If you move to the mountains, you hope for a decent window. Because isn’t that the point? In some states, they tax that, the view I mean. The view tax, it’s called. Don’t be “viewy,” Ezra Pound insisted — one of his many pushy cautions in his “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste,” first published in Poetry, March 1913 — a bit of contemporary-sounding rabble-rousing which might be useful cost-conscious real estate advice in New Hampshire these days, a place which levies such a tax, given the beauty of its landscape. But that was just Pound worried about the pretty and precious, the gratuitous frosting on the cake that throws us greedy eaters off the hardcore miraculous point, that it is high heat and chemical transformation that really matter: plain flour and sugar, eggs, warm milk.
Back to real estate (the real estate). Just imagine what taxes W.H. Auden would have paid for his sweep of pond and woods and fields in his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” his lifting whole cloth and homesteading the parcel of land that sixteenth-century Flemish artist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, saw and/or imagined for his Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. In both painting and poem a ploughman looks down into dirt, and above and beyond there’s a passing ship, the sun, and, right out of myth, Icarus, of course, “a boy falling out of the sky.” A myth concocted by Ovid but via Bruegel’s and then Auden’s eye, it’s an event played out against everyone else’s big deal, so what? That is, if it’s noticed at all, this “accident” via some crazy ambition of feathers and wax too close to the sun. As for readers and fellow- imaginers, we’re positioned in the box seat of why we should care at all, knowing some things turn ironic and still move us à la the big picture. But viewy and OMG flesh-out gradually or at once into something quite beyond; it’s jerry-rigged to deflate and expand at the same time.
“About suffering they were never wrong, / The Old Masters.” Auden tells us this calmly in the now famous first line, suggesting get ready for great, this greatest hit. The soothing take-charge over-voice lays down a premise, what’s what and always has been. And it’s memorable. Still, what is it that makes a poem great — and thus, lasting? The “quality of its insight,” wrote James Tate in an essay once — as in, we’re stunned, slowly nodding, drawn in and along for good reason. In any fine piece of writing, a huge silence eats us alive once those carefully chosen words quit coming. Here’s the final stanza whose few bars so many can practically hum by heart:
In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns awayQuite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman mayHave heard the splash, the forsaken cry,But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shoneAs it had to on the white legs disappearing into the greenWater; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seenSomething amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
In fact this piece unnerves quietly in such a push-pull, offhand way. Icarus, Auden seems to say, is a for instance, like he’s picking up a stray penny on the sidewalk to examine. Bruegel’s moment grows gigantic. It’s not so much the legendary dire consequences for the boy — a foregone conclusion — but this whiplash fact: impending tragedy = those shrugging it off = everything part of the mix, the human minutiae, workaday stuff, and the rare horrific. Is such a thought terrible, or a relief? In the poem, a waggish touch — something Elizabeth Bishop loved about Auden’s work — is a quality amplified by the surprise of so many enjambed lines, his sentences threaded down through them. Against his cool and elegance, it’s also the effect of certain snarky down-home images that quirk up to please — dogs going on in “some untidy spot / ... with their doggy life” or the “torturer’s horse” idly scratching “its innocent behind on a tree.” Such playfulness complicates and rides shotgun, now and then creating a double-take’s what the? and making the poem true — we remember, after all — thus familiar, closer to us in spite of Auden’s lordly omniscience mostly over-weighting the piece figuratively and literally as “viewy,” seen from a distance, from on high.
If the point is perspective — looking across and down with certainty and only in glimpses eye-level — then that impulse is built right into syntax, the poem’s apparent “no fragments allowed,” thus none of their hesitation or wonky passion, their jagged start and stop. Complete sentences are at work here, a confident, mulled-to-death (consider, consider), assertive “big voice” insists until I bet Auden would agree with George Oppen, who wrote in his daybook that “the poem is an instrument of thought, or it is a nuisance.” One does risk being the resident know-it-all in the room with this sort of posturing. No, not posturing really, but few doubts trouble Auden. Think of it as pure nerve, a freeing agent that fans out, notices, releases. It’s contagious, as habits of art often are, though it’s our choice. We can drink this poet’s Kool-Aid and care a lot, or not give a rat’s ass because he does both. His poem is an argument, complete with a premise and ammo to prove it. But he’s so playful with it.
