Beginnings and Endings in Lyric Poems
from Five Points, Volume 15 No. 1 & 2
In Seamus Heaney's 1991 book Seeing Things, a book more about seeing than about things, one poem "Field of Vision," reminds me that, as Wallace Stevens reportedly said, all poetry is about writing poetry. I like to pretend it is otherwise. At any rate, Heaney's poem begins as a memory, an image, not an action; nothing has happened or, in the poem's moment, happens. We see enacted perception, but somehow we feel narrative structure and force. Here is the poem:
FIELD OF VISION
I remember this woman who sat for years
In a wheelchair, looking straight ahead
Out the window at sycamore trees unleafing
And leafing at the far end of the lane.
Straight out past the TV in the corner,
The stunted, agitated hawthorn bush,
The same small calves with their backs to wind and rain,
The same acre of ragwort, the same mountain.
She was steadfast as the big window itself.
Her brow was clear as the chrome bits of the chair.
She never lamented once and she never
Carried a spare ounce of emotional weight.
Face to face with her was an education
Of the sort you got across a well-braced gate—
One of those lean, clean, iron, roadside ones
Between two whitewashed pillars, where you could see
Deeper into the country than you expected
And discovered that the field behind the hedge
Grew more distinctly strange as you kept standing
Focused and drawn in by what barred the way.
Fudging categorization—not a story, not a song—it's a portrait, yet little is given of the woman—is she someone's grannie? An IRA bomber? paralyzed? Tall, stout, a visionary poet? Why does she matter to the poem's speaker? As we notice the little about her, we see how much is given about, or around, her—what is portrayed is looking, perspective, angle, depths and surfaces of things, a strictness of details and pace of scanning, and telescoping, all to establish significance our speaker feels she bears, and all conveyed by tone. Heaney wants this woman unknown to us made worth knowing; he calibrates and measures the "seen" until it looks, as the penultimate line says, "distinctly strange." Readers tend to think a poem's task is to show us how familiar things seem, how they are, and Heaney's camera work points that way, configuring the portrait as elegy, until, in the final two stanzas, he subverts our expectations, leaving us not only not closer to the woman or a place or an identity, but actually "barred" from her and any backstory, the mystery of who and why, as the poem says, "deepened" even as we are "educated." This poem delivers no problem or answer; it makes no predictable, uncontestable statement of "best words in the best order," as Coleridge asked a poem to do. Heaney's "Field of Vision" is patterned to agitate, re-sound, destabilize, and reach an ad hoc view. A poem does this in two primary ways—it enacts a story or it accumulates perception. Often enough one braids into and implies the other, a structure of balance unbalanced and linear movement surprised into circularity. How does that work?
A woman walks into a bar and says in a loud voice, "There are two kinds of men." Her premise points us to both incongruity and continuity. We expect her to say which two kinds of men, and in the process to say something funny. She is the author of—whatever her verbal form—a dramatic situation casting one explicit narrative—the story of a particular woman in a particular place—but her form choice also promises two implicit narratives—those of two kinds of men she will show. The speaker pretends we cannot predict the two she chooses and juxtaposes but she counts on our readiness to think symbolically, in patterns. If she says, instead, there are two kinds of crooked men, our minds will summon examples—Nixon, Dailey, Bush, Clinton, Blagojevich maybe. The intensity of our interest will depend on lyric's telling. Lyric provides details, texture, density, tone, rhythm, all emotional cues. We tend to see language as stable, referential, and trustworthy but the language of humor is oppositional and subversive. Jokes, like lyric poems, depend heavily on perception and an obvious incongruity is shown to be what anthropologist Elliot Oring calls an "appropriate incongruity." "Incongruity theory," he says, employs irony, category mis-application, verbal play, distortion, and more, all techniques for seeing things and relations. Jokes are verbal play and, like poems, are knowledge-structures. Oring says Freud says jokes all reduce to a serious thought. Let's test Freud. Here's a joke: What's big and gray and writes gloomy poetry? T.S. Elephants.
