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ORIENT Ten Poems by Christopher Younkin

April 2011


Christopher Younkin English 652 Spring Semester 2011 David Schloss Final Portfolio 24 April 2011


ORIENT

✵ Ten Poems by Christopher Younkin


CONTENTS Author's Introduction ..……………..i How existential……………………...1 Cultivating Self………………………2 First Poem For My Father…………...3 Mother and Son……………………..4 Duck Saying "Quack!"………………5 Orient………………………………..6 On Humid Air……………………….7 Cicada………………………………..8 Poem Written on March 11, 2011…...9 Half Empty…………………………10


INTRODUCTION

American poet Adrian Blevins wrote that "actual speech broken into lines is not the same thing as poetry, for all good poetry must . . . alarm us into apprehending more than one meaning at a time" (qtd. in Wright). As a student of poetry, I am interested in how the poetic line functions in the making of meaning. The line does this in several ways; for example, suspending apprehension of full syntactical sense in a sentence broke over two or more lines, foregrounding particular works or phrases, and creating tension or contradiction between line meaning and overall syntactic meaning, to name a few. Many well-known contemporary poets write in verse in such a way that breaks not only the line, but syntax and even sense. As I read such poetry, I often feel frustrated with the difficulty of putting together fragments and associations into a comprehensive form. Most of this kind of poetry, poetry that doesn't at least offer immediate syntactical sense, seems arbitrary and empty of meaning. However, I have found that close attention to some of these poems at the line level can provide some illumination. In this essay, I will examine the use of verse in three poems; John Ashbery's "Well-lit Places," Barbara Guest's "Dissonance Royal Traveler," and Robert Hass', "Time and Materials." By examining how these three poets craft lines, I hope to reach a deeper understanding of the potential functions of verse and the meanings of the poems so crafted. In "Well-lit Places," Ashbery presents a series of mostly end-stopped lines, prompting me to ask, as a reader, why use verse? In a Slate article, Meghan O'Rourke calls Ashbery "a kind of radio transistor through which many different voices, and curious archaeological remains of language filter" ("An Instruction Manual"). Ashbery considers his own poetry "a kind of generalized transcript of what's really going on in our minds all day long" (qtd. in Swensen & St. John 22). In light of these descriptions, I might take each line in "Well-lit Places" as a fragment of this ongoing transmission, and they might be, but I sense there is more to an interpretation of Ashbery's versification. "Well-lit Places" appears, on the surface, to be a list of occurrences. The lines are, for the most part, short declarative sentences, end-stopped, and offer little room for "apprehending more than one meaning at a time" (Blevins qtd. in Wright). Still, there is a music to the lines

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and, in places, provisional meanings. The second line states, "The laurel nudges the catalpa" (Ashbery 23). The consonance of the L in "laurel" and "catalpa," the bouncing trochees in "laurel," "nudges," and the continuity of this rhythm in amphibrach foot, "catalpa," all combine to make a rhythmically pleasing line. This is only one example of a rhythmic pleasure offered by Ashbery's lines, contributing to weight of each line. The first three lines set up a list pattern that is intensified in line four. The line lists "The proud, the famous, the magnificent" (Ashbery 23). The line is enjambed, leaving a moment to wonder what the proud, magnificent, and famous (like the horse chestnut tree, laurel, and Mussolini) will do. Line five, syntactically imperative on its own, answers the question prompted in the silence of white space. Ashbery continues the list of declarations for the remainder of stanza one. The first two lines of stanza two (lines eight and nine) echo lines four and five in enjambment and syntactic unity. However, line eight stands alone as a distinct image. While continuing the martial victor theme, the image of "A man declaiming in front of a coat of arms" (Ashbery 23) is clear in the mind of the reader. Ashbery continues his listing, declarative, end-stopped lines throughout stanza two, referring always to the man, then shifts focus to "the girl" in stanza three while maintaining the pattern. So, how does this structure function in the balance of the poem? Each line is rhythmically pleasurable and, with few exceptions, constitutes a full syntactic unit. The end-stops slow the reading pace and offer a pause for reflection, as well as laying out the images evoked in the lines for examination and comparison. This is one potential function of verse—slowing pace and inducing meditation through endstops and white space. In "Dissonance Royal Traveler," Guest crafts spreading lines with sparse punctuation and stylized syntax. Guest's versification in the poem offers an example of her "loose referentiality and . . . active use of white space . . . [as well as] ambiguity and indeterminacy [that] keep her poems open" (Swensen & St. John 172). The poem's heavily indented first line is a strange concept—"sound opens sound" (Guest 173)— lacking both punctuation and syntactical connection to the next line. This immediately sets up a pattern of unconventional syntax that works differently in different lines, allowing the lines to work toward various effects. Line two consists of two phrases—"shank of globe" and "strings floating out" (Guest 173)—separated by an inch of white space. Again, these phrases are syntactically separate, almost lines

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themselves (though "strings floating out" as an image carries little weight in isolation). Line three is indented and italicized, two spaces below the first two lines. The italicization implies a meta comment on the first lines. The line reads, "something like images are here" (Guest 173). Here is a move that presents multiple meanings. On its own, the line might be commentary. When combined with the fourth line, "something like images" becomes the subject of the sentence, "opening up avenues to view a dome" (Guest 173) in line four. As the sentence continues, lacking a comma after "dome," we read in line five that "a distant clang reaches the edifice" (Guest 173). The lack of standard punctuation provides a provisional meaning to each line, allowing the sentence to be read as a single unit (by mentally inserting punctuation) or as single syntactic units as lines. The dome can be the edifice, or another edifice entirely. As the poem continues, this open interpretation continues, compounded by strange and recurring images. Another example of this is the sentence (if it can be called a sentence) created by lines eighteen through twenty two. Taken as a single utterance, it reads "explaining music and their clothes entangled who walk into a puddle of minnows; minnows in a bowl consonant with water" (Guest 173). Again, the subject of the sentence is unclear and changeable depending on how one fills in the missing punctuation. Much of the possibility of meaning comes from the position of the phrase in individual lines, playing off of preceding and subsequent lines to different effects. In this poem, we see another function of verse—breaking syntactically stylized sentences into lines allow for multiple interpretations depending on how one mentally connects the lines. In "Time and Materials," Hass uses verse to different effects in the poem's six sections. In the first section, Hass breaks fairly standard sentences into lines, sometimes breaking on punctuation while other lines are enjambed. There is nothing extraordinary about the lines in the first section when taken alone.

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Nothing in the cry of the cicadas  Suggests they are about to die.   ~ Basho


How existential I am, experimenting with giving up. I am harboring pretense. Am is the present tense of be. Am implies a current state of. Am I being? Not that it matters. I fake it 90% of the time. I don't know anything about statistics. I hate this kind of selfindulgent writing. Writing without purpose. Writing is my purpose. Writing because I am at anything else.

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not good


Cultivating Self

My rows are straight, running west to east. Long ago, this place was wild with vegetation. I walked the paths of deer and rabbits.

One morning, a man passing on a nearby road stopped, called me over and said, finger tracing the horizon,

"This is fertile land. Plow it under, grow corn, and you'll be rich."

This ground is fallow, now. I squat, boot heels to haunches, scoop a palmful of dust, release it to the air. Nothing's left but dead weeds bent by ghosts of snow. In this drought I brush the dust from my hands, bend under the heat.

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First Poem For My Father

I've waited until now to write, when I have burned my flaming anger down to ash.

Your vacuum heart had left me ill-equipped to give my love in any manly way.

And now I have a son who looks to me to be the man my mother couldn't make.

The manhood you displayed, that lay inert, as cold and gray as ash, remains in me.

So, empty as you were of manliness, the kind that brings a son into your arms,

I turn my reaching arms to Christ, the Man, to follow Him in His true, manly ways,

His perfect love and readiness to weep, To comfort and to serve His fellow men.

His love is all I know of fatherhood.

The coals where burning red and hot when God first sent firstborn my daughter here to me.

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Mother and Son How could she know her son's deep pain, his longing for affection unrestrained by a homophobic culture's scrutiny, for love unmediated by heartless jock aggression, brutal American machismo?

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Duck Saying "Quack!"

It wasn't famous work, drawn by my five-year-old daughter on the whiteboard in our kitchen. The body was a circle, its bill two lines converging at a slight angle, just breaking the circumference. Its eyes, two dots in the center. At the bottom, two legs bowed back then down, ending in two zig-zagged feet. No wings. She drew a word bubble in front of it, larger than the duck. It said "Quack!" I knew it was a duck because it said that, though it resembled a small, wingless bird.

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Orient

A copper bowl, circumscribed with etched lotus petals and Sanskrit rested on a circular silk cushion at an import store. A mallet leaned in the bowl, cylindrical and wooden. What is it? I ask the young woman behind the counter (she smelled

vibrating into my forearm. She said, The bowl is use in Buddhist ceremonies, but it's also good for holding change.

like patchouli). That's a prayer bowl from Tibet, she said. Set it in your palm and strike it. I held and struck it. The bowl rang a clear high tone,

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On Humid Air

a cherry blossom pirouettes & lands in a man's sake

laughter bursts from his mouth

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Cicadas

hjkhkjhjkhjkhkjhkjhjk hjkhjkhjkhkjhjk huhjdrdgggfgkjhugh

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Poem Written on March 11, 2011

Earth convulses at the resonant frequency of human architecture eats itself and burps devastation unconscious unbuilding continuing its endless cycle of entropic renewal

debris of the built bobs and burns on a wave of black water swallowing a city news helicopters record the erasure

while America changes the channel to disaster films horror films crime dramas romantic comedies nuclear cooling towers explode

I've seen this before in a movie CGI a fiction

no horror rupture broken syntax contrived by the imagination of a poet can encapsulate tragedy express devastation

poetry is the distillation of language language is humanity's greatest failure how can I write poetry after the tsunami 9


Half Empty

Most days are a loaf of Wonder Bread—the quantity of empty space Revealed when compressed.

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Orient: Ten Poems by Christopher Younkin  

Final Portfolio for ENG 652 Spr. 2011

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