Sunday, February 17, 2013

"Occasional" poetry

I've had a whopping flu for more than a week, and, worse, just a week ago, my wife lost her lovely, valiant and generous mother. So there have seemed more important things in my life than this blog, more important than poetry. Hence the delayed appearance of this post.

In any case, when the time comes for my mother in law's memorial service, I suspect I may be called on to contribute some suitable verse if I can, and the matter has got me reflecting, not without some unease, on such expectations. I dearly loved my mother-in-law, and I will want to do her fitting honor– far more fitting than the teasing light verse I composed for her many birthdays. And yet I find the most taxing poems to construct are, precisely, those meant to mark a serious or solemn event. For me, after all, the excitement of composition lies in discovering where that very act of composition may lead. If I’m certain where I’m going before departure, I sacrifice any such discovery; a closely related problem is that my language and attention are apt to be no more than serviceable in “occasional” poems, mere means of getting from point A to a fore-ordained point B.

You can imagine my dread, then, at having to compose two poems of this kind in the past few months. The first would be for the wedding of our younger son to a wonderful woman. The second – and more daunting – would commemorate the 250th anniversary of my home town of Newbury, Vermont.  As if that weren’t enough, I was asked to ring in Haverhill, New Hampshire as well, the two towns –directly across the Connecticut River from one another– having signed their charters on the same day in 1763

In either case, my first notion was that for each poem, I'd need to drag in a lot of history, a need obviously acuter for the one about settlements two and a half centuries old than for the wedding of our twenty-somethings. 

In pondering that apparent historical imperative for the anniversary celebration, I heard myself droning along; the Vermont poet laureate’s recitation would resemble some stuffy, forgotten English poet laureate’s.  I’d not be flattering royalty, no, but wouldn’t I be chronicling the achievements of early settlers, paying homage, for example, to General Jacob Bayley or Governor Benning Wentworth, tracing the history of the railroad and/or local agriculture, pointing out the ancestral home of Boston University on the Newbury common, smiling in one direction or another at contemporary townsmen and –women. On and on. I was putting myself to sleep before writing a word.

So I set the town poem aside for a spell, turning to the matrimonial one. As I mused on where it might go, I happened to recall when we first really got to know our son’s bride-to-be. The couple was living in Alaska at the time, and my wife and I and our son’s two younger sisters had flown out for a visit. On the solstice, we water-taxied to an uninhabited island off the Kenai Peninsula. The place was spectacular, and yet, speaking for myself and (with her permission) for my wife, more eye-catching was the obvious love these two people felt for each other. We noted their shared humor, their zest for the wild world, even their common yen for certain foods. And all this was notable round the clock, because the sun never went down.

As I meditated, that is, the motif of midnight sun presented itself to me, and while I won’t judge the quality of my poem, at least I know it escapes the deadly and-then-and-then-and-then mode, narrative following our son’s development from infancy to matrimony. More crucially, I was able to include his future wife, as any marriage poem should. And the “poetic” link between a sun that refused to set and an inextinguishable love-light effortlessly ensued.

In a word, something sensory, something physical had provided entrĂ©e into the shorter poem. And its example soon got me off scratch with the 250th anniversary tribute. Just as I had literally pictured our group on Fox Island, I began inwardly to picture Newbury and Haverhill, as I’d so often done after climbing up a local hill. From that angle, the most conspicuous landmark is the Great Oxbow, the Connecticut River’s miles-long loop between the so-called Horse Meadow on the New Hampshire side and the Cow Meadow on the Vermont.

That intervale makes for some of the richest farmland in the east, as the aboriginal Cowasuck nation well knew. Of course, and much before 1763, they were the real settlers, raising maize and squash in the valley until they were all but completely wiped out by imported diseases and white pioneers’ military hostility, no matter the yen for peace that the great Abenaki chief Passaconway made evident.

My mind started to rove at will. It hopped to later times, when inhabitants drove timber in great booms down the river, the oxbow doubtless a significant obstacle. I began to “see” those river-drivers too, and the teamsters who hauled logs out of the woods on ice-roads, and the women who split kindling, raised children, salted food for winter and educated the young. Now I had a palpable landscape and a visible cast of characters to work with.

I always used to tell my students that just as the word imagination includes the word image, a poetic world in which imagination can flourish must include something in the way of the visible, merely so that readers understand where they find themselves.  As the midnight sun image had led me into the marriage poem, so the oxbow did for the anniversary poem.

In contemplating the latter, it struck me that the oxbow is named thus because it resembles a yoke, and that the yoking together of our towns’ citizenry made for an uplifting motif. (I might have used it for the wedding poem too, conjugal deriving from Latin words meaning yoked together.)

These two occasional poems made me practice what for so long I’d preached in the classroom: history (or philosophy, or religion, or politics, or any other generality, despite that idiot mantra, Show, don’t tell) is more than permissible in a poem; but in my opinion any such abstraction must be “grounded” in particulars, which tend to be what imagery evokes. For me, the particulars were, respectively, the look of a spit of land in the frigid Pacific and a great meander in a more local body of water I treasure.

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