Tuesday, March 9, 2010

More Greek... in consideration of Maxine Kumin

Now, Greek, tossed about in an interview is quite a different matter.

In the January/February 2010 issue of The American Poetry Review, Chard DeNiord interviews Maxine Kumin. He summarizes her poetic "arc" and mentions "her abiding dialectic" between elegy and pastoral; and later, "if one reads your poems as voice-finding ventures from the start, he sees a fascinating dialectic throughout your career between rebellion and conformity, your Catholic upbringing and Jewish heritage, between received forms and free verse, between your atheism and periods of agnosticism, between your CHTHONIC strength as a women with extraordinary life force and the mystery of the awaiting darkness, between your anger and resentment toward American patriarchy and your hard-won liberation from it as a successful poet with a courageous feminine foice that increases in volume with each new book.

Wow. Kumin replies: That's a very rich summation. I can't step outside myself to see it "in toto", and I don't entirely agree.

DeNiord: It's only my summary of what I consider a remarkable arc. Please take issue with me at any point if you feel I have misrepresented you.

What a tone to try to understand without hearing the voice.
I LIKE Maxine Kumin's poetry -- but hearing it described in dry variations of dialectic and throwing in a word like CHTHONIC (which I have to look up every time I see it: maybe I'll remember now: earthy... but of course, there's more to it than that) and referring to her "georgics" and her "AGON with religion and patriarchy" (sic: conflict) takes away from the pleasure of what she writes.

One of the three poems next to the article is entitled "The Taste of Apple".

4 stanzas (octets) of unrhymed, irregular meter which tell the story of her horse with cancer, and how she fed him apple before the pentobarb, how she poured a libation of apple juice for the earth to welcome his corpse -- how she could hardly see-- / rocking my grief back and forth over this kind death / the taste of apple wasting in his mouth.

Perhaps this is "chthonic"... perhaps this is her "horse agonistes" -- but does this change the fact of a well-wielded poem? In the first octet, she announces the tumor in a five-line sentence, imitating the come-and-go of symptoms. BANG. "Truth rose in my mouth, a slurry of gall and wormwood/and I sent for the vet and the backhoe driver/who came together like football coaches conferring." The healer and the undertaker; but they are not the ones who will tell the outcome of the struggle. The precise language allows us to see the scene with the speaker's eyes, allow the reader to be right there, witnessing.

I don't want Greek terms for this. She is a great poet and well-read. She believes in narrative, even in lyric poems. Otherwise, she says, "it is hard to invest in the language of the poem, language without meaning of emotion." She knows form and uses it when necessary.
"When a subject is too hot to handle, I use the oven mitts of form."
I don't need to wade through DeNiord's pomp and circumstance to appreciate that.

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