Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Poet on the Poem: Sydney Lea

 I am delighted to have Sydney Lea as our guest today.

Sydney Lea is the Poet Laureate of Vermont. Retired after 43 years of college teaching, he is active in literacy and conservation efforts in northern New England. He founded the New England Review in 1977 and edited it until 1989. He has published ten volumes of poetry, most recently I Was Thinking of Beauty (Four Way Books, 2013) and Six Sundays Toward a Seventh (Wipf and Stock, 2012). He has also published a novel, a selection of literary essays, and three collections of naturalist essays. He is the recipient of fellowships from the MacArthur, Rockefeller, and Fulbright Foundations.

Today's poem comes from I Was Thinking of Beauty.
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Blind, Dumb 

Ted was the logger, I the greenhorn professor,
Tommy the logger's teenaged son.

I needed distraction, so we took that hike together.
Toward evening a doe crashed past, haphazard.

Ted said, She's blind.

She showed as pale as a moose in the dead of winter,
which seemed foreign to me. But then everything did:

the weeks dragged by and my poor wife still lay under
the pall of coma. Our old car had flipped.

I stood and wondered,

how could the doe survive the coming cold?
The full dark loomed, and Tommy pled,

Can't we go for a gun? He didn't want to leave her
to starvation, predation, to that murder of ravens

perched low and bold.

My wife and I had quarreled. She sped away,
blanched by anger I tried to ignore

until the trooper called at the house to say
the Jeep had landed roof-down on Route 4.

On this later day,

the logger appeared to see what I couldn't see:
Not up to us to spare her, he drawled.

My every instinct wanted to disagree,
but as Tommy and I glanced up at the cruel

black birds in the trees,

I was the mute one. Dodging the frantic animal,
we could almost look through her ghostly hide,

scourged bloody by lashes of brush in her scrabbling circles.
Scavengers waited for quarry to die,

sat patient, preened.

I'd read no novel, no poetry that trained
my soul for this—or anything.

So I thought as I felt my uselessness in the scene.
What could I say? What could I do?

My vapid dream

was to start all over again, not having to know
some categorical, unspeakable things.

I'd always imagined words' restorative power,
but I'd witnessed beings who couldn't pass on

what had happened or how.

Words wouldn't help them. To see that so starkly stung.
Speechless, benighted, what had I to teach

a student now, much less a daughter or son?
Frost had unclothed the maple and ash,

so winter could come.

DL: The form of this poem strikes me as a happy marriage between tradition and invention. Tell us how the form evolved.

SL: I recently colluded with the Vermont Contemporary Music Ensemble in a concert; five composers wrote individual pieces that were responses to poems of mine. One of the composers, Erik Nielsen, said that “the hardest part about composition is talking about it.” I identify with such a contention. That said, I have some intuitive answer to your question about form—intuitive because, vague as this inexcusably is, there seems a way in which forms choose me rather than vice versa.
More or less strict forms, however unconventional (I rarely use received     conventions), are enabling components for me. If I allow myself to play with formal alternatives, I can get away from thinking too hard about what I may “mean.” Paradoxically, that approach allows for such meaning—though I mistrust that term—the poem may contain.

In this case, my logger friend—who put small stock in self-revelation via language—imagined that physical exercise would take my mind off the fact that my wife was in coma. He was wrong, as the poem suggests. I     nonetheless    recalled his good intentions, and the first of the few words he    spoke came to mind: “Ted said, She’s blind.”

A two-stress line.
It then occurred to me that most of the important things that would come in the poem would be equally terse; that is, my unconscious told me that, in a poem that has as much to do with the inadequacy of words as  anything, the important material would be clipped in that fashion, right up    to “so winter could come.”

Mind you, I didn’t know that would be a line at all, let alone the last; I was, as it were, led there, past “black birds in the trees,” through “my vapid dream,” and so on. The form was built around that “inspired” keystone.

DL: I deeply admire the wonderful, subtle sounds of your poem. There's some end rhyme, yes, but then there are also rhymes and near rhymes scattered throughout the poem, e.g., old, cold, bold; called, quarreled, drawled; preened, scene, dream. How did you make this music happen?
SL: My late friend Bill Matthews, who was not a formalist like me, once told me in conversation that he tended to like free verse when it sounded most like formal, and vice versa. Me too: hence the ongoing appeal to me of slant rhyme. And there is my ongoing obeisance to Frost, who, though far    stricter in his formal allegiances than I am (or could be), nonetheless wanted the sound of conversation in his poems. I guess the looseness of my rhyming somehow goes in service of that aim.

DL: Your poem skillfully handles two narratives: the frame with the speaker in the woods and then the inner story about the argument with the wife that led to her accident. How did you go about fusing these two pieces? Were they always in the same poem? Do you consider one or the other the more important story?
SL: From the start, they were one and the same story, the understandably complex tale of the moment(s) I recalled. There was no narrative engineering involved. My wife was near death; I was on a hike with two others who were close to her; I was at the very awkward and daunting dawn of what would be a long professorial career; a blind deer showed up; I felt...what I felt. I just tried to get all that onto the page as straightforwardly as I could, trusting that honest recollection would have its own “poetry.” I always operate on that trust, in fact.

DL: Chekov said, "If you want to move your reader, write more coldly." I couldn't help thinking of those words as I read and reread your poem. The tone is so chilly but the poem is all the more effective because of that chilliness. How did you manage to keep out emotionalism and just let the details and images do their work.

SL: Well, I have always assumed that gushy sentimentality gets in the way of real sentiment. Once again, straightforward—even “cold”—recitation would carry the emotional freight I needed to make the poem other than a whine.

DL: There's irony in that the speaker who makes his living reading books and talking becomes "mute," then "speechless," and asks at the end, "What could I say?" He learns that there are "unspeakable things." It's also ironic that the professor gets schooled by the logger. Did the irony come into the poem inadvertently or was it crafted?

SL: What I have always admired in the Yankee old-timer is his or her capacity to know the difference between acceptance and resignation. The old-timer I refer to (and I have lost touch with his son, a sort of bridge figure between his dad’s emotional makeup and my own) is gone now; but as he once said, “If you can’t fix something, you get along with it.” He had had a far more dangerous and at times tragic life than mine, and I am sure, as he was a very bright guy, he often wanted to say something about the unsayable; but because it was just that, he kept his counsel. I have never attained that height of philosophic thinking, but his is the sort of model I imagine when I find myself, or find another writer, too lavishly singing the area in the opera called MeMeMe.

DL: I sense the ghost of Robert Frost in this poem. And although you do not name the setting, it feels like New England. What role, if any, have Frost and New England played in this poem?

SL: Yes, virtually all my poems are set in my home territory, New England north of Boston. There is no time spent in these villages and fields and woods that does not cause one, if he or she is a poet, and no matter what his or her taste and practices may be, to bring Frost to mind. Frost is not, maybe, my favorite poet, but he is surely the most influential on me.; Harold Bloom would imagine some “anxiety of influence,” then, on my part; but I feel, rather, real gratitude to this mentor: he has opened my eyes to things that my own (comparatively) weak eyes wouldn’t have caught.

Readers, please enjoy listening to Sydney Lea read "Blind, Dumb."


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