November 2012 Discussion Guide

Our Quotation Quota

Meditations on Memorability in the November 2012 Poetry

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“Nobody except a prisoner serving a life sentence learns Wordsworth’s ‘Immortality Ode’ by heart,” writes Clive James in his essay “A Stretch of Verse,” which appears in the November 2012 issue of Poetry. He argues that the work owes its immortality not to its strength as a whole, but to a few quotable moments netted together by forgettable lines.

A sample of that unmemorable stuffing: “Now, while the birds thus sing a joyous song”; “Land and sea / Give themselves up to jollity”; “I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!” The banal gleefulness is enough to make one ask, along with Wordsworth:

Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

The Ode, James writes, offer several such brilliant lines; “the distance between them gives us a measure of how long a stretch of verse can go on discouraging quotation without wrecking the poem in which it appears.”

How do you react to such poetic unevenness? One response, James offers, is “the conviction that those moments ought to be closer together”—that the writer should have excised the stuffing. Do you share this opinion? What is the relationship between the mundane and the moving in poetry? Are they mutually exclusive, or might they rely on one another? Do we require breaks from intense moments in order to process and appreciate them—and to remember them later? Now think back to your own favorite poems. Do you recall them in parts or in wholes?

Is it possible that poems sometimes depend on intentional forgettability—on a kind of artful stultification—in order shock us with potency later on? An instructive example of this phenomenon might be Elizabeth Bishop’s “Crusoe in England.” Note the dullness of this island depiction, which is meant to mirror the boredom of the isolated speaker:

The goats were white, so were the gulls,
and both too tame, or else they thought
I was a goat, too, or a gull.
Baa, baa, baa and shriek, shriek, shriek,
baa ... shriek ... baa ... I still can’t shake
them from my ears; they’re hurting now.

This stanza filled with goats and gulls and baas and shrieks repeats ideas as well as words: “I still can’t shake them from my ears,” Bishop writes, and adds needlessly: “they’re hurting now.” But the redundant and unmusical passage lays the ground for the poem’s shocking (and infinitely quotable) ending: “—And Friday, my dear Friday, died of measles / seventeen years ago come March.” These lines transform the poem into an elegy; without the even-keeled report that precedes it, the conclusion wouldn’t hit nearly as hard.

What about relentlessly intense poems—poems packed with sonic and semantic effects? Do you consider such works “better” than ones that shift between tension and slackness? The November issue of Poetry offers several consistently potent works. The second stanza of Elizabeth Spires’s “Pome” reads as follows:

Common as an apple. Or
more rare. A quince or pear.
A knife paring away soft skin
exposes tart sweet flesh.
And deeper in, five seeds in a core
are there to make more pomes.

Sound echoes (“quince”/“skin”/“in”; “rare”/“pear”/“paring”/“core”/“there”) lend this stanza tautness, and each “or” adds a hint of instability. The narrative about cutting fruit—complete with metaphorical resonances and a pun on “pome”—demands our attention on another level. Spires’s poem is this rich from beginning to end, with no stuffing to complain about. Do you find such a poem more rewarding than, say, the Immortality Ode? Or do you prefer poems that offer moments of repose?

Hailey Leithauser’s “Mockingbird” harnesses a distinct technique to achieve similar ends. The poem begins:

No other song
                    or swoop (part
       quiver, part swivel and
             plash) with
  tour de force
stray the course note

Like Spires’s poem, Leithauser’s is dense with wordplay and sound echoes. But the most striking element of these lines may be their physical form: like a mockingbird, the poem “swoops” and “swivels” throughout,seizing our notice with each jut and dip.

If this poem’s spacing heightens its intensity, we might wonder if spacing can also lessen intensity: perhaps the blanks following lines of poetry represent breaks from the exigencies of reading. In the November issue, this principle applies to prose as well. Take a look at Adam Kirsch’s “Rocket and Lightship,” a collection of observations about writers and writing. His prose segments are rich with thought-provoking pronouncements: “Just as a musical tone contains all its own overtones, resonating even on frequencies far removed from it in the scale, so every kind of mind contains every other.” “The crisis of literature, in contrast with the confidence of the sciences, is essentially a crisis of memory and transmission.” “Every writer needs a fireplace.” White spaces and asterisks provide us with intermissions between each thrilling and rigorous observation, enabling us to focus all the better on Kirsch’s next move.

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