Stern’s “Swan Legs”

Despite finally succumbing to the cold that everyone here has been passing around since Christmas, I managed to finish the last hundred pages of Gerald Stern’s This Time in the last two days.

Unfortunately, I found it more of a struggle than I did for the first third of the book, as Stern pushes further and further into a world that I don’t particularly understand, and, more importantly, don’t identify with, whether it is the industrialized East Coast or the Cultural world of Pavarotti .

Although I did find the much-mentioned “Both of Them Were Sixty-Five” where Stern describes his introduction of his mother Ida to Aaron Copeland rather entertaining, I seldom identified with most of the poems here, perhaps with the exception of this one:

SWAN LEGS

just for a second, when Mao stood up and walked
out of the theater in Leningrad the swan
stopped dancing and Khruschev just shrugged his shoulders
and lowered his eyes. Mao's hatred of tutus
prevailed as his hatred of Russian food
and his hatred of clean napkins. Nixon and Kissinger
sat for the swan in Washington-they passed
notes between them and when they were finished reading
they tore them in tiny pieces. The swan believed
in suffering so she floated across the stage,
well, sort of floated, and so it goes; the pricks
down there in their seats they couldn't care less, they feasted
on swan legs, they took care of themselves,
yet why should I pick on them, there is enough
feasting even without them. I usually know
pricks, the swan is lucky for such a bird
to do what she does to music, to do it to song,
her head in the air, so misunderstood and hated,
so wrongly loved; first her dark beak swaying,
and that is the violin, and then her leaping,
and that is the harp, or the comb-look at me forgetting
the comb, and the sweet potato, when I was a swan
myself, and I almost floated; the one I remember
she sang and trilled a little, that was a swan
with a voice, the thigh is wider than a chicken's,
the flesh is dark and stringy; it was vinegar
they forced down the throat, plain distilled white vinegar,
to soften the wild flesh and kill the suffering.

Though I suspect Stern might place me closer to Mao than to himself, as a lover of some of the arts it’s hard to miss that world leaders seldom share that love. Though, considering Mao’s renown as a poet, it’s a little surprising that Stern chose his lack of appreciation of Russian ballet to skewer him.

It’s probably not entirely coincidental that literary people were so fond of Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy, rare American leaders that seemed fond of literature and the arts.

Of course, I’m still enough of an old-world socialist that I can identify with the lines “the pricks/ down there in their seats they couldn't care less, they feasted/ on swan legs, they took care of themselves.” Even Democrats seem more concerned with taking care of themselves than taking care of those who believe “in suffering.”

I’ll have to admit, though, that I’m not quite sure what to do with last part of the poem and the lines “that was a swan/ with a voice, the thigh is wider than a chicken's,/ the flesh is dark and stringy,” but I’ve never had to completely understand a poem to appreciate it.

Stern’s “Hanging Scroll”

I’m probably going to be tied up with Christmas activities until next week, but I did find time to read another hundred pages in Stern’s This Time while I was at Leavenworth, so I thought I’d post my favorite poem from this section of the book.

I’ll have to admit that I was a little disappointed with many of the poems in this section as they were too “literary” for my taste, with references to classical composers, writers, and, mainly, famous poets.

Even though this poem contains the same key literary reference, it does so in a way that I can identify with, particularly with my recent fondness of Chinese and Japanese literature, not to mention a long attraction to Zen paintings:

HANGING SCROLL

I have come back to Princeton three days in a row
to look at the brown sparrow in the apple branch.
That way I can get back in touch with the Chinese
after thirty years of silence and paranoid reproach.
It was painted seven hundred years ago by a Southerner
who was struggling to combine imitation and expression,
but nowhere is there a sense that calligraphy
has won the day, or anything lifeless or abstract.
I carry it around with me on a postcard,
the bird in the center, the giant green leaves
surrounding the bird, the apples almost invisible,
their color and position chosen for obscurity-
somehow the sizes all out of whack, the leaves
too large, the bird too small, too rigid,
too enshrined for such a natural setting,
although this only comes slowly to mind
after many hours of concentration.

