Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Palm At The End Of The Rainbow - Wallace Stevens

I do not know how to read poetry. It is something I'm working on and have always felt somewhat sheepish about. Ever since I saw Anne of Green Gables as a 6 year old and witnessed a red-headed tomboy quote Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" while being unmoored in a canoe, I always thought reciting poetry would be incredibly romantic.  But alas, my friends and I always skipped the memorization portion and jumped right into the play acting, one girl being nominated to lay in the bottom a canoe while we delicately placed weeds around her tresses and pushed her out to sea/lake/pond.

A few years ago I picked up The Collected Poems by Langston Hughes (on the list - not by choice)  and came across this little gem.

Little Lyric (of Great Importance)

"I wish the rent was heaven sent."

While I appreciate it's brevity...I don't really get it. Why the word "wish"? I wish I could time-travel. I wish I had a million dollars...is that poetry too? Why not the word "pray"? At least there would be a barely perceptible tremor of passion, urgency, desire? Not that swapping out the word "wish" with "pray" makes it that more poetic...I feel like it's the kind of thing you scrawl on a napkin while a chatty Cathy is giving you a blow by blow account of her day. I can see the scallops making a protean border around the edge of the napkin. Cathy keeps talking. Langston's mind wanders...the rent...don't forget to get milk and eggs....

Thankfully the book took me about 90 minutes to read, and after a shrug I patted myself on the back for a job well done and crossed off another book on the checklist (which I used to carry around with me...back when I had no life or friends in the DC area and probably wandered around muttering conversations to my imaginary friend Harold Bloom, such as "HB...I do not know what you were thinking on this one...how did this make it in - but the Count of Monte Cristo didn't make the cut? Or anything by Dumas for that matter? It makes no sense. Oh and by the way "The Science Fiction Novels" of HG Wells....should totally be more than one cross off...)

Anyway, so when I warily picked up The Palm at the end of the Mind I was 70% more impressed than I thought I would be. There is the occasional feel of writers block, when apparently Stevens looked around his room and saw a banana and thought: "Bananas!" Yet, instead of something like "I wish the banana was heaven sent" he came up with:

"But bananas hacked and hunched...
The table was set by an ogre,
His eye on an outdoor gloom
And a stiff and noxious place.
Pile the bananas on planks.
The women will be all shanks
And bangles and slatted eyes."

-excerpt from "Floral Decoration for Bananas"

So again, while I have a hard time getting into this moment...there's a lot more there to keep me tethered. He does tend to talk a lot about birds, fruit and Key West, obviously all important...but as a whole, for a non-reader of poetry I occasionally found myself getting pulled into a moment, feeling a note of an emotion resonate in my soul. Here's an excerpt from "Farewell to Florida":

Part IV
My North is leafless and lies in a wintry slime
Both of men and clouds, a slime of men in crowds.
The men are moving as the water moves,
This darkened water cloven by sullen swells
Against your sides, then shoving and slithering,
The darkness shattered, turbulent with foam.
To be free again, to return to the violent mind
That is their mind, these men, and that will bind
Me round, carry me, misty deck, carry me
To the cold, go on, high ship, go on, plunge on.

I can feel this. There's a tangible desperation, maybe a fear of being lost? Maybe the fear of what you once were, despite your precarious instability, was a better, deeper, more profound place than where you are now. He's asking for freedom from this stability, in a land of manicured lawns and pink flamingos. To return to the deep waters where the life blood of the soul it held at bay by the impervious foam of regret? And there might be something about a girl?...I don't know. I'm probably completely misreading this. Maybe it's about a breakup with a girl from Florida and he's leaving to go back to his depressing slimy life...too bad for her, if only she knew what she was missing?

This is why I have a hard time with poetry. It's so incredibly personal and introspective. It almost feels like I'm reading a coded diary and half the time can't decipher the code. I guess, one of these days after reading tons and tons of poetry, maybe it will all click and I will bask in the glory of being able to decipher all at my leisure...one can only wish.

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