Some of the greatest poems, like hugely magnificent oil paintings or like elaborate classical symphonies, are not easy to comprehend. Poems like Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” or his “Intimations” Ode or the psychological work Browning does in poems like “Fra Lippo Lippi” or “Andrea del Sarto” are not the matter of a ten-minute read. What you can do, however, if you’d like more great poetry in your life is look upon the great long lyrical poems or the sweeping narrative poems as new friendships. Slowly, gradually, with regular visits, the poem will unfold its aesthetic splendors and its wisdom. Soon it will touch you. Perhaps you begin by appreciating just one phrase—“the still sad music of humanity”. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?” “I have measured out my life in coffee-spoons.” “Death is the mother of beauty”. “Old age hath yet his honour and his toil”. “Postmen like doctors go from house to house.” “I could say elves to him, but it’s not elves exactly”.
I never much liked Beethoven’s cerebral late quartets when I was young; I preferred the rousing symphonies. I didn’t really see the point of Mark Rothko for years. I had to sit in sundry galleries and be with Rothko’s work for a long time before I could say that I had the fumbling beginnings of an “I’ve got it” moment that has made me want to sit with him again. And I love Beethoven’s late quartets now and cannot imagine how I failed to appreciate the deep comprehension of humanity within them.
I don’t require all the art in the world to be magisterial and profound. Poetry has delights comparable to light music or to a simple sketch. The hook for me can be an odd or intriguing image; a strange group of words that conjures up a response. Some great poems can be like an amuse-bouche, a sonatina giocosa, a sketch of a toucan or a small water-color of a purple fish. I especially enjoy the kinds of poems that I call “strange ballets.” These are poems with a bizarre verbal choreography. Poems that go herkimer-jerkimer. Poems that address the glory of the Triscuit rather than the Trinity. Poems that make sudden lurches, jetés, glissades, a pas de chat, a moonwalk, a dos-a-dos.
Some of the “strange ballets” I love include Gene Kelly in “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” and Fred Astaire doing “Shine on My Shoes.” Similarly, a strange ballet of a poem is riveting if well-executed. It deserves your attention even if it’s just a glance.
I’m going to post a poem that is neither profound, nor great. It’s not brilliant. But it amuses. It’s playful and it’s strange.
Earthy Anecdote (1923)
Every time the bucks went clattering
A firecat bristled in the way.
Wherever they went,
They went clattering,
Until they swerved
In a swift, circular line
To the right,
because of the firecat.
Or until they swerved
in a swift, circular line
To the left,
Because of the firecat.
The bucks clattered.
The firecat went leaping,
to the right, to the left,
Bristled in the way.
Later, the firecat closed his bright eyes
By Wallace Stevens
I enjoy the images and the language here. Why is this an “anecdote”? What is a “firecat” anyhow? Why “Oklahoma”? What kind of buck?” Is there but one firecat or do the bucks encounter a firecat wherever they go? Why “earthy?”
Asking such questions of the poem amuses me, but the most important thing is the image: the swerving, the circular lines, the majestic colors of a poem that never mentions color. This poem is indeed a fine and inventive amuse-bouche.