Thursday, June 05, 2008

Two Poems and Vision

Russian nesting dolls are hollow, usually hand-painted figures that fit one inside the other until they all appear to be just one figure. The figures are usually painted so that some of the features appear on all the figures but each figure also has unique features as well. I thought of Russian nesting dolls when I read Robert Graves' poem, "Warning to Children," recently.

Warning to Children
by Robert Graves

Children, if you dare to think
Of the greatness, rareness, muchness
Fewness of this precious only
Endless world in which you say
You live, you think of things like this:
Blocks of slate enclosing dappled
Red and green, enclosing tawny
Yellow nets, enclosing white
And black acres of dominoes,
Where a neat brown paper parcel
Tempts you to untie the string.
In the parcel a small island,
On the island a large tree,
On the tree a husky fruit.
Strip the husk and pare the rind off:
In the kernel you will see
Blocks of slate enclosed by dappled
Red and green, enclosed by tawny
Yellow nets, enclosed by white
And black acres of dominoes,
Where the same brown paper parcel -
Children, leave the string alone!
For who dares undo the parcel
Finds himself at once inside it,
On the island, in the fruit,
Blocks of slate about his head,
Finds himself enclosed by dappled
Green and red, enclosed by yellow
Tawny nets, enclosed by black
And white acres of dominoes,
With the same brown paper parcel
Still untied upon his knee.
And, if he then should dare to think
Of the fewness, muchness, rareness,
Greatness of this endless only
Precious world in which he says
he lives - he then unties the string.
From the Rice University poetry archive accessed 6/5/08.

Then I started to think of what can go on inside something else, and I remembered a poem called "Stone" by Charles Simic who is one of my favorite poets.


Go inside a stone
That would be my way.
Let somebody else become a dove
Or gnash with a tiger's tooth.
I am happy to be a stone.

From the outside the stone is a riddle:
No one knows how to answer it.
Yet within, it must be cool and quiet
Even though a cow steps on it full weight,
Even though a child throws it in a river;
The stone sinks, slow, unperturbed
To the river bottom
Where the fishes come to knock on it
And listen.

I have seen sparks fly out
When two stones are rubbed,
So perhaps it is not dark inside after all;
Perhaps there is a moon shining
From somewhere, as though behind a hill--
Just enough light to make out
The strange writings, the star-charts
On the inner walls.

From The Writer's Almanac 7/24/95

Initially I thought these poems have a lot in common including the idea of interesting, unnoticed things inside larger things. They do have that in common. But there is a difference, and it seems to be the tone of voice the speaker has in each poem. In the Graves poem, the speaker is an adult giving, as the title indicates, a warning to children. The speaker is relaxed and speaking with authority. The speaker of the Simic poem could be a child talking to another child, an adult talking to another adult or an exchange between a child and an adult. Whatever the case may be, the speaker is full of wonder and is speaking in a relaxed way that includes imagination and conjecture. While the speaking voice of the Graves poem is speaking with imagination, it is imagination on the leash of "what's good for you." The imagination communicated in the Simic poem is of a free-ranging, speculative nature; that is, the speaker wants to sound like an authority (second stanza) but in the end we are left with the fine conjecturing that begins with "perhaps it is not dark inside after all."

The method Graves uses in writing his "Warning to Children" is apparently didactic: he had the idea for the poem and then used his skills as a writer to execute his vision. The method Simic uses we cannot be certain of but it strikes me as coming from the same sensibility that William Stafford, another favorite poet of mine, which is to sit quietly and take the words as they come instead of trying to compose according to devices conjured up deliberately. Perhaps the method of composition has implications for the "message," if you will, of the poem.

The perspicacious reader will note that it is possible to use both methods at once. Get an idea, then sit quietly and wait for the words to come. Be more concerned for getting it down than for getting it right. Write it, then set it aside until tomorrow or the next day. If it still looks good then, then there could be something there. I've often thought about Stafford's method for revising his poems. Surely he made some revisions.

I think that part of the attraction of the 'sit quietly' method lies in the compounding of method with message. This line of reasoning sees that, in order to benefit from the method, one must set aside one's ego and one's conscious preferences and simply be a vessel if you will of the verse. It is a way of accomplishing something by participating in something larger than oneself. And it is a way to do things without violence or aggression. In that sense, the method is something like Buddhism.

The method of writing didactically runs the risk of producing propaganda and little else. Such poets, when they write for adults, are not remembered well or fondly. When this type of poetry is aimed toward children, however, it can be warmly welcomed and actively appreciated. For example, "Little Orphant Annie" by James Whitcomb Riley: "
the Gobble-uns 'll git you/Ef you/Don't/Watch/Out!"

Image from Jeannette's Sketchblog accessed 6/6/08.

Both methods can be useful for those poets who say nothing makes sense to them until they write about it, but it seems to me the didactic sort is more likely to be used by the poet who has a vision of some sort. The 'sit quietly' poet is not one who is charged up about something and wants to express love for something in particular in myriad ways with dozens of poems. Petrarch's vision was Love and his vision was Laura and for him his vision was one in which Love and Laura were one. Petrarch's poems followed a formula which today we call the Petrarchan sonnet. I am calling it a didactic method because the writing is formulaic. I'm not convinced that Petrarch was trying, with his poems, to teach us something.

The notion of a poet of vision is an interesting one I think. It think William Blake was clearly a poet of vision. William Shakespeare, I don't think so. Or, his vision is summed up in the sentence, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." William Stafford's vision, perhaps, was one of justice: "Justice will take a million intricate adjustments." I've landed on a large topic here, haven't I. Part of that is due to me as a reader and thinker, and part of that is due to the poets who wrote the poems I've been thinking about.

Then there is a connection in the notion of vision to the importance of perception, especially in such religious practices as Hinduism and Buddhism. And then there's the reverence for the divine which returns us to the importance of attitude and will, and the notion that to pay attention to something is to love it.

Clearly a noticeable difference when the ego is present and assertive and when the ego acknowledges that it is serving something greater than itself.

That's all I've got for now.

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