Stevens: Poems of poetry

A lot of the work we have read so far has been poems were poetry itself was the subject. I would say that Wallace Stevens’  “Of Modern Poetry” is the most blatant example of this trend, which is by no means a criticism, just an observation. I read the poem as a whole as something of an ode to the contemporary poetry of the time, which retrospectively consider to be Modernist. The poet is the “actor” and the “theatre” in this poem represents the world of poetry as a whole, which had changed drastically in recent decades. I thought the lines “Its past was a souvenir/It has to be living” reminded me a lot of Pound’s urging to “make it new”. It really encapsulates the drive of the time to break free from past restrictions and make poetry unique. I was curious about what people thought of the final lines “The poem of the act of the mind”. I interpreted this as meaning that poetry should be a pure, articulated expression of ones conscious, unconstrained by outdated poetic modes of writing and contrived emotions. What do you guys think?

“The Plain Sense of Things” also seems to be a poem about writing poetry. The narrator seemed to be a poet who had reached the end of his creative rope, or as Stevens puts it “an end of the imagination”. He sees the world around him without any romantic illusions, and sees the world around him as it really is, in all its dreary decreptiness. The structure of the poem seems to reflect this melancholy, it is structured in neat, four-line stanzas, yet the meter felt off when I read it. Yet by the end of the poem the narrator reflects that “the absence of imagination had/Itself to be imagined” so in fact he still does have his imagination to be able to perceive the world as “plain”. Again I want to pose a question regarding the last line of this poem. When Stevens says that the plain sense of things “Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,/Required, as a necessity requires.” do you believe he is trying to tell the readers that humans need imagination because the cannot face reality without it?

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T.S. Elliot – A man who loves his opposites.

In “Journey of the Magi”, Elliot chronicles the journey of one of the Magi on their way to the city of Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus. He describes the grotesqueness of the palaces they pass, but soon make their way to Bethlehem where it is teeming with life as seen through his mention of “vegetation” and “trees” (that allude to Jesus’ death) (lines 22 and 24). The Magi reminisces about the birth/death that he witnesses and wishes that he could go back there, and he is obviously unhappy with his home. From this I gather that T. S. Elliot may be trying to deal with the world changed forever after WWI, and now what was once was familiar has become “alien” (line 42). A good question then would be why Elliot would liken a war to Jesus’ birth/death.  What connection is there? The comparison between the beginning of the poem and the end of the poem is very interesting, and I wonder what point Elliot was trying to make by contrasting the Magi’s palace to the lively green of Bethlehem. In his other poem, “Bunt Norton” he does the same thing of contrasting past and future. Why does he love opposites so much? What do you guys think? Another question; what does it mean in the last line when he talks about death? His own? Someone else’s? An era? Let me know what you guys think.

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Langston Hughes: ask your mama

“Ask Your Mama” is a departure from what we are used to reading from Langston Hughes. 12 sections long, it could be properly described as an epic poem. With the experimental style of the poem, I think that this is an attempt by Hughes to move toward modernism. With that being said, it is still fairly accessible to many people, especially those who understand the cultural references that he is making in the piece.

First, “ask your mama” shows Hughes toying with the typical structures of poetry. Using stanzas of varying length and complexity, he showcases a dexterity of word play that describe a wide variety of images, people, and places. This serves to jumble the reader’s perception of what a poem is, i.e. “making it new”. This form is accompanied by musical notation that is to be played along with the reading of the piece. Hughes meticulously plans out sections for jazz, blues, African drums, and German lieder. The playing of these songs would then serve to further his point in what he was writing. For instance, in the middle of the “Cultural Exchange” section, Hughes writes “Dream and nightmares…nightmares…dreams! Oh! Dreaming that the Negroes/ of the South have taken over.” It is at this point that the music changes abruptly from the “Hesitation Blues” to the unofficial standard of the white South “Dixie”. This shift forces the reader to come to understand Hughes intent on two levels, thus increasing its potency.

As for the cultural allusions that Hughes makes, it would be much easier for a person to understand if they knew those who he was referencing. Personally, I found it very difficult to understand precisely what he was saying, as I was unfamiliar with some of his references. Upon looking them up, I found that many were influential black politicians of the time, such as Adam Powell and Zik Akizawe. These were people who were fighting for the rights of African Americans, and people who Hughes looked up to. So in a way, these allusions to the broader world could read differently to people in the know about these politicians. Reading through it the first time, I sort of just read them as names on a page. Going back however, I began to see subversive political themes pop up in his writing. I would think that someone who was politically minded at the time would see these themes and have a different reading than a first timer such as myself.

In the end, I believe this poem shows Hughes moving closer towards modernism. His weaving of music into the poetry as well as his experimental structure indicate a willingness to explore different ways of constructing poetry than what he had written before. With this, his allusions in the piece would lend different readings to different audiences, those who understood them and those who didn’t (such as myself). Its length and complexity lends itself to much interpretation, and it was a fascinating read.

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What to “Ask Your Mama”: Is this a modernist poem?

After the success of the Wasteland they’re seemed to be a great number of poets trying to achieve their own success with a “long poem”. Langston Hughes was certainly following in this trend when he wrote “Ask Your Mama”, a very ambitious work that strove to capture the experience not just of African American life, but the African diaspora as a whole.  Though the structural aspects of this poem differ from typical Hughes work, his style remains distinctly original, separating it from more romantic long poems such as “The Bridge” and the modernist works of Pound and Eliot.

There is an essential accessibility to “Ask your Mama” that is inherent to nearly all of Hughes’ poems. The language itself can be easily understood by most readers and lacks the more esoteric verbiage of Crane, it is both poetic and direct. Even more noticeable is the distinction between the allusions Hughes uses in this poem and those used by Pound and Eliot. Both of these modernist icons filled their poems with classical, European and biblical allusions, many of which were quiet obscure. Even with the addition of footnotes, the preeminence of these references throughout Pound and Eliot’s poems firmly set their target audience at the highly educated. Hughes allusions are more universal, most of the people he references are African-American cultural figures that would have been familiar to both black and white readers. Even the indirect allusions are relatively easy to figure out, page 490 for instance refers to “A Train that lost no passengers/On the Line whose route was freedom” which is followed almost immediately by a reference to the Quakers. He never says the words “Underground Railroad” yet relies on the widely known cultural connection between the Quakers and the anti-slavery movement that the reader can put two and two together. This also reinforces his belief in rejecting European influence in favor of a more American and specifically black cultural one.

I found the endnotes of this poem to be a very curious thing, since the function they serve is more like cliff notes. Hughes essential explains what was happening in each section of the poem and what its significance was. Everything that was implied within the framework of the poem is thus made explicit at the end, which I was not sure how to feel about. Well the endnotes did clear up a few misconceptions I had while reading their very inclusion here seems to undermine the poem itself. What was the point of putting all that work into presenting this message in poetic verse if you were just going to explain it at the end. But the more I thought about it the more I realized that these endnotes serve as a direct rebuttal to the purpose of footnotes in modernist long poems. These footnotes, in works such as “the Wasteland” and “Cantos” serve to explain what each allusion is referring too, something Hughes has less need to do. Instead, he puts the empathize in the endnotes on the message of the poem. Perhaps Hughes is deriding how excessive the cultural allusions of modernists are, that they are so eager to show how cultured they are that they ultimately lose track of the goal in crafting poetry in the first place. That if your poetry needs such excess cliff notes even for an educated reader to fully understand it then why not just do away with the whole “poetry” aspect of the poem and present your message in cliff notes form.  At least Hughes endnotes helps the reader  better conceptualize how the allusions work towards the message, rather than the other way around. So ultimately, while “Ask your Mama” is still distinct from Hughes previous works I do not believe it represents a move on his part toward Modernism.

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Ask Your Mama…?

From the poems that we have been given to read from Langston Hughes, he has definitely become one of my favorite poets, for I really enjoy the expressions and jazziness he incorporates in his poems. I read Hughe’s poem Ask Your Mama as a lyrical poem, with its background of jazz influence.

However, while reading through Ask Your Mama, the constant question in my head is why he titled this group of poems “Ask Your Mama”?

This grouping of 12 different poems aslo share a few similarities within each one. I picked up the word “shadow” that was within each of the poems. To me, I picked up that the African-Americans were supposed to be the shadows, meaning, they were always in the dark. They were always in the background of those who “stood above” them-the Whites. That the African-Americans were nothing but trapses of shadows in light and in the dark.

I was wondering if anyone else felt that Hughes was trying to express, through jazz as well, how African-Americans felt on the outside. Being behind, in the dark, in the shadows is where they belonged? That they shouldn’t have ever been seen?

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Paterson Book IV

In the beginning of section III of book IV of Paterson Williams writes, “The past is for those who / lived in the past” (pg. 186). For me this line puts Paterson in perspective. This entire work is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and I think that was Williams’s objective when he set out to write this extensive piece. It is a complete break from the old, a way to step into a new era of poetry. Or is it? The imagists were invested in this same idea, trying to find new ways of writing to usher in the new age of literature. But at what point does writing purely to find new forms become old? Sure, Paterson takes a shape without equal in the world of literature, but it was written out of the search for new forms. Does that idea get old at any point? Is Williams trying to beat a dead horse here? My question is this: does Paterson do anything to usher in a new era of writing? Does it change the way we think about our world, or is it just a quirky, maddeningly shapeless piece?

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A Morass of Morality in Paterson

Let us consider Paterson as a moral poem, by which I mean a poem that discusses the idea of morality, rather than a poem that takes any kind of stance about the morality of an idea or an action. In Paterson, Williams is specifically interested in the ways that morality influences poetry (and by extension, all art), the development of cities (and of the men who inhabit them), and the way that the developments of new modes of thought, especially as they are expressed through the arts, recreate or destroy morality.

The vessels which Williams speaks through is Dr. Paterson and the city of Paterson, New Jersey, with the understanding that the man is a manifestation of the city, and that the city is an extension of the man’s brain. Neither the man nor the metropolis exists firmly on one end or the other of the moral spectrum. Though the character of Paterson is a doctor, his actions, such as the t are insensitive and even cruel. Likewise, Paterson’s citizens commit all manner of actions, from walking the tightrope and attending the circus to committing random acts of violence upon their neighbors.

Much of what Paterson does in the poem goes without authorial censure, and although that could be partially due to how autobiographical Paterson is, I think that Williams is intentionally refraining from commenting on the actions of his creations. Williams’ treatment of his character is fairly amoral. Paterson’s actions, the publication of the letters from C. for instance, or his liaison with Phyllis in book IV, aren’t bad or good. They simply are. Similarly, the actions of the town folk of Paterson are presented via newspaper articles and dry local histories. In all places, no matter the subject matter, these anecdotes from the town’s history are presented as matter of factly as possible. The torture of Native Americans by the white garrison, and the tallying of an elderly dead man’s property are related in the same, detached style.

This is not to say, of course, that Williams does not want his audience to form an opinion about Paterson’s morality based on the actions committed by the man or the town. The inclusion of such incriminating details is clearly a goad to provoke a reaction in the readers. I would even venture to say that Williams didn’t much care about what kind of reaction he provoked, as long as he got his audience measuring his treatment of a scene against their moral barometers, and rechecking their barometers when their results are less than satisfactory.

We touched on this next point in class, but I’ll summarize it to the best of my ability. Some of Paterson the man’s actions that we found to be the most repellant were committed in the creation of art. Specifically I refer to the publication of letters to Paterson (via Williams) by a colleague. Williams includes these letters, partially to explain what he values in literature, partly to illustrate the character of Paterson, and certainly to make a point about the role of morality in the creation of art. It is easy to read these letters and to assume that Williams felt no qualms about publishing personal letters as part of his poem, to conclude that he believes that art occupies some place beyond human morality. However, I really hate being manipulated, and after that stunt Williams pulled earlier by forcing us to reevaluate the morality of reprehensible actions, I can’t accept that simple explanation. Instead, let us consider the possibility that Williams explicitly wants us to challenge the assumption that art exists beyond moral scrutiny.

Williams’ inclusion of the Symonds’ conclusion, that the ancient Greek authors used irregular and deformed verse to show that the subject of those verses was similarly deformed, is the key to understanding Paterson as a moral poem. Williams has no set form that he returns to, no meter or rhyme scheme that would tell the reader this is good, this is normal, and this is moral. By writing in “deformed verse” William signals to the reader that what they will read will not conform to what is moral, and by writing only in deformed verse, Williams places every part of the poem, from the burning of the Library to the preacher in the park, onto the same moral footing. In a sense, he has pressed a restart button; the reader is free to evaluate and decide upon the value of each component, but they must do so without the benefit of prior moral judgments.

This, to me, sounds like a clear call for the readers to reevaluate morality, with the understanding that a moral reaction may no longer be relevant or useful, and that perhaps it should be discarded.

So is Paterson a moral poem? I would say yes, not because it takes a stance, but because it forces the audience to reconsider and challenge their own stances on what is moral.

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