Month: April 2016

Andrew Purcell, Ed. at Journal of Applied Poetics, Writes on Alexandra Teague’s “Adjectives of Order”

If you leaf through a copy of Best New Poets 2008 you’ll find Alexandra Teague’s “Adjectives of Order,” which was originally published on Slate. As you might guess by the title, this is a poem that self-consciously flirts with the vagaries of English grammar. Having worked with ESL students and myself having once laid claim to the grim khanate of the grammar nerd, I was instinctively poised against this poem from the outset. It’s not fair and it’s not right, but my judgment begins at the title, and this one was struck me as too clever by half.

As an aside, I know this isn’t conducive to the best reception of a poem. When I go to readings, I always have a beer or two beforehand or a coffee while I’m there in order to lower my barriers. So if you’re trying to get a friend interested in poetry, you might try the minor pharmacopoeia to coax them along:

“Adjectives of Order”
By Alexandra Teague

That summer, she had a student who was obsessed
with the order of adjectives. A soldier in the South
Vietnamese army, he had been taken prisoner when

Saigon fell. He wanted to know why the order
could not be altered. The sweltering city streets shook
with rockets and helicopters. The city sweltering

streets.On the dusty brown field of the chalkboard,
she wrote: The mothertook warm homemade bread
from the oven. City is essential to streets as homemade

is essential to bread. He copied this down, but
he wanted to know if his brothers were lost before
older, if he worked security at a twenty-story modern

downtown bank or downtown twenty-story modern.
When he first arrived, he did not know enough English
to order a sandwich. He asked her to explain each part

of Lovelybig rectangular old red English Catholic
leather Bible. Evaluation before size. Age before color.
Nationality before religion. Time before length. Adding

and, one could determine if two adjectives were equal.
After Saigon fell, he had survived nine long years
of torture. Nine and long. He knew no other way to say this.

Back to Teague’s poem. Turns out, I fell head over heels for it. The narrative structure, though looping in time, is simple to interpret. This frees you to consider the rules governing the order of adjectives and map them onto the narrative. Like a clockwork, the simplicity of the face belies the complexity of the mechanism. And because the poem is compact, you can easily recenter on moments that may have initially escaped notice. “He wanted to know why the order / could not be altered,” once glossed, now blossoms.

The observations about the order of adjectives are alternately curious and profound. “Evaluation before size”; “nationality before religion.” And because the observations map so organically back onto the narrative, they never risk turning coy or pedantic. In a poem that rides on a conceit of grammar, that’s no small exploit.
The last line (“Nine and long. He knew no other way to say this.”) of course calls to mind Forché’s “The Colonel,” but Teague’s narrative inverts the roles so that the “subject” of the poem is a victim and the poet is the one doing the instructing. Yet in a strange way, the reader is left in the same position at the end of both poems, which is why I like to teach these two poems in concert.

Andrew Purcell

4/14/2016

 

P.S.

Alexandra Teague is the author of Mortal Geography and The Wise And Foolish Builders.

 

Andrew Purcell currently lives in Philadelphia, where he runs and edits the literary journal: The Journal of Applied Poetics.  His poetry and reviews have appeared in various publications across the country such as The Adirondack ReviewThe Baltimore Review, BirdfeastForge, The Freshwater ReviewThe Los Angeles Review,  NightBlock, Weave Magazine, and others.  Click Here to see him read @ Syracuse in 2012 w/ introduction by Bruce Smith.

A Happy Poem: A Few Words on James Wright’s “TODAY I WAS SO HAPPY…”

Look how happy James Wright looks on this horse (with Robert Bly holding the reins):
48. James Wright and Robert Bly

James Wright was one of the first poets I fell in love with, and as an early student of free verse, it was important for me to see and understand the power of his book, The Branch Will Not Break, which ushers in not just a new personal approach to poetry for Wright, but marks a significant shift away from American formal poetry towards a more expressive, organic free verse.

Often I have students who chime in and say that all the poems I show them are incredibly sad, and they ask for a happy poem.  They don’t like it when I try to tell them that sad poems are also happy.  Who cares about art that makes a negative experience transcend into beauty? Give us something happy! And so I usually bust this James Wright poem out whenever I get that complaint:

TODAY I WAS SO HAPPY, SO I MADE THIS POEM

by James Wright

As the plump squirrel scampers
Across the roof of the corncrib,
The moon suddenly stands up in the darkness,
And I see that it is impossible to die.
Each moment of time is a mountain.
An eagle rejoices in the oak trees of heaven,
Crying
This is what I wanted.

The title for the poem helps establish the mood because it gives us the occasion or the reason behind the poem’s–our speaker, our poet, is so happy he feels compelled to write this poem.  With so many poems stemming from a place of isolation and despair, so many poems that are elegies, or that highlight the depraved and grimy living conditions of American life, it’s rare to see a poem that so openly declares itself optimistic.  And so it’s a great example of a “happy” poem to show off.

More than that, it’s a tiny little poem that operates according to pretty basic free verse conventions.  We have a setting established in the opening lines, and we can from the speaker’s POV that we are somewhere in the country, observing nature.  The juxtaposition of the squirrel and the moon widens the scope of the speaker’s vision.  He moves from the small little scurrying animal to the cosmic, and though moons usually plague a lot of poetry, here the moon’s nuance, and seems to arrive with an epiphany: it is impossible to die.

Wait? How is it impossible to die? We all die.  We all know that we die, so what is Wright trying to say?  The way I read this epiphany is: because each moment of time is damn near infinite (is a mountain), time’s slack, it’s depth and dimension allow us to soak in each moment to such degree that death disappears from consciousness, gets jettisoned from the frontal lobe.

The poem ends with our speaker personifying the desires of the eagle, suggesting that the eagle is rejoicing, but also Wright seems to be dumping the speaker’s realizations and feelings onto the bird.  “This is what I wanted,” seems to be the speaker’s sentiment about the moment in nature, about the epiphany.  Wright’s able to do a lot of psychological work quickly, and without too much overly calculated steering.  I feel like I arrive at the epiphany in much the same way he did because of the telescoping, the camera angles.  It’s a beautiful and highly charged poem.  And if you can get beyond the central focus on death, you can see that it’s pretty damn happy.  Which is a feat in itself.

Taylor Collier
4/12/2016

A Few Words on W.B. Yeats’s “A Coat”

W.B. Yeats is one of the most famous poets to ever write in the English language.  His work straddled the 19th and 20th centuries, and he’s one of the best narrative poets, an Irish national treasure.  Here’s one of his shorter, simpler poems, which reveals the kind of playfulness and delight in that final word:

2016-03-05 19.01.14

The poem works as a conceit, or an extended metaphor.  The song (or poem) that our speaker makes into a coat is actually referencing poetry, which also makes the poem an ars poetica, where the poem discusses its own creation.  So what did our speaker embroider into this coat, this song? Old stories from every part of the body (from head to toe is too much a cliche, so we dance around it with “heel to throat” which is more precise anyway).

We have a shift in the poem after the semi-colon with the word “But.”  But what happened to the coat our speaker made out of their song? The fools caught it! So here the song and coat create  interesting tensions in the different ways the fools can catch them.  Physically, but also figuratively.  And what did the fools do? Wore that coat, that song in the world’s eyes as though it had come from them.  So our speaker here complains that his creation gets commandeered by fools, by idiots, who want to take credit for it.

But rather than get angry with these fools, which seems like my natural impulse, our speaker shows us a different way of reacting to this feeling of being robbed or betrayed: let them take it.  Don’t worry song, don’t worry coat, these people can have you.  Why? Because, and obviously here’s the funny part:  there’s more to be gained in walking naked.  The sentiment seems funny, satisfying the rhyme from “take it,” but it’s also rings to an air of truth.  Sure, what good’s a coat, a song, that’s been yanked away? Better to be raw, exposed, and not wrapped in those old mythologies.  Better not to be in the company of fools.  So let them take it.

Taylor Collier
4/2/2016

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