Sunday, November 22, 2009

First published on July 26, 2009
Responding to Milly Jourdain's "The Cherwell" and Edwin Ford Piper's "Big Swimming"

I've received several responses to the four water poems I posted on July 23. More people than you might think (and all of them women) dislike Thoreau, though not necessarily for stylistic reasons, while nobody has a cross word to say about Dickinson's eminence. Yet the ones who wrote to me didn't contact me because they wanted to talk about how much they loved Dickinson. Rather, they wanted to say how much they liked either the Piper or the Jourdain poem.

I think that's interesting. For clearly, neither of these poems is stunning. They take no linguistic risks, make no moral or emotional leaps, clarify nothing new. Yet both are full of charm and beauty, in large part, I'm beginning to see, because each qualifies a particular and familiar human reaction within a slightly unfamiliar frame. "Big Swimming" focuses on a weary traveler; "The Cherwell" deals with a person's simultaneous connection-disconnection with the natural world. Everyone can comprehend those themes. And neither poet goes any further with them than to make sure that we understand. Neither shoves us into unexpected corners, as Dickinson does in Poem 520, when she tyrannically manipulates our expectations of power.

Nonetheless, the poems are lovely. I particularly like how Piper gradually adjusts his stanzas, moving from 4 lines, to 6 lines, to 2 lines, to 1. It's a delicate, fluid movement; and in the final stanza, the weight of the traveler's task is stated so quietly and stoically that it took me a moment to understand exactly what the rider will have to do next. Here's the poem again, in case you want to check what I mean:
Big Swimming

Rain on the high prairies,
In dusk of autumnal hills;
Under the creaking saddle
My cheerless pony plods. . . .

Down where the obscure water
Lapping the lithe willows
Sunders the chilling plain--
Rusty-hearted and travel worn--
We set our bodies
To the November flood.

The farther shore is a cloud
Beyond midnight. . . .

Big swimming.
The Jourdain poem is one of my favorites in her book. I tend to like her non-rhyming poems better than her rhyming ones because they allow the clarity of her diction rather than a predictable pattern to control the sound of her lines. And her line breaks are exquisite: for instance, the break between lines 1 and 2. The speaker's point of view is also intriguing: it is nearly, but not quite, objective. Her early phrase "It's good" makes me imagine happiness, but her final line disabuses me of that notion, even as it reiterates happiness in "excellent." Throughout, the word choice is remarkably plain. Jourdain says what she means to say, and what she means to say is as little as possible. In a way, reticence is her favorite literary device:

The Cherwell

This bare bright day of early spring, when still
We feel the touch of winter in the wind,
It's good to watch the river's endless flow
And restless moving of the thin brown twigs;

To see the tree-trunks down in those cold depths,
To hear the rushing sound of wind-swept woods,
And see the yellow foam below the weir,
And wish our life could be as excellent.
I look forward to hearing any other thoughts you have about these poems, or the Thoreau and Dickinson pieces. I found it rather enjoyable to parse out my feelings about the four, which I chose quickly and without planning, except insofar as the Jourdain poem fit into my publishing project. Maybe I'll do this exercise again sometime.

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