I’ll never know why some poems stand out to me more than others, or why I’m drawn to certain themes more than others, but the two poems that really did something for me in this book are “The Smell of Hay” and “The Cure.”
The Smell of Hay
“The Smell of Hay” opens like this:
If I speak of suffering, / I don’t mean, this time, how it refines us, / I mean less its music than what is music-like / about it — a tendency to diminish to almost nothing, then / it swells back. [. . .]
And it ends like this:
[. . .] On the window’s / glass where the larger moths had beaten / against it, a fine powder, a proof by morning I had only / to blow across. And it flew. It scattered.
There’s a delicacy to these lines, right? Look at those verbs, too: “refines, swells, blow, flew, scattered.” I don’t know why this poem touches me. I don’t know why I like it so much. Maybe it has something to do with the middle:
[. . .] Men who make / / no exceptions. Men who, because they expect everywhere / hard suprises, have themselves grown hard — fazeable, / fazed by nothing. Touch, as a form of collision; / a belief in divinity as a form of nostalgia. [. . .]
These are lovely lines. But I react to them as sentences, not as lines. Poets are big on lines. The line as a unit of measure. But not me. For me, the sentence is the smallest unit of measure. I tend to read past lines, past line breaks or line endings, to just get to the rest of the sentence, to figure out what’s being said. Poets would smack me. There is beauty in the line, the way the individual meanings of lines resonate and come together when they form the bigger sentence . . . at least, I think this is the way poetry works. Is it? See, the line is an incomplete unit to me; because it’s never finished, because it’s a fragment, it makes me anxious. This has got to be due to my entire adult life being devoted to the study of sentences (fiction). It’s so true: I’m completely out of my element when it comes to poetry, which, as I wrote before, baffles me.
On the other hand, I guess even basic human language is made of fragments. Like, the phrase, “I don’t know.” I mean, that’s a fragment. It’s also a sentence. But without context of what came before or what will come after, it’s an incomplete unit of meaning. This helps me, oddly enough. In weird ways.
Anyway, I’ll be honest. I don’t know what “The Smell of Hay” is about. I’ll take a guess, though: the smell of hay. And I react strongly to the opening, “If I speak of suffering” and I react strongly to the ending, “And it flew. It scattered.” So, to me, I mean, I’m not sure I really even care, I could just say that this poem is about suffering and how it flew, how it scattered. I could be, probably am, utterly and totally wrong about this. But maybe not. I do know that it’s probably not cool to skip over everything but the opening and closing lines of a poem and just pretend like the middle doesn’t exist, but what are we doing when we read Sappho?
Imagine “The Smell of Hay” as a fragment, a few lines left behind, found, on parchment. What if that was all we had? The idea of “suffering” and the words “flew” and “scattered.” There’s something lovely in that. Even though, actually, what flies and scatters in the poem is “a fine powder” on “the window’s glass.” I guess, what I’m saying is, you could make an argument that the “fine powder” is like “suffering,” and like “the smell of hay” — something like memory, something like the way memory works.
And what about “The Cure”?
What I like about it is how slowly I have to read it. Made up of eight long-line tercets, the poem could be a quick read. But it isn’t. At least not to me. I learned once that tercets can be interesting because they can create a “braiding” effect . . . like, the lines weave in and out. And if a poem written in tercets has an ABABAB rhyme scheme, then it would actually look like this: ABA BAB, which is interesting, in that the braiding/weaving effect could be used to sort of, I don’t know, hypnotize, or repeat, or lull by way of patterning.
Now add to this form other kinds of touches, like word repetition, and you end up with the overall effect that makes a poem harder to read — maybe not difficult — but hard enough that it slows you down. For instance:
The tree stood dying — dying slowly, in the usual manner
of trees, slowly, but not without its clusters of spring leaves
taking shape again, already. The limbs that held them tossed,
shifted, the light fell as it does, through them, through it
sometimes looked as if the light were being shaken, as if
by the branches — the light, like leaves, had it been autumn [. . .]
There’s something slow and deliberate about this poem, which I like very much. But, the truth is, I’d rather read it as prose. I’d rather read this entire poem as a prose poem. Phillips would probably strangle me. I realize how much time and attention goes into making these decisions, the decisions to use tercets instead of quatrains or couplets, the decision to end lines here instead of there, but the tercets don’t add anything for me, and ending 2 out of 6 lines on “it” and “if” doesn’t excite me. I could be completely missing the point, but these fragments are not interesting to me, and they never will be, at least not as long as that other unit of meaning exists — the sentence.
OK, so I am probably missing the point, and this is probably due to my complete and total failure as a student of poetry, but the more poetry I read the more I realize how much I miss prose, how much more sense it makes, how much more pleasure there is in reading . . . for me, not everyone, but for me.