Thursday, September 4, 2008

Unexpected Turns in Poems

Here is a short poem by Irene Rutherford Mcleod, a British poet born in 1891. The poem is from an anthology published in 1920 and edited by Louis Untermeyer. I like the poem, especially the first two stanzas. The last stanza presented me with something I hadn't expected and to which I didn't respond all that favorably.
Is Love, Then, So Simple

By Irene Rutherford Mcleod

Is love, then, so simple my dear?
The opening of a door,
And seeing things all clear?
I did not know before.

I had thought it unrest and desire
Soaring only to fall,
Annihilation and fire:
It is not so at all.

I feel no desperate will,
But I think I understand
Many things, as I sit quite still,
With Eternity in my hand.

Great title and great first line, in my opinion. We're used to reading poems and other things that complicate love. Mcleod decides to go against that grain and present love as simple. In the middle stanza, the poem seems to disrupt conventional poetic treatments of love, such as those found in traditional sonnets, famous for their intentionally over-blown rhetoric.

I found myself still very much in sync with the poem through the first half of line 3 in the last stanza, but "With Eternity in my hand" is surprisingly conventional and grandiose. I didn't see that turn in the poem coming, and when it arrived, I didn't like it. I think I may have preferred an image of the two people who are "in" the poem--the hint of a scene, a suggestion of intimacy, but nothing over the top. I still like the poem, and in some ways, I like the fact that Mcleod chose to end it in a way I wouldn't have ended. I don't mind differences of opinion and tactics between me (as a reader and poet) and another poet. It's pleasurable to see another poet making a different choice, and other readers may have good reasons for liking Mcleod's choice here. I still like the poem also because the deliberately plain rhetoric, combined with a lyric-form, works nicely. The form is traditional, but the rhetoric is modern, especially by 1920 standards.
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