Friday, June 4, 2010


There’s a moment in Canadian poet John Glassco’s Memoirs of Montparnasse when Ford Maddox Ford recounts an earlier discussion with W.B. Yeats. Why, they asked, is joyfulness so seldom communicated in modern poetry? Joy can be found in prose. Why not in modern verse?

Ford thought he had the answer: “(If) poetry expresses the reality of existence - as I believe, along with Willie Yeats, it does...it follows that the experience of joy is in the nature of a fever, of hysteria, and not a well-founded natural human experience or condition.”

"The poet," Ford concluded, “is more at home in sorrow.”

So that got me thinking: When was the last time I read a poem that could be described as joyful? Do poems have any business expressing joy? Judging by most of the baleful, low grade depressive stuff that crosses my desk the answer would seem obvious: But for that moment when Wordsworth leaps about with the lambs in "Ode: On the Intimations of Immortality" or Earle Birney pivots happily, if precariously, on the ledge of a mountain peak in “David” joy seems all but verboten.

Undeterred, I went on the hunt and found this poem by American poet Gerald Stern. By Stern's own admission joyfulness has an important place in his poetry, but what we discover is that it’s not inimical to other emotions, in fact it springs from things like sadness, feelings of loss, even the tragic. Here it is. Enjoy.

Kissing Stieglitz Good-Bye

Every city in America is approached
through a work of art, usually a bridge
but sometimes a road that curves underneath
or drops down from the sky. Pittsburgh has a tunnel—

you don’t know it—that takes you through the rivers
and under the burning hills. I went there to cry
in the woods or carry my heavy bicycle
through fire and flood. Some have little parks—

San Francisco has a park. Albuquerque
is beautiful from a distance; it is purple
at five in the evening. New York is Egyptian,
especially from the little rise on the hill

at 14-C; it has twelve entrances
like the body of Jesus, and Easton, where I lived,
has two small floating bridges in front of it
that brought me in and out. I said good-bye

to them both when I was 57. I’m reading
Joseph Wood Krutch again—the second time.
I love how he lived in the desert. I’m looking at the skull
of Georgia O’Keeffe. I’m kissing Stieglitz good-bye.

He was a city, Stieglitz was truly a city
in every sense of the word; he wore a library
across his chest; he had a church on his knees.
I’m kissing him good-bye; he was, for me,

the last true city; after him there were
only overpasses and shopping centers,
little enclaves here and there, a skyscraper
with nothing near it, maybe a meaningless turf

where whores couldn’t even walk, where nobody sits,
where nobody either lies or runs; either that
or some pure desert: a lizard under a boojum,
a flower sucking the water out of a rock.

What is the life of sadness worth, the bookstores
lost, the drugstores buried, a man with a stick
turning the bricks up, numbering the shards,
dream twenty-one, dream twenty-two. I left

with a glass of tears, a little artistic vial.
I put it in my leather pockets next
to my flask of Scotch, my golden knife and my keys,
my joyful poems and my T-shirts. Stieglitz is there

beside his famous number; there is smoke
and fire above his head; some bowlegged painter
is whispering in his ear; some lady-in-waiting
is taking down his words. I’m kissing Stieglitz

good-bye, my arms are wrapped around him, his photos
are making me cry; we’re walking down Fifth Avenue;
we’re looking for a pencil; there is a girl
standing against the wall—I’m shaking now

when I think of her; there are two buildings, one
is in blackness, there is a dying poplar;
there is a light on the meadow; there is a man
on a sagging porch. I would have believed in everything.


(This Time: New and Selected Poems, W. W. Norton & Company, 1999)

20 comments:

Brian Bartlett said...

David, Thanks for posting that decidedly original, exuberant Stern poem. Last year when I saw him read in New York for his old friend Jack Gilbert -- it was a tribute to Gilbert, whose dementia made him unable to read himself -- Stern exuded celebration, good humour, & positive vibes, though the occasion was partly a sad one. I think we do have exuberant poems being written in many places -- by poets as varied as Kinnell & Muldoon & Murray (Les,) McKay & Dalton (Mary) & Steffler...

Chris Banks said...

I, too, love Gerald Stern's work. Such a good poem.

David Kosub said...

Thanks, Brian. Now that you mention it something approaching joy does seem to be part of McKay's palette. Obviously, I'll have to do a little more digging into the others(Steffler has always struck me as particularly dark).

David

Brian Bartlett said...