A joke's narrative, long or short, works like an equation—an intellectual perception moves from a beginning toward an end, incongruous elements juxtaposed to destabilize perception, resulting in new or balanced vision. Readers, or hearers, bring knowledge, and a readiness for language to carry multiple meaning to the moment of perception. Symmetry and parallelism, violated, lead to pleasure-producing change. The joke-making woman's statement is false, incongruous, because incomplete—only two kinds of men?—yet we feel some truth awaits. We believe men are complex, variable, if perhaps less than we might hope. Her beginning, which she presents as conclusion, must lead to a put-down, a skewed perception. Narrative development could show which. But her form is lyric, upended like Heaney's and—badda, badda, boom—instantly symbolic; perception is based in see-through, or metaphorical language A joke, properly speaking, asks us to attend to language more than to event; connotation makes us laugh.
Definitive as she presents herself, as soon as our joker speaks we say "Aha" because what we know empirically has prepared us to look through what she says. Her suspect language signals information, or its lack, just as figurative writing does. The poem tries to simulate experience, rendering as much as possible latent symbolic patterns. My authority for this claim is Richard Wilbur, who in his essay "The Genie and the Bottle," says "the poem is an effort to express a knowledge imperfectly felt, to articulate relationships not quite seen, to make or discover some pattern in the world. It is a conflict with disorder. ... " Wilbur says nothing of meaning, the sum of words, whether in divorce decrees, historical treaties, fictions, or poems.
I once had a graduate student who recorded her life in poems she adamantly kept free of meaning. I persisted in asking what this scene and that image meant. They meant nothing, she glared. Locked gates between being and a dream of self, her poems kept out what she feared. One day, in my office, she sobbed "Why must poems have meaning?" I wanted to pat her head and send her away with a consoling remark such as "There are two kinds of poems, one doesn't have to mean anything." But I'd have had to explain real poems covet their meaning, have formal laws, and ask to live immersed in life's most palpable waters, or so says novelist Joseph Conrad. Such meaning can be found in Heaney's poem "The Pitchfork." It describes a boy's practice of throwing a pitchfork as if it were a javelin, the throw almost never what one imagines, yet
[the poet] has learned at last to follow that simple lead
Past its own aim, out to an other side
Where perfection—or nearness to it—is imagined
Not in the aiming but the opening hand.
Beginnings and endings structure the meanings of what we know. The critic Bakhtin calls narrative "dialogic" because it enacts contentious and social circumstance. But tone and rhythm inscribe meaning's shape through sequence and repetition that is explicitly symbolic, or pattern-expressive. Flannery O'Connor, asked in an interview where she got all them symbols, said she didn't look for symbols, she just wrote what was around her. To the writer who cannot recognize symbolic signification, art can't exist; experience remains badly coded, only itself. Snapshots take pictures; photographs require Steiglitz or Holly Wright. Getting the code right matters.
Years ago, at the Indiana Writers Conference, I stood with the acerbic novelist Stanley Elkin to wait for a reading by the science fiction writer, Ursula LeGuin. A student got Elkin's barbed wit when she asked if he was going to the reading. "Who's reading?" Elkins asked. LeGuin, the student said. "Science fiction?" Elkin said. "Yes," the young woman beamed. "Don't think so," Elkin said, "It's all the same, we go there, they come here." Mr. Elkin's reductive coding, funny as it may be, echoed what we miss in both the grand fantasy of science fiction and mini-wisdom of the woman in the bar. As Hardy says (I paraphrase here), one wants in a poem neither impression nor stated conviction, but individual life truth itself which, it turns out, is immediate, limited, in those details and narratives which the best writing works to an unexpected but known shape. In his book on writing poetry, The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo says (I am paraphrasing again) that to avoid a bar of blank faces the poet sets up knowns against unknowns in patterned or meaning-dense experience. Then, like Heaney, he practices good subversion.
