|August 18, 1984
I see from your letter I was not clear in my response
to three of your poems. I will try to be clearer.
I still think “The Rag Picker’s Horse” is a good poem,
because of the tension between what is “charming and
funny” and what is serious. I don’t think the humor
takes places at the expense of the poem’s serious
content. I think the humor intensifies the seriousness,
and vice-versa. This approach must be OK,
because Frost approved it: “If it is with outer
seriousness, it must be with inner humor.
It is with outer humor, it must be with
For me, the poem exploits the language and
tone of the nursery rhyme. Nursery rhymes
have the simple phrasings, the naive pictures –
and sometimes the half-rhyme, comic rhyme
and extra metrical syllables – of this poem.
All of these devices give to the childhood
rhymes their enchantment and their
humor. Yet the content of nursery rhymes
is often unpleasant and unsettling. There’s the woman
who lived in a shoe and “Had so many children, /
She didn’t know what to do.” What she finally did
do, you’ll remember, was (after feeding them a
very limited supper) to “whip them all soundly /
And put them to bed.” Certainly there’s futility and
despair in that poem, however comic it may be on
its surface. Or recall the poem Wally Tripp includes
in his illustrated book of Mother Goose:
Granfa’ Grigg had a pig
In a field of clover,
Piggy died, Granfa’ cried,
And all the fun was over.
What sort of “beast” would tell the story this way?
Yet we could argue that an inner seriousness lies
behind the outer humor here, too.
When I first read “Richard,” it seemed to me
you were writing about a young, imaginative
child who was so in tune with the variousness
of the world, he could not see how adults,
or other creatures of habit, could behave as if the
unique things he knew were parts of an
unsurprising and unpredictable reality. The
“amused adult” was the narrator who, in
furnishing some words Richard doesn’t have to
explain his thought, was sympathetic. And while
he is also aware of the realities that had
already begun to threaten his imaginative view
of the world, I thought you wanted him to be
on Richard’s side in the struggle. Again, I am
speaking here of the poem I thought you wanted
to write – the poem that seemed as yet incomplete.
Obviously, your saying that Richard is not a
young child changes the poem for me. To make
him older, I do think you need to change
“school” to “high school.” Maybe that would
be enough, though I’m not sure about the
words “children” and “babysitter” (kids in
their mid-teens don’t usually have babysitters,
so far as I know). Aside from the revisions regarding
age, maybe you should consider other changes:
Aren’t “crowds / seated in rows at the movie” (line 5)
“spectators” in the first place? I know you make these
crowds special spectators, but you do so after the
comma which follows “spectators.” And besides, movie
crowds ^already are in a way “rehearsed to behave as crowds
behave.” More: Should “subject” in line 6 be
changed to “object”? I seem to think so, given
the infinitive that follows the colon. Yet changing
to “object” would make what’s around the word
awkward – as if the spectators see something they
can’t yet see…..Incidentally, I still think this
is potentially a good poem!
How I got the idea your speaker in “Felix” was
a trucker, I do not know – except that the idea
had to have come from negligent reading. Yet
maybe a little part came from something else: my
feeling that you ought to give some identity to
the speaker beyond the identity provided in the
poem. I’d still like a hint about why he’s
driving west this time (I like the continuous direction
of west in the poem, and the continuous failures resulting
from westward journeys). And I’d like, still, a language
that is less, well, literary. I fully accept the speaker’s
metaphoric leaps (the “watery chair” sort of thing).
People do make leaps like these in spirited talk – and
capitalizing on that fact is all the better for poetry. What
I object to is this sort of thing: “The voice of my mind /
turned mild and persuasive.” I’d prefer a speaking voice
closer to what someone might actually say – a voice
with more emotional tone, showing how this guy feels
about what he’s going through, so I can sense him
more strongly as a character. I’d especially like a
more feeling recollection, and daydream, of Felix, the
emotional center of a poem, and of the life. I
find the emotional neutrality of the language odd.
I know you could say that the man is frozen
emotionally, the outcome of his past experience and
current despair. And you might be right in saying so.
But I don’t think you would be.
About “Waking the Next Morning,” you are right:
you do need the title to explain the circumstance of
poem. I made the suggestion of “The Word” or
“The Repeated Word” because “Waking the Next
Morning” seems to tell too much, referring to what
happens in the morning, and implying also what
happened the night before. But I can see no other
title at this point that would work.
Incidentally, I agree that the essential thing is
not whether a poem has rhyme and meter, but
whether it is a poem. And besides, I have always
put rhyme – or related sounds – in poems, even when
I never thought about such things. Even now I
am surprised at how often images and lines come
complete with appropriate sounds – before I work
on them. And when I don’t like an image or line,
I often discover I don’t like it because its sound
isn’t right – the sound within, as at the end of,
the line. And of course rhythm is extremely important,
too, though rhythm-as-meter still feels
uncomfortable to me now. (I like too much the
excitement of arguing with the space to the right
of the poem as I write it.) But who knows? Maybe
someday I will turn Communist with you –
and join the other New Hampshire McNairs! I do
think that you achieve something in a poem like
“A Walk in the West Country” that free verse
could never quite get. A fine sense of order
that makes the disorder of which the poem speaks the
Anyway, I do like all of the poems in this batch,
some of them as is, others in their potential.
I only hope this attempt to help with them
is less confusing than my last attempt!
Love – and courage –
PS. Thanks for the affirmation of the second “after.”
P.P.S. Forgot to mention that “watery chair” image works
in its context. I’m sorry I sent you scrambling for nothing.
You should have no worries there. The mistake is mine.