David, After sending my message I noticed I sort of replaced your word "joy" with "exuberance." As the Stern example suggests & as you say, joy unalloyed or unqualified is an extremely rare thing in poetry. As for Steffler, yes, there's darkness (as there is in McKay & Murray etc.), but also at times a verbal exuberance & energy, as in the title poem "That Night We Were Ravenous." Steffler's voice doesn't usually seem to me defeated, lugubrious, or bleak, though there's bleakness in things he sees. Ditto for Kinnell (& Hass too), who for all their exploration of pain & suffering, also have zest -- likewise with Muldoon, whose very irony often has a playfulness to it. Are playfulness & a kind of "anarchic joy" (McKay's description of metaphor in his earlier piece on Karen Solie?) ever far apart?

Anonymous said...

I think you've hit on something here, Brian. "Play" or "playfulness" is a key notion that many poets reference when asked about what they're trying to achieve in their poetry. I refer you back to my interview with Jason Guriel a few blogs ago for whom "play" was important in the process and final outcome of his poetic practice.

You’ll also likely recall “play” was a critical concept elevated to considerable legitimacy by Jacques Derrida and other cultural critics in the 60s and 70s. I suspect they implicitly recognized that poetry and art could not be solely reduced to critical abstractions, but that we need other things from a poem in order to be fully engaged. Hence, "play" or "playfulness" might be a kind of substitute for the traditional experience of emotion, whether it's the "pity and terror" that Aristotle talks about or the "spontaneous overflow of emotion" in Wordsworth.

Play is a legitimization of emotion in a different guise.
---
Re: joyfulness, again I think it is a distinct emotional experience which seldom occurs on its own and that is paradoxically richer for interweaving with or springing from other emotions. Whether “joy” has a place in poetry (and if you ask them I suspect some poets will admit a certain discomfort with it), the question masks a larger one, and that is the place that emotion overall has in poetry. I can't help get the feeling that contemporary poets, as brilliant as so many of them are technically, are afraid of emotion somehow. This, in part, was my reason for seizing on the subject of joyfulness.

David Kosub said...

I think you've hit on something here, Brian. "Play" or "playfulness" is a key notion that many poets reference when asked about what they're trying to achieve in their poetry. I refer you back to my interview with Jason Guriel a few blogs ago for whom "play" was important in the process and final outcome of his poetic practice.

You’ll also likely recall “play” was a critical concept elevated to considerable legitimacy by Jacques Derrida and other cultural critics in the 60s and 70s. I suspect they implicitly recognized that poetry and art could not be solely reduced to critical abstractions, but that we need other things from a poem in order to be fully engaged. Hence, "play" or "playfulness" might be a kind of substitute for the traditional experience of emotion, whether it's the "pity and terror" that Aristotle talks about or the "spontaneous overflow of emotion" in Wordsworth.

Play is a legitimization of emotion in a different guise.
---
Re: joyfulness, again I think it is a distinct emotional experience which seldom occurs on its own and that is paradoxically richer for interweaving with or springing from other emotions. Whether “joy” has a place in poetry (and if you ask them I suspect some poets will admit a certain discomfort with it), the question masks a larger one, and that is the place that emotion overall has in poetry. I can't help get the feeling that contemporary poets, as brilliant as so many of them are technically, are afraid of emotion somehow. This, in part, was my reason for seizing on the subject of joyfulness.

David Kosub said...

It seems I have given short shrift to the poets you reference, Brian. McKay is plainly an accomplished poet, with a broader emotional range than I have given him credit for. I need to re-read Steffler, Solie et al with your defense in mind.

David

John Pass said...

An Hour

Leaves glowing in the sun, zealous hum of bumble bees, / From afar, from somewhere beyond the river, echos of lingering voices / And the unhurried sounds of a hammer gave joy not only to me. / Before the five senses were opened, and earlier than any beginning / They waited, ready, for all those who would call themselves mortals, / So that they might praise, as I do, life, that is, happiness.

Czselaw Milosz

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more. It's easy to find books that show very accomplished technique & a heap of skill & linguistic panache, but which let ingenuity & wit crowd out emotion -- poets of extroverted style with repressed emotional expressiveness. But, it needs to be added right away, emotion & wit (or irony) hardly need be opposed.

Brian Bartlett

David Kosub said...

Thanks, John. A lovely poem and spot on!

Zachariah Wells said...

Brian, "repressed" reeks of armchair Freudian psychologizing and implies access to a poet's emotional state that you can't possibly possess.

As for unalloyed joy, I'd say it's rare because a)unalloyed anything tends not to be very interesting in poetry (see Empson, ambiguity) and b)unalloyed joy, in particular, can make a poet/speaker sound simple-minded.

Anonymous said...

