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)
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