Question: Is “Musée des Beaux Arts” just an arty, urbane upgrade of Robert Frost’s “‘Out, Out —,’” where a boy’s hand is severed, a life lost, the blood-letting impossible to stop out there on that desolate farm? No high drama for him either. “And they, since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.” Frost decides to end his poem with a classic New England reserve — or it chooses him. But his low-key suck-it-up could be Auden’s. Still, something happens to us via a hard truth; we’re automatically included in their visions, swept off and into, beginning to see that way, perhaps even write that way. We become someone else for a moment. We drop into both poems’ inevitable of course, what did you expect? Turn left, then right, past the don’t look now ... and then we rise.
I keep thinking about that rise, how vital it is, especially in the midnight swamp of story and mood through which poets tend to pole their boats, some of us lost there forever, never getting to the other side. There’s not always a get over it lying in wait or a bit of I’m better for this nonsense, some sort of happy ending. Poems aren’t exactly moral tales, though Brazilian poet Adélia Prado does get close to that edge with her jumpy, weighted work that often melds opposites: the sacred with the profane, past and present, exclamations against questions against double-takes and reversals by way of a definite wry streak that utterly charms. Consider the clear-eyed title poem of her first collection available in English and brought out by Wesleyan University Press a number of years ago, thanks to the fine work of translator and poet Ellen Doré Watson. Prado’s piece, “The Alphabet in the Park,” seems ironic and casual enough, close to that same kingdom of shrug where Auden and Frost find authority and its comfort, except she begins there:
I know how to write.I write letters, shopping lists,school compositions about the lovely walkto Grandmother’s farm which never existedbecause she was poor as Job.
Who can stop reading there? It’s witty and endearing and leaps into lines which turn this initial fabrication on its head.
But I write inexplicable things too:I want to be happy, that’s yellow.And I’m not, that’s pain.Get away from me sadness, stammering bell.
The world darkens now, more exactly, however mimed through metaphorical thinking. As if she’s speaking to Martians, she shorthands our tragic fix. “I live on something called the terrestrial globe, / where we cry more / than the volume of waters called the sea.” She cites each river carrying “its batch of tears” but great gladness exists too on our planet, and oh boy, “miraculous inventions.” Here, her out-of-nowhere fragments and exclamations kick in as she considers the dizzying effect of such a miracle, “a certain Ferris wheel,” and she wildly digresses, a trademark move for this poet —
Lights, music, lovers in ecstasy.It’s terrific! On one side the boys,on the other the girls — me, crazy to get marriedand sleep with my husband in our little bedroomin an old house with a wood floor.
Then abruptly, characteristically, her wonderful (as in: full of wonder) —
There’s no way not to think about death,among so much deliciousness, and want to be eternal.
Prado goes on. Finally there’s this way to end on both hardcore image and spirit-drift that in the grand tradition of poetic closure actually opens. To mystery, to strangeness. To joy, that’s what, and an alchemy to savor.
Excuse the expression, but I want to fall in life.I want to stay in the park, the singer’s voicesweetening the afternoon.So I write: afternoon. Not the word,the thing.
Thus, yet another map is made, instructions to get out of poems alive. In the continuing whirl of the Bummer Lit we love, certain moves can take us farther. Not to happiness exactly. But step back. Take a breath. “Ah ...”
