Thursday, February 23, 2017

Semi-Splendid by Tracy K. Smith

Semi-Splendid, by Tracy K. Smith, appears in the Feb. 2017 issue of Poetry Magazine. Sometimes I kick myself for allowing the school's subscription to Poetry lapse. I just simply did not have enough time to read each issue as they were coming out. And the students certainly aren't picking up Poetry Magazine off the shelf in the library. But every once in a while it is nice to come back and check out a poem from this marvelous publication. Like this one...


Related Poem Content Details

You flinch. Something flickers, not fleeing your face. My
Heart hammers at the ceiling, telling my tongue
To turn it down. Too late. The something climbs, leaps, is
Falling now across us like the prank of an icy, brainy
Lord. I chose the wrong word. I am wrong for not choosing
Merely to smile, to pull you toward me and away from
What you think of as that other me, who wanders lost among ...    
Among whom? The many? The rare? I wish you didn’t care.

I watch you watching her. Her very shadow is a rage
That trashes the rooms of your eyes. Do you claim surprise
At what she wants, the poor girl, pelted with despair,
Who flits from grief to grief? Isn’t it you she seeks? And
If you blame her, know that she blames you for choosing
Not her, but me. Love is never fair. But do we — should we — care?
After I read the poem, I counted the lines. I did! Got to start there don't we. It does indeed have 14 lines, which suggests sonnet, but then the rest of the poem doesn't conform to the sonnet format. Semi-Spendid has some marvelous internal rhyme and not the end rhyme that is typical for a sonnet. 

This poem just falls off the tongue when you read it out loud. Every single word has been painstakingly considered and placed just right so it has the maximum effect on the reader. The alliterative quality of the opening lines draws one into this poems spell, "telling my tongue / To turn it down. Too late. The [...]." Simply wonderful. Because of the rhyme, alliteration, and euphony of this poem it reads very quickly until one gets to the very last line and then the dashes around the appositive phrase slows the reader down. It reads almost like a rant--a quick, full of emotion rant--and then the speaker slows down to make her final point.

Love is complicated, and as the poet states: "Love is never fair." This poem speaks of a love triangle. Perhaps two girls and one guy. One of the girls has the man locked down, in a serious relationship. But the other wishes she was dating the guy. This man seems to be torn as well. He looks at the other girl, watches her; perhaps he is even drawn to her. But his girlfriend won. She has the prize. The speaker doesn't seem to be angry with the man, or the other girl, but she certainly needs to draw this to the man's attention. To make sure he understands that he is going out with her and not the other girl. The last line is telling, "But do we--should we--care?" Well, it certainly seems like you "care." I mean you wrote a poem about the matter and spent enough time to bring attention to it. Love is the most powerful emotion in the world and I think we all care about it.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Ink, by Melissa Cundieff-Pexa

Sometimes I feel a poem is so beautiful and moving that it is very difficult to analyze. This is how I feel about Ink, by Melissa Cundieff-Pexa. But this is a literature analysis blog, so I should make some sort of attempt...shouldn't I?



The first time I ever watched something die, its eyes
opened at the last lived moment, death’s first. A razor
between the two. The fledgling hawk’s pupil turned so black
I felt as though I had been blindfolded and led high up
a cliff, then pushed. I didn’t know dead eyes darken
or that watching them darken meant for the rest of my life
knowledge would carry with it a bottle of ink. Recently, everything
has been stained: stuffed toy bears, my daughter’s fresh hair,
the dream in which I wear long white gloves I cannot remove,
and a dreamed, wild pig playing as a dog might with my children.
They are chasing each other, laughing. This pig
I’m about to skin grunts, the children grunt too. Strange voices
of the unconscious. But my gloves are too tight, and I wake
before killing. The lives and deaths of others are everywhere.
I once wrote a confession down but erased it. I once wore
a paper crown that caught fire, and when the burning
scent of hair filled the room, memory’s open fume
evacuated my head to hover between mind and automation.
Afterwards, hair shorter, my mother putting away leftover
birthday cake, I wrote down a first truth, I caught fire the day
I turned twelve. My mother’s arms and a blanket saved me.
Under them, blindness and weight. When ash hits water it floats
for a long time before becoming the whale’s passenger,
and the whale before she swallows the ash is different
after she does. I wrote this today, our baby would have been
born soon. His eyes would have been blue. To know this. It changes nothing.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

More First Lines from Classic Novels

I really enjoyed analyzing those first lines last time, so I decided to do it again. Perhaps we will make it a regular thing. Maybe we will look at first lines from books that are terrible. Who knows.

Things Fall Apart
by Chinua Achebe
"Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond."
This is not my favorite first line. It establishes the main character of Okonkwo and shows the reader how important he is, but that is pretty much it. It isn't flashy; it gets the job done. But that was how I felt about the whole of Things Fall Apart. It was simply okay, an average novel. There are some interesting things to discuss, but we aren't going to spend a lot of time looking at Achebe's writing. I wouldn't be able to find a good place in that novel to conduct a close reading exercise. Ultimately forgettable as a first line. 

Jane Eyre
by Charlotte Bronte
"There was not the possibility of taking a walk that day."
I love Jane Eyre and I love teaching Jane Eyre to my AP Lit student, but this first line isn't terribly interesting either. It is better than Things Fall Apart, but just a bit. The language is different here. The phrasing and the use of the word "possibility" show us that this writer is from a different time period, different country, and different caste than your normal joe writer these days. There is an elegance to the phrasing "There was not the possibility..." They could have easily have said that it was raining out, or the weather was bad. But Bronte doesn't do that.

The Road
by Cormac McCarthy
"When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him."
Ah, good old Cormac. Getting us back on track. Now, this is a first line. Lots of details in this sentence. "In the woods," "in the dark and the cold," "of the night." He could have added in those details later or in a different way, but McCarthy has that famous style. He likes to say a lot in one sentence. 

As I Lay Dying
by William Faulkner
"Jewel and I come up from the field, following the path in single file."
No fair, you can't do another Faulkner novel! I certainly can! Whose blog is this anyway? And this is a good one. From this first line, we get our first taste of the dialect. Daryl is speaking and the reader can already tell the region of the country that we are dealing with; the type of people we are dealing with. The other thing that I think is really special in this line is the second half of it, "following the path in single file." That part is interesting because it is curious. The reader begins to wonder and then, you can see, Faulkner already has you hooked. People don't normally walk in single file unless you have been instructed to. The fact that they are walking this way actually becomes very important in the next sentence or two. This establishes Daryl and Jewel's relationship, which isn't the best. But Faulkner does that all without telling us. This is pure showing and it is marvelous.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

First Impressions are so Important

in life as well as in literature. An author has only so much space to really grab a reader's attention and those first lines are prime real estate. In today's blog I wanted to spend some time discussing the first lines from notable classical novels. Many of these I teach in my AP Lit class and have taught for years--true classics.

The Sound and the Fury 
by William Faulkner
"Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting."
So, we'll start off with a novel that I don't actually teach, but this is what inspired me to do this particular blog post.  As far as first lines go this one is pretty good. Faulkner is a master with these sorts of things. We can see in this line one of his traits as an author, the lack of names. He starts us off with the pronoun "I" and then leaves us to figure out who that "I" is later on in the first chapter. In this case, it is answered pretty quickly, but sometimes author's can leave us hanging for quite a while. I'm looking at your Octavia Butler!

The Great Gatsby
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
"In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind every since."
I have to be honest with this one, I am not the biggest fan of the opening line of Gatsby. I think the first little bit of this book is pretty rough too. It isn't until we get to the part about Gatsby being alright in the end that I feel that this novel really starts to be interesting. The opening of this novel is all Nick's reflection and doesn't really make sense to the reader until after they have finished with the book. I doubt many readers go back and re-read that section when they finish The Great Gatsby either.

Heart of Darkness
by Joseph Conrad
"The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was a rest."
My students complain about Heart of Darkness every single year and I can see where they are coming from. It is an extremely difficult text and Conrad's prose is dense. You really have to concentrate on what he is saying in those long, drawn out sentences. But if you look at Conrad from a structure point of view, his prose is near perfection. The dude knows his stuff. Even though this is not the longest first sentence we will be discussing, there is a lot going on. We have the appositive phrase, "a cruising yawl," helping the reader to understand what the Nellie is. The yawl then swings her anchor; the action of swinging is interesting because it isn't a human that is performing the action, it is as if the boat itself is doing it. And Conrad doesn't call the boat in it either, he uses the proper pronoun "her" to identify the ship. All boats are girls, don't you know.