Thursday, June 4, 2015

June 1

Nostalgia by Billy Collins
Musee des Beaux Arts by W. H. Auden
Musée des Beaux Art Revisited -- Billy Collins

from 20 poems which could save America
Memory by Lucille Clifton
Waiting for Icarus by Muriel Rukeyser;
Bamboo and a Bird, by Linda Gregg;

We discussed at Rundel some of Billy Collins, observing the tone, the wry, gently sarcastic layering which spares the message from overt narcissism, but yet leaves the reader wondering if the poems are in the category of amusing truffles, an end of the meal nicety, as opposed to a main course one would want to chew slowly to prolong the savor slowly to to be consumed.

We did not discuss "Nostalgia" but my guess is that the group would appreciate, as did those on Monday, the clever conceit of the poem to examine the "radical selection" we use to recall the past, and how we process time, sculpt the story of our lives. Using dates that hint of unspeakable horrors, and dances with such jerking and hurling names as the "catapult" and the "struggle" point to a deeper surface of how we as humans use denial to survive. On the personal level, it tends to extrapolate an incident, glorify it, with a left-over taste of complaint against a sense of the tawdry present. However, collectively, nostalgia can pose a dangerous shading of a slim sliver of the truth of what actually might have happened. The discussion ranged from the adage, "those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it..." The satirical tone has something loveable in it, that allows the reader to feel a complicity of facing the difficulty of choosing how to focus on what's important in our lives.

It set a very different tone for the contrast of the two "Musée des Beaux Arts" poems.
For the Auden, we read up to a colon or semi-colon, which dramatized the length of short fragments, longer loops of phrases. The arresting first line sets the tone for the story of Icarus, whose suffering in the backdrop of daily details, is a small unobserved splash.
Perhaps our need to shut out other people's suffering is part of the ego's job. Indeed,
people who exercise extremes of either obsessing over suffering, or denying it completely are at risk for other not particularly healthy responses.

Collins' poem, whose opening stanza changes suffering to "mental anguish" followed by a splendid metaphor of the mind as dark dungeon, addresses human nature in a different way--
and goes on to a different painting, the Temptation of St. Anthony.
What pierces us most deeply? Collins picks up on the "heart of the horrid" -- not just the detail of the hooded corpse, but "the way the basket is rigged to hang from a bare branch";
Not just the gruesome description of a fish, but the concern of "what it is wearing".
The how of our actions, like the tone of voice, contains a truth that is difficult to pin down.
In a way, Collins is remarking on his time period, in as timeless a way as Auden on the skirts of the 2nd World War. We are left, no matter the circumstances, to choose how we dance, choose our attitudes and what feels necessary to focus on.

The Rukeyser Icarus with its ambiguous layers is highly clever. How many "He" and "I" possibilities are there? Are you sure the "I remember" is the same "I", and do we have Daedalus as Father, as well as Icarus, perhaps another "He" as a bystander in a Greek Chorus?
Who says "Just don't cry" and to whom?
Knowing Rukeyser, born in 1913, was an activist, one can take a feminist read to the poem with a male-dominated first stanza, female-dominated second stanza. I like that the poem moves us, and yet the why of it acts like a prism, reflecting multiple facets simultaneously, yet without confusing us.

Comparing Memory to Nostalgia, we admired the power of Clifton's poem. There is no sugar-coating of nostalgia in this memory. Instead, the memory of a daughter's first pair of shoes,
is captured between the way the mother would recount the story, and the way the daughter remembers her mother and what she wanted to be the memory.
“People may not remember what you say, or do, but will always remember how they make you feel.” Maya Angelou.
How to read the "Ask me" will flavor the poem, but the strategy of the mother saying "it never happened” – and yet details of the "white words" and "bully salesman" are clearly given.
What is important is the memory of the conscious decision of mother to insist her daughter be allowed to feel important.

The Linda Gregg poem was puzzling, a little bit like a haiku-- swift brushes that create a small scene in a subway and the speakers observation about allowing space...
Tony Hoagland explains his understanding in this clip below.

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