Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Birthday Suite

O my rapt verse, my call, mock me not!
I am Walt Whitman, liberal and lusty as Nature.
The hairy wild-bee that murmurs
and hankers up and down, that gripes
the full-grown lady-flower, curves
upon her with amorous firm legs, takes
his will of her, and holds himself
tremulous and tight till he is satisfied.
O to have life henceforth a poem of new joys!
No dainty rhymes or sentimental love verses for you,
not you as some pale poetling seated
at a desk lisping cadenzas piano,
but as a strong man erect, clothed in blue clothes,
advancing, carrying a rifle on your shoulder.
Let him who is without my poems be assassinated!


[Note: the above lines come from Whitman's “By Blue Ontario’s Shore,” “To a Common Prostitute,” “Spontaneous Me,” “A Song of Joys,” “Eighteen Sixty-One” & “Respondez.”]

Friday, May 6, 2016

Revising "Theories of Time and Space"

One of the many reasons I like my poetry discussion group is that it introduces me to poems that I might otherwise never know.  For instance, recently we talked about Natasha Trethewey’s “Theories of Time and Space.”  If you’re not familiar with the poem, you can read it on various online sites (or, if you keep it on the hush-hush, you can read it below):

Theories of Time and Space

You can get there from here, though
there's no going home.
Everywhere you go will be somewhere
you've never been. Try this:
head south on Mississippi 49, one-
by-one mile markers ticking off
another minute of your life. Follow this
to its natural conclusion - dead end
at the coast, the pier at Gulfport where
riggings of shrimp boats are loose stitches
in a sky threatening rain. Cross over
the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand
dumped on a mangrove swamp - buried
terrain of the past. Bring only
what you must carry - tome of memory
its random blank pages. On the dock
where you board the boat for Ship Island,
someone will take your picture:
the photograph - who you were -
will be waiting when you return

–Natasha Trethewey

It’s a good poem, despite a few minor flaws that can be remedied rather easily.  First, omit the opening lines.  “You can get there from here, though / there’s no going home” is not merely a play on one cliche, but two, & two wrongs don’t make a right–or “write,” if you prefer.  The point is starting the poem with a cliche is not only unnecessary, but ill-advised.  But let’s not stop there.  Let’s cut the next sentence as well: “Everywhere you go will be somewhere / you’ve never been.”  As far as I’m concerned, it’s too vague to convey much meaning.  More importantly, it unnecessarily impedes the poem's progression.

Instead, Trethewey should begin the poem: “Try this: head south on . . . ” Beginning with this imperative thrusts you, the reader, into the poem immediately as you’re asked to conduct an experiment to test a particular theory, the “mile markers ticking off / another minute of your life,” instruments used to measure time & space.  This is the biggest revision I have in mind, but probably the most important.

A less drastic revision concerns a line break, which, I’ll admit, is a personal preference.  I basically agree with Trethewey's breaks, with the possible exception of the line beginning with “riggings.”  I recommend breaking that line: “riggings of shrimp boats are loose / stitches in a sky threatening rain.”  I like the image of “riggings . . . are loose” transforming (via the delay of the noun that “loose” actually modifies) into “stitches in a sky,” but, as I said, this is a matter of preference & a minor point.

Several lines further, the phrase “tome of memory / its random blank pages” seems too heavy-handed, especially when the poet could have expressed the idea simply as “random blank pages of memory.”  Finally, toward the ending, the colon after “picture” isn't exactly grammatical–not that poems have to be.  However, the way I see it, it makes more sense to replace the colon with a semi-colon or, even better, a period & begin the new sentence with a capital letter.

After these revisions, Trethewey’s poem reads as follows:

Theories of Time and Space

Try this: head south on Mississippi 49, one-
by-one mile markers ticking off
another minute of your life. Follow this
to its natural conclusion - dead end
at the coast, the pier at Gulfport where
riggings of shrimp boats are loose
stitches in a sky threatening rain. Cross over
the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand
dumped on a mangrove swamp - buried
terrain of the past. Bring only
what you must carry - random
blank pages of memory. On the dock
where you board the boat for Ship Island,
someone will take your picture.
The photograph - who you were -
will be waiting when you return.

As a side note, for what it’s worth, as a student many years ago at the University of Southern Mississippi, I traveled State Route 49 many a weekend, driving my old Dodge down to the coast for a taste of  the nightlife–at about 100 mph.  Sometimes I think it’s amazing that I’m still alive.

Anyway, thank you, Natasha Trethewey, for the enjoyable poem–& you’re welcome!