Physics holds that what is in motion tends to stay in motion. It makes me think of a joke: a runner on a hot day barely crests a hill and stumbles into an auto accident. A man is mortally wounded on the road. The runner stops, gagging for breath, and to no one sighs, ''I'm dying." The man on the road sighs back, "Aren't we all. The problem is the pace." Poetry seems to hold that nothing stays in motion very long. Aristotle's theory of Unities reflects the inevitable stoppage of all things in requiring of any composition a beginning, middle, and end as the true life-shape. In his essay "Listening and Making," poet Robert Hass says rhythmic repetition "initiates a sense of order" and shows a poem's coveting of spiritual, structural, aspirational imperatives. He says:
We are pattern-making animals .... we attend to a rhythm almost instinctively, listen to it for a while, and, if we decide it has no special significance for us, we can let it go; or put it away, not hearing it again unless it alters, signaling to us-as it would to a hunting or a grazing animal-that something in the environment is changed. And ... we are called by the first words of any poem or story.
Few decisions, for the poet, can be more important than finding the language for the right, propulsive beginning—the words, the cadence, the line's visual track sculpt the time and the door to the order of being soon to be made immediate and seductive by image, event, scene, and voice. As children we found this door in "Once upon a time ... ," a phrase invoking invention—truth as something less documentary or physiology than angle of vision manipulated as if by a dowsing rod, and it is that magical authority of the inevitable door we want in beginning lines.
Our High Modernist ancestors wanted this also but the new psychological environment in which they wrote permitted, encouraged. alternative entry points. One might start in the middle, move from a flashback, go from ending to beginning, or like Joyce's Leopold Bloom seem to live within a single Dublin Day all that Homeric Ulysses lived in a wandering life. Yet, if a sense of linear reality came to feel flexible, we were still obliged to find a right beginning, for the place of our start commands everything, event or perception, that will follow.
A woman walks into a dark bar and says what if two writers leave San Francisco? She pauses. A lump on a bar stool says "They novelists? They know where they going." "So what?" says a shade, "Maybe they're poets." The lump snorts, "Poets? All they know is things." So the woman goes into a second bar, even darker, and says "Two poets come for a drink." She pauses, then says "Can they turn on the light?" "They language poets or the regular kind?" says bar-lump. Silence. Then the bartender says "Anybody hear a fly buzz? I heard a fly buzz." Beginnings and endings are switches for old patterns and opportunity, for movement of narrative and perception.
Beginnings are rhythmic statements. They start action with cadence; they stage focus; they shape time and space; they introduce that sense of order which Robert Hass has called "the idiom of the unconscious" which is the very thing a poem threatens, varies, or extends. A poem can't afford much exposition, though it likes fine excess; it compresses story to a shadow plot, hires few characters, speaks in single voice, treats everything in a scene as metaphor, and succeeds best when it sticks to the rule of getting on and then off stage as quickly as possible. Every poem is about time and is, therefore, a narrative, a movement unfolding in time. And every poem is a lyric, a moment of time as pulse. The genre difference depends on the thickness of the slice. Obvious proofs of time's centrality mark lyric structure—the then/now bifurcation (or its opposite now/then), the volta's pivot, and in the Shakespearean sonnet that turn at the split of the octave/sestet or in the drawstring terminal couplet. As lyrics grow more complex they integrate time transitions to mimic narrative—a speaker cites a past moment happening again in her present-mind, thus framing perception, a present roil of past edges. This structure, a form of parallelism, shapes the opening line of Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays," which begins "Sundays too my father got up early;" the single modifier "too" chafes a life of chronological and repetitive sacrifice against one lived as less obligation-attentive, which leads directly and swiftly to the ending of exposed guilt, self-conviction, and lingering anger toward consciousness not to be escaped: 'What did I know, what did I know / of love's austere and lonely offices?"
Hayden's poem shows how shadow narratives—here the speaker's alienation from his father, the father's chronic angers—are embedded in the set-up lines, in image orchestration as well as sonic patterning, in metaphors of enclosure and discomfort that light passage toward consciousness of what is unknown or not fully known. That passage is characterized by threat, its kind and quality what makes lyric credible, that summons us to submission. Few poems open so well as those by Eleanor Ross Taylor. Here are beginning couplets from three of her poems:
Will anybody find me
under my own back porch?
"The Accidental Prisoner"
I'm a woman at a window
Talking to a man outside.
Of course, we'll follow.
Did you say horse? Or hearse? No matter.
