In Plain American Which Cats and Dogs Can Read!
The lyric poem walks the line between speaking and singing. (It also walks the line between the conventions of poetry and the conventions of grammar.) Poetry is not speech exactly—verbal art is deliberately different than the way that people actually talk—and yet it is always in relationship to speech, to the spoken word. “It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place,” as Wallace Stevens puts it in his poem “Of Modern Poetry.” W. B. Yeats called a poem “an elaboration of the rhythms of common speech and their association with profound feeling” (“Modern Poetry”). W. H. Auden said: “In English verse, even in Shakespeare’s grandest rhetorical passages, the ear is always aware of its relation to everyday speech” (“Writing”). I’m reminded of the many poems in the American vernacular—from Walt Whitman to William Carlos Williams (“The Horse Show”), Frank O’Hara (“Having a Coke with You”), and Gwendolyn Brooks ("We Real Cool”)—that give the sensation of someone speaking in a texturized version of American English, that create the impression of letters written, as Marianne Moore joyfully puts it, “not in Spanish, not in Greek, not in Latin, not in shorthand, / but in plain American which cats and dogs can read!” A demotic linguistic vitality—what Williams calls “the speech of Polish mothers”—is one of the pleasures of the American project in poetry.
Here is the opening of Randall Jarrell’s poem “Next Day”:
Moving from Cheer to Joy, from Joy to All,
I take a box
And add it to my wild rice, my Cornish game hens.
The slacked or shorted, basketed, identical
Are selves I overlook. Wisdom, said William James,
Is learning what to overlook. And I am wise
If that is wisdom.
One hears in this poem the plaintive, intelligent voice of a suburban housewife who knows she has become invisible, who wants only to be seen and heard. What particularly marks the poem as a verbal construct is the self-conscious treatment of the words themselves, the way the words behave in rhythmic lines and shapely stanzas. There’s the delightful pun on the names of household detergents, the play off “hens” and “flocks,” the acute way the woman sums up her companions in the supermarket, how she pivots on the word “overlook” and ruefully quotes William James’s pragmatic American notion of “wisdom.” I’ve always been touched by the way Jarrell animates the woman’s voice in this poem, how he inscribes his own voice into her voice and captures the reality of someone who is exceptional, commonplace, solitary.
Poet and author Edward Hirsch has built a reputation as an attentive and elegant writer and reader of poetry. Over the course of eight collections of poetry, four books of criticism, and the long-running “Poet’s Choice” column in the Washington Post, Hirsch has transformed the quotidian into poetry in his...