Through the many cubbies and antechambers of what I call poetry’s vast Archive of the Humanly Possible, other shapes and hairpin turns of mischief and fortune make way for such an exhale — the poignant jubilance of Gerald Stern or Walt Whitman, say. Or the underground lifelines of a Carl Phillips, a Larry Levis, a Mary Szybist. And there’s Lucia Perillo with a poem that’s gained in edge and a fearlessness for me since her death. “The Second Slaughter” begins with a little time travel, dipping down into the ancient world to see Achilles slaying and rabid-scary enough for a place in our own era, its Middle East where endless bombing continues, where egrets are “covered in tar” from oil accidents near a marsh, the speaker taken to task by someone for mourning the fate of the wrong species, mere birds, her worry about animals first. “So now I guard / my inhumanity like a jackal,” she tells us, and further draws out the analogy with gritted teeth, a dazzling human defiance by way of disguise, in earnest, straight out of a shared planetary creaturehood. Like “the jackal,” she says again, adding that it shows up at the army base at twilight “head lowered,” looking for whatever food it can scavenge, “in a posture that” — only! — “looks like appeasement.” Such steely, lightning-rod insistence manages what poems do best: it allows the secret life in, a life lived and painfully considered, the complexity of that. Surely we’ve passed over to an “Ah!” in spite of current cultural and poetic fashions of should and you must that can keep us back from genuine revelation.
In a similar way, Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s arguably most beloved poem, “Song,” carries a personal secret culled from the great world by way of an actual news report I heard her talk about once, as in, yes, this happened: girl with goat, goat done in by unspeakable boys who just thought the whole business funny, a big fat joke. Forgive me, but these many months past her death make this poem, too, keep coming back, all thousand pounds of it. No matter how many times I read this piece, I sicken. But the rewards! As the chilling narrative rolls forward we’re early into surreal time and space by way of her richly-shadowed sense of the world. Back and forth throughout, the poem’s between straightforward fact and dream-like discovery, over and over, and neither quite wins.
In the night wind, the goat’s headSwayed back and forth, and from far off it shone faintlyThe way the moonlight shone on the train track miles awayBeside which the goat’s headless body lay. Some boysHad hacked its head off. It was harder work than they had imagined.The goat cried like a man and struggled hard. But theyFinished the job. They hung the bleeding head by the schoolAnd then ran off into the darkness that seems to hide everything.The head hung in the tree. The body lay by the tracks.The head called to the body. The body to the head.They missed each other. The missing grew large between them.
Here is where we are talking the most serious writing possible. Whatever that word “literature” means, it’s a huge step above merely reporting a tragic story. Which is to say — when that actual plot ends, the poem does not.
In this case, those guilty boys “would learn to listen.” Beyond the fact of wind and the “night bird” and their own hearts “beating harder,” they hear the ghostly sound that began early in the poem from the goat, the head that took such pains to sever and hang high in a tree. Now from it “at last, a song” and “just for them.” So learn, murmur, remember. It’s “a lost boy” haunted by “his mother’s call.” Finally it’s “cruel” then “no, no, not cruel at all.” And against all expectations, “sweet” and “sweet,” we’re told. And in the poet’s troubling triumphant line: “The heart dies of this sweetness.”
That crucial trapdoor secreted away in all great work opens inward, from public back to private and in this particular moment, a fierce comeuppance for those boys. Sure, but something enormous and brutal is passed on to us too, all those dark things we carry and will never get rid of, a possible sweetness that nevertheless cuts the heart. Maybe the word “ah” — mostly heard as a long breathing out — is simply another kind of isn’t this the way of the world? Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Or just what keeps deepening because now we know. “Ah” — the wiliest, most many-layered creature of all, and as such, an odd sort of solace. Does it open or close?
I want to stay longer at that door, the lyric impulse in poems, in certain puzzling moments of any life, for that matter, a shift to reveal the viewy expanse that we climb a hill and work so hard to see. For what? For something we never in a million years expect. News flash: there’s no formula or doctrine for this maddening thing that returns to us demanding to be made, no matter where it comes from and how many years or days or split seconds it takes for us to get it, half revelation, bare startling whatever-it-is and to begin to write it. (And yes, you do hear Bishop’s call to arms in there.)
Oppen doubled down in his daybook too: “I do not care for systems, what concerns me is the philosophy of the astonished.” Yes.
Poet and essayist Marianne Boruch grew up in Chicago. She is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including, most recently, The Anti-Grief (2019), Eventually One Dreams the Real Thing (2016); Cadaver, Speak (2014); The Book of Hours (2011), which won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award; Grace, Fallen from (2008);...