Saturday, May 10, 2008

Three Poems

Two poems that are not great but are nevertheless worth considering.
County Fair by Charles Simic
If you didn’t see the six-legged dog,
It doesn’t
We did, and he mostly lay in the corner.
As for the extra legs,
One got used to them quickly
And thought of other things.
Like, what a cold, dark night
To be out at the fair.
Then the keeper threw a stick
And the dog went after it
On four legs, the other
two flapping behind,
made one girl shriek with laughter.
She was drunk and so was the man
Who kept kissing her neck.
The dog got the stick and looked back at us.

And that was the whole show.

Hotel Insomnia, published by Harcourt Brace & Company, 1991. Copyright © 1991 by Charles Simic. All rights reserved.
It seems a simple poem at first. I laughed out loud when I read it the first time and then again when I read it to a few friends. A six-legged dog at a county fair lays around most of the time. For the speaker, the dog seems to be about as interesting as the fact that it's “a cold, dark night/To be out at the fair.” When the dog's keeper throws a stick and the dog fetches it, the poem gets even more interesting.
First of all, the speaker of the poem is acting as witness and more. I didn't see this at first because the importance of the dog is downplayed (in line two) and because the “we” of the poem is never clarified. But the speaker is more than a witness when making the assertion “One got used to them quickly.” How would the speaker know how quickly you or I might get used to the dog's extra legs? It's an interesting assertion. It almost seems to me an allusion to the part toward the end of The Stranger by Albert Camus in which the narrator talks about how a man could get used to anything, even to living in the trunk of a tree. But one reason I remember “County Fair” as well as I do is because of the extra legs and the hilarity of the speaker's matter-of-fact description of them without being judgmental about the keeper's intent to hoodwink people in order to separate them from their money (Why else would there be a six-legged dog at a county fair?). So to me it's interesting that the six legs are treated so casually in the poem because it is those six legs that for me make the poem memorable.
The addition of the drunken girl's laughter and the drunken man's persistent kissing increase the value of the poem. The two of them get three of the poem's sixteen lines, which doesn't seem like much, but if we take them out of the poem, we lose the idea that the speaker knows of the humor in the dog keeper's attempt at deception by adding a pair of phony legs to her dog. We also lose the idea that the speaker of the poem is aware of people doing what they want without regard to what others are doing or thinking around them.
The last line adds still another dimension. Are the girl and man part of “the whole show”? Is the speaker aware of the unclear meaning of the last line? Finally, we are left with the dog standing there with the stick in its mouth, looking “back at us.” Maybe the dog has lost interest in the fetch and will not return with the stick. And we still don't know who the “us” is.
Here is another poem that I would say is not great but is nevertheless worth considering.
Why I Am Happy by William Stafford
Now has come, an easy time. I let it
roll. There is a lake somewhere
so blue and far nobody owns it.
A wind comes by and a willow listens

I hear all this, every summer. I laugh
and cry for every turn of the world,
its terribly
cold, innocent spin.
That lake stays blue and free; it goes
on and on.
And I know where it is.
When I read this poem the first time, I was disappointed. I couldn't understand how a poet who had been writing and publishing for so many years could write something as simple and bland as this. In that reading, I didn't consider that Stafford may be using metaphor here. Perhaps the lake is an attitude. Whatever the case, the speaker of the poem seems satisfied in her knowledge and is not interested in telling where the lake is. Whatever the 'now' is, it is enough.
These poems seem to me to have in common the idea that any life will do and that what matters is love of self or at least respect of self. Speaking of self-love, it occurs to me now that self-love could be Aristotle's “prime mover.”
And now I come to Derek Walcott's poem “Love After Love:”
Love After Love by Derek Walcott
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

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