Saturday, July 31, 2004

I think I’m going to start trying to give the New Yorker poems a chance, just an experiment, I don’t know how long it’ll last. I haven’t really since college.

In the most recent issue, two poems, one by Gary Snyder “No Shadow,” and one by Jack Gilbert “Trying to Sleep.” For drama and reality-show-style human interest, I’ll also ask Jonah what he thinks.

The Snyder poem goes down easy. While he flatfoots it through most of the poem in not-unpleasant prose rhythms the final image endures. H e treats the cargo plane as a thing, a human thing and, like all things human in a natural setting are in the Eastern tradition (one of his tonal borrowings here), transient. Its shadow passes; the osprey's no-shadow endures.

I get confused with poems like this, that seem simultaneously lazy and done. I want to say the laziness is part of its charm, but those first two stanzas, while they have a kind of casual music, it is not really a poetic music, or satisfying. They are boring, and not in the way which could be called 'embodying an artful artlessness.'

But I do like the finish, which wouldn’t finish without the beginning. Snyder is good at conveying certain meditative states of mind, and here he nails it out of the water, so to speak. There is a point where the big clumsy riveted made world (Air Force cargo plane) stops obscuring his perception of what has always been there (osprey) and perfectly subtly integrated, its absence even. This evokes nicely the sensation of entering a certain meditative state, one where you have a peaceful awareness of change without self, or words. I think it was zhuangzi but it may have been some other who said “Cut off the flow; follow the billows and waves.” It's kind of like talking to someone and you suddenly realize you should be listening instead. There's no decision, just awareness.

I want to be clear: while the za-zen comment itself (last line of second stanza) feels throwaway and unevocative, what follows doesn’t.

The word ‘practice’ in the fourth-to-last-line is not subtle, but it fits well and highlights the contrast in three ways. One, that it is ‘practicing’ infers the osprey is a ‘professional;’ two, it as synecdoche for human is practicing, i.e. sitting za-zen (admittedly, not so well, its clumsiness is that of self); and three is the ominous fact that this plane, while a cargo plane, is still an air force plane, and such things make practice runs that when they do the real thing, whether to kill or supply those killing, they are proficient in their execution. All three contrast unfavorably with the osprey, and Empson would approve of the not-breathtaking-yet-skillfully-applied ambiguity which pivots this implied comparison.

So I said to Jonah “Jonah, can I read you a poem, to see if you like it or not?” and he said ok. At the first sentence’s end (“My friend Deane took me into the Yuba Goldfields.”), even before the first line ends, Jonah says “Oh, its too boring!” And that was it, he wouldn’t have anymore, which is how I felt too, at that point in the poem, though I as an adult am not as precise in gauging my own boredom.

The Jack Gilbert poem I find unpleasant. It is misproportioned in consideration of the woman’s pain and suffering compared to the author’s own. There’s really nothing here. For obvious reasons, I didn’t ask Jonah’s thoughts on it.

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