Thursday, August 28, 2008

Blind Review Friday

Here we go gang.
Time for another edition of Blind Review Friday.

The author shall remain anonymous (unless they chose to divulge themselves in the comments.)

Those commenting are also welcome to remain anonymous if they wish.

Incendiary comments will be removed

If you would like your piece thrown to the wolves send it to with "Workshop the hell out of this poem" as the subject line.

The bonsai tree
in the attractive pot
could have grown eighty feet tall
on the side of a mountain
till split by lightning.
But a gardener
carefully pruned it.
It is nine inches high.
Every day as he
whittles back the branches
the gardener croons,
It is your nature
to be small and cozy,
domestic and weak;
how lucky, little tree,
to have a pot to grow in.
With living creatures
one must begin very
to dwarf their growth:
the bound feet,
the crippled brain,
the hair in curlers,
the hands you
love to touch.


pottygok said...

>The bonsai tree
>in the attractive pot

I can't see this adjective. What made the pot attractive?

>could have grown (line break here?)
>eighty feet tall
>on the (mountain side?)
>till split by lightning.

Stanza break here?

>But a gardener
>carefully pruned it.
>It is nine inches high.
>Every day as he
>whittles back the branches

I'm not sure "whittles" is the best verb--trims? clips? snips? cuts?

>the gardener croons,
>It is your nature
>to be small and cozy,
>domestic and weak;
>how lucky, little tree,
>to have a pot to grow in.

For some reason, I don't see the gardener saying all of this...maybe just the last two lines ("how lucky...") Also, "domestic and weak" seems to be too much, like you're trying to explain the poem to the reader, just in case they don't get it. Let the images speak for themselves.

>With living creatures
>one must begin early

I didn't need "very"

>to dwarf their growth:

This line, again, seems to explain the poem. Going from "begin eary" to "the bound feet" pretty much forces the reader in the direction you want them to don't need to tell them that you're dwarfing growth.

>the bound feet,
>the crippled brain,

I'm not sure I understand this line...

>the hair in curlers,
>the hands you
>love to touch.

Nor this image... What hands? What are people doing to hands to make them more touchable?

Anonymous said...

Whether this is actually coming from the writer's personal experience or whether it is simply fiction, I think the last few lines give it the feel of a confessional piece. Leaves me with a bit of an uneasy feeling, but I think that was intended?

I don't think the gardener needs to say "domestic and weak". His patronizing actions are already coming through.

Anonymous said...

I like the poem as it is.

Prune it too much and it'll become another bonzai tree - beautiful to certain folks, but not as real, mature and free as it could be and is meant to be.

Shakespeare wrote: "Striving to better oft we mar what is well."

ms. bree said...

i like it. it reminds me of a PBS video i saw in high school, and mix that with mr. miagi...well,

it gets its point across. i also had a fountain with bonsai on. they do look like they belong on mountains and cliffs. such care they require is similar to a baby..i picture the hand of an infant grabbing...

Geoffrey A. Landis said...

I think I'd like a little more specifics. I'm afraid I'd tend to agree with Joshua; I don't see enough details to picture it; I don't see the bonsai tree or the gardener as anything except icons. What type of tree is it? I don't usually picture trees that grow on the sides of mountains as growing to eighty feet; the trees I see on mountains are more often gnarled dwarf pines that already look like bonsai.
A bonsai gardener wouldn't, couldn't, "whittle" back the branches of a tree every day. Bonsai is slow sculpture; you couldn't possibly prune it even as often as once a month, much less every day. What a bonsai master would be more likely to do every day would be to give the tree a thimbleful of water (not too much; not too little).

michael salinger said...

Ya think maybe the tree is a metaphor?

In this case for women being held down and back - "with living things one must begin early to dwarf their growth"

Isn't "the hands you love to touch" an allusion to Dove dish washing liquid commercials?

I would have thought the reference to foot binding makes it obvious.

I'll bet Marge Piercy thought so too when she wrote this piece.

And - now that you know the author - does it make any difference?

Anonymous said...

sara holbrook said...

That was tricky, salinger.

I remember using this poem with a group of teachers as a read aloud poem for a model slam. Afterwards one of the teachers said, "you know, I really didn't get that until I read it outloud." Just another argument for oral poetry performance, eh?

Geoffrey A. Landis said...

now that you know the author - does it make any difference?
Yes; I feel much less inclined to cut her slack in critique now that I know it's Marge Piercy. Her writing is best when it is specific, and well-visualized, and it gets tedious when she jettisons the specific so she can tell a political opinion.
In discourse, a metaphor can be vague; you can appeal to the fact that the listeners already have an image in their heads. In poetry, I'd like to see the images, not be told about them.

J.E. Stanley said...

First, I don't think the fact that this was written by a famous poet negates the comments. I even feel that Piercy may have written a better poem had it somehow been possible for her to read the comments (especially pottygok's and Geoff's) before she completed the poem.

Plus, I didn't get the impression that anyone missed the basic metaphor (or should it be considered a simile, or perhaps even an analogy, in this case?).

I would imagine, though, that only a very few readers made the connection to the Dove commercial. I certainly didn't. I don't think that's a reflection on the readers, just indicative of the risks of including pop culture references that are too transient and temporary in nature.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps it depends on who you want to publish your work. Harper Collins (which published this piece) was apparently not as displeased with the poem as others might be. It is also interesting to note, though I am certain it is coincidental, that the readers who seem to have the most difficulty with this poem are males.

Anonymous said...

The Lone Ranger must stand corrected. Although Harper Collins has published several of Marge Piercy's works, Alfred A. Knopf / Random House have published most of her poetry including the work in question.

J.E. Stanley said...

The Lone Rangers comment made me curious. So, I listed my very favorite poets. The list came out to exactly seven males and seven females (including Daphne Gottlieb and I doubt that you could find anyone "more feminist" than her).

And, for the record, I don't have any real "difficulties" with the poem. But again, after I read the comments, I did feel that, famous poet or not, the poem could have been better. It's just that I'm impressed or not impressed as the case may be, by a poem itself, not by the fame of the poet. In fact, some of the best poems I've heard have never been published (at least not yet).

pottygok said...

Yeah, knowing that Piercy wrote this makes a huge difference. I would've expected a stronger poem, especially from someone of her talent and craft. The fact that this is considered a complete poem I find depressing, if not almost insulting or belittling to the the reader. I don't need my hand held that much. The juxtaposition of images was there. I didn't need it explained to me.

As for the last two lines, I have never seen said commercial (I'm a PBS and college radio fan), so they don't work for me. However, seeing as it's a national commercial and campaign, I could be in the minority. I still think the metaphor/juxtaposition comes through without the explanation from the gardener. I also thought some of the adverbs and adjectives could have been stronger or eliminated.

michael salinger said...

Maybe I am so dense that I can't see the forest for the trees.

If (as many have now stated) they knew the analogy, metaphor, whatever - of this poem why didn't anyone bother to cite it in their critique? Are we supposed to simply deconstruct a piece without talking about what it means to us? Is there some unwritten professional critic rule that I am ignorant of? Or am I so simple that by mentioning my interpretation I am parading my vulgarity for the entire world to see?

I like the piece – in fact it is one of my favorites. I think it is sparse and pithy. Now I have seen Ms. Piercy read – and I am sure that colors my impression. I think the lack of stanza breaks invites the reader to re-read the piece looking for those changes of voices – which I find in three places.

We have our first voice up until the gardener “croons” I love the use of the word croons – then he takes us up to “With living things one must begin early… Three distinct voices in under a hundred words are pretty crafty in my book. And I would argue that the gardener’s voice may be the most important as he tries to convince the tree that being dwarfed is actually a blessing. But that’s just my interpretation.

But – poetry is subjective – and that was my point behind throwing this one up for review – I was hoping to find a poem that not everyone would immediately recognize, but was still produced by a fairly acknowledged writer.

I hope we continue diving into the pieces that go up with this much gusto – and I promise to very rarely throw in a ringer.

Anonymous said...

Sad to say, I had to Google Marge Piercy when I read Salinger's comment. Never really expected that a blind review poem would be something already nationally published.... I happened to like the piece. But I don't think a poem HAS to appeal to (or speak to) everybody to be good. A lot of people liked Rod McKuen's work, though I don't at all. The same goes for a lot I've read by Ezra Pound. But if something resonates strongly with a lot of folks - and/or is widely read, discussed and (gasp!) even bought, who am I to be certain it's excellent or terrible? I don't totally "get" Andy Warhol's work - but I don't think that means Warhol should alter his art. My opinion doesn't even mean it's good or bad, whether I'm lowly JC or the curator of the Louvre. The art's important. All art is important to somebody, or even important without the somebody. Paul Valéry said "A poem is never finished, it is only abandoned." All poems can be improved from someone's perspective. I see it all too clearly in my own work - which almost never satisfies me. But I'm extremely uncomfortable picking apart another poet's creation. I don't think Marge should make the choices I would make, or that Josh or Geoffrey would make, or even that Shakespeare would make. She made her own artistic choices. Sometimes I think that to fully appreciate and enjoy poetry we should suspend "disbelief" or criticism and really try to see things from the artist's perspective. We might not all get the Dove reference, but folks unacquainted with the Bible might not get all Milton's allusions and folks unacquainted with drugs might not get all Burroughs' references, and folks not acquainted with the classics might not get all Chaucer's turns of phrase. So what? "Striving to better, oft we mar what is well." Try diving into the poem. And if it doesn't draw you in, but it draws someone else in, that's cool. That's why there are a wide variety of good poets. If I don't get or like an Ezra Pound poem, I don't think that means he should have made the poem "stronger" or written it differently. Maybe I should try harder. Or maybe I should read a different poem that does resonate with me. But the one that doesn't - or that I don't "get" - might very well still be a great poem.

I'm reminded of something Steven B. Smith wrote in a recent blog at A bit long, and maybe not all applicable here, but some very good food for thought...

"i recently read that non-poets, bad poets, or the uneducated should not select and display other's poetry because they don't know enough to be discerning. well, i been to school, and i write a few, so i guess this one's okay.

"but that seems an elitist position, more like the educated insiders called academics telling the rest of us how to hear, read, and appreciate. most academics i know write the most boring dry poetry i come across.

"sometimes the more you know, the less you know. folk get caught up in famous names and shallow rules and miss the joy of verse. besides, why should anyone be condemned for writing a poem? a bad poem is better than no poem at all, and the worst poet in the world may through practice, luck or inspiration rise through time and life to write the best poem in the world. we all have to start somewhere. i started writing poetry in 1964 years before i ever took a poetry class. my poetry from then cannot hold a candle to what i write now - except for half a dozen master poems.

"let the children lead. old farts are too cranky anyway. (i'm an old fart, so i can say this).

"there are even cases of folk writing a tremendous amount of well-crafted, self-centered, esoteric, solipsistic, self-witty poems, but for every hundred pieces of waste they write, they create 10 fantastic ones. are we to condemn those good 10 with the bad 90?

"poetry requires one to suffer and sit through shit for the unexpected jewel. so does music, fiction, movies, concerts. the cream of the crop makes us all look bad, that's just the way life is.

"and the worst thing those supposedly in the know can do is attack another poet - it hurts, undermines their sense of self, may prevent them from rising to the next level of intimacy. and why would anyone want to deprive the world of another poem? - even the worst poem brings a ray of joy into the writer's heart. why not attack tv instead, a genuine abomination whose each hour of daily watching increases one's risk of alzheimer's.

"i say you don't like someone, instead of attacking them, don't read them. most poetry is less than perfect be it hearing, reading, or writing. poetry is not for the faint-hearted or the impatient. if you are able to and do want to help another up the ladder, then praise in public, put down in private."

sara holbrook said...

This poem was written in 1973. For those too young to remember, these were the bra burning days following the Vietnam war. It came out around the time of the book, The Women's Room. Both publications were (can I say?)seminal. When women first started to revolt against dish washing commercials people told them to calm down, that they were lucky to have a pot to grow in. Bound feet = crippled brains women shouted back, we don't want to be domestic and weak.

It doesn't matter how attractive the pot is any more than it matters how little those little cat feet are. Part of the beauty is its simplicity of language and the thinly veiled though understated sarcasm.

The fact that the poem lives on, is anthologized from here to Tuesday, and is a staple in almost every class on women's studies is evidence that the poem works for a lot of readers.

If you like this poem you might like her poem entitled Rape and another, The Barbie Doll.

Geoffrey A. Landis said...

Ah, I hadn't realized that the poem was thirty-five years old. Yes, reading it in the context of its time would probably make it seem a little fresher. for Michael's question as to why nobody explicitly discussed the obvious metaphor in their discussion-- well, there wasn't anything particularly subtle to it. There's not a whole lot to discuss.

pottygok said...

Michael wrote "If (as many have now stated) they knew the analogy, metaphor, whatever - of this poem why didn't anyone bother to cite it in their critique? Are we supposed to simply deconstruct a piece without talking about what it means to us? Is there some unwritten professional critic rule that I am ignorant of? Or am I so simple that by mentioning my interpretation I am parading my vulgarity for the entire world to see?"


Perhaps we should have a discussion about what we expect in a critique and what we would want from a critique. For me, pointing out the metaphor would be analyzing the poem instead of critiquing it. As a participant in critiques, I would assume that any poem posted is not considered "finished" (whatever that means), and therefore shouldn't be analyzed yet. Participants should point out what isn't working and allow the author to decide what needs to be improved and what doesn't. That's me. There could be other opinions, and I'd be curious to hear them.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, interesting post.

michael salinger said... for Michael's question as to why nobody explicitly discussed the obvious metaphor in their discussion-- well, there wasn't anything particularly subtle to it

Well Geoff - I guess I should have spent more time trying to argue the intricacies of Bonsai cultivation instead of being crass enough to hazard a discussion about the meaning of a metaphor and voice in a poem and even possibly address the issue of women’s rights in the process. I didn’t realize the question was so moot that it bore no need of mention, much less dialogue.

Joshua – we only critique, analyze poems that are not finished? I have a relative who spent a whole academic career on a single poem Beowulf – thank god he retired and is now giving tennis lessons.

I don’t think there is any right or wrong way to critique/discuss a poem and thus have no expectations, as long as folks are still allowed to ask questions. And I don’t care how obvious someone may say the “meaning” of a piece is – there are always alternate interpretations with their own levels of validity. We all bring our own experiences and language to everything we do and are thus colored by that combination.

pottygok said...

>Joshua – we only critique,
>analyze poems that are not
>finished? I have a relative who
>spent a whole academic career on
>a single poem Beowulf – thank god
>he retired and is now giving
>tennis lessons.

No, but there is an assumption when presented a poem in a critique such as ours that the poem is not finished. Discussing the metaphor in question could have value, but teeters into analysis. I would argue that analyzing a poem before it's "finished" (again, taking that word as loosely as possible) may actually go against improving it through critiquing it. In other words, spending too much time on the "meaning" or "interpretation" of a poem--the analysis--will detract from improving some of the craft issues through critique. Of course, the craft is only useful if it furthers the meaning, so I understand that some discussion needs to be made concerning the meaning, but perhaps I see that as more internal, and the purpose of critique or critique groups/circles is for each reader to make craft suggestions to improve the poem towards their meaning or understanding.

Another thought, if we were to discuss the metaphor of this poem, perhaps we could address that, while the basic vehicle of the metaphor represents the tenor, the specific details chosen seem to be more focused on the tenor, that the vehicle itself becomes inauthentic and reads, for some folks, as false. At least for me, this was where my comments were headed. A verb like "whittles" is not the best, or perhaps most accurate, choice for this vehicle, and says more about the tenor, which results in a more didactic poem.

Geoffrey A. Landis said...

I'm getting the feeling that I'm being sandbagged here. Until this discussion, I had the impression that one of the objectives of discussing a poem here was to discuss where it was weak, and how it might be made stronger; and I'd assumed that one of the ground rules was that by submitting the poem, the poet had some genuine interest in hearing comments on it.

Now I discover that the poet wrote the poem over thirty-five years ago and doesn't have even the slightest interest in hearing comments on it (not only isn't she following the discussion, she probably doesn't even know it's being discussed), and the person who submitted the poem is apparently insulted if anybody suggests that there's any weakness whatsoever in it.

Now, I think that in some ways it's interesting to slide a published poem in unannounced and see what people. But if you're going to be outraged that people actually dare to critique the gem of perfection you slid in unnanounced, I think you're overreacting.

As for the metaphor-- you know, in 1973, when it was written, The Feminine Mystique had been published less than ten years ago, and lines like "to dwarf their growth/the bound feet/the crippled brain/the hair in curlers" may have been insightful and even a little transgressive. Gosh, suggesting that the male establishment oppresses women! And does it while saying how lucky they are! It is insightful... for 1973. I bet the first time I heard this I was in kindergarten. It may or may not be just as true today, but it's just not quite as exciting a metaphor as it once might have been.

So please don't insult me by telling me that we all must be really stupid because nobody pointed out that when the poet talks about "hair in curlers" and "hands you love to touch" that, surprise, this means the poem's talking about women, not trees! Sure. Pardon me, but I simply didn't think that this was an insight that needed to be pointed out.

michael salinger said...

While I absolutely LOVE the word sandbagged I think the fact that you believe anyone is outraged hilarious.

Go back and read the comments Geoff - nobody called anyone stupid until; you insinuated such with your

" for Michael's question as to why nobody explicitly discussed the obvious metaphor in their discussion-- well, there wasn't anything particularly subtle to it"


In fact - my question was - shouldn't the meaning of the poem be discussed along with the technicalities not whether or not people got it.

Sorry you feel sandbagged.

Guess you just interpreted it differently – huh?

Hmm – could me a matter or perspective?

Thanks for playing.

Anonymous said...

Mary Turzillo here.

I have tried previously to post, without success, so I’ll make this short.

Because I know Piercy and know a lot of her work had a feminist subtext, I accept the interpretation we’re all giving it. But the poem has a more universal theme; anybody can be bonsaied. “The Examination” by W. D. Snodgrass, explores a different kind of pruning that’s done to the human personality.

So I wouldn’t say, as some have intimated, that the poem is dated because of its supposed feminist agenda. It’s a poem about how people are sculpted and often diminished by those around them.

Here’s the wonderful and very scary Snodgrass poem, for comparison.

The Examination
Snodgrass, W.D.

Under the thick beams of that swirly smoking light,
The black robes are clustering, huddled in together.
Hunching their shoulders, they spread short, broad sleeves like night-
Black grackles' wings; then they reach bone-yellow leather-

y fingers, each to each. And are prepared. Each turns
His single eye--or since one can't discern their eyes,
That reflective, single, moon-pale disc which burns
Over each brow--to watch this uncouth shape that lies

Strapped to their table. One probes with his ragged nails
The slate-sharp calf, explores the thigh and the lean thews
Of the groin. Others raise, red as piratic sails,
His wing, stretching, trying the pectoral sinews.

One runs his finger down the whet of that cruel
Golden beak, lifts back the horny lids from the eyes,
Peers down in one bright eye malign as a jewel,
And steps back suddenly. "He is anaesthetized?"

"He is. He is. Yes. Yes." The tallest of them, bent
Down by the head, rises: "This drug possesses powers
Sufficient to still all gods in this firmament.
This is Garuda who was fierce. he's yours for hours.

"We shall continue, please." Now, once again, he bends
To the skull, and its clamped tissues. Into the cran-
ial cavity, he plunges both of his hands
Like obstetric forceps and lifts out the great brain,

Holds it aloft, then gives it to the next who stands
Beside him. Each, in turn, accepts it, although loath,
Turns it this way, that way, feels it between his hands
Like a wasp's nest or some sickening outsized growth.

They must decide what thoughts each part of it must think,
They tap at, then listen beside, each suspect lobe;
Next, with a crow's quill dipped into India ink,
Mark on its surface, as if on a map or globe,

Those dangerous areas which need to be excised.
They rinse it, then apply antiseptics to it;
Now silver saws appear which, inch by inch, slice
Though its ancient folds and ridges, like thick suet.

It's rinsed, dried, and daubed with thick salves. The smoky saws
Are scrubbed, resterilized, and polished till they gleam.
The brain is repacked in its case. Pinched in their claws,
Glimmering needles stitch it up, that leave no seam.

Meantime, one of them has set blinders to the eyes,
Inserted light packing beneath each of the ears
And calked the nostrils in. One, with thin twine, ties
The genitals off. With long wooden-handled shears,

Another chops pinions out of the scarlet wings.
It's hoped that with disuse he will forget the sky
Or, at least, in time, learn, among other things,
To fly no higher than his superiors fly.

Well; that's a beginning. The next time, they can split
His tongue and teach him to talk correctly, can give
Him opinions on fine books and choose clothing fit
For the integrated area where he'll live.

Their candidate may live to give them thanks one day.
He will recover and may hope for such success
He might return to join their ranks. Bowing away,
They nod, whispering, "One of ours; one of ours. Yes. Yes."

J.E. Stanley said...

Above, Jesus Crisis quotes Steven B. Smith as saying, among other things:
"i say you don't like someone, instead of attacking them, don't read them. most poetry is less than perfect be it hearing, reading, or writing. poetry is not for the faint-hearted or the impatient. if you are able to and do want to help another up the ladder, then praise in public. . ."

I must say that I agree with that sentiment. However, I don't believe that it applies in this situation. This particular poem was originally represented (albeit falsely, as it turns out) as a work in progress that the author wanted to have critiqued. In fact, to quote the heading of this very page:

"If you would like your piece thrown to the wolves send it to with 'Workshop the hell out of this poem' as the subject line."

There is a huge difference between a workshop comment and an attack. I've attended dozens of workshops and what I appreciate the most is honesty. The comments and suggestions regarding this poem are the type that I would appreciate hearing at a workshop and consider helpful when it comes to rewriting an unfinished poem. I do make a lot of changes as a result of workshop comments and truly appreciate the people that I've workshopped with (including pottygok and Geoff, who seem to have received quite a bit of undeserved flak for their comments here).

If someone does not want a poem critiqued or criticized, simply post it in a different context and, certainly, don't include a request like "Workshop the hell of this poem."

And one off-topic, but related, caveat:
I now workshop poems only in person or in member-only listserves. Some editors feel that posting a poem on a blog or website that is open to the public-at-large constitutes "publication." If you later submit that poem to a publication that pays for first publication rights (or "first North American serial rights" in most cases), a previous blog posting can be a problem.

michael salinger said...

J.E. Stanley

I'm very interested in what you consider flack?

My intention, by posting a well published author was to highlight the subjectivity of critique and to hopefully foster an openess toward honest opinions of both technique and content.

I saw plenty of comments on technicalities and word choice - but noted very little re: content and inferred meaning. And I mentioned it along with divulging the author.

This is something I see a lot of. It seems to me folks seem to be ready to try and tweak a bit here and there - but shy away from making a judgment of meaning. My question was why?

I figured this would be easier to address with a piece that had some legs to it already.

I thought maybe it wouold lead into a larger discussion surrounding the intent and issues of the piece.

Maybe next time.

This week we return to a reader submitted piece.

One of the hardest things about electronic communication is that one loses any nuance in voice. I have found it very beneficial to give a poster the benefit of the doubt when a notion is first floated.

pottygok said...

Michael wrote:
"I saw plenty of comments on technicalities and word choice - but noted very little re: content and inferred meaning. And I mentioned it along with divulging the author."

"This is something I see a lot of. It seems to me folks seem to be ready to try and tweak a bit here and there - but shy away from making a judgment of meaning. My question was why?"

Well, as has been pointed out, the meaning was pretty straight forward. I'm not sure how you mean "judgment of meaning"--the way it sounds, it's like we're supposed to ask whether or not Piercy should have written this poem or what it means to us, which tends towards analysis and less towards critique. As I wrote in an earlier post, if folks begin to analyze a piece, or analyze it too much, it will actually go against the critique. People will discover deeper "meaning" where there is none, or dig deep enough to discover the meaning of a poem and not focus on whether or not that meaning is brought out by the craft of the poem. Occasionally, this can be a good thing, especially with an obscure poem that seems to have "no meaning" or whose meaning is so obscured by the craft (or lack thereof) of the piece. However, for something pretty straight forward like this poem, a discussion of meaning seems irrelevant to critique. Everyone knew what Piercy was trying to say, so the point of the critique was how could she say it better, and what, in the draft (which turns out to not be a draft...still a little miffed at this) could be tweaked to improve that meaning.

Michael also wrote:
"I thought maybe it wouold lead into a larger discussion surrounding the intent and issues of the piece."

But when the intent of the piece is so clear, I'm not sure that's a relevant discussion to the critique. Perhaps a piece with a more obscure meaning/message(some of Mark Doty's work or Suzanne Gardenier's newest) or something less pointed (Tony Hoagland, Billy Collins, Thomas Lux, etc.) would have served this better.

What I'm getting from all the posts and "discussion" is that, once people said that the metaphor was obvious, there was an aggressive backlash, specifically the comments of September 1 and 2.

Yes, the authenticity and accuracy of the metaphor's vehicle is an important craft consideration, and deserves to be critiqued. This is what makes for a stronger metaphor, and ultimately, a stronger poem. I would certainly hope that there would be more discussion on this craft issue than on analyzing the poem for its political merits. I would also argue that a successful metaphor is less subjective than an analysis, not matter how textually supported that analysis is.

Again, it comes back to the fundamental difference between critique and analysis. While analysis can potentially inform critique, it is certainly not always necessary nor should it be expected in every critique, especially when the poem is fairly straight forward and obvious. Now, you may disagree, which is cool, but I think the issue (or at least the issue that I had or perceived) was that the way you disagreed (9.1.08's post) seemed a bit aggressive and antagonistic, i.e., "flak", and I think folks are responding to that tone.

However, you're absolutely dead on with the issues with electronic communication--nuace and vocal tone are all but lost, so what you could be typing jokingly might come across as aggressive. I know a lot of the folks on this list, and I've occasionally worked with them, so I certainly am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. However, that might not be true for everyone who posts, so I think we all have to be cautious.

Pressin On said...

i thot the poem's point was directed at ego..and loved it for the criss cross of master and carver versus true self and role

we are all carver and model
is what i got from it
and i pictured a baby being preened in cute pantaloons and knowing parents have very little control of what becomes of their offsprings, while a bonsai master has much control when he allows the tree to be its true self.

so i missed the feminism.
i will say feminism is not a passe metaphor. it is not a dated movement. had i known it was peircy and written in early seventies i may have gleaned the feminism. but seeing it now doesnt lessen the poem for me. the fact that i liked it with my own skewed interpretation as well as the intended meaning only shows how strong a poem it is.

whittles is a fine word when dealing with hands and wood. not sure why it bothers anyone. attractive pot---a fine, simple description. no need to get into what type of pot, we now know its attractive. no where else does the poet describe minutia.

bizarre to me to pick apart such words. to me a critique of a poem is whether it got a point across and gave something to the reader.

and if the point it got across is different than the intended, does this make the poem ineffective?

that may be the next question to ask.

pottygok said...

bree writes:
"whittles is a fine word when dealing with hands and wood. not sure why it bothers anyone."

For me, it rubs me the wrong way because I don't see the tree as wood, yet, but a living thing. "Whittles" also has connotations of a repetitive, quick motion (like whittling a piece of wood down to a toothpick, or something similar) as opposed to the careful, delicate motions indicated by the earlier line. "carefully pruned" and "whittled" seem to be in opposition to each other, in terms of word choice.

"attractive pot---a fine, simple description. no need to get into what type of pot, we now know its attractive."

This is the second time in this discussion that "attractive" has been called "simple"--I'm wondering if it's really "simple," or actually "common". The issue with attractive, as I saw it, is that it doesn't mean anything, so the word is useless in the line. Considering it's 1/4 of the line (more if you're counting word length), that's a problem.

What does "attractive" mean? What does it look like? What does it smell like? Is it attractive because of it's shape? It's size? It's color? etc. I can't see this pot, so the line rings false or too easy to me. Not simple, which would be fine, but common and bland.

"no where else does the poet describe minutia."

I would say "eighty feet tall" is a very specific description, as well as the plant's demise--"split by lightning". Also, the list at the end begins with some very specific ideas--"bound feet" and "hair in curlers," which is why I questioned the other two, which seemed a bit more vague and abstract. Knowing that the last two lines are a reference to a commercial, I would argue that they could be seen as a specific detail, as opposed to the vague and abstract "attractive".

Also, I think the issue isn't so much "where does she," but "why doesn't she" and if the lack of specifics in certain lines aids the poem or detracts from it.

Pressin On said...

perhaps josh u have never whittled.
when done slow, methodically, and
allowing for the wood to guide the knife
whittling is a meticulous craft. one that
requires great patience and foresight, not
to mention instinct. ask any carver. inquire of enku.

attractive for me sensibly and with thrift of word
communicates condition: good. pleasing: pleasing enough.
gawdy: no. frilly: maybe. utilitarian: no, better than that.

but then, i am used to constantly deriving meanings from things.

eighty feet tall is not descriptive enough, to me.
how wide?

of course abstractions usually come to a more clear result,
at the end of poetry.

where does she (Marge Peircy) fail you, Josh?
was it in her choice of publishers?
were they too big and not regional enough?

or does a woman speaking of being a woman
gracefully, carefully, bawdily, and smirkingly
at once===intimidate you, who prefers to
be one only way; have only one voice in a
one set of words, poetry? i ask this with the previous knowledge u immediately and so easily intimated her meanings and metaphors of woman.

pottygok said...

>perhaps josh u have never whittled.
>when done slow, methodically, and
>allowing for the wood to guide the knife
>whittling is a meticulous craft. one that
>requires great patience and foresight, not
>to mention instinct. ask any carver. inquire of enku.

I would argue that there is a HUGE difference between the aimlessness of whittling and the exactness of carving. Enku certainly did not "whittle" his Buddhas. Also, the gardener in this piece certainly is not allowing the wood to guide the knife, but imposing his will upon the tree itself. There is a deliberateness to this person's blade, almost a maliciousness.

>attractive for me sensibly and with thrift of word
>communicates condition: good. pleasing: pleasing enough.
>gawdy: no. frilly: maybe. >utilitarian: no, better than that.

>but then, i am used to constantly deriving meanings from things.

I don't see "attractive" as a "thing" but an "idea" or a "concept"--were it a "thing" (i.e. an image vs. an abstraction) perhaps the picture would be clearer. This is exactly the point I'm getting at.

>eighty feet tall is not >descriptive enough, to me.
>how wide?

But it is a more specific description than "attractive."

>where does she (Marge Peircy) >fail you, Josh?
>was it in her choice of publishers?
>were they too big and not regional enough?

>or does a woman speaking of being a woman
>gracefully, carefully, bawdily, and smirkingly
>at once===intimidate you, who prefers to
>be one only way; have only one voice in a
>one set of words, poetry? i ask this with the previous knowledge u >immediately and so easily intimated her meanings and >metaphors of woman.

I did, and I thought that the basic metaphor was clear. Did I find this poem intimidating? No. Necessary? Sure. Finished or polished? No.

Where Piercy "failed me," or to put it more accurately, where I found the poem to be less than successful was, as I've pointed out, when her language became too vague or abstract, possibly even contradictory, to ground the ideas in my mind. I also didn't resonate with this poem as much as I feel I could have, mostly due to the vagueness of the language. I am not saying she has to write in any one mode, voice or particular style, only that certain lines and word choice decissions did not work for me, as a reader. That is, or I assumed it was, the purpose of critiquing a poem, to let the author know where the poem didn't work for you and why, offering potential changes in the process to improve the piece as a whole.

I don't know if the discussion is relevant anymore, seeing as Piercy probably couldn't care less what we think about her poem, but it does bring up an interesting discussion in terms of what we, as individual readers, expect from poems and what standards we hold poems to.

For me, a strong poem will probably carry solid, tangible imagery, developed metaphors, specific language, etc. I think there can be room for abstraction and vagueness, but it should be used minimally. All of this will, of course, advance a certain feeling or emotion in me as the reader. Though this was there in this piece, I thought it could have been done better. Upon learning that Piercy wrote this, I am certain it could have been done better. Just comparing this to a poem like "No One Came Home" or, even better, the working-class classic "To Be of Use," (both of which contain abstraction, BTW, for a counter example of how that sort of language can be yielded well) and knowing the potential of her images and metaphors, I am left wanting more.

Pressin On said...

i did not read further than Enku certainly did not whittle at his carvings.
enku whittled, carved, speared, and traced thru resin, sensually, even as much as he made brash deep wounds in the wood like gashes, that opened gaping marvellously before him
the beckoning eyes of the buddha
of his own gash making
slap dash
what becomes.

Anonymous said...

I'm not so sure "whittling" has to be aimless. Merriam-Webster gives this definition for "whittle":

intransitive verb
1: to cut or shape something (as wood) by or as if by paring it with a knife

Shape here seems to connote (and perhaps denote) some sort of aim to me.

The same dictionary defines "shape" thus:

1: form, create; especially : to give a particular form or shape to
2obsolete : ordain, decree
3: to adapt in shape so as to fit neatly and closely (a dress shaped to her figure)
4 a: devise, plan (shape a policy) b: to embody in definite form (shaping a folktale into an epic)
5 a: to make fit for (as a particular use or purpose) : adapt (shape the questions to fit the answers) b: to determine or direct the course or character of (events that shaped history) c: to modify (behavior) by rewarding changes that tend toward a desired response

Form, create et cetera also seem to suggest aim, rather than aimlessness.

pottygok said...

JC, here's another dictionary defintion to play against yours:

"to whittle wood or the like with a knife, as in shaping something or as a mere aimless diversion: to spend an afternoon whittling."

However, you're right, whittling doesn't have to be aimless, and can result in a carving of some sort. Whether or not this is what Enku did, bree, is another matter entirely; I still don't think it is, as I see his form a bit more raw and bold. Also, the fact that the word comes from the Middle English for "knife" leads me to believe that this isn't what Enku did, knowing that some of his preferred tools were a hatchet or a hammer and chisel. This could be super silly nitpicking, of course, and I would bow to that response.

The other thing that comes across in dictionary definitions is the idea of shavings:

"a.To cut small bits or pare shavings from (a piece of wood).

b.To fashion or shape in this way: whittle a toy boat. "


"to cut thin shavings from (something) with a knife"

Also, going off of your definition, some definitions of "pare":

"1. to cut off the outer coating, layer, or part of.
2. to remove (an outer coating, layer, or part) by cutting (often fol. by off or away)."

I don't see this--either paring or shaving--as what the gardener is doing in this poem, so I still don't feel that "whittle" carries the most accurate or successful connotations for me as a reader.

This brings up an important question of connotation in poetry. How much should we look into the connotation, and to bring up an earlier topic, etymology of a word to judge it as a useful or successful part of a poem?

A classic example is Elizabeth Bishop's "The Fish." The opening line is "I caught a tremendous fish," which has always struck me as vague (tremendous how, it leaves me wondering), especially when compared with the following description:

"He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely. Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wallpaper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wallpaper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age."

For me, that imagery is so rich and delightful I don't think Bishop needed to open with "I caught a tremendous fish". However, I have had teachers who absolutely delighted in the line, because the word "tremendous" comes from the Latin "tremere," which means "to shake" or "quake." In other words, the thing is so great or large it makes one shake with fear and awe. I can see the argument, and that is certainly a rich image, but I'm not sure I get that connotation from the word "tremendous," even if I know that it's there.

Are either of us wrong? I certainly don't think so, any more than I think that people who think "in an attractive pot" works as a line are wrong. We are different folks, and have different opinions, connotations, etc. I would hope that these ideas are open for discussion because I think they can aid the critique of a poem. I think we also need to realize that any critique is merely a suggestion for improvement, and not a rule or command. I have had many folks critique my poems, good friends and strangers alike, who clearly either missed the point of the piece or gave suggestions that simply didn't work for me. I ignored them, and nothing bad happened. The ones who were my friends stayed my friends, etc.

I'm rambling, but the point I'm trying to make is that there are different definitions and connotations each person carries and they are defendable, with the dictionary, etymologically or otherwise. The goal is to be, if not open to these other opinions, tolerant and discursive about them so as to not alienate each other.

sara holbrook said...

Published 35 years ago, 5 days ago, or written on a piece of toilet paper last night -- I don't think it is the job of the critic to say if "whittle" is a good or bad word choice -- I think it is the job of the critic to ask "why did the poet choose this word" and try and follow the poet's lead. Why did she say "attractive" and not "chinese blue" or some such description? Did she mean to imply that it was not unpleasant, but also forgettable? Why?

Perhaps it is not that we are giving too much credit to this established poet, but that perhaps we are too quick to click into red pen mode and apply our own word choices to another's writing.

Mary, you are so right. I think of this poem often at schools when I think of the expectations (or lack thereof) we put on certain kids and how those expectations work to cripple their development.

And Bree -- you are so right that feminism is not a dated movement. I meet too many young women who think that it is.

Geoffrey A. Landis said...

Michael wrote:
>One of the hardest things about electronic
>communication is that one loses any nuance in voice.

Point taken.
cf. The Secret Cause of Flame Wars

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this link Geoff! I like the article so much I've referenced it on my latest blog: Secret Cause of Fame Wars

Anonymous said...

lol... Freudian slip?

I meant Flame!


The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau