: Poems Connected at the Lips

All creative acts lie somewhere between the endpoints of conscious debt to and unconscious reliance upon works that precede and inform them. Creating poems is no different: the process is neither a totally collaborative one, nor a unilaterally individual endeavor. All poems in some way collaborate--with a language they inherited rather than created, with other genres of literature or fine art, with pop culture or with the poetic canon as threads beautifully woven into the one giant tapestry, improving it for all time--or, perhaps, thrown against it as mere pieces of inconsequential fuzz to be quickly brushed off, but mostly laid down as one artist's vision, gleaned from multiple, albeit unnamed sources.

But there are poems that speak directly to other poems across time and space, threads purposefully chosen to be woven in with other strands, with the hope of absorbing, if possible, precisely the same light that is shining on them, reflecting back a changed understanding and appreciation of both as a result of the play between them--Conversation Pieces as Kurt Brown calls them in his anthology of the same name.

Within this volume, he includes sections with such titles as "Replies to the Shepherd" (with no less than eight poems written in response to Christopher Marlowe's famous poem beginning "Come live with me, and be my love,/And we will all the pleasures prove,"), "Variations on a Theme," including Michael Waters' "The Inarticulate," a poem that precisely relates the wondrously debilitating effect of reverie alongside William Meredith's "The Illiterate" and a category entitled "In Good Fun" in which William Carlos Williams' sparse and powerful "This Is Just to Say" is placed along side Kenneth Koch's poem with quite lengthy lines beginning with "I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer."

Here is an example of poems written in response to other poems, a one-sided collaboration of one poet answering another,
"The World Is Too Much With Us' written by William Wordsworth in 1807 and "O Taste and See" by Denise Levertov, written a century and a half later:

The World Is Too Much With Us

by William Wordsworth

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So Might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

O Taste and See

By Denise Levertov

The world is
Not with us enough.
O taste and see

the subway Bible poster said,
meaning The Lord, meaning
if anything all that lives
to the imagination's tongue,

grief, mercy, landguage,
tangerine, weather, to
breathe them, bite,
savor, chew, swallow, transform

into our flesh our
deaths, crossing the street, plum, quince,
living in the orchard and being

hungry, and plucking
the fruit.

A study of these two poems is a study in contrast. On a typographical level, Wordsworth's sonnet has the spatial prosody that reflects an orderly universe with clear limits between what the poem is and what the poem is not, roughly in the shape of a tightly-framed, two-story house, while Levertov's "O Taste and See" allows the white space of the page to flow through the poem much like tropical breezes blowing through its open doors. And, indeed, on the ideational level, Wordsworth's universe is a precisely constructed two-story universe--one story a realm of fallen humanity, full of meaningless materialism that has robbed us of our spiritual heritage and sensitivity to the other half of the universe (in which is found our redemption), while Levertov's world is the singular fertile ground of a garden, open to "all that lives to the imagination's tongue."

On the sonic level, Wordsworth's sonnet employs a syllabic prosody of ten syllables per ine, many of which are written in precise iambic pentameter, whereas Levertov's "O Taste And See" is not written in verse, but in what Lewis Turco would call the prose mode--what we might call organic form. Finally, on the sensory level, Wordsworth makes liberal use of description, simile and metaphor within each line, while Levertov employs the entire poem as a conceit--one implied metaphor: the world (of living and of writing) is a capacious garden to be enjoyed, rather than a fractured one in need of repair.

It is not in spite of all these differences, but precisely because of them, that "O Taste And See" is a call back to Wordsworth's sonnet, and to us listening through the keyhole, to break down the barriers of perception that separate with the plea not to see anything as off-limits to experience or to write about. By adding a quantum-leap variation to his famous sonnet, Levertov's poem is not only a one-sided collaboration with Wordsworth, but with the work of many other poets, as well. William Carlos Williams' plum from "This Is Just To Say" and his quince from "A Man to a Woman," the Psalmist's ("O taste and see that the Lord is good" and "They that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing'), as well as H.D.'s imagery from "Orchard," make their way into Levertov's poem. And, while not owned outright by the above-mentioned poets, these words, phrases and ideas can be identified as regular workers in their vineyards. Therefore, while their presence in Levertov's garden might not constitute the crime of kidnapping, it might be called a poetic seduction of recognizable figures on fresh ground, where they seem just as at home as with previous suitors.

In a writing slump? Answer a favorite poem from a favorite poet. Answer the worst poem from a poet you hate. Answer your own poem. Too much effort? Then answer the opening line. The ultimate. The penultimate. Answer this article. One you read this morning in your local newspaper. Answer. Write back. Respond to "the call" of language wherever you find it.

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