Sunday, December 10, 2006

A Timothy Steele poem

Starr Farm Beach

Although the beach, with its adjacent r's,
Alluded to a dairy farm nearby,
We liked to think that, on the shoreline, stars
Were sown and grown and gathered for the sky.
Along the cliffs that led there, we would try
To find good foot- and handholds, and would weigh
The merits of the low road and the high
Or scan the waters north towards Malletts Bay.

Some evenings, from the cliff face, we'd review
The early piercing stars above the lake
And disregard their long-ago debut
To guess which were of recent, local make.
And we imagined if we stayed awake
All through the night, we'd see ghost gleaners, bent
Over the shallows, choosing stars to take
At dawn back with them to the firmament.

We loved swifts that performed wild swoops and swings
Over the lake in unobstructed air;
We loved fish that, in sudden surfacings,
Nabbed supper with quick piscine savoir-faire.
But we best loved stars rising here and there,
Whether from hopes of something we might sow
Or from a lonely impulse to declare
The kinship of the lofty and the low.

Timothy Steele
Toward the Winter Solstice

Steele has been classified as one of the "New Formalists" -- indeed he seems to wear that classification quite proudly.

This poem is braced in fixed form to the britches -- three eight-line stanzas, all lines iambic pentameter (four exceptions, two with clearly an extra stressed syllables, two with extra unstressed syllables), rhyme scheme ababbcbc. Not exactly an ottava rima, it's definitely octastiched together. (Thanks to my dictionary for that.) The tight construction lends the poem not just a pleasing concentration of language but a kind of delicate musicality... the only line that sticks out as flat-footed, rhythmically speaking, is the final line of the first stanza, one stressed syllable too long. After so many regular iambic lines, I don't see the advantage of lengthening the line with "towards", rather than simply "to". The distance to Mallet's Bay is pretty incidental. Oh well. Quibble quibble, you might say.

What I like about this poem is it's particularly clear evocation of the setting -- the beach by the dairy farm, the "r's" of the rolling waves, the cliffs with their foot- and handholds, the piercing stars, etc. I like poems that create a mind map of a place, with long views, short views, etc. It's rather cinematic. And a scene like this is relaxing to contemplate. It's like a guided meditation.

What I don't like, though, are a number things. Who is (are) this "we" that the poet presumes to speak from and for? This "we" meme -- I could call it the "floating", or "indeterminate we" -- I encounter quite a lot among contemporary poets. It's always annoying. Poets who speak out of contented, stable relationships, family, can speak perhaps of such perfectly shared experience -- but is it two people here, or five thousand? (Presumably not the latter, or the beach would suffer environmental damage.) OK, I imagine maybe two, three, four boys who played together. I often feel when poets use this meme that -- like the "royal we" -- they are lending a false authority to what is actually singularly felt and lived experience. It's complacent. Did they all (or both) imagine the ghost gleaners? And proclaiming how they "loved" the wild swoops and swings of the swifts, etc. -- assuming a shared ranking between them, with the stars they "loved the best" -- isn't it more effective to evoke the experience itself, rather than constantly impose the supposed attitude of the supposed onlookers?

"Alluded" to a dairy farm gave me pause (how does a beach do that?) -- it's a peculiar kind of pathetic fallacy -- but after considering that line, I gave it to the writer as more lively than lead to, or blended with, or whatever. (I actually give it credit: straining to imagine what it meant made me imagine more vividly the scene.) But I find, in that whole introductory sentence, the connection strained, and in a particularly unadvantageous way, as this is what the whole poem hangs on. Although there's this dairy farm, we "like to think" the stars are gethered for the sky... hmmm.. why would the presumed "we" like to think the stars were "gathered for the sky"? Why "gathered"? By whom? For what? Why "for"? (Unless it's all to fit that rhyme scheme... when my attention is drawn to that, we're in trouble here) Further down, would people on a beach really guess which stars are of "recent, local" make? (That "local" I also find dubious -- what stars are of "local make"?) Finally there are a number of really conventional (let's say hackneyed) notions at play here -- the division of "low road" and "high", or "lofty" and "low". At first it's quite literal, then, figurative, with a number of unexplored moral and aesthetic presumptions that go with. Although narrator claims it's a lonely impulse to connect the lofty and the low -- a questionable claim at that -- I'm not particularly made to feel that loneliness, especially if it is that damned "we" who are supposedly experiencing it in the poem.

All to say that there's a lot of interpreting -- commentary -- going on in the poem that "obstructs the air" and makes it downright stuffy, even tho we're by a lake, with birds, fish, stars, firmament (don't you love that old "firmly limiting" word!) and all.

It has been said that the obsessive reliance on fixed forms in earlier centuries reflected a fixed, finite universe, with God in his heaven ordering all, and everything linked on a golden chaine of concorde (from "lofty" to "low"). It would seem some semblance of that is in operation here. But it's not convincing. Let's just say that for me, at least, that necessary sympathetic contract between reader and poet only works for a few clauses... then breaks down among the moreovers and heretofores and in consideration of the foregoings that follow.

Thanks, Andrew, for pointing me to this poem...


Anonymous said...

An excellent careful reading of some of the moments where the poem breaks down, where the initial surface impression of quality does not bear sustained attention. The poem may gain one's sympathy (as you put it with Ciardi), but then there is too much in it, as you show, that rubs the wrong way.

I wonder, though, if almost everything you have identified as a weakness of the poem has less to do with its form than with the use of the first-person plural. I, too, dislike it (that kind of "we," I mean, and am I surprised that I did not notice it as strongly on first reading the poem on Poetry Daily earlier this year). But TS's use of "we" here is a particularly egregious example of all the weaknesses you mention.

But if the "we" were somehow clearly identified in such a way that the lexical choices and the high style were justified, then even your critique of the formal weaknesses of the poem would not be as powerful. With this unidentified (and unidentifiable) we, many of the things that I liked on a first reading begin to fall apart upon close examination.

Brian Campbell said...

As the French say, We We We (Oui Oui Oui)! I think practically everything off-putting in this poem has to do with the use of first-person plural. The poem would have to be quite different if the author changed that. The use of "high style" as you call it could be refreshing in this day and age the writer could find a way to use it authentically. But authentically, ay, that's the rub.

A. P. Martin said...

Noticed the we
Assigned it to two intimate siblings
A brother and a sister, if you like
Remembered many instances of magical thinking from my own childhood
Wasn't troubled (as I should have been?) by the pair of on-lookers being recalled later by the poet

Brian Campbell said...

AP Martin -- in light of your brief remarks, looking again, three years later, maybe I was being rather too uncharitable in my reading of the "we" in this poem. Perhaps it was the cumulative effect of recently reading a few too many contemporary poems that use the "we" in a vague and presumptuous way that made me twinge -- enough to break what John Ciardi called the "sympathetic contract" necessary to give into the assumptions of the poem and appreciate what it has to offer. Perhaps in the collection in which this poem appears Steele makes clear who this "we" is (haven't read the collection, so I don't know.) If not, perhaps a slight tweaking of the poem (the title perhaps?) to clarify that relation for the particular reader I was in Dec. 2006 would have been enough...