The confident push of her short lines, flexible four-stress stride, unitary strength of syntax and unfussy vocabulary plunge us medias res into three different emotional textures, two specific locations, and a singularly clear, identifiable voice—all setting in motion narrative and perception in almost equal authority. Taylor's beginnings, so uncomplicated, have even so the signature of thought, a select arrangement of detail which permits them to double as endings, so they bind a poem's mouth and tail into the circularity of life itself, echoing T. S. Eliot who said in our endings are our beginnings. Or was it the other way around?
Taylor, who died at age 89 this spring, trusted no poetry with an urge to speak wisdom. She refused a public life as poet. Her poems enacted a subordination to husband Peter Taylor, Pulitzer novelist, and to her experience of sharp choices and sharper consequences. If she was no visionary, she cultivates something almost as good, a coherence rising to self-defining technique. Heaney, in his essay "Feeling Into Words," argues that craft provides sufficient mechanical skills to make recognizable poems, but technique, a superior arsenal of abilities, leads to "a definition of the [poet's] own reality." The ability to craft beginnings and endings that function well takes a poet a first critical step, but technique adds something more memorable yet. Heaney says:
Technique involves the watermarking of your essential patterns of perception, voice and thought into the touch and texture of your lines; it is that whole creative effort of the mind's and body's resources to bring the meaning of experience within the jurisdiction of form.
Taylor's technique is angular speech, oblique understatement, paradox, precise thinking, tone wry and scornful, a blunt, contracted eloquence identifiable as a pine tree, dependent utterly on linked beginnings and endings. Here is the short "Kitchen Fable:"
The fork lived with the knife
and found it hard—for years
took nicks and scratches,
not to mention cuts.
She who took tedium by the ears:
defiant stretched-out lettuce,
He who came down whack.
His conversation, even, edged.
Lying beside him in the drawer
she formed a crazed patina.
The seasons stacked—
melons, succeeded by cured pork.
He dulled; he was a dull knife,
while she was, after all, a fork.
"Kitchen Fable" starts with the environmental magic a child recognizes, as well as the implicit betrayal any marriage comes to, some more than others, and avoids the sentimentality, whine, or rant of rhetoric. Insentient tableware is anthropomorphized for allegory managed by a deflating humor. Groom and bride reduce to wife to "sauce-gooed particles" and the husband to "whack." The poem foregrounds a portrait of a world so violent everything breaks—quatrains to couplets, syntax to fragments, surface to patina, bright to dull. Tone wars with discourse; control fights dissolution. Explosive, one wants to say, of narrative, or narratives, of shadow and act and brutal inevitability. But the poem is all perception, sequenced and gestural, its rhythm thumping. Only a precisely careful poet earns that double "dull" or the breathy pause of "after all" that sets up a queenly ending equal parts aggression, injury, vengeance, and rebalance. This narrator is a survivor in a paradoxically endless ending, subverting fable's sweet nature as it skewers happily ever-after. Our take-away is wisdom complete and brutal: no life but this, ever, truly.
A woman walks into a bar, says softly, "All poems have to have two things." I suppose it is that kind of bar. Guy on a stool says "Stuff." Another says "In or out?" Bartender says "Music? I bet it's that."Woman at the end, drinking a Hurricane, says "Shit happens." Pretty soon they're all arguing. They remind me that, as poet Stephen Dunn says, every poem has a compulsion to make a wisdom statement which the good poet has to learn to discipline or seem untrustworthy.
Wisdom seldom comes flat or final. It has continuity, it wanders through a poem's middle, in orchestrations of sound, in bodying moves of lines and stanzas; it develops in pieces of image that seem innocuous and turn out to be spinal. But we tend to find it in statements that hide like tumors, distorting, parasitic globs, flow blockers, cunning as they weaken and isolate a poem's good and necessary parts. Yet wisdom, meaning, is as indispensable as blood. Lacking his first line, "So much depends upon ... ," William Carlos Williams's wheelbarrow is just lawn debris. In "Meditation at Lagunitas" Robert Hass trumpets wisdom when he begins "All the new thinking is about loss" which he locates in pond fishing, a woman, and blackberries. Walt Whitman never saw a wisdom line he could do without. If the beginning sets wisdom on the poem's track, wisdom seems to sink most commonly toward a poem's ending, perhaps because there it's natural to sum up, to want authority with weighty last words. A good example is Keats's pottery poem with its parentally dismissive ending, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." It appeals, doesn't it, to our desire for symmetry but are we not also a little resistant to its stiff-arming? I'm sure you know, too, Mr. Frost's doubled refusal to end—"And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep."
