Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Not the Moon, a Bird . . .

Dear All:

Not quite as easy as yesterday's, but easy nonetheless. And by one of my favorite poets, too! Denise Levertov was one of the Beats, a group that included Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and most famously Allen Ginsburg. They were wild and crazy guys, free souls, free thinkers. She was the only girl allowed into the club. They didn't think that freely.

Here it is:

Wanting The Moon
by Denise Levertov

Not the moon. A flower
on the other side of the water.

The water sweeps past in flood,
dragging a whole tree by the hair,

[The rest of the poem has been removed because it’s almost certainly still in copyright. But I doubt you’ll have any trouble finding it on the Web.]

So, okay. It's about wanting things you can't have. And about the mixed joy and sorrow of it. Better to want and not have than never to have wanted. But still not as good as having the moon. You got that she began by saying (in the title) that she wanted the moon. Then... not actually the moon but an unobtainable flower. No, not the flower, a bird. And so on. So we know that the poem's not about the thing desired, but about the act of desire.

What should you note about this poem? How clean and clear it is. How is that achieved? Through her use of archetypal, almost abstract nouns: the moon, a flower, a tree, a barn, a bridge, and so on all the way to a jester, his bells, a tune, sorrow.

Oversimplifying wildly, in writing, there are two contradictory approaches: One is to employ simplified archetypes, as here, to make the story or poem universal. The other (in fiction, referred to by its opponents as "K-Mart realism") is to make everything as specific as possible: A low gibbous moon hanging over Winooski, Vermont; an ox-eye daisy, the elm behind St. Francis Xavier Elementary School with names and obscenities carved into its bark, old man Slater's barn, behind which Carl Hemsley and Jake Dermott used to smoke cigarettes and talk about how fast they were going to get out of Vermont as soon as they graduated high school. Both approaches work equally well, in the hands of someone who knows how to use them.

All best,


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