[lit-ideas] Re: American poetic scene at the beginning of 72

  • From: "Mike Geary" <atlas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Wed, 11 Oct 2006 23:43:15 -0500


That's interesting, but what did Roethke have in mind when he wrote the poem. That seems critically important to me. <<

I know it does and that's where I disagree with you. What Roethke meant is knowable only to Roethke. He wrote the poem meaning what he meant (assuming he even knew, perhaps he only liked the sound and form of it and cared not a whit about its meaning), whatever, once it's out there it's no longer his. It belongs to the world then. It means whatever it means to any reader. My response to the poem is almost identical to the teacher's in the essay. I've always loved the poem, very much so, it reminds me of my own father. I was as startled by the response of the students as was the teacher. To me it's one of the loveliest of love poems. Every image in it is loving and wonderful -- even whiskey breath is lovely if it's associated with one you love. It made me wonder if those students had ever even experienced love, they seemed so bound up in moralizing, which is, if not the opposite of love, certainly hate's helpmate.

I'm not sure why Roethke's intent is critically important to you. I think it's because at heart you're a formalist. You believe there's meaning out there to be deciphered. I tend to think meaning is a patchwork of experience. Maybe we're both wrong. Maybe the Muslims are right.

I recall Robert Frost talking about one of his poems -- I think it was Mending Walls. He laughed at the various interpretations of that poem and then described what he had in mind when he wrote it. If I recall correctly it was an actual occurrence. He didn't intend any of the interpretations people applied to it. <<

Yes, here's an excellent example of what I'm preaching. Over the last several years conservative commentators have had a penchant for quoting the "good fences make good neighbors" line as though Frost were on their side. I've often wondered if those commentators were really that stupid or just hoping that their readers/listeners were. Frost was obviously being sardonic, sarcastic, ironic and outright contemptuous of those who thought such simplistic thoughts.
But what if some incontrovertible evidence came along proving that I was wrong, that Frost did indeed believe that "good fences make good neighbors" regardless of what you're fencing in or fencing out -- how would I say then, hey?

I think would say that the community of readers at this time -- among whom I count myself -- read Frost's tropes differently, but essentially, it's unimportant what Frost meant. What we mean is the meaning of the all existence.

Well, yes, but, of course, that is just my interpretation. But it's the right one.

Mike Geary

----- Original Message ----- From: Lawrence Helm
To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
Sent: Wednesday, October 11, 2006 8:38 PM
Subject: [lit-ideas] Re: American poetic scene at the beginning of 72


From: lit-ideas-bounce@xxxxxxxxxxxxx [mailto:lit-ideas-bounce@xxxxxxxxxxxxx] On Behalf Of Mike Geary
Sent: Wednesday, October 11, 2006 5:00 PM
To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
Subject: [lit-ideas] Re: American poetic scene at the beginning of 72

My point, Lawrence, is that there's no correct way to approach literature or any art. I tend toward reader-response criticism more than any other, certainly more so than formalism or New Criticism though I think they all have valid points to make. Deconstruction can be fun, but I've never read a deconstructive critique that brought me more understanding and appreciation for the work itself, only amusement at life's inherent incoherence. Knowing Berryman wrote a poem may tell us something about Berryman, but it says nothing about the work itself. Only you as a reader can give meaning to it or -- as Stanley Fish would say -- only you as a member of a reading community.

For any not familiar with Reader-Response (or Reader-Oriented) criticism, I include Roethke's poem's My Papa's Waltz and a URL to a Reader-Response essay around the poem.

My Papa's Waltz
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.
You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

The essay is here: http://bcs.bedfordstmartins.com/virtualit/poetry/critical_define/readrespessay.pdf

Mike Geary Memphis

----- Original Message ----- From: Lawrence Helm
To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
Sent: Wednesday, October 11, 2006 12:13 AM
Subject: [lit-ideas] Re: American poetic scene at the beginning of 72

Interesting idea Mike, but Dream Songs, Berryman's magnum opus, was autobiographical. Henry was a nickname one of his wives, Anne I think, had for him. She called him Henry and he called her Mabel. So if you read the Dream Songs, whatever your poetical philosophy, you'll know how it ends.

Ages ago poets wrote poems that could be separated from their lives -- at least that is an idea it would be hard to disprove, Iliad, Odyssey, and Beowulf, for example, but consider The Divine Comedy. If we didn't know so much about Dante we might not have realized that some of those in Hell are there because Dante was interested in getting even with them. He was a very vengeful fellow. And of course there was a theory in the early 20th century to the effect that a poet's life had nothing to do with his poetry, but that idea, I believe, has long since been abandoned. Now, I believe, most critics think you need to understand a poet's bio to understand his poetry. For example, Hugh Kenner wrote The Pound Era and his insights reawakened an interest in Pound (very difficult to understand without biographical insights). And then there is Stephen Burt's Randall Jarrell and his Age. Jarrell was considered a critic primarily except for a few anthologized poems, but Burt opened up his poetry to general appreciation.

However, I didn't mean to imply that my opinion of Berryman's poetry was affected by my poor opinion of him, if that's what you were thinking. What I meant to convey was that Berryman gave up his life, in a manner of speaking, for his poetry and when I first read it I thought it was marvelous -- in other words I tended to think it was (arguably) worthwhile to give up a life for such a body of great poetry. When I reread it years later it didn't have the same effect on me. When I first read it I thought Berryman would go down as a major poet. Now I think perhaps not; which, if I am right in my current opinion of him, means he gave up his life for something of minor value, so to speak. So that's one thing I thought.

Another is that they (Berryman and his competitors) may not have been in it for the absolute value of their poetry but for the fame. They knew each other. Toward the end it was important to Berryman to be considered king of the poetic hill. Was he king or was it Lowell? Lowell seemed to give up toward the end. Lots of poets seemed to fall by the wayside, and they held grudges, Allen Tate for example. They wanted the poetic prize but couldn't compete, and they were bitter. In other words they weren't measuring themselves against any absolute idea of poetic value but against the relative idea of who was to be recognized as the top-dog poet.


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