Endings seem to me more than any aspect of a poem responsible for governing structure, for coordination, completion, cohesion, and discovery. But what of middles, so often muddles? The middle of a poem, bearing great responsibility for development, largely of perception and relations between insight and sound-sight, must carry whatever the poem needs of narratives, and can never be discontinuous with the beginning or the end. I hasten to say I have no wish to debate the priority of narrative or lyric, done exceedingly well in Ellen Bryant Voigt's study, The Flexible Lyric, which sheds much light on what a middle does. Voigt quotes Flannery O'Connor saying "In a story something has to happen. A perception is not a story." Voigt responds that "perception is precisely the poet's gift, and the lyric poem may be, as Charles Olson said, 'one perception immediately followed by another.''' It seems a little like a roof without walls, a house only of blueprints. Beginnings and endings make a stand-up structure with a story to tell.
Forty years of teaching have taught me young poets learn fast how to manipulate words, sculpt lines, orchestrate phrases, descriptions, parallels of image and action. They make scenes that interest, though they don't always know why, or even what is interesting. When they fail at structure, it commonly comes in two places: they skimp a necessary narrative, a shadow story off-page, that is required to make cohesive the skeins of perceptions; or they find no appropriate ending for what has evolved or is trying to evolve in the poem. Endings are the Bermuda Triangle for all poets. One botched ending which shows what can go wrong down there, though not all the kinds of wrong down there, is a screw-up by Robinson Jeffers in "The Purse Seine," a brilliant evocation of fishermen at Point Lobos, California. His beginning is a dazzle:
Our sardine fishermen work at night in the dark of the moon; daylight
They could not tell where to spread the net, unable to see the
phosphorescence of the shoals of fish.
They work northward from Monterey, coasting Santa Cruz; off New
Year's Point, off Pigeon Point
The look-out man will see some lakes of milk-color light on the sea's
night-purple; he points, and the helmsman
Turns the dark prow, the motorboat circles the gleaming shoal and
drifts out her seine-net. They close the circle
And purse the bottom of the net, then with great labor haul it in.
This has everything we might want—music, story, cinematic grandeur, a metaphor of harvest. It has epic aspiration. The tenth line—"They close the circle"—offers a Biblical figure robust in its opportunity for metaphors of life-truths, a chance to see community in fact and in progress. The second stanza raises an awesome chorus in a splendor of fish and tutelary spirits of sea-lions:
I cannot tell you
How beautiful the scene is, and a little terrible, then, when the
Know they are caught, and wildly beat from one wall to the other of
their closing destiny the phosphorescent
Water to a pool of flame, each beautiful slender body sheeted with
flame, like a live rocket
A comet's tail wake of clear yellow flame; while outside the
Floats and cordage of the net great sea-lions come up to watch,
sighing in the dark; the vast walls of night
Stand erect to the stars.
Remember Hass speaking of the "order of the unconscious" rhythmic structure takes us to—there it is. And what is to be done with it? Jeffers fumbles a long third stanza—is it to be narrative or perceptions, a bag-net full? Either or both might do, but on this day Jeffers can't see through the words, he can't let the poem sparkle (as Whitman does in "Sparkles From the Wheel," a similar poem); he won't listen; because he wants big wisdom, he won't let the poem come to what its proper ending is. Instead Jeffers editorializes, rants at what has lately pissed him off—bad poetry, urban blight, human greed, fear, stupidity. Listen to him:
These things are Progress;
Do you marvel our verse is troubled or frowning, while it keeps its
reason? Or it lets go, lets the mood flow
In the manner of the recent young men into mere hysteria, splintered
gleams, crackled laughter. But they are quite wrong.
