Poetry April Madness 4: Round 1, Game 3

by Jonathan Hobratsch & Agon Haroldson

Welcome to game 3 of Poetry April Madness: a literary blood sport! Click here to see the rules and the rosters if you don’t know them already. The results of game 1 and game 2 are also available. See the results of game 3 below:

Game 3:
The Ballades (Rae Armantrout, Laura Kasischke, Ishmael Reed, Elinor Wylie, Carolyn Forche, Ruth Stone, Aurdre Lorde, Gerald Stern, Robert Lowell)
The Epithalamions (Li-Young Lee, David Lehman, May Swenson, Robert Pinsky, Richard Wilbur, Mark Bibbins, Ai, Delmore Schwartz, Alice Fulton)
Game 3 Results
Carolyn Forche “The Colonel”
Ai “Interview with a Policeman”
JH: I think Forche’s poem is the first prose poem of round 1. The poem takes place somewhere in Latin America at a colonel’s house. The images throughout the poem establish him as the typical male authority, as well as an authority on violence. The poem begins with mundane descriptions, such as TV commercials, dogs, food, etc. After a parrot speaks, the poem gets more strange. The colonel, possibly to establish a visual on how difficult it has been to govern, brings in a sackful of ears, which he dispenses on top of the table. He uses the ears as a threat, before swiping them on the ground, leading to the best lines of the poem, “Some of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.” The poem is probably from a sequence of poems about the political situation in a section of Latin America, probably Central America, since it’s from the 1970s. The poem brings attention to the level of atrocities in the region.
AH: How about we move to AI now. An interview with a colonel moves on to an interview with a policeman.
JH: [Reads] This is a good poem, because it makes it ambiguous as to who is really innocent or guilty in the poem. You only get the cop’s side of the story, since the culprit is dead. However, the media is also a factor in this poem, and is also scrutinized. Media, crime and race relations are all on display. Of the three involved, none are angels. Both poems, Forche’s and Ai’s come off as journalistic.
AH: Who does a better job?
JH: I think Forche’s is more interest, since it has the strangeness of the ears. However, I think Ai balances a more complex situation. They both accomplish their goals, but Ai went for a more difficult goal and she scored. Both poems are great. I think Forche’s is more interesting to me, but Ai’s will win this round for the stronger poem.
Result: Ai def. Forche
Current Score: Ballades 0 Epithalamions 1
Elinor Wylie “The Crooked Stick”
Mark Bibbins “Factory”
JH: Wylie’s poem is an eclogue, a short pastoral dialogue. As one, it is very good. Two people come across a crooked stick. One of the voices holds the stick to some importance. The other is confused by the matter. In some ways, the poem tests the reader to determine which of the two voices the reader might be. The poem, while it claims to not be a riddle, is akin to a riddle. The crooked stick is both a shepherds crook and it could be a cross or a bow not yet made into one. It is discarded or lost, but has a future containing possibilities. The stick is covered with moss, so it has been discarded for some time. The final line shows that the least pondering of the two persons does not intellectually develop. Perhaps the stick could have a future, but he or she does not.
AH: From the pastoral to the factory. Rural and urban meet.
JH: [Reads] I feel like Mark Bibbins’s poem could have been a cousin to Wylie’s poem; although, I know this isn’t the case. As the poem starts off with the discussion of the nature of a painting. The poem is like the gears or equipment in a factory that are gradually breