Thursday, January 3, 2008

Thing-Poems for Spring?

For college-teachers, these early days of January compose the interval in which we create plans for courses we are slated to teach in Spring. Our quirky little name for such plans is "syllabi," the plural of "syllabus." Before one of my recent high-school reunions (I suspect it was one I did not attend), a former classmate found my home-page on the Internet, and I put syllabi from courses on there. He sent me an email in which he claimed never to have used the word, "syllabus," in his life, partly because he hadn't (he informed me) gone to college. (At least at our high school, in our era, one did not hear or see the word "syllabus".) The remark was his not-so-subtle attempt to point out the obvious: I am a nerd. I always was a nerd, even though I played sports, came from the backwoods of the High Sierra [something hickish this way comes], and didn't wear horn-rimmed glasses or compete in debate-tournaments. I wrote back and told him that if I hadn't become a professor, I probably wouldn't have occasion to use the word, either. I mean, it's not like I derive measurable satisfaction simply from saying or writing "syllabus," nor am I attempting to put on airs by using the word. When one works a job, learns a trade, or joins a profession, one picks up the lingo, that's all. When I worked as a carpenter's assistant, I used the words "partition," "truss," "stud," "joist," and "eight-penny [nail]," but it wasn't personal.

Working on a syllabus for a poetry-writing class, I went in search of some thing-poems: poems that express some kind of concentrated, fanciful, and/or vivid view of an object (although I often lump poems about creatures and vegetation into this category, too.) William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheel Barrow" is a classic example of a thing-poem--and an ironic one, for the main thing that makes the poem famous (arguably) is the line "So much depends," not the description of the barrow, per se. One impetus behind the writing of thing-poems in the early 20th century--an impetus that has persisted--was the desire to get away from flaccid poems about emotions and abstractions. A thing-poem may certainly evoke emotions and imply concepts, but the first task is to look at and to represent a concrete thing. "No ideas but in things," wrote Williams, in his poem, "A Sort of Song."

Of course, by the time the class reaches the official day for thing-poems, we will have already read and discussed--and written--thing-poems, including Williams' famous one. But on that official day, we will, I decided, discuss the following poems (from The Norton Anthology of Poetry):

1. "God's Grandeur," by Gerard Manley Hopkins--a counterintuitive choice, I must admit. The title suggests something theological. But the poem itself is a tribute to "dappled things," "stuff" (not Hopkins' word) that on first glance looks like a bit of a mess but on closer inspection is beautiful. The implicit advice is to look for God's grandeur in ordinary, mixed up, disheveled things of this world.

2. "To a Chameleon," by Marianne Moore. This is not her most famous poem, but in my opinion it is as good as if not better than her most famous poems.

3. Charles Simic, "Watch Repair." Simic gives us an accessibly surreal, whimsical look inside a watch--an old-fashioned watch, not a digital one. I've probably mentioned this poem before on the blog.

4. Eric Ormsby, "Starfish." An accomplished, effective poem. I may also use "Skunk Cabbage," by Ormsby.

5. "Facing It," by Yusef Komunyakaa. This poem concerns a visit to the Viet Nam War Memorial--and the wall itself. Obviously, this is a potentially treacherous subject for a poet to take on, but Komunyakaa has the chops, and the poem is terrific.

6. "The Ant Hill," by Cynthia Zarin. Fresh description.

The anthology doesn't include another favorite thing-poem of mine--and one students tend to like: "Manhole Covers," by Karl Shapiro. His descriptions and comparisons are exquisite, and tells us (or reminds us of) why we sometimes find these huge round metal plates so fascinating. I still stare at and read the words on one near campus frequently.

Any thing-poem enthusiasts out there? It's okay to include plants and animals, in my opinion.

The most famous thing-poem in English? That's a question guaranteed to start an argument among syllabus-wielding nerds. I'll get the argument going by claiming the answer is "Ode on a Grecian Urn," by John Keats. Hang that answer on a joist and see how you like it (the answer, not the joist).

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