A short lesson in poetry.

Sainte Jeanne d'Arc

Poetry returns to me in small pieces. I miss it. My last good poem was dark with fury, so I’m not sure how many poetical words I have in me right now. In any case, my most recent poem is a short and simple and I thought I’d use it to point out something in poetry that is also simple, but very important. The key is a kind of “not-saying.” A silence with the purpose of saying something.

So then. Here’s the poem, a brief stanza:

I lay silently in the grass.
Arms stretched out.
All angled like a compass rose.
I closed my eyes.
The sun burned bright.
Hot all along my skin.
And I remembered another fire.
And Joan’s final word.

It’s neither the best nor the worst poem. I think it gets a bit choppy right about when the sun appears. Didn’t quite pull off the one sentence thing without sounding a bit like a robot. Simplicity is difficult, you know. Anyway: it’s a simple image. The speaker, or “me” – don’t confuse the actual me with the “I” in a poem (take that, Romanticism) – or whoever, lays down on the grass. It’s warm. Then the poet thinks about some Joan person who died saying something. End.

Nice, um… Well. Sorry about Grandma Joan who died in a fire? The sun sounds nice, at least.

What is all this?

If you’re familiar with any Joan associated a fire, it’s probably Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc). A saint of the Catholic Church, Joan was a young French peasant who kicked the asses of English armies in the 15th century, driving them backward across France and dragging that lazy punk Charles to Reims so he could be crowned king. This was during the famous Hundred Years’ War. She was captured by the English and tried for a number of things, mainly heresy, and they were very upset about her cross-dressing too. She wore armor, after all. This was seen as evidence of her heterodoxy for…reasons. Point is: they wanted her dead, and they searched for ways to make that happen. Then they made it happen. Let’s keep in mind that everyone is Catholic at this point. So Catholic France rallied behind Catholic Joan of Arc, and Catholic England captured her and condemned her. She was burned at the stake.

Now she’s a saint.

As G.K. Chesterton says of Joan, “The Canonisation of St. Joan came very slowly and very late. But the Rehabilitation of St. Joan came very promptly and very early. It is a very exceptional example of rapid reparation for a judicial crime or a miscarriage of justice. … [I]f we take the tale of St. Joan as a test, the really remarkable thing is not so much the slowness of the Church to appreciate her, as the slowness of everybody else” (from “The Early Bird in History”).

In any case, this is the Joan of the fire in the poem. The poem simply expects us to know that, and good luck making sense of the thing without knowing it. And what was Joan’s last word? It is said – with a fair chance at historical accuracy – that Joan’s last words as she died were, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!” The poem elides this into one word, but all the same: it doesn’t say it. It expects us to supply the last word and, even, the real end of the poem itself. “Jesus.”

Fun fact: my own favorite words of Joan from her trial, other than these, involve her response to her captors as they continually pestered her about the saints she saw and spoke with. “Do they speak French?” they’d ask, mocking her. She’d never respond. Finally, they pushed her to the end of her patience. Again they asked of the saints, “Do they speak French?” Right there in the records of the trial, we can see her snap, “Better French than you!”

Haha. Teenagers.

So then, I need to know something already before the poem can be a poem to me. Almost all poems do this – all words do it, too – reaching out to what we already know in order to offer us meaning. Words speak through a shared world of understanding or “text” (Ricoeur), taking advantage of an “echo” (Hollander, Vanden Eykel), since words have metaphorical ranges mapped neurally in the brain (Masson), and we arrive at the meaning in words through their approximation to other words (Derrida). To shove aside the philosophers and theologians, I mean this: nothing speaks to us unless we speak back. We actually have to offer ourselves to what we read.

You’ve got to know, or figure out, who Joan of Arc is and what her last word is to understand the poem. Not because the poem fails, but because the poem is being a poem. Just saying it is philosophy; not saying it is poetry. Both are meaningful, but they mean differently.

