I didn't like Allen Ginsberg when I first read him. I didn't get why those long lines and weird language was necessary. It wasn't until I read the "wrong" book of his--the book that nobody else seemed to talk about--that I "got" him. Kaddish had me weeping by the end, and I realized there might be other ways to approach poets than the one that people urge you toward. The other realization was that my initial sense of a poet could be completely wrong. I might not be as smart as I think I am. Of course I have had to learn this lesson many times in my life.
I remember Carl Phillips' work was once so impossible for me to read that I perceived it almost as garble. I turned away from it toward the other thousand poets whose lines were clearer. But his name refused to go away, and it became clear that I had to deal with his work somehow, so I did what I often do: I assigned a book of his for discussion to a class. That would force me, I thought, to come up with a way to read it. I took out the line breaks so I could "simply" read the narrative or argument. Then I tried to put them back in without looking at the original poem. That little useful exercise taught me an enormous amount about the relationship between the sentence and the line. What had seemed like a simple relationship was suddenly changed into a much more sensual one, in which music and sense constantly dance around each other.
Similarly students often say they can't make heads or tails out of his poems. They can't read them, they say. Having gone through it myself long ago, I love this moment. I get to talk about sentences and sentence structure and how meaning can get interrupted and layered and turned toward music.
"Why didn't anyone teach me this stuff?" they complain at some point.
"Someone did," I say. They sigh. They do remember that someone in high school talked about this stuff.
"So we now have a chance to go back and think about it again. Think of it as an opportunity," I say. "This time let's try to think about sentences like artists."
Then we all begin again to read, this time more patiently:
A Kind of Meadow
by Carl Phillips
by trees at its far ending,
as is the way in moral tales:
whether trees as trees actually,
for their shadow and what
inside of it
hides, threatens, calls to;
or as ever-wavering conscience,
cloaked now, and called Chorus;
or, between these, whatever
falls upon the rippling and measurable,
but none to measure it, thin
fabric of this stands for.
A kind of meadow, and then
trees—many, assembled, a wood
therefore. Through the wood
path, emblematic of Much
Trespass: Halt. Who goes there?
A kind of meadow, where it ends
begin trees, from whose twinning
of late light and the already underway
darkness you were expecting perhaps
the stag to step forward, to make
of its twelve-pointed antlers
the branching foreground to a backdrop
or you wanted the usual
bird to break cover at that angle
at which wings catch entirely
what light’s left,
so that for once the bird isn’t miracle
at all, but the simplicity of patience
and a good hand assembling: first
the thin bones, now in careful
rows the feathers, like fretwork,
now the brush, for the laying-on
of sheen.... As is always the way,
you tell yourself, in
until you have gone there,
and gone there, “into the
field,” vowing Only until
there’s nothing more
I want—thinking it, wrongly,
a thing attainable, any real end
to wanting, and that it is close, and that
it is likely, how will you not
this time catch hold of it: flashing,
flesh at once
lit and lightless, a way
out, the one dappled way, back—
Thanks to Stacey and David for asking me to guest blog this week. It's been a blast.