John Ciardi in his anthology/critique/contemporary apology for poetry How Does a Poem Mean, describes a the sympathetic contract, the necessary bond of sympathy that must take place between poet and reader if a poem is to succeed:
"Every poem makes some demand upon the reader's sympathies. In addressing his subject, the poet takes an attitude toward it and adopts a tone he believes to be appropriate. His sense of what is appropriate, either in tone or in attitude, is of course a question of values. As such, it is obviously basic to the effect of the poem upon the reader. The reader may be right or wrong in disagreeing with the poet's values, but once such disagreement has occurred, that poem has failed for that reader. It is a question, as Robert Frost once put it, of "the way the poet takes himself and the way the poet takes his subject."
That demand upon the reader's sympathies may be made implicitly or explicitly, but there can be no poem without some sort of sympathetic contract between poet and reader."
After continuing in this vein with several pages of quotation and discussion, he challenges the reader to determine for him/herself how some 24 love poems, ranging from renaissance (Donne, Marvell, Lovelace, Herrick, Thomas Randolph) to restoration (John Dryden) to romantic + their contemporaries (Shelley, Byron, Thomas Moore, Leigh Hunt) to modern (Roethke, Nikki Giovanni, George Garrett, Diane Wakoski, Gary Snyder, Charles Bukowski, Edna St-Vincent Millay), more or less randomly juxtaposed, "ring true" … whether their tone and attitude are exactly what they profess to be. It's a hell of an interesting reading experience… one reason why, for those who haven't had the chance to peruse this book, I strongly recommend doing so. (How lucky for me the day I picked my copy off the shelves of a second hand bookstore here in Montreal…) In this selection, Shelley (in The Indian Serenade) fares pretty badly, as perhaps he was meant to with lines like
Oh, lift me from the grass!
I die! I faint! I fail!
Donne (The Good-Morrow, Song) is so focussed on the rigours of his wit that I hope for his sake he had at least one good lay --
Dryden (Ah, How Sweet It Is to Love!), hopelessly dry, all talk talk talk, I think he badly needed good a roll in the hay --
Snyder (After Work) had obviously rolled, but could have benefited from a good four-poster bed with a canopy--
Theodore Roethke (I knew a woman) - he's a marvellous fellow, I wonder though: did he really know that woman?
Richard Lovelace's poem To Amarantha, that She Would Dishevel Her Hair, conventional as it is with "Amarantha, sweet and fair/Ah braid no more that shining hair!" wins me over with a spectacular ending:
Do not then wind up that light
In ribbands, and o'ercloud in night,
Like the Sun in's early ray;
But shake your head, and scatter day!
Amarantha must have been a catch. But so, too, must have Richard.
Seems I'm focussing a lot on lays here.... My actual feelings are too complex to set down quickly , so I resort to tongue in cheek, cheek to cheek, etc.… as far as sincerity goes, however, two poems struck me as sincere to depths of their words. And these are actually, in a way, dirges:
225 days under grass
and you know more than I.
they have long taken your blood,
you are a dry stick in a basket.
is this how it works?
in this room
the hours of love
still make shadows.
when you left
you took almost
I kneel in the nights
that will not let me be.
what you were
will not happen again.
the tigers have found me
and I do not care.
That's by Charles Bukowski. Here, by the way, is another one by him that I very much liked:
Style is the answer to everything -
a fresh way to approach a dull or
a dangerous thing.
To do a dull thing with style
is preferable to doing a dangerous thing
Joan of Arc had style.
John the Baptist.
Style is a difference,
a way of doing,
a way of being done.
6 herons standing quietly in a pool of water
or you, walking out of the bathroom naked
The one that affected me most deeply, however, was the last selection in the group, perhaps placed by John Ciardi as a kind of last word on the subject… as I'm getting tired (it's past 2 in the morning as I write this) I'll leave it to speak for itself…
WHAT LIPS MY LIPS HAVE KISSED
Edna St-Vincent Millay
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.
I love Millay, and that's one of my favorite poems by her.
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