Now, if I’ve solved the simple puzzle of the poem – a simplicity that presumes Christianity in order for it to actually be simple, a presumption that fascinates me even though I’m the one who wrote the damn thing – I’ve got at the basic meaning of the poem. If I go back and read again, as poems always demand, some new details come forward. For example, if I don’t know what a compass rose is, I can guess a bit even without looking it up: something cross-like, probably, or in any case the speaker is splayed out lazily on the ground. The image is sharper if I look back and I am able to supply some of the last words of the poem to the first words: something cruciform or Jesus-shaped is there. The explicit comparison of fires (sunlight and burning execution) stands out more clearly, if not rather more strangely. Why in the hell would this person be at peace imagining being on fire? Well.

Jesus.

And to get that, the poem seems to beg for a specific way of thinking about him.

Not that it says what that is. No: that’s ours to give.

Oh, and, uh… *cough* I kind of have a book coming out about this stuff. In case you wondered why I could list a bunch of thinkers on the same thing. And please click on that photo above! Father Lawrence is a Dominican who takes the greatest religious photos ever.

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One thought on “A short lesson in poetry.

  1. danielimburgia says:

    I very much like this poem and I have read it several times. I often find the writing by painters about art to be boring and un-insightful (exceptions are Van Gogh, Goethe, Barbara Kruger) but there is a lot of writing by poets on poetry that I very much enjoy (Goethe again, WCW, Charles Bernstein, lots more too) I especially like it when poets critique their own work like you have done here. Much obliged.

    (Oh, p.s., Should the reader assume that the poem ends when the “Speaker” says it does? I mean, the whole essay could be labeled a ‘Prose Poem’ or something couldn’t it? Who polices these things anyway? I mean these rules about “saying” and “not-saying,” whose really to say? I very much like this arrangement of words though, “nothing speaks to us unless we speak back. We actually have to offer ourselves to what we read.” But is that poetry or prose? And how does my reception or critique differ for each? I can say this, I admire poems like this one that cause me to question myself and are written in a way that invites me to share in its exposure. A lot of what Bakhtin writes in “Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics,” resonates with your insight on words reaching out. He says, “Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction” (Bakhtin p.110). And a bit later He says that the “dialogic nature of consciousness, the dialogic nature of human life itself. The single adequate form for verbally expressing authentic human existence is the open-ended dialogue. Life by its very nature is dialogic. To live means to participate in dialogue: to ask questions, to heed, to respond, to agree, and so forth. In this dialogue a person participates wholly and throughout his whole life: with his eyes, lips, hands, soul, spirit, with his whole body and deeds. He invests his entire self in discourse, and this discourse enters into the dialogic fabric of human life, into the world symposium” (1984, p.293). I like that idea of poetry/language as a ‘world symposium,’ (much more Foucault than Hollander though?). However, you express some dis-satisfaction with what you call ‘choppiness,’ so may I ask, how do those periods function for you at the end of each verse? Do you want to close up each verse that tightly? If so that’s fine by me and the poem works well for me that way. But If you are concerned about choppiness then you might try eliminating the periods. Of course, the periods may do other work for you in this poem and so you want to leave them? Another way to correct for perceived choppiness in using enjambment on verses 2 and 7? Maybe it would read like this:

    I lay silently in the grass
    Arms stretched out all
    Angled like a compass rose
    I closed my eyes
    The sun burned bright
    Hot all along my skin and
    I remembered another fire
    Joan’s final word

    But I never noticed the choppiness though (at least until you mentioned it lol!). I thought the verse structure rendered unto the words a kind of compelling declarative authority that drew me through (though maybe not as much into) the poem. But maybe that’s for the writer and reader to decide together? The “poem” you say though, “…simply expects us to know that…” about Joan’s last words. I am wondering though how the “Poem” does that expecting? Are we dealing with a third entity here, a trinity of agents, including writer and speaker? Oy vey! Well, again, i very much admire this poem and I look fwd to reading more and your new book soon. Blessings and much obliged.

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