On my tree there are six starlings sitting and watching
with their heads in the air and their short tails under the twigs.
They are just faint shapes against a background of fog,
moving in and out of my small windows
as endless versions of the state of darkness.
The tree they are in is practically dead,
making it difficult for me to make plans
for my own seven hundred years
as far as critical position, or permanence.
-If the hanging scroll signifies a state
of balance, a state almost of tension
between a man and nature or a man and his dream,
then my starlings signify the tremendous
delicacy of life and the tenuousness of attachment.
This may sound too literary-too German-

but, for me, everything hangs in the balance
in the movement of those birds,
just as, in my painter,
his life may have been hanging from the invisible apple
or the stiff tail feathers or the minuscule feet.
I don't mean to say that my survival
depends upon the artistic rendering;
I mean that my one chance for happiness
depends on wind and strange loyalty and a little bark,
which I think about and watch and agonize over
day and night,
like a worried spirit
waiting for love.

Though I’m actually rather fond of scrolls where “calligraphy/ has won the day” I also identify with his appreciation of the bird’s “realism,” even though he later discovers it’s not that realistic.

Like Stern, for me art is most valuable not for itself, but, rather, because it makes me see the real world more clearly. An artist who captures a particular pose of a Heron, for instance, tends to make me more aware of that pose when I actually see it live.

The greatest artists are those who make us see life itself in a new way, make us see our relationship to life itself. To realize “a state/ of balance, a state almost of tension/ between a man and nature or a man and his dream.” Our very happiness may depend on such ephemeral moments.

“This Time”

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that it’s possible to fit some reading into even the busiest days. For too long I learned how to read in doctor’s waiting rooms, but even now that I’m feeling relatively healthy I take a poetry book with me when I know I’m going to have to wait, as I did today when I took the RAV4 into Les Schwab’s to have the snow tires mounted.

I finally started reading Gerald Stern’s This Time, a book I’ve had on my Amazon wish list since I first mentioned it on June 9, 2003 and recently purchased. If I’d read the first poem in the book

THE BITE

I didn't start taking myself seriously as a poet
until the white began to appear in my cheek.
All before was amusement and affection-
now, like a hare, like a hare, like a hare,
I watch the turtle lift one horrible leg
over the last remaining stile and head
for home, practically roaring with virtue.
Everything, suddenly everything is up there in the mind,
all the beauty of the race gone
and my life merely an allegory.

before, I would probably have gotten too it much sooner. Heck, this sounds like my life, not the part about taking myself seriously as a poet because I still don’t do that, but the final lines when “suddenly everything is up there in the mind” and I head "for home, practically roaring with virtue.” Now that I’ve retired I finally have time to be the student of life that I always wanted to be but was too busy living to remember.

Many of Stern’s poems have dark overtones to them, but they usually contain an exquisite awareness that in the end redeems that darkness, even one like this:

BOB SUMMERS: THE FINAL POEM

There are two men I know who wander around all winter as I do,
half listening and half falling over rocks and curbs.
One is a bicyclist who pedals all day on
an old balloon-tire bike through Upper Black Eddy;
the other is a bridge-walker who wears a long army
overcoat with "P.O.W." still faintly printed across the back.
There was a third who walked down the streets of Philadelphia,
touching base at the Chess Club and Frank's and the Greek's
like a farmer, or beggar, doing the daily round.
If you saw just the back of his head
and his hands waving you would know he was leading you
through one of his darker arguments;
if you followed him further
you would be dragged to a place where every connection was smashed
and the brain had trouble sorting out its own riches.
I last saw him concentrating with all his power
on the problem of simple existence,
trying to match words with places
and blurred thoughts with things,
reducing everyone who knew him or came near him
to a state of either pity or shame
because of his strangeness and clumsiness.
I remember the rope he carried
and the knot of terror he fingered as he daydreamed,
the knot of release, hanging slack like a crown
over the back of his neck,
always ready to guide him through his weakness,
ready to give him back his health and wisdom.

I’m hoping that not too many people actually hear me talking to myself while I’m out walking, or at least think that I’m talking to Skye, not writing poetry in my head, listening to voices from the past or to my other self, the one who knows what I’m really trying to say when I can’t figure it out on my own.

Luckily, I can’t wave my hands in the air because I’m too busy holding Skye back, trying to make sure he doesn’t finally manage to leave me behind.

Most of the time I even steer away from the “problem of simple existence” and focus on less important ideas, knowing that it’s unlikely I’m ever going to manage to solve that one.

I suppose this poem really isn’t in the Christmas mood, but it did remind me to go home and finally write that check to the Salvation Army that I’ve been putting off because of more important things, like writing entries on my web site that no one’s going to read because they’ve all gone home for Christmas.

The Poetry of Gerald Stern

Right after I finished my blog entry "The Wasteland of My Heart," I received a NY Times Tracker poetry alert. Upon opening the link, I was introduced to Gerald Stern, A Poet Raging Against Pretension (and Princeton). Nothing too unusual about that, I receive these updates regularly. However, once I read:

Mr. Stern loves poetry, not for its deftness or technical structure but its ability to transmit the deepest human emotions, "passion, anger, love, justice and fear."

I knew that I was obliged to spend the next few hours running down his poetry and checking him out on the web. I certainly wasn't deterred by the final quote in the article:

"Poetry should be passionate and outrageous and political and most of all revolutionary," he said. "I am a radical, although as I get older sometimes I get too soft and am just a liberal."

Of course, I don't consider myself radical, though some might, but I hope I've let it be known that I am liberal, and judging from what I found the same kind of liberal that Gerald Stern is.

In the old days I would have had to get my lazy ass up, get myself dressed and travel miles to a book store, and probably not my local B Dalton bookstore, either, because it's poetry section has been shrinking and shrinking ever since it opened a few years ago. This morning, though, after a minimal search I was confronted with a virtual cornucopia of Stern poems, and a number of revealing essays at the same time.

First I went to pbs.org and found an interview with Elizabeth Farnsworth and Stern. For those already satiated with reading, there's even a real audio interview, with the added advantage of getting to hear Stern read two of his poems, a real treat for those of us who believe that all poetry really has to be heard to be fully appreciated.

For me, the most revealing part of the interview came in the following exchange:

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You have - in your poems there are many poems about the Holocaust. This is something - there's a great sense of loss in all of your work, which I think comes from that partly. GERALD STERN: It partly comes from that. It comes from personal matters - the death of my sister. It comes from family matters - one is not altogether sure. But, of course, loss and the elegy remain the most typical poem of our period.

but there are certainly other insights to be found here.

Seven of his poems can be found at Norton poets online, where, naturally enough, you can find a listing of all of his poetry books, while another three, and an excellent mp3 recording, can be found at http:/The Hapless Dilettante. Another link to eight poems, some of which overlap the above, can be found at Gerald Stern

At The Academy of American Poets you can find three poems and a reading of "The Dancing," my favorite poem from the selection of poems I have found:

THE DANCING
In all these rotten shops, in all this broken furniture
and wrinkled ties and baseball trophies and coffee pots
I have never seen a post-war Philco
with the automatic eye
nor heard Ravel's "Bolero" the way I did
in 1945 in that tiny living room
on Beechwood Boulevard, nor danced as I did
then, my knives all flashing, my hair all streaming,
my mother red with laughter, my father cupping
his left hand under his armpit, doing the dance
of old Ukraine, the sound of his skin half drum,
half fart, the world at last a meadow,
the three of us whirling and singing, the three of us
screaming and falling, as if we were dying,
as if we could never stop--in 1945--
in Pittsburgh, beautiful filthy Pittsburgh, home
of the evil Mellons, 5,000 miles away
from the other dancing--in Poland and Germany--
oh God of mercy, oh wild God.

With all these opportunities to meet new poets and to read samples of their work online without having to find them in a college library perhaps poetry can still be relcaimed from the universities and brought back to the general public.