There is no reason for amazement: surely one always knew that
cultures decay, and life's end is death.
Little in the poem's foreground deserved this kind of subversion. William Stafford told me he routinely wrote past a poem's ending because he was uncertain; he rewrote and waited. I asked Stafford where a poem should stop. He told me "where it has to and wants to." I thought he was being frivolous, but I was young and inexperienced. Poems, like affairs, do not continue forever.
Poems of received form oblige an ending somewhat predetermined. Sonnets or villanelles live by a contract for lines, stanzas, rhymes, and logic. Variations of pattern are good, but excessive or illogical or arbitrary violation makes readers squint. Does a villanelle have to have a terminal quatrain? Is a fourteen-line poem without sonnet logic legitimate? Was Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays" a sonnet? But no form, however varied, succeeds without an ending. Stability of scene, story, circumstance, which the middle of the poem must threaten—remember Richard Wilbur said "a conflict with disorder"—, needs to be reexamined, even restored, with a changed perspective in the ending. It may come as statement, paradox, reversal, or parallel (Whitman's way), but it is always another door upon an experience, this one closing.
Mr. Wilbur, our senior living American poet, was a practioner of poeme bien fait, a style favored by the New Critical hegemony of the 1950s, praised for symmetry in metric, diction, tone, and rhythm, for a linear movement and logical ending so unresisted it "clicked" like a good shutting door. This mechanistic image implied intricate measuring; poems aspired to precise craft privileged by the university critics. The door-click metaphor arose in a time when doors were still hung by actual carpenters, sometimes with less than actual fits. Doors that fit bespoke refined standards. Today doors come in prefab, standardized casements. Unless your carpenter is Manny, Moe, or Jack, fit isn't an issue. Perfect closure is routine. Some poets teach the door click; others urge organic balance. Most endings today seem laid down as a resonant image or a metaphorical action proceeding more or less logically out of the poem's linear imperative. Seamus Heaney's "Digging," which opens his Selected Poems 1966-1996, and is thus a door in, juxtaposes his father's vocational spade to his own pen. Heaney's ending is ''I'll dig with it." The ending of Elizabeth Bishop's "The Fish" conflates image and action: " ... until everything / was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! / And I let the fish go." Norman Dubie's elegy for his aunt, "The Funeral," ends with clinical inevitability: "The cancer ate her like horse piss eats deep snow."
Increasingly poets have shown interest in subverting linear movement's conventional tie-up of the poem's elements. In 1982 poet John Montague remarked to me that the poems of his young friend Paul Muldoon did not end so much as they simply stopped. The final couplet of Muldoon's "Meeting the British" is an ironic declaration by an unidentified native American who says "They gave us six fishhooks / and two blankets embroidered with smallpox." As hard as it tries to be a non-ending, its understatement stops by indicting an imperialism the poem takes care not to argue. Whether a fitting click, a bumpy summary, a stop, or James Wright's seeming self-contradiction "I have wasted my life," endings are responsible for affirming circularity; for bearing argument and drama forward; for enabling outcome and consequence; for restoring the disorder Wilbur laments. Endings are the poem's last point of contact for introspection, intuition, comprehension, and statement. Endings want power, eloquence, and the heart-knowledge of completion. Poet Stanley Plumly tells students "the end weighs more than the beginning."
Yet no less an authority than Robert Frost seems to have a different opinion when he says an ending is "a momentary stay against confusion." Frost's emphatic fragility in the end-structure shows how an ending is a beginning, a back door to experience not discontinued but ongoing. Something the poem has to say, perhaps Yeats' famous heart-quarrel, never ends, even if the poem quits. And here canny Mr. Frost cues us to the value of what I have called subversion, the poem's counterpoint pressure, an against-the-grain push, a new see-through leverage. Poems of weak endings too often are content with smug, conventional expressions of what our fears want ratified, a predetermined position statement not unlike what Keats makes. Here, too, Mr. Frost is helpful when he says a poem tells us what we knew, but didn't know we knew. Perhaps we might say the poem shows us rather than tells us, and what it shows is typically two parallel journeys, or narratives, one which is literal and one metaphorical. Heaney's journey to the woman in her wheelchair is quite literal but the details he notes are metaphoric—the trees, her window, her gate. Jeffers's fishermen are seekers of secrets upon the timeless ocean, literally, but the journey also takes them before the judgment bar of the risen sea-lions. A poem wants literal and metaphorical journeys to end, like orgasmic partners, more or less simultaneously for reader and writer in rediscovered consciousness. Knowledge, if you like. An unresisted ending feels phoned in, not really felt, not worked enough to earn our sense of weight or rightness. Yet just what we look for in an ending is, like what we look for in a line-break, unknowable—until we see it, and subvert it.
