Newsletter #138 February 2023

Newsletter #138 February 2023
March 13, 2023 Christina Mullin

George StubbsMolly Long-legs with her Jockey, 1761-1762

February, 2023

Welcome to Plume #138 –

February – and, happily, first to the announcement I alluded to last newsletter: Timothy Liu and Jane Zwart have agreed to join Plume as Book Reviews Co-Editors! Both Timothy and Jane have published poetry and reviews in our journal in the past, and I have loved their work in both spheres. The plan is to publish two or three of their reviews annually, while they select guest reviewers for the remaining issues. Timothy kicks things off with his analysis of Jody Stewart’s This Momentary World. A hearty welcome to them both!

Also, please note our double entry in the Essays & Comment column this month, from Donovan McAbee and Chard deNiord, both on the subject of the sui generis and much-to-be-missed Charles Simic.

Next, in lieu of an essay from the very-busy-at-the-moment Joseph Campana, we are fortunate to have the estimable Brian Culhane (another Plume contributor) fill in, with his response below  to last month’s piece from David Kirby, specifically addressing  the place of  “chance and deliberation” in Frost’s “The Woodpile”.
“If You’re Lucky, A Better Turn”

“All art, whether it’s painting or making movies or writing songs or poems, is a result of the deliberate transformed by the accidental. Sure, you have to start out with a plan, but then the doorbell rings or you get a phone call or you remember when your dog died or you saw your sweetheart for the first time, and suddenly that song or poem you’re working on takes a different turn and, if you’re lucky, a better turn.”  David Kirby, The Road Goes On Forever and The Party Never Ends” Issue #137 January 2023)

David Kirby’s recent essay in Plume had me thinking of all the times, when writing a poem, I benefitted from allowing a chance direction (a word, image, idea, even new topic) to happen, following the path of the accidental, the unplanned, the spontaneous. Often, my writing took a strikingly different turn, though just as often the unpremeditated changes were modest, but nonetheless significant—and, if I was lucky, the work took a better turn. His essay illustrates how important chance has been in artistic composition by offering several fascinating instances drawn from American popular music, my favorite being how Irving Berlin used a doctor’s off-hand remark to create a hit song. Of course, that same example might just as well illustrate the opposite of Kirby’s thesis: The doctor sparks Berlin to compose a song, thereby showing how the accidental may be transformed by the composer’s deliberate intent. Yet this reversal—first chance, then deliberation—does not necessarily weaken his argument; rather, it makes the role of chance in artistic deliberation that much more complex.

Once, in writing about a dictionary a friend had given me of Dante’s works, I ended the poem (“The Dante Dictionary”) with the story of one sinner’s fate in the Inferno—until I happened to remember (of all things!) a cold morning run I often use to take along the Hudson River, and that image proved a much better ending. The poem had surprised me, its author.

It is this multivalent sense of chance that puts me in mind of how some of my favorite poems—I was going to say “operate,” but “progress” or “play out” or “unfold” are all more accurate. Poems that feel as though the writer has put aside a preconceived direction in favor of discovering one. This kind of writing, in my experience, forgoes the straight-ahead path for intriguing detours, alleyways, cul-de-sacs, wholly new vistas. And to read such a poem is to follow a writer open to unpremeditated changes in direction and pace, someone willing to put aside the map and simply amble ahead, wherever that may lead.

Let’s consider how chance and deliberation work together in a poem I greatly admire, one which indeed happens to start with the speaker taking an amble. In Frost’s “The Woodpile,” the story begins with a sudden decision: the speaker, walking through a wintery landscape, nearly decides to turn back—to home, we presume, though that isn’t stated.

Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day,
I paused and said, ‘I will turn back from here.
No, I will go on farther—and we shall see.’

His desire to continue is not explained, except for that rather gnomic “and we shall see.” Is there something specific the speaker wishes to see? It doesn’t seem so. His continuing on seems based instead on an amorphous, undefinable intent, a noncommittal commitment: just a desire to see what’s out there. Maybe nothing. Maybe “for once, then, something,” to quote another of Frost’s poems.

I doubt Frost had a clear sense of where his poem was headed. Here, I’m also thinking of what he had to say about fake and true poems: the latter is “never a put-up job. … It begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a loneliness. It is never a thought to begin with. It is at its best when it is a tantalizing vagueness.”

In those three opening lines, despite the narrator’s matter-of-fact manner, I find a tantalizing vagueness and a loneliness, both in the description of the bleak scene and in his desire to walk farther on, alone. If we quietly tag along (our role as readers is to follow in the walker’s footsteps), witnessing the speaker’s impulsive decision to continue, we might expect that this lack of a fixed destination, this randomness, will play a greater role in the story.

The hard snow held me, save where now and then
One foot went through. The view was all in lines
Straight up and down of tall slim trees
Too much alike to mark or name a place by
So as to say for certain I was here
Or somewhere else: I was just far from home.

Here, in a nameless place “just far from home,” he’s likely to get lost, especially given the way the trees all look alike. But before that thought has a chance to take shape in his mind (and ours), something interrupts the flow of this blank-verse story by entering the scene and quietly changing the course of the poem:

A small bird flew before me. He was careful
To put a tree between us when he lighted,
And say no word to tell me who he was
Who was so foolish as to think what he thought.
He thought that I was after him for a feather—
The white one in his tail; like one who takes
Everything said as personal to himself.
One flight out sideways would have undeceived him.

I think these some of the most magical lines in all Frost’s poetry. The poet has allowed the bird to fly into the narrative and take over, and it does just that for many lines. Here, this chance encounter will eventually lead to another sudden encounter. But before getting there, I want to spend some time on Frost’s sense of serious play, as expressed in his humor and in the way he uses language.

The bird is careful “to say no word to tell me who he was” (a bird’s identity after all is often known by its calls and sounds) and Frost has some fun with the repetition (to tell me who he was/ Who was so foolish as to think…): who-who the sound we make imitating an owl. The repetition (and the wordplay) continues with “Who was so foolish as to think what he thought. / He thought that I was after…”

It’s tempting to use these lines to counter the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s claim, in “What Is It Like to be a Bat?,” that a bat’s sensory perception is so unlike a human’s that it’s impossible for someone to know what bat-life is like. Indeed, the walker in the swamp now pauses to have some fun thinking like a bird—or “like one who takes / Everything said as personal to himself.” In fact, nothing’s been said on either side, just imagined. That freedom to stop walking and pay attention to what appears to be a minor detail, to allow chance to dictate the flow of the poem, is what I see as Frost taking a different (and, yes, lucky) turn. To quote Kirby, again: “The accidental part of the creative act is always the most fun. Another way to say that is, if something looks as though it’s not going to work, it probably will.”

And then there was a pile of wood for which
I forgot him and let his little fear
Carry him off the way I might have gone,
Without so much as wishing him good-night.
He went behind it to make his last stand.
It was a cord of maple, cut and split
And piled—and measured, four by four by eight.
And not another like it could I see.

Like the memory of a first kiss intruding on one’s best laid artistic plans, the woodpile enters the field of the poem and takes over (though the speaker isn’t quite ready to leave bird behind, either, for it occupies four of those eight lines). I especially admire the way “And then…” supplies just an eyeblink of a link between trackless walk, bird sighting and the poem’s new (and, we learn, recalling its title, main focus). The woodpile is nothing he sought; it appears, a random bulwark the bird hides behind. What is the woodpile doing there, in the middle of nowhere? The walker tries to answer this riddle by observing details:

No runner tracks in this year’s snow looped near it.
And it was older sure than this year’s cutting,
Or even last year’s or the year’s before.
The wood was gray and the bark warping off it
And the pile somewhat sunken. Clematis
Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle.
What held it though on one side was a tree
Still growing, and on one a stake and prop,
These latter about to fall.

Like many other human elements in Frost’s poems (for instance, the forsaken farmhouse in “The Need for Being Versed in Country Things”), decay and abandonment have usurped original purpose and what’s left after long years is merely a vestige of ambition and hard work. The question remains: Who might have left the woodpile there, having so laboriously created it

I thought that only
Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks
Could so forget his handiwork on which
He spent himself, the labor of his ax,
And leave it there far from a useful fireplace
To warm the frozen swamp as best it could
With the slow smokeless burning of decay.

Anyone who has kept a compost pile knows organic rot creates heat, though heating the swamp is not the woodsman’s purpose: he’s simply forgotten about his work and turned to new tasks (just as the speaker has forgotten about the bird and turned to the woodpile). Of course, that’s only one of many possible explanations (perhaps, instead, he sold his house and moved to Detroit), but it’s a lovely ending to this poem of stops and starts, pauses and new directions, and one I suspect Frost just chanced upon.

Where does a poem start? How does it develop? By what route does it end? Frost’s willingness to move freely from frozen swamp to bird to abandoned woodpile illuminates the freedom the poet should allow the poem, beautifully expressed in his brief essay on craft (“The Figure the Poem Makes”): “It [the poem] begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life—Not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.”
One lucky turn deserves another, might be the corollary to the idea that chance molds deliberation, as deliberation does chance. I like this thought, especially as the root meaning of verse contains the image of a poet fashioning his or her lines by deciding to end one and then turn to the next. If a poem “assumes direction with the first line laid down,” the poet had best follow inspiration where it leads, however unpredictable and strange the twists and turns along the way.

Bravo, Mr. Culhane! I think we’ll ask you back.

Our cover art this month is George Stubbs’ Molly Long-legs with her Jockey (1761-62). For more information on the artist, a good start might be made here

Finally, as usual, a few recently published/forthcoming books from Plume contributors:

Brian Swann              IMAGO: Poems
Carl Phillips                Then the War: And Selected Poems, 2007-2020
James Hall                 Romantic Comedy
Linda Gregerson        Canopy
Mary Jo Salter           Zoom Rooms
Simon Armitage         The  Owl and the Nightingale: A New Verse Translation
Alan Shapiro              Proceed to Checkout
Ron Slate                   Joy Ride
Adam Scheffler          Heartworm

That’s it for now — I hope you enjoy the issue!

Daniel Lawless
Editor, Plume