Zach, Hope you didn't misconstrue my comments on "unalloyed joy." They were much in sympathy with what you say about "unalloyed anything" being very risky in poetry -- though I can still get a jolt, for instance, out of something like Issa's exclamatory bare-bones haiku (in Hass's translation): "Naked / on a naked horse / in pouring rain!" As for "reeks of armchair Freudian psychologizing," that sounds like a moment of Wellsian hyperbole, surely a tad presumptuous itself. Readers constantly discuss the emotional resonances (or the lack thereof) in what they read. We're talking about the world of the work, not so much biographically about "access to a poet's emotional state." In any case, I'm glad you've alerted me to all the baggage associated with that single word "repressed"--upon second thought, I probably would've gone for a more nuanced and less cliched term. Would "reeks of" also fall in the category of an overused phrase that might be reconsidered? In jumping on "repressed," you've bypassed what David and I were saying about the deployment of technique that can become emotionally empty. Robyn Sarah has written about this in Little Eurekas, hasn't she?

Brian

Zachariah Wells said...

Brian, hyperbolic it may have been, but I just don't think it's appropriate to attribute qualities in the work to a putative neurotic affliction on the part of the poet. (Even if the writing of poetry could reasonably said to be the symptom of one neurotic affliction or another!) As far as "emotionally empty" work goes, I'm with you and Robyn; I generally have little interest in it. But it's just as reasonable to assume that it was produced by an "emotionally empty" person--or perhaps by someone who has suffered little and has an extraordinarily even emotional keel--as to assume that the emotions have been actively repressed.

I think the Issa example works because it's such a quick hit and there are no statements of emotion in it. Imagine a 30 line lyric about riding that naked horse naked in the rain. Ugh.

Zachariah Wells said...

Also, I'm surprised Whitman hasn't come up in this discussion yet.

Brian Bartlett said...

Okay,Zach, my last word here, I hope: I went back to my comment you responded to, and see my error in writing "poets of extroverted style with repressed emotional expressiveness" when I really intended "poetry of extroverted style with repressed [or some more surprising adj. -- narrow? cramped?] emotional expressiveness." A significant difference, I see now, in writing "poets" instead of "poetry." Whitman, yes, and Neruda, and the Psalmist, have written some of the most exuberant & joyful passages in poetry, but their work is richest when the affirmativeness is eventually shadowed & complicated. At times Whitman is downright tragic, though that's not in his popular image.

Zachariah Wells said...

Ah, much different!

Agreed re Whitman. And yes, of course, Neruda. Add much of Layton, who wrote in all moods.

John Pass said...

Coming in late on this as I've been away but think it's worth noting that it's not just poets who have an apparent aversion to joy. It's the culture. Contemp. poetry reflects contemp. interpretation/fashion in discourse upon feeling. It's all about depression, not sorrow nor sadness, and depression's antithesis is not joy but anxiety. Depression fits the culture's appetite for degradation of emotion to some species of illness, for which we hunt the fix. Like any true emotion joy is element of a profound entanglement of ALL the emotions. As Keats so finely put it, "Ay, in the very temple of Delight/ Veil'd melancholy has her sovran shrine," The shrine is to sadness, richly deserving of repect, but the temple is to the higher deity, delight. How uncomfortable we are with this hierarchy is some measure of how far we are from being a culture that embraces feeling as central to human experience.

Ken said...

Poetry is about confronting reality, which, while often joyful, has to be cognizant of its transience. A beautiful example of this is Ferlinghetii's poem "the world is a beautiful place to be born into..."

http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-world-is-a-beautiful-place/

Pearl said...

sad and angry and ironic poems are sort of default thought structures. fish meet barrel and watch out.

John Pass' point about it not being something specific to poetry but bigger has a point.

Milosz seems to me more like contentment bliss joy.

exuberant joy is hard as Zach says to do do and not look like simpleton. in kid's poetry we are allowed to express zips of joy.

deliberate silliness might be in keeping with that kind of happy outburst, while still proving literary merit by control shown.

it's a hard mark to hit. it's easy to make someone angry or sad but cheering people up or making them laugh is harder.

use too much playful wit and it looks too worked and loses the sense that it is genuine joy and just becomes uplifting but clever.

is it the nature of the emotion? melancholiness tends to drag along its valley, but joy is a flash of peak. does this mean it fits less well with a longer form so Issa was using a best matched unit? or takes a quicker mental shutter speed to catch?

I'll keep my eye out for poems that strike me as joyful.

Harold Rhenisch said...

It's time, I think, to go to our bookshelves, dust off that old copy of Gustafson's Gradations of Grandeur, with its Buddha busting sides and Jesus bent double. Or any late Gustafson. Joy all over the place, there. Anyone? I am in England, so, a long way from my copies. Actually, don't a lot of our poets come out with joy when they get to be over 80? No more struggles with the ego, perhaps.

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