Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Reading Poems in a Circle

Kim has been presenting poems by Billy Collins (master of the "readable" school of poetry) this month. And although I love his poems, I also love more complicated poems, like those of Wallace Stevens, so I was trying to think of a way to encourage people to move from the more accessible poems to the less. Because if all of your feelings were simple enough for you--or anyone--to be able to articulate them, it would be an easier world.

This is how I read difficult poems: in a circle. Try this:
Read the poem and immediately go back to the beginning and keep reading until you either understand something (an image, the significance of a pause for a line break) or you feel a glimmer of emotion. Then stop. Try to articulate that one thing you understand or feel. Then see if you can relate other pieces of the poem to that understanding, or that feeling. Sometimes you can put the whole poem together that way. Sometimes you can only put a line or two together, but then maybe it’s time to put the poem away. A line or two of poetry in the brain is good for a rainy day.

Here's a demonstration. First, a poem by Michael Hartnett ("Death of an Irishwoman") that fits into the category of "readable" and then a more complicated Wallace Stevens poem ("The Emperor of Ice Cream") on the same general theme.

Death of an Irishwoman

Ignorant, in the sense
she ate monotonous food
and thought the world was flat,
and pagan, in the sense
she knew the things that moved
at night were neither dogs nor cats
but pucas and darkfaced men,
she nevertheless had fierce pride.
But sentenced in the end
to eat thin diminishing porridge
in a stone-cold kitchen
she clenched her brittle hands
around a world
she could not understand.
I loved her from the day she died.
She was a summer dance at the crossroads.
She was a card game where a nose was broken.
She was a song that nobody sings.
She was a house ransacked by soldiers.
She was a language seldom spoken.
She was child's purse, full of useless things.

Aren't the last six lines evocative? I got the feeling that she had outlived her time with "she was a song that nobody sings" and again powerfully with the final line. So I felt some emotion from this poem the first time I read it through, and I didn't have to read it in a circle to feel like I understood something about it.

This one, though, most people have to read in a circle until they're almost dizzy:

The Emperor of Ice Cream

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.

Take from the dresser of deal
Lacking the three glass knobs,
That sheet on which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.

When I read this poem in a circle, I stop at the repeated line, thinking that the emperor of ice-cream is kind of like the "king of the hill"--it's a kid who won't have an empire very long. But it's not just kids who like ice cream. Have you ever met anyone who doesn't like ice cream? I haven't! If you were the emperor of ice cream, could you command the ice cream truck to stop in front of your house? Could you afford to eat all the ice cream you wanted? Would you be able to eat all you wanted without lactose intolerance or concern about gaining weight? What would it be like to be the person in charge of all ice cream?

But my understanding that the title "Emperor of Ice Cream" is the most ephemeral of titles is just a stopping place. How does it connect to the "concupiscent curds" and the "dresser of deal"? Many people get caught up in those images and conjure up an image of a whorehouse, which doesn't interfere with understanding the poem as a whole, but doesn't always help, either. The sexual connotation of "whipping" those "concupiscent curds" has to be related to the ephemeral pleasure of being in charge of ice cream--so it becomes a sort of "take your sexual pleasure while you can" idea. And the "dresser of deal" may be a place where money was exchanged for sex, or it may simply be a dresser made of cheap pine wood--but one thing is sure--she didn't take it with her.

So come down farther in the poem. "Let the lamp affix its beam." Look at her apart from the death rituals and the signs that other lives are going on. Whatever she was in life, now she's cold, like ice cream...the suggestion I get is that she might have been as universally liked, and perhaps people fought over who got to tell her what to do. But now nobody can tell her what to do. In the end, we all have the same "emperor."

I don't think the Stevens poem is better; I like both these poems. But the Stevens poem has more lines that stick in my head, and an idea that is interesting in a different way every time I go back to it.


Harriet said...

I like this idea and actually think I nearly always do this, with short poems at least. I think it's due in part for my musician's tendency to hear poems before I think them. I've also taken a similar approach to James Joyce's Ulysses, which seduces me with the sound of its language but my analysis of which is still not satisfying. But I keep reading it without stopping to think and each time, a little more of it falls into place. Maybe by the time I'm 90 I'll finally understand it.

Joe said...

How funny that "Emperor of Ice Cream" was introduced to me in high school - maybe grade school? - and the other only now. It's always struck me as an ode to generosity, with those big cigars and concupiscent curds and the Emperorship of what is always and forever to me a gift item.

All those images, stacked one on top of another... I do like the idea of reading it in a circle to give each one its due.

And yet, in your "simple" poem, there's one complex line which I know is going to stick with me. "I loved her from the day she died." I don't know what that means, but it sounds like a whole story unto itself.

The mirror image, perhaps, of another line that's been in my mind recently. "She should have died hereafter. There would have been a time for such a word."

Jeanne said...

Harriet, a little more falling into place every time is a good thing. We're not being tested on this stuff; we're just trying to find ways to enjoy it.

Joe, good point--in giving a bit of one reading, I privileged it, but I can see the generosity idea, especially since my favorite image is the "finale of seem"--a big Broadway production number bidding goodbye to illusions, in the style of Elephant! (musical version of The Elephant Man) in the movie The Tall Guy. If we let "be" be the finale of seem, then we're stopping to savor what is, right now.
Personally, I'm knocking off with the thinking about poems and going to stare mindlessly at my kid's soccer field for the next couple of hours.

I have a reading of "I loved her from the day she died," but I like yours better--anyone can read anything in a circle if they can keep an open mind long enough.

And now I'm thinking "she'd of been a good woman, if there had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life"

See, what I've read is always there to mull over, even when I meant to turn my brain off.

Anonymous said...

I love this technique as a way to try and understand complex poems. I tried it with "The Emperor of Ice Cream" before I read your analysis, and it helped, since I didn't get it the first time.

I actually had to read it out loud to get it -- sometimes the line breaks in poetry throw me off and I need to hear the whole thing sound more like full sentences.

The thing that struck me during my circle read was this set of lines: "That sheet on which she embroidered fantails once / And spread it so as to cover her face" because of the image of death that it presents. As soon as I got the death thing the idea of the Emperor of Ice Cream got sort of creepy -- like there's this child-like ruler living this absurd life while there's all this unpleasant stuff happening around him. I can't place what it reminds me of, but it makes me feel unsettled.

Anyway, I thought this was cool, and I'm going to point to this post in my Billy Collins post tomorrow. Thanks!