An example of what I mean is Stephen Dunn's "Decorum," about a poetry workshop. A workshop would have staggered Keats, Dickinson, Frost, but we know the routine nakedness, fear, even pain, of offering poems for critique to those who are, let's be honest, strangers. This is a journey to get language right—but for what? Well, to inscribe individual stories of continuity and ending. A workshop in action is also a metaphor at work. Indeed, every poem is and isn't a workshop; it is and isn't words signifying or failing to do so. The struggle for order, or balance, between narrative and lyric becomes, in Dunn's poem, also the struggle between lowbrow and highbrow culture, between what we know and think we know. Dunn's students argue whether the right expression for sexual intercourse is "making love" or "fucking," a word whose use is even today widely taboo. James Wright once called it "a bozo no-no" for poets. Dunn's poem enacts a debate and a chain of changing perspectives as he repeats the taboo word eleven times, in the process defusing its charge and telescoping the core issue for the contemporary poet. I don't mean "fucking" but the language appropriate and necessary for making the poem we want and need. I mean also recognition that endings, even endless endings, prompt us into the shadow narratives, or patterns, that enact those truths, that wisdom, that news that, as Heaney says becomes "more distinctly strange" when "Focused and drawn in by what barred the way." I take it he means the discipline of seeing things from beginning to ending. Which is what circular form does. Here is Stephen Dunn's poem "Decorum." I hope he proves my case.
She wrote, "They were making love
up against the gymnasium wall,"
and another young woman in the class,
serious enough to smile, said
"No, that's fucking, they must
have been fucking," to which many
agreed, pleased to have the proper fit
of word with act.
But an older woman, a wife, a mother,
famous in the class for confusing grace
with decorum and carriage,
said the F-word would distract
the reader, sensationalize the poem.
"Why can't what they were doing
just as easily be called making love?"
It was an intelligent complaint,
and the class proceeded to debate
what's fucking, what's making love,
and the importance of context, tact,
the bon mot. I leaned toward those
who favored fucking; they were funnier
and seemed to have more experience
with the happy varieties of their subject.
But then a young man said, now believing
he had permission, "What's the difference,
you fuck 'em, and you call it making love;
you tell' em what they want to hear."
The class jeered, and another man said
"You're the kind of guy who gives fucking
a bad name," and I remembered how fuck
gets dirty as it moves reptilian
out of certain minds, certain mouths.
The young woman whose poem it was,
small-boned and small-voiced,
said she had no objection to fucking,
but these people were making love, it was
her poem and she herself up against
that gymnasium wall, and it felt like love,
and to hell with all of us.
There was silence. The class turned
to me, their teacher, who they hoped
could clarify, perhaps ease things.
I told them I disliked the word fucking
in a poem, but that fucking
might be right in this instance, yet
I was unsure now, I couldn't decide.
A tear formed and moved down
the poet's cheek. I said I was sure
only of "gymnasium," sure it was
the wrong choice, making the act seem,
too public, more vulgar than she wished.
How about "boat house?" I said.
A kangaroo goes into a bar, orders a scotch. Bartender squints a little, fixes the drink, says "That's twenty bucks."The kangaroo coughs, but pays up, drinks. "What do you do?" bartender says, wiping his glasses. "I'm a poet," the kangaroo says. There's a heavy silence. So he glances around the dim room and adds, "dark down here, isn't it?" Bartender says, "we don't get many like you. Just novelists."
* * *
Georgia State University
Editors: David Bottoms & Megan Sexton