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POEM FOR THE NEW YEAR
January 16, 2009 - 2:07pm

By

UD

The poet W.D. Snodgrass has died. Here's a poem of his written in the spring but just as right for the beginning of the year.

UD interrupts each stanza with a little interpretation. Go here for the poem unmolested.

April Inventory

The green catalpa tree has turned
All white; the cherry blooms once more.
In one whole year I haven't learned
A blessed thing they pay you for.
The blossoms snow down in my hair;
The trees and I will soon be bare.

***********************************

The world's coming back to life in the spring, and the poet, feeling his age, inventories himself. How am I doing?

The catalpa's a showy tree in the spring, with big white flowers. Nature's blooming, but the poet stays the same - dumb as a post, despite the passage of time. At least dumb by the world's standard - by what they'll pay you for knowing. And time's running out to learn something. He contemplates, in the midst of new life, the rapidity of change toward age: The trees and I will soon be bare.

***********************************

The trees have more than I to spare.
The sleek, expensive girls I teach,
Younger and pinker every year,
Bloom gradually out of reach.
The pear tree lets its petals drop
Like dandruff on a tabletop.

********************************

Still obsessed with those shedding flowers. A Prufrocky couplet ends things here: Petals drop, tabletop. The image of dandruff tells us we're in an anti-Romantic mood, at least at the moment. He's losing his hair.

The poet - also a professor at a fancy college? - notes his distance from the world of sensual youth by his growing sense of estrangement from his each-spring-semester-refreshed bouquet of students.

*************************************************************

The girls have grown so young by now
I have to nudge myself to stare.
This year they smile and mind me how
My teeth are falling with my hair.
In thirty years I may not get
Younger, shrewder, or out of debt.

************************************

Gentle, ironic, self-deflating. The poet's found a pleasant tone, sings a light, familiar tune. It's comic, the way the girls have gotten so young, the aging poet has to make an effort to find them sexually stirring. His very exact rhyme scheme also makes things funny: The disjunction between his upbeat, nursery-rhyme style and his all-too-real, melancholy content... Their smiles make him aware of his loose teeth.

****************************************************

The tenth time, just a year ago,
I made myself a little list
Of all the things I'd ought to know,
Then told my parents, analyst,
And everyone who's trusted me
I'd be substantial, presently.

*******************************

Eh. Who wants to be substantial if, insubstantial, you can write like this? The sly pretty language, the light self-mockery, the coy wisdom: If these are the rewards of a luftmensch life, let's have at it. The poet seduces us, in other words, into his form of consciousness, even as he seems to condemn it. The word analyst is not only a sure-fire laugh line; it tells us more about the poet's once-earnest and now just wistful efforts to pull himself together, to learn how to be a shrewd adult.

*****************************

I haven't read one book about
A book or memorized one plot.
Or found a mind I did not doubt.
I learned one date. And then forgot.
And one by one the solid scholars
Get the degrees, the jobs, the dollars.

*****************************************

But these last lines don't come across as bitter. More like stating a fact. And that's because we're beginning to sense the comfort in his own disarrayed skin that the poet feels underneath these seeming complaints. In fact, the comedy of the piece (I learned one date, then forgot), and the rather admirable skepticism toward full belief in anything (a mind I did not doubt), continues to draw us toward his side of things, away from the solid - stolid - scholars.

**************

And smile above their starchy collars.
I taught my classes Whitehead's notions;
One lovely girl, a song of Mahler's.
Lacking a source-book or promotions,
I showed one child the colors of
A luna moth and how to love.

********************************
Farewell, Prufrock. Hello, freedom. Solidity starches the soul; lacking self-promoting motive, the poet delights in a world of random clarities and enthusiasms out of which he can truly teach. He may lack the sort of scholarliness that builds toward a solid world, but he possesses something far more valuable: A loose-limbed openness to experience, a capacity for intense emotion.

*******************

I taught myself to name my name,
To bark back, loosen love and crying;
To ease my woman so she came,
To ease an old man who was dying.
I have not learned how often I
Can win, can love, but choose to die.

****************************************

Well, this stanza names what we should learn, and what we should not. It introduces an attitude James Merrill, in his poem "Santorini" calls "an oblivion that knows its own limits." There are things we know, and there are things we know but don't want to know. Things about which we remain, if you will, consciously unconscious -- oblivious, but fully aware of the limitations of that willed oblivion. I have not learned, says the poet, because I don't want to learn, how often I can be hurt and hurtful in love.

On the other hand, I've learned what really matters, which is compassion for myself and for other people, easing them into pleasures and out of life, each in their season.

******************

I have not learned there is a lie
Love shall be blonder, slimmer, younger;
That my equivocating eye
Loves only by my body's hunger;
That I have forces, true to feel,
Or that the lovely world is real.

********************************

All of these things are truths that the poet resists knowing, in Merrill's way of willed oblivion for the sake of continued joy in life. These are the dark background truths that age us, and the poet, free spirit, refuses them as long as he can: The possibility that he's no more than a visceral beast; that love does not renew itself; that the world is mere empirical solidity.

*******************************************************************

While scholars speak authority
And wear their ulcers on their sleeves,
My eyes in spectacles shall see
These trees procure and spend their leaves.
There is a value underneath
The gold and silver in my teeth.

************************************

Live generously. Spend your leaves. Let them scatter. Even old - in spectacles - I can see the infinite lushness of the world, wearing nothing on its sleeve. The word spectacles does double duty - I see the spectacle of the spring, and each year it teaches me something factually incorrect but spiritually indispensable: My soul's imperishable.

********************************************************

Though trees turn bare and girls turn wives,
We shall afford our costly seasons;
There is a gentleness survives
That will outspeak and has its reasons.
There is a loveliness exists,
Preserves us, not for specialists.

 

 

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