Hot off the presses, it’s TGR editor Ryan Boyd’s review of a new Wallace Stevens biography by Paul Mariani. Head over to DIALOGIST for the essay.
ICYMI, General Reader co-editors Ryan Boyd and Dan Pecchenino often also write for the quarterly Dialogist. Here is Ryan’s latest, a review essay on the poets Tony Hoagland and John Burnside.
Ryan again, this time on Major Jackson’s poetry.
We are always, if nothing else, on our grind.
Several times I’ve written here about A$AP Rocky’s 2011 mixtape Live. Love. A$AP, a late-capitalist gem. The entire text is eminently bumpable, but my favorite tracks remain those produced by Clams Casino, who recently did work on my favorite album of 2015, Vince Staples’s double-disc Summertime ’06.
Double EPs are risky. There are vast masterpieces like Exile on Main St., but often such albums are at least a little bloated and could be slimmed (e.g., Wilco’s Being There). Staples pulls it off, though. Summertime ’06 doesn’t have any obvious radio-ready singles–no bangers, no anthems, no easy hooks. This isn’t Drake. A fundamentally grimmer album than what usually runs up the Billboard charts, it’s more like Enter the Wu-Tang or Hell Hath No Fury.
That does not mean the songs won’t snag in your cortex. Staples’s writing is a memorably lyrical blend of braggadocio and fear; meditation and narrative; pride in Long Beach, California, and the urge toward other worlds. One of the tracks Clams Casino produced is “Norf Norf,” which sounds like Aphex Twin spliced with the mid-2000s Neptunes aesthetic (and Bjork and Viktor Vaughn), then drenched in THC and cough syrup.
The track is not traditionally catchy. It makes the listener do some work first. Staples’s tense bluster is gorgeous but taxing, because his subject matter is so grim, while the production is groggy and nightmarish. And yet there is, I bet, a decent chance you will keep thinking about “Norf Norf” after you hear it once. Sit alone with it for a few minutes.
One of the coolest things the Renaissance gave us, besides heliocentrism and The Prince, was the sonnet sequence. All the hot boys had one in the 1500s: Edmund Spenser did (much less boring than The Faerie Queene), Sir Philip Sidney did, Shakespeare did, of course. Jump forward to the Victorian era, and you’ve got Modern Love, George Meredith’s queasy portrait of a dead marriage (it’s like a Noah Baumbach film) that is almost unknown by contemporary readers. Around the same time, Elizabeth Barrett Browning dropped Sonnets from the Portugese, which is admittedly kind of disappointing next to the intermittently awesome novel-in-verse Aurora Leigh. But still, sonnets!
Many keystrokes have been devoted to poetry’s death in modernity. We don’t, the narrative goes, have the patience to read and savor it anymore; we would rather be on social media or watching Netflix. We can’t sit down and pay attention. But even if you buy this story–and I’m not always sure I do–you can’t deny that lyric poetry, in some forms at least, is structurally similar to a dominant media platform, Twitter. In the sonnet and the tweet, compression of rhetoric, wit, and image is what matters; in a nice bit of mathematical coincidence, sonnets have 14 lines, while tweets can’t go over 140 characters. (At a weird, half-articulate limbic level, I don’t even think it is a coincidence.)
Brevity might be poetry’s evolutionary advantage in the contemporary media ecosystem. Most readers are no longer able to stomach Bleak House, but at least some still have energy to read a fourteen-line tidbit. Some might even re-read: while Twitter infects you with the urge to obsessively check for new content, sonnets urge you to go back over the territory, and you can, because sonnets are so compact.
Granted, given their gender politics and all-male authorship, sixteenth-century lyrics can sometimes sound like men’s-rights activist blogs in verse, but that is only if you read them as a blunt presentist, expecting four-hundred-year-old sonnets to accord with contemporary progressive thought instead of viewing each text’s motifs (e.g. the scornful, icy, or oblivious beloved) as rhetorical equipment shared by European poets of the period. While you can do some biographical mapping–Whom was Sidney in love with? Who is Shakespeare’s “Mr. W.H.”? Was Poet X trying to tup Poet Y’s mistress? et cetera–ultimately these aren’t texts about the lives of real people, but performances within (and individual reworkings of) a literary tradition. Still, I understand why Sonnet #31 from Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella, for instance, might grate a little. When the speaker’s “long-with-love-acquainted eyes” survey the “sad steps” and “wan” face of the moon in the night sky, he concludes that the earth’s satellite knows what’s up. The sonnet’s sestet is elegant whining:
Then, even of fellowship, O moon, tell me,
Is constant love deem’d there but want of wit?
Are beauties there as proud as here they be?
Do they above love to be lov’d, and yet
Those lovers scorn whom that love doth possess?
Do they call “virtue” there, ungratefulness?
I’ve enjoyed Astrophel and Stella‘s opener since I first read it ten years ago, sitting in my back yard in Charlottesville, Virginia, on a poetic spring day. The speaker’s partly ironic faith in a spontaneous, organic afflatus–a natural lyric style–a anticipates the Romantics and Walt Whitman; the pregnancy metaphor for artistic creation is arresting; and I love the image of a “sunburn’d brain.” Come to think of it, that’s what Twitter does to the mind. To paraphrase the Clipse, it gets hot ’round here, so when you come to the Reader, bring your sunblock.
Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe:
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain,
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburn’d brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting invention’s stay;
Invention, Nature’s child, fled stepdame study’s blows;
And others’ feet still seem’d but stranger in my way.
Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite:
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write!”
For a poet whose work is a major bridge from prewar Modernism to the martinis-and-visiting-professorships circuit of the Fifties and Sixties, Theodore Roethke does not deserve to have faded from view so much. He has fans here and there, squirreling away used paperbacks, but dude definitely doesn’t have the cultural tonnage of William Carlos Williams or Elizabeth Bishop (two poets in his extended family), and Dame Plath’s estate probably moves more books in a week than Roethke’s does in a year. Until graduate school I pronounced his name Roth-co, like the painter. He lingers in the Norton anthologies, but in actual conversation I hadn’t met anyone to correct me.
It’s a shame. Roethke isn’t a great, but he’s still pretty great, the poetry equivalent of an awesome singles band.
Coming from a line of gardeners and builders, I’m wired to love the greenhouse lyrics that make up the first section of his best book, The Lost Son (1948). Autobiographical resonance aside, I like how these poems form a DMZ between tendencies that sometimes weaken his writing.
On one side of the field, you’ve got his “confessional” impulse, the need to establish versions of one’s wounded self as the ultimate poetic reality, which can easily tip into self-mythologizing frenzy. As “Open House” (lame pun) has it, “My secrets cry aloud,” and thus often “Rage warps my clearest cry / To witless agony” (AWFUL rhyme). You get the sense he might not be the most fun person to hang out with some days.
On the other side of the field is a much more pervasive flaw, Roethke’s persistent desire to be a visionary like Yeats or Blake, with an attendant mimicry of the song-/chant-like prosody they often use. Even the wonderful “Epidermal Macabre” is like a B-side of Yeats’s “A Coat.” Gorgeous. I carry a handwritten copy in my wallet. But still a B-side. In his massive, intermittently luminous Lives of the Poets (1998), the critic Michael Schmidt calls it “partial ventriloquism.”
You get a lot of crap about vision and transcendence in Roethke, and all the time you also get the sense that he would be happier talking about daily activities and relationships. Google “The Geranium.” It is a fantastic friendship poem written by a frazzled loner. It exemplifies what Roethke was capable of when he wasn’t spinning out oracular stuff like the lines in this rogue’s gallery:
A pearl within the brain, / Secretion of the sense; / Around a central grain / New meaning grows immense. (“Genesis”)
The stones sang, / The little ones did, / And flowers jumped / Like small goats.
(“The Waking”—the other one, not the justly famous villanelle)
All’s known, all, all around: / The shape of things to be; / A green thing loves the green / And loves the living ground. / The deep shade gathers night; / She changed with changing light.
Oh, and from the “Love Poems” section of his 1953 volume The Waking, here is “The Dream.” This how it ends:
She held her body steady in the wind;
Our shadows met, and slowly swung around;
She turned the field into a glittering sea;
I played in flame and water like a boy [editorial note: !!!]
And I swayed out beyond the white seafoam;
Like a wet log, I sang within a flame.
In that last while, eternity’s confine,
I came to love, I came into my own.
That’s an attempted bang that ends up being a whimper. In all of these you see Roethke elbowing his way toward the numinous through nature and women and his own psychodrama, forcing the stuff of consciousness into Very Significant existential patterns. This in turn produces some painfully simple-minded rhymes.
A cooler Roethke appears in his notebooks, which David Wagoner has edited for the Copper Canyon Press under the name Straw For the Fire (1974, 2006). “We need more barnyard poets,” Roethke declares on page 12, perhaps after several whiskies, “poets who depart from the patio, the penthouse, the palladium.” Modified roughnecks, of the kind Whitman admired. “What was the greenhouse?” asks a later entry, which then answers itself: “It was a jungle, and it was paradise; it was order and disorder: Was it an escape? No, for it was a reality harsher than reality” (page 145). “I wish I could photosynthesize,” he admits on the following page.
The same earthbound mensch shows up in the greenhouse poems from The Lost Son. Here, horticulture serves as a figuration of the poet act, being a partial re-engineering and attempted management of nature’s fecund otherness. The texts are personally rooted but not sutured to a biographical persona; they are self-oriented but not self-contained. Conversational but not slack, intimate without becoming maudlin, they employ free verse that is cut with patterned rhymes and unobtrusive meters in places.
These poems posit a dialectic between vision and the visual, between the fundamental arrogance of a poet’s imagination and the rank solidity of dirt, watering cans, and chlorophyll. A poet’s gotta dream. But then the real, grubby, frustrating, material universe will push back.
So this weekend’s poem is “Frau Bauman, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartze.” Roethe’s dad owned some greenhouses in Michigan; and apparently Roethke senior’s pop was an official forester for Kaiser Wilhelm. Roethke worked in the greenhouses some summers, alongside the older women who maintained the sites year-round.
Refusing visionary leaps can be a feminist act. That is, refusing to twist actual humans from one’s past into a mythology that motivates one’s present is a gesture of respect for actual lives that, in this instance, are women’s lives. The three women in this poem are people, not a transcendentalist conduit or visionary metaphor. They chew tobacco, they sweat when they work. They aren’t pretty maidens, fertile mothers, or geriatric saints.
The poem does not pity the fraus for being childless “nurses of no one else.” It avoids the easy edginess of playing up a weird Freudian sexual angle. It likens the women to birds and witches (one detects a reference to Macbeth in there), but it nonetheless views them as earthbound, fascinating, actual Others, not symbols of Mother Nature or bit players in Roethke’s personal archives. Their flesh is working flesh, the stuff of labor: gardening in this case, the work of “Keeping creation at ease.” These three German ex-pats have a permanently reserved table in the poet’s memory, but they aren’t contractually bound to occupy it every night. After an initial feint at mythology (“three ancient ladies”) the text settles into a respect for their autonomy, their lives as material beings. We know them a little bit, through one remarkable, writing person’s fallible memory. This is it. We should all be so lucky.
Enjoy the read. Happy weekends, y’all.
Gone the three ancient ladies
Who creaked on the greenhouse ladders,
Reaching up white strings
To wind, to wind
The sweet-pea tendrils, the smilax,
Nasturtiums, the climbing
Roses, to straighten
Chrysanthemums; the stiff
Stems jointed like corn,
They tied and tucked,—
These nurses of nobody else.
Quicker than birds, they dipped
Up and sifted the dirt;
They sprinkled and shook;
They stood astride pipes,
Their skirts billowing out wide into tents,
Their hands twinkling with wet;
Like witches they flew along rows
Keeping creation at ease;
With a tendril for needle
They sewed up the air with a stem;
They teased out the seed that the cold kept asleep,—
All the coils, loops, and whorls.
They trellised the sun; they plotted for more than themselves.
I remember how they picked me up, a spindly kid,
Pinching and poking my thin ribs
Till I lay in their laps, laughing,
Weak as a whiffet;
Now, when I’m alone and cold in my bed,
They still hover over me,
These ancient leathery crones,
With their bandannas stiffened with sweat,
And their thorn-bitten wrists,
And their snuff-laden breath blowing lightly over me in my first sleep.
The Los Angeles basin got steady rain all last night, the first we’ve had since early spring. With the morning came further fall weather, a crisp breeze and high skies, this temporary dream architecture of brisk clouds and temps in the low 60s. The city looks like it got a great night’s sleep. As Lord Byron says in a letter, weather accounts for a large part of one’s mood, which is especially true in a region that tends to collect foul air, and which has lately suffered from the grime of long-term drought. Angelenos are in a fine mood, is what I’m saying.
In honor of today’s vigor, allow me to introduce a poem by one of the city’s great writers, Dana Gioia. Published in 1991 (as part of the somewhat preciously titled The Gods of Winter), it derives a little extra weight from the fact that the Nineties were the tail-end of the bad Smog Years, when LA seemed like a city in all sorts of decline, not least environmental. Smog alerts had hounded the populace since World War II, and yet here they were, still choking. But really, Gioia’s meteorological YAWP will touch any city-slicker’s besmirched heart, which, if you want to get theoretical, is where the eyes and the mind and the feet all meet.
It may resonate with anyone who’s ever woken up happy. Take a deep breath. Listen!
Back home again on one of those bright mornings
when the city wakes to find itself reborn.
The smog gone, the thundering storm
blown out to sea, birds
frantic in their joyous cacophony, and the mountains,
so long invisible in haze,
newly risen with the sun.
It is a morning snatched from Paradise,
a vision of the desert brought to flower—
of Eve standing in her nakedness,
immortal Adam drunk with all
the gaudy colors of the world,
and each taste and touch, each
astounding pleasure still waiting to be named.
The city stirs and stretches
like a young man waking after love.
Sunlight stroking the skin and the
promiscuous wind whispering
“Seize the moment. Surrender to the air’s
irrefutable embrace. Trust me that today
even seduction leads to love.”
Too many voices overhead. Too many scents
commingle in the stark perfume
of green winter freshened by the rain.
This is no morning for decisions.
A day to ditch responsibility, look up
old friends, and dream
of quiet love, impossible resolutions.
Copyright © 1991 by Dana Gioia
It’s not the weekend, but it is the week’s end. We have some poetry for you!
I don’t know if American teenagers still read the Beats, but when I was a teenager in America, I loved them so much that for a high-school class I co-wrote/-assembled something called The Book of Jack (Kerouac) for English class. Sized for a giant’s coffee table, this cardboard-bound collage of pictures, quotations, inspired drawings, and scholarly citations now rests in my parents’ basement, probably where it belongs. In the late 1990s I was a Kerouac man and, to a lesser degree, an Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs man. I didn’t know that “the Beats” is a clunky historical term that many Beat writers disliked immediately, or that scholars have since partially dismantled it, and I would not have cared if I had known.
My literary spider sense tells me that most readers outgrow the Beats. That is, while they do not usually come to dislike that bundle of mid-century coastal bohemians, the Beats do start to feel immature, or at least limited, as one acquires more education and gets older. The same impulses and attitudes which made them radical in the 1950s also keep them right in the teen wheelhouse: emotion, iconoclasm, expressivity, the new, the raw, existential peaks and valleys, all those urges toward various modes of ecstatic alienation (1). In the long run their thematic and formal register also led me to Whitman, Blake, Rimbaud, and other poets Ginsberg and company admired.
For what it’s worth, the Beats grew out of the Beats, too. Kerouac became a pudgy conservative who hung out with William F. Buckley in the Sixties; the poet Gary Snyder spent most of the peak-Beat era in Japan; Ginsburg and Burroughs both lived well beyond their demographically median life expectancies and became comfortable old Literary Figures (2).
Much of their canonized work has not aged well, at least for me. Ginsberg’s best stuff (such as “A Supermarket in California,” his comically poignant vision of a Walt Whitman dumped in mid-century America) is very, very good, but it’s almost entirely from the 1950s and 1960s; and unfortunately this period constitutes only part of his hefty Collected Poems. Burroughs’s reptilian prose only sounds good when someone with a gravel-munching voice like William S. Burroughs reads it aloud. Junky and Naked Lunch haven’t kept their bloom: the former is impressive until you encounter something like De Quincey’s Confessions or David Lynch, while Lunch (which David Cronenberg turned into a film) is shocking for maybe 30 pages the first time you read it, after which it becomes a boring round of grotesqueries. I remember nothing Gregory Corso wrote. I do recall reading Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind on the bus while traveling to high-school soccer games.
The homie Kerouac wrote too much too fast, and a lot of his fiction belies a surly, misogynistic beef with the world. Try to read Big Sur or The Subterraneans without cringing, then perhaps sobbing—even in high school I realized that the bibulous self-pity of many of his male narrators was gross. Imagine Woody Allen as a Catholic drunk. I’ve never gotten through Dharma Bums even though I’m generally neurotic about finishing books I start.
I’ll ride for On the Road, though, even in adulthood. Despite its sentimental racism, juvenile grasp of women’s lives, and occasionally questionable ethics (it venerates Neal Cassady, or “Dean Moriarty” in the book, a boring, obsessive, half-literate speed freak who seems to not so much interact with women as inhale them), the novel stands up to re-reading. It isn’t merely a young person’s book, a white teenager’s book, or a classier version of Bukowski. It’s a narrative about America. Kerouac’s lyric intensity turns purple in places, but as a whole the novel is poetic in a way few American books are: we’re talking the empyrean, we’re talking up there with Faulkner and parts of Their Eyes Were Watching God and James Baldwin. More importantly, because great prose does not excuse imaginative thinness, Sal Paradise’s wounded longing, his conviction that a more authentic American life exists somewhere, resonates with a deep tradition of New World dreaminess and a distinctly American pessimism, of the Death of a Salesman variety. In fact, it points back to European romanticism and, if you really want to stretch the point, Odysseus, Gilgamesh, Jane Eyre. It is Kerouac’s Illmatic.
But if On the Road is the Beat generation’s greatest single text, Gary Snyder has had the most consistent career. My favorite poems of his are mainly from the 1950s and 1960s, but he never fell off the way Ginsberg did, or tumbled into mopey narcissism like Kerouac. Although his experience is often the basis for what the speakers of his poems see, the texts are nonetheless more interested in the outside world, especially intersections between human life and the more-than-human environment. (Snyder’s 1992 volume No Nature: New and Selected Poems pointedly rejects the term “nature” as a European construct. DEBATABLE. Anyway.)
The poem we have here is “Above Pate Valley,” from Snyder’s debut Riprap (1957). As a young man he spent summers laying trails in the Sierras, and this labor (“riprap” is rubble used for paving and walls) figures in his writing. Note how the poem tinkers with syntax and elides certain expected words like the articles “the” or “an,” producing a notebook of observations with an almost physical sense of cognitive movement; note its ethic of paying attention to the world, to the world’s physicality as well as the human histories present in this material flux; note how the text flows from a believably human narrator but doesn’t privilege him, remaining humble before the world. Note all kinds of lyric greatness, y’all. Enjoy a marvel of American English.
We finished clearing the lastSection of trail by noon,High on the ridge-sideTwo thousand feet above the creekReached the pass, went onBeyond the white pine groves,Granite shoulders, to a smallGreen meadow watered by the snow,Edged with Aspen—sunStraight high and blazingBut the air was cool.Ate a cold fried trout in theTrembling shadows. I spiedA glitter, and found a flakeBlack volcanic glass—obsidian—By a flower. Hands and kneesPushing the Bear grass, thousandsOf arrowhead leavings over aHundred yards. Not one goodHead, just razor flakesOn a hill snowed all but summer,A land of fat summer deer,They came to camp. On theirOwn trails. I followed my ownTrail here. Picked up the cold-drill,Pick, singlejack, and sackOf dynamite.Ten thousand years.
1) When Howl was published in 1957 the Partisan Review retorted with a comically snobby, pissy, quite funny John Hollander review which is excerpted here.
2) And Burroughs was a heroin addict and chain smoker for decades.
When he started publishing, Thom Gunn (1929-2004) was quickly grouped with other young British poets who were poised to follow W.H. Auden’s lead, rejecting what they saw as the gratuitous, reader-alienating Difficulty of modernists like Pound, T.S. Eliot, Stein, and Stevens. In other words, they disliked how hard it was to decipher, let alone enjoy, many canonical modernist poems—the Cantos, anyone? (Most of them also detested Dylan Thomas’s lush neo-romanticism.) Starting in the mid-1950s, journalists foisted the label “the Movement” onto Gunn, Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Robert Conquest, and others; then New Lines, an influential 1956 anthology that Conquest edited, presented them as cohesive, not just contemporaneous.
Like all narratives this one simplifies a lot, which is why most of the so-called Movement poets refused the term (1). Yet there are discernible patterns in the work of these individual writers, who sought a poetics that was aesthetically pleasurable (it rhymed and scanned in meters that English poets had been using for centuries) and less thematically opaque: none of The Waste Land‘s maddening footnotes. More accessible, more public, in other words. Larkin turned out to be Auden’s greatest heir, but Gunn has also staked a place in the anthologies. (Amis wrote fine poems, too, but he is known more as a brilliant comic novelist.) Larkin, whose letters sometimes have a nasty provincial streak disguised as half-ironic Tory wit, claimed to detest Gunn’s work—”What a genius that man has for making an ass of himself”—but then again he also preferred Sylvia Plath to Robert Lowell. Even geniuses have moments of shaky taste (2).
No doubt Gunn’s lifestyle, or stories about it, also bugged Larkin, who saw himself as a conservative. By the time he was being touted as a new voice in British poetry, Gunn had moved to San Francisco. He spent the rest of his life there. An openly (by the late 1970s) gay man who rode motorcycles, dropped lots of acid, hung out with lovers in leather, taught at Berkeley, and generally appeared just fine with hippies, queens, bikers, and other Bay Area species, you probably wouldn’t peg him as a Royal Army veteran educated at Cambridge.
His life in the Bay supplies a lot of his subject matter; as such he might seem fully Americanized. However, in terms of its formal structures, Gunn’s strongest poetry derives from an English lyric tradition which prizes conceptual lucidity, metrical cohesion, pleasing rhymes, and a frequently ironic (not to say cynical) view of human life. He may write about surfers and sometimes mess around with free verse and syllabics (like a damn Frenchman!) but ultimately he’s a traditionalist who leans toward patterned meters.
As far as Anglophone poetry goes, there are two main species in this metrical genus. Accentual-syllabic verse, where you look at the placement of stressed and unstressed syllables within lines that have the same total number of syllables, is the most common. Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter is probably the best-known example, but accentual-syllabic forms have been the foundation of English lyric since the 1500s, and you can draw a line from Marlowe to Ben Jonson to Marvell to Pope to the nineteenth-century British giants (e.g., Keats, Barrett Browning, Tennyson, Housman) to modern poets like Auden and Larkin. You could also throw in certain Americans, like Robert Frost, the Fugitives, and Yvor Winters, the aesthetic arch-conservative whom Gunn studied with at Stanford (3). Straight-up accentual verse, where you only count the number of accents (not the syllables), regardless of where they fall in a particular line, is also a Gunn mode. Gerard Manley Hopkins is the king of this one, which ultimately goes back to Old English texts like Beowulf, but Coleridge and Milton also experimented with it.
Now, like any skilled formalist poet, Gunn rarely sticks with a totally regularized beat. A lyric’s meter serves as a baseline, not a straitjacket, because the poem will get boring and shitty if it bounces along the same track the whole way. Even when working with, for example, rhyming couplets—the ultimate in neoclassical regularity, favored by eighteenth-century wig bros like Alexander Pope—Gunn will shift accent-placement and line-length, or occasionally swap in a slant rhyme where the pattern would seem to call for a full one. Indeed, you often get texts that seem to hover between accentual and accentual-syllabic verse; hey, most literary classifications are somewhat imprecise.
So what’s the poem for this edition of Topical Verse? It’s “Nasturtium,” from Gunn’s 1992 collection The Man With Night Sweats. More lit-crit talk below.
Born in a sour waste lot
You laboured up to light,
Bunching what strength you’d got
And running out of sight
Through a knot-hole at last,
To come forth into sun
As if without a past,
Done with it, re-begun.
Now street-side of the fence
You take a few green turns,
Nimble in nonchalance
Before your first flower burns.
From poverty and prison
A prodigal has risen,
Self-spending, never spent.
Irregular yellow shell
And drooping spur behind . . .
Not rare but beautiful
—Street-handsome—as you wind
And leap, hold after hold,
A golden runaway
Still running, strewing gold
From side to side all day.
This is a love poem, devoted to the community where Gunn found a home and to the nasturtium itself, a common flower of resplendently strange appearance. (This is what a nasturtium looks like up close, and this is what they look like in tumbling, spilling floods of color.) The flower is a metaphor but it’s a flower too.
Nasturtiums, which have shallow roots and reproduce via seeds that look like tiny shriveled craniums, are rapacious spreaders and excellent climbers. Perfections up close, they are even better en masse; repetitive and profligate, they lend themselves to filigree, and illustrators, designers, and other artists have long prized them (3). Gunn uses a weedy, light meter—generally three accents distributed over a six-syllable line, though some lines can be read with four accents, all of it arranged into three stanzas of equal length—that mimics that plant’s organic form. Nasturtiums do well in poor soil, loving a “sour waste lot,” and will in fact produce fewer blooms if you water or fertilize them too much.
Iambic pentameter is the workhorse of English poetry because lines with ten-ish syllabus and five-ish beats are long enough to do complicated stuff with, in terms of sound and image, but not so long that they run out to the page’s edge, which would tax the reader. (Poems that care about musicality usually need the propulsion that comes from line breaks and new starts after that drop.) But even with relatively scrawny lines, Gunn does some cool stuff. For example, although the meter and the rhyme scheme used in the first two stanzas persist into the third, in that final unit the punctuation partially abandons the syntactical conventions of standard English. In its closing exuberance, the stanza’s punctuation serves mainly to organize sensuous impressions.
Read metaphorically, the nasturtium represents survivors, in particular the gay men who made it to the big free city (free compared to the places many came from, at least) and settled in neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and the Castro after “poverty and prison / And undernourishment.” Seen in terms of the “golden runaway,” Young-Man-Escaped narrative, the lyric is hopeful.
However, its surroundings are grim: The Man With Night Sweats is largely a meditation on the first terrible decade of AIDS, the plague years that tore through urban gay communities. Gunn lost a lot of friends. A few pages after “Nasturtium” the book’s last section begins, opening with the titular poem. The noun “prodigal” has a dark slant, and Gunn builds cold irony into the dream of nonchalance, pure subjective freedom, and endless “spending” (a verb poets have used for centuries as a half-comic euphemism for ejaculation). There is no “all day.” Life is always preparing forms of suffering.
At the end of Werner Herzog’s documentary Encounters at the End of the World (2007), a man named Stefan Pashov, who drives machines in Antarctica, says something beautiful:
Suffering reproduces aggressively, as do viruses (bad) and nasturtiums (good). Poems are diffusive too, hauled out of the languages we’ve devised and passed from writer to reader. Texts are partially biological. You see this vividly when the same poem demonstrates both the human compulsion to make metaphors—plundering nature for tropes to help us describe our lives—and our urge (still flickering in 2014) to admit the otherness of living things.
1) In the second appendix of Kingsley Amis’s mammoth Selected Letters (seriously, it could stop a bullet) you’ll find some superb parodies of Movement poets that Amis mailed to Larkin (one of his best friends) in 1956. Titled “All Aboard the Gravy Train: Or, Movements Among the Younger Poets” and written by one “Ron Cain,” it pokes fun at the tics and tendencies of Gunn, Robert Conquest (another one of Amis’s bros), Larkin, D.J. Enright, Amis himself, and others frequently deemed Movement types.
2) Letter to Robert Conquest, 20 February 1962, reprinted in Selected Letters of Philip Larkin 1940-1985, ed. Anthony Thwaite (London: Faber and Faber, 1992), 341.
3) Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell are also handy with traditional forms, though both were perfectly comfortable writing lots of free verse.
4) Plus the blooms are edible. Very tasty in fact, a spry pepper. Makes you look cool if you put them in the salad you bring to a picnic.