Thursday, January 12, 2006

Odysseus on the Weekend

I think this is the oldest poem I’ve posted here, though I’ve refurbished it a bit.  I wrote it so long ago—or so it feels—that parts of it make me laugh through unfamiliarity, something that’d never happen if I had really been engaged with it recently.  Anyway, it’s an odd feeling, confronting one’s older work.  It’s been suggested that no poet should revise his earlier work, because a different poet wrote it.  I don’t know if I agree with that, but I understand it.

Odysseus observes a crocus.  When
spring has arrived for real, the phone proclaims
non-stop—minor tars, boat-insurance chums,
the odd surviving monster, half a god
(always the father’s half).  “When can we go?”
“Will you be packing?”  “How’d you like a brawl?”
A card from Nausicaa, who can’t forget.
A card from Sy, who doesn’t want to see
no man this season.   But the goats’ fresh grass
must be refreshed with bone, then power raked.
No one is going looting till that’s done.
A circular from Agamemnon’s girl,
one of them, raising prostate money.  Two
appeals for orphanages from the Wee
Survivors, a non-profit building fund.
He calls his dog Achilles for a walk.
Replacement he, willing, but much too young
to know that spring had other names than this.
Paris is dead this time of year; the kids
bleat across a green and unbloodied field.


nevid said...

What would you say are the differences between this and your more recent work? I mean, I might have a clue, but I'm curious. Do you think it's more obvious, in some way? I agree with the don't edit old stuff idea bcz imagine if you were to leave behind 800 pages of stuff that looked like it was written by a 50-something man? (Ok, well, nothing you can do about the "man" part.) But otherwise, wouldn't this make for a rather maturity-homogenizing effect?

RHE said...

I think it's mostly in the fluidity of the verse. This often seemed prododically stiff to me, visibly "constructed." My later blank verse seems (to me, anyway) less mechanical.

The problem with re-writing is pretty much what you've identified, I think. It would make for a homogenizing effect, and there's something untrue about that. The sensibility revising may not be--probably shouldn't be, if your career is long enough--as the sensibility which wrote; and I'm not sure you want to put a 50 year-old's clothes on a 25 year-old. James did it, in prose, when he revised all his work for the New York edition late in life, and the result, while interesting, is distinctly odd. Auden did it all his life, justifying the practice by saying that when he found that he had said things which were untrue, he had a duty to excise or change them. The result is a multiplicity of versions which at least keeps editors and scholars occupied.

nevid said...

I read the newly released truman capote novel/novella, "summer crossing", which was, I guess, his first one, and not meant to see the light of day. And the striking thing about it is his voice -- so distinctive already (a few excesses), and many of the observations are so very acute they hurt. All those gifts are fully in place; what you'd change, I guess, is the slightly overblown stuff, and I like seeing it -- it's like looking at a very young person, completely ready as a writer, but with some flourishes he will later lose. So, yeah, I'd at least keep the early versions. This poem of yours isn't THAT old, though, is it? A few years, maybe?

RHE said...

Nevid, I'd say it's at least a decade old, in its initial incarnation anyway.

I started the Capote, but couldn't finish it. He always was too late-Southern-precious for me; that whole school--McCullers, Welty, Capote, O'Connor (though she's rather different), Porter--sets my teeth on edge.

nevid said...

I would not place him in a school with Eudora Welty. Had you finished it, you might have agreed with me. Had I liked him less to start with, I might have abandoned it part-way and agreed with you. It occurs to me that a tangential subject to that of author-maturity might be reader-maturity. I read nearly all of Truman Capote as a teenager, and I adored it all. I don't trust myself to feel the same way about it today. But anyways, he did these weirdly gothic short stories (Tree of Night & Other Stories, Other Voices Other Rooms) which were magic for me, reading them very far away from America, with no idea of what this pecular diction was that his characters spoke. Very haunting for me. When I came to this country, I was surprised to find him only mentioned in the context of In Cold Blood. I thought of him in the same context as that other weird southerner, Tennessee Williams, with the gayness, the weird women, and all, and I always thought him much greater than most people here seemed to think him. Anyways, I thought Summer Crossing still a lovely little bonbon to find at this late date, and I enjoyed every bit of it, all the gay archness and all. But this was supposed to be about your poem, so sorry for long digression.

nevid said...

and I didn't mean his characters "spoke diction" -- sorry about that. I'd have edited if I'd been able. Maybe it was dictation they spoke.

dan said...

Achilles, heel!


Anyway, assuming that the stuff you've been posting is more recent, then you're dead on about the fluidity. It's not just the verse, neither: it's the conception. Like this here Odysseus poem is kind of blocky conceputally. The ideas don't really feed into each other. They're more a bunch of one-liner riffs on a single subject than a coherent train of thought. That's one of the three major annoyances with your poems: when they seem like they're there for the joke more than anything else.

But anyway, the newer poems aren't like that at all -- you've been going like gangbusters recently, working with real classic themes in fresh ways. That "old men" one reminds me a bit of that Catullus poem. I like it, except for that one junky line near the end. I forget exactly what it says, but it starts with "if."

Flannery O'Connor sets your teeth on edge? Maybe you're too pleasant to enjoy her. Personally, I like it how someone usually dies.

CMH said...

Regarding the rewriting of poems, I admire your courage. A version of this poem that you posted elsewhere a few years ago has many differences, but the ones that are most pleasing to me are line 9, and the new ending. These are substantive changes and I'm guessing they were not easily made. In any event I think that the changes are improvements; the new version has more vitality and seems less self conscious. Since one is all too likely to become More Self Conscious with every rereading of one's own work, I am surprised and impressed by the edits.
Also, re: What Do The Old Men Say?
Line 6 shows "I see them" changed to "I see men" which is also an improvement, I think. The ending of the poem is also changed for the better, but I suspect there's another edit to come here; the old "they'd be willing" had an edge that might work well with the new "and tidy us away" somehow or other.
As far as that "no poet should revise his earlier work, because a different poet wrote it" yes, of course, but the revisions are done because the poet believes that they must be done -- revising a poem is not like revising an opinion, if a conclusion reached in an old poem is different from one that might be reached today, that's fine -- leave the poem as it was if it still "works", but when the earlier poem seems to be less than it could be because it is now seen to be unclear or unfinished, that's worth risking the destruction of the original.
And yes, it's that dramatic. Wonderful work you have done.

RHE said...

As everyone knows, Auden first wrote (and published) "We must love one another or die," then, deciding that was untrue, changed it to "We must love one another and die," then deciding that the line, crucial to the poem, could not be made truthful, stopped reprinting the poem in his collected/selected works. Most readers and critics have decided he was poetically right in the first place, and the poem's fame, as he wrote it, continues. But what should he have done? Said, "Well, I believed it then, and it does sound good"? Said, "Well, I'm not that guy any more, and he's entitled to his own opinion"? Probably not, but his change first weakened, then attempted to obliterate a fine poem. He'd have said, "So? That's less important than telling the truth."

The other famous example is the quatrains he deleted from his Yeats elegy, the ones about Claudel and Kipling. Doesn't matter. Once control of the lines are out of the hands of his estate, posterity will put them back in, his wishes ignored. He thought them untrue or harmful in their tendency. Posterity, through the common reader, if such a creature still exists, makes its own decisions.

Lady_Naomi said...

Your word choice is different. Younger. Your pace is not as fluid. More rambling. Some of your other poems tell a story with a single word. Rhythm is off. Learning techniques.