Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Belle and Ginger

It’s not hard to slip into thinking of Donald Justice – his generosity, his vast knowledge, the deep impression he made on all who were lucky enough to be his students; and mostly, his poetry.

I slipped into thinking about Don this past couple of weeks, teaching a unit on poetry in the 1950s. I’m doing the poetry culture wars of that era. Right now we’re on the Hall-Pack-Simpson New Poets of England and America anthology, hugely influential in those days of my youth, hugely forgotten today – out of print. I had to tell my students to order used copies from Amazon or Bookfinder, another Internet boon to teaching. Next we’ll move on to Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry, the angry counter-anthology that flung the barbaric yawp of the Beats into the faces of the American poetry-consuming public, not that there’s ever been one. The Donald Allen anthology is still in print, and monstrously expensive, at 20 bucks a pop, which would seem to indicate that this particular culture war was won by the Beats, and it probably was, when Robert Lowell, poster boy for the Academics, crossed over to the other side. Actually, that signaled a truce more than a surrender – a cessation of hostilities.

And hostilities they were. Here’s Kenneth Koch, from his long poem “Fresh Air”:

Where are young poets in America, they are trembling in publishing houses and universities,
Above all they are/ trembling in universities, they are bathing the library steps with their spit, They are gargling out innocuous (to whom?) poems about maple trees and their children,
Sometimes they brave a subject like the Villa d’Este or a lighthouse in Rhode Island,
Oh what worms they are! They wish to perfect their form.

On the other side…certainly one would never find Donald Justice engaged in a similar diatribe, but when I once mentioned to him that I had sent a group of poems to Evergreen Review, his response was a raised eyebrow. This was maybe 1964…I suspect the same response would not have been forthcoming a few years later.

My assignment in teaching an anthology of poems is generally something like this:

When I get a new anthology of poetry, I don’t sit down and read it cover to cover. I’ll skim through it first, letting my attention stop where it will, where my eye is caught by a phrase, a line, an image…whatever.

So that’s what I want you do. Graze through the anthology, and bring into class a poem that you like, and be prepared to talk about what you respond to in it.

I first did this a few years ago with an anthology of World War II poets, and I loved the response I got. I also love that I never know what I’m going to be discussing – there’s no predicting or controlling what students will bring in. Interestingly, in both sections, more than one student chose Donald Hall, and more than one chose Vassar Miller.

None, this time through, for Donald Justice. But I went back to the work in that early anthology, and I was particularly glad to re-make the acquaintance of this poem:

Beyond the Hunting Woods

I speak of that great house
Beyond the hunting woods,
Turreted and towered
In nineteenth-century style,
Where fireflies by the hundreds
Leap in the long grass,
Odor of jessamine
And roses, canker-bit,
Recalling famous times
When dame and maiden sipped
Sassafras or wild
Elderberry wine,
While far in the hunting woods
Men after their red hounds
Pursued the mythic beast.

I ask it of a stranger,
In all that great house finding
Not any living thing,
Or of the wind and the weather,
What charm was in that wine
That they should vanish so,
Ladies in their stiff
Bone and clean of limb,
And over the hunting woods
What mist had made them wild
That gentlemen should lose
Not only the beast in view
But Belle and Ginger too,
Nor home from the hunting woods
Ever, ever come?

In the middle of writing this entry, I wandered over to Joe Duemer’s Sharp Sand blog, and his current entry in which he discusses revisiting James Wright’s “A Blessing,” which the years have not treated kindly. What seemed powerful and insightful now seems drenched in sentimentality.

Justice starts off his poem with the emotional distance and detachment of a form-perfecting worm, and tells us of a time historically, socially and emotionally distant, but at some point we realize that we have been pulled into it. Wright gives us, much too soon, the eyes of those two Indian ponies darkening with kindness. Justice gives us the lost dogs, Belle and Ginger, only at the end of the poem – two named creatures, the only ones in the poem, and what risks sentimentality more than the sad end of a beloved dog? But we’ve gotten there incrementally. The jessamine and roses give way to ladies clean of limb, and all vanish. The ravenous red hounds of the hunt become Belle and Ginger, and they vanish too. And so much emotion, so much loss, makes its way through that quiet, modulated voice.

Thank you, Don, once again, for everything, and most of all for your art. Thank you not for the first time, and not for the last.


Joseph Duemer said...

Two things keep this poem fresh: the accuracy of the language & the evocation of the ballad tradition. It certainly risks sentimentality what with the dogs & all, but they are given both a specific context in this poem & the poem partakes of that wider tradition, which gives the reader a particular frame for understanding it.

Tad Richards said...

I agree with Hugo when he says that every poem, if it's going to deliver anything at all, must risk sentimentality. Or something like that.

I love Belle and Ginger in this poem. They actually bring a lump to my throat, which comes unbidden of its own accord. Something is sentimental when it tells you how to feel.