Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Big Soggy Issues

This came up on the NewPo discussion list. Someone posted the following poem, from Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac on public radio. It’s by W. S. Merwin:


First forget what time it is
for an hour
do it regularly every day

then forget what day of the week it is
do this regularly for a week
then forget what country you are in
and practice doing it in company
for a week
then do them together
for a week
with as few breaks as possible

follow these by forgetting how to add
or to subtract
it makes no difference
you can change them around
after a week
both will help you later
to forget how to count

forget how to count
starting with your own age
starting with how to count backward
starting with even numbers
starting with Roman numerals
starting with fractions of Roman numerals
starting with the old calendar
going on to the old alphabet
going on to the alphabet
until everything is continuous again

go on to forgetting elements
starting with water
proceeding to earth
rising in fire

forget fire

The poem did not get a hugely positive response. The negative was best expressed by Bob Grumman, who said “My problem with it is that it's by someone trying to give us Sage Advice rather than poetry, which can be so much more than Sage Advice.” And I think he was right. I kinda like the poem, but it doesn’t pass the “hair standing up on the back of the neck” test. And I think it doesn’t for the reason Bob stated. You’re interested, to the extent that you're interested, because of Merwin’s sage wisdom, not because of any crackling excitement from the language, the imagery, even the rhythm.

I posted this one, as another poem on the same theme, which is a poem, not sage advice. This one by Don Finkel, and originally published in Cortland Review:


Nouns were the first to slip away.
Was it because they were easier to forget,
or the most dispensable?

Funerals back then were milling
with nouns whose names he'd forgotten,
if he'd ever met them.

Evidently, somewhere out there
a swarm of improper nouns
had prospered and multiplied.

Odd nouns came knocking every day
looking for work, till the old bard
left off answering the door.

Verbs were beasts of another persuasion.
For a while some stayed behind,
pacing the halls or curled on the living room sofa.

But they had to be fed. Some nights
they sank their claws in his thigh
when they were hungry.

As the last syllable crept away,
he felt a peculiar lightness,
like the wisp that rises,

from a smoldering wick—
as if words were the burden
he'd been bearing, all his life.

And this one makes all sorts of things dance up and down my spine.

And it connects to a question I’ve been thinking about a lot, in working with intro to creative writing students – the Big Soggy Issue question. You can tell them not to write about Big Soggy Issues, but you can’t …sigh… stop them from doing it. But good poets, even great poets, write about Great Soggy Issues, and take the sog out of them. Why isn’t “Crossing the Bar” a BSI poem? Well, it doesn’t waste any words, it has that great control of meter than only Tennyson could manage, and it has wonderful moments of language like “moaning of the bar” which works the way an image is supposed to: accurate and evocative.

Merwin’s poem won’t let you forget that it’s about forgetting, mortality, Alzheimer’s. Finkel lets you into a magical world, and in your sojourn there you discover that it’s about those things.

What are the best BSI poems? The ones we should show to our students and say, “Here – these work”?