Monday, January 12, 2015

Here are two more Milly Jourdain poems, followed by some of my thoughts about them. I would love to hear your thoughts about the poems and my reactions to them, especially as they link to your own approach to writing and revision.

Sheep in a Fog 
Milly Jourdain 
The day was cold and wet with fog
    And all the earth was still,
We drove along through unseen lands
    And half-way up the hill.
We heard a rapid pattering sound
    Like sudden pouring rain,
And then we saw a flock of sheep
    That stretched across the lane.
They made themselves a narrow stream
    To pass us by with fear;
We felt them push and breathe and press
    Till all the way was clear.
And now the fog came closer round
    And all was white and chill;
We heard the sounds of men and sheep
    Grow fainter down the hill.

A Breath of the Past 
Milly Jourdain 
A sudden beam shines from the dying sun
Upon a flight of russet-coloured leaves,
Making them golden birds with rustling cry,
Whirled by the wind along the bone-dry road,
The wind that ever blows from summer's heart.

These two poems exhibit a stylistic contrast that is common throughout Jourdain's collection. The first poem, with its Hardy-like rhythms, stretches back toward the nineteenth-century elegiac pastoral. The second--unrhymed, with a shifting cadence and an intense present-tense focus on a handful of images--looks forward into twentieth-century modernism. At the same time, the poems exhibit another element that is common throughout Jourdain's collection. That is, in each poem she makes a "typical mistake"--which is to say that many of the poems in her collection exhibit one or the other of the following poetry-writing tics. Please note that I am surrounding the term with quotation marks to indicate that I am not speaking pejoratively but simply noticing the way in which her language slips within the context she has created in each poem.

The first of her tics is rhythmic. For instance, in "Sheep in a Fog," she opens the second stanza with a line that crams an extra syllable into the rhythm pattern. Is this a "mistake" or not? In this case, I can easily propose a rationale. The sound of "rapid pattering" imitates the chaotic, compressed, hoof-tapping noise of a herd of sheep; moreover, the two short a sounds are sonically attractive. Yet I can also easily complain about the line. In a poem that otherwise moves so smoothly, it is notably awkward in the mouth. And if replicating awkwardness was a goal, why bend only a single line instead of using a succession of rhythmic adjustments to give those two central stanzas a kind of Doppler effect of ovine anxiety?

The second tic involves both tone and observational focus. In "A Breath of the Past," Jourdain does a brilliant job of forcing me to experience the exact moment she describes, which is itself a moment of vivid action. I love the image of the "bone-dry road"--the way in which it evokes the dust whirling among the leaves, though she never says the word "dust." But then there's the "mistake": the final line--a sudden sentimental lurch that might not feel so surprising in an old-fashioned poem such as "Sheep in a Fog" but is a shock in this one.

Why did she feel the need to include that squashy last line? In a way, the poem reminds me of some of Anne Sexton's late poems. In many of those pieces, the first stanza is pitch-perfect; reading it is like being jabbed with a fork. But the second stanza wanders into a kind of push-button, loose-lipped self-hatred: the feelings are real and terrible, but the poetry is is an unformed clot on the page. Jourdain's poem is not so starkly divided, but the soft-focus last line fits uneasily into the imagistic clarity of the rest of the poem.

Still, the fact is that she did decide to include it. Why? Was she purposely pulling this twentieth-century exercise back in the nineteenth? If so, she set herself a very interesting task . . . the sort of task that, say, young Virginia Woolf was also beginning to set for herself. So if I look at Jourdain's "mistake" in that light, I begin to wonder if the poem is, in truth, unfinished. It can be easy to mistake a peculiar last line for an ending, when really that line is trying to push the poet into strange new territory. 

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