Monday, February 1, 2010

I've just learned that the U.K. journal the Reader will publish my essay "The Poems of Milly Jourdain." As far as I can tell, this will be the first printed review of her work ever. I'm sorry it took almost 100 years to appear, but I hope Milly would be pleased that finally someone has written about her book. And I'm particularly glad that a British journal will be publishing the piece. To me, Milly seems quintessentially English, a writer who is devoted, Hardy-like, to her familiar landscapes. She belongs to her own country, not to mine, and I hope she would have overlooked my coarse American enthusiasms. As Henry James makes clear in his novels, our disconnects are, in the end, really all for the best.

So here's a Milly poem for a snowy Monday morning in the harsh New World. It's called "Fritillaries," which, according to Webster, can be either butterflies or flowers. Regarding the flower, Webster says that fritillaria are "any of a genus . . . of bulbous herbs of the lily family with mottled or checkered flowers." I can't remember ever having seen a checkered flower, but maybe things are different in England.


Milly Jourdain

In a flower-seller's basket,
Bunches of fritillaries,
Purple and mysterious
With green and twisted stalks, are lying.

How they wish they still were living
In the wet and open spaces
Where the river winds are blowing,
Far beyond the old, grey city.

Though they stand among some blue-bells,
Still they hold themselves aloofly,
Drooping, with their darkened faces,
Lonely in their secret wildness.

I think this is a beautiful poem. It does bring into question, however, a point-of-view issue that I've long been questioning. According to several poetry-journal editors, some of whom I've spoken to personally, this particular "error" makes a poem unpublishable.

(Have you guessed what it might be yet? Reread the poem, and see if you can find the murderer.)

Well, I'll tell you: it's anthropomorphism. Yes, apparently inventing a situation in which a human speaker pretends that a non-human object has human characteristics is a shocking faux pas in a contemporary poem. I've never heard anyone satisfactorily explain why, other than offer a general mutter about "failure of imagination." But let me go on the record as saying that's crap. It's a different kind of imagination, a very human way of linking the speaker's imagination with the outside world, of making sense of that world. What else were the ancient gods if not an anthropomorphic explanation of nature? Sure, you can have bad anthropomorphic writing, but in my opinion Milly's works beautifully here. I love that second stanza, when the speaker moves suddenly from the looking at the flowers to internalizing them as characters. It's not unusual, and it's not dramatic, but it's swift and lovely and very believable. "How they wish they still were living/In the wet and open spaces." How I wish they were living there too.

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