Thursday, October 8, 2009

Poetry Periodically #22

Monday's column featured formal pieces, a villanelle by Sylvia Plath and a terzanelle by your humble correspondent.  This time I've got some not-so-formal poems by David Wagoner, another modern American master that I was unaware of until recently.

I'll go ahead and start with one that should be posted above the door of any creative writing class.


Come at it carefully, don't trust it, that isn't its right name,
It's wearing stolen rags, it's never been washed, its breath
Would look moss-green if it were really breathing,
It won't get out of the way, it stares at you
Out of eyes burnt gray as the sidewalk,
Its skin is overcast with colorless dirt,
It has no distinguishing marks, no I.D. cards,
It wants something of yours but hasn't decided
Whether to ask for it or just take it,
There are no policemen, no friendly neighbors,
No peacekeeping busybodies to yell for, only this
Thing standing between you and the place you were headed,
You have about thirty seconds to get past it, around it,
Or simply to back away and try to forget it,
It won't take no for an answer: try hitting it first
And you'll learn what's trembling in its torn pocket.
Now, what do you want to do about it?

- David Wagoner

Like James Wright, Wagoner's work has a certain emotional weight, a sense of melancholy nostalgia, that is always present even in the lightest of poems.  It's the same undercurrent of dark wistfulness that I've always loved and searched for in my own work, and that I see in the work that I most admire.

There are so many of Wagoner's poems that I would like to feature, but I'll give just this one more, and encourage you to seek him out, as his work is not widely anthologized and deserves better attention from the academic community.

I first noticed him in a weathered anthology from the '60s called "The Contemporary American Poets," which covered work from 1940-1968 or so, a very short window, but there is some amazing work in it, including Wagoner's "The Shooting of John Dillinger Outside the Biograph Theater, July 22, 1934," which is a masterpiece.  The book's editor was Mark Strand, who will probably appear in this column before long himself.  This poem is not from that anthology, but it makes me very happy.


When our semi-conductor
Raised his baton, we sat there
Gaping at Marche Militaire,
Our mouth-opening number.
It seemed faintly familiar
(We'd rehearsed it all that winter),
But we attacked in such a blur,
No army anywhere
On its stomach or all fours
Could have squeezed through our crossfire.

I played cornet, seventh chair,
Out of seven, my embouchure
A glorified Bronx cheer
Through that three-keyed keyhole stopper
And neighborhood window-slammer
Where mildew fought for air
At every exhausted corner,
My fingering still unsure
After scaling it for a year
Except on the spit-valve lever.

Each straight-faced mother and father
Retested his moral fiber
Against our traps and slurs
And the inadvertent whickers
Paradiddled by our snares,
And when the brass bulled forth
A blare fit to horn over
Jericho two bars sooner
Than Joshua's harsh measures,
They still had the nerve to stare.

By the last lost chord, our director
Looked older and soberer.
No doubt, in his mind's ear
Some band somewhere
In some music of some Sphere
Was striking a note as pure
As the wishes of Franz Schubert,
But meanwhile here we were:
A lesson in everything minor,
Decomposing our first composer.

- David Wagoner

Legal notice:
Some may feel that the inclusion of works not in the public domain is a violation of the fair-use doctrine of US copyright law. I obviously do not agree, but I will gladly defer to the wishes of the rightsholder, and if anyone wishes for a post of their work or work for which they own the intellectual rights to be taken down, they may ask for its removal and it will be so. I claim no ownership and have no rights as to the works I will be posting, save for any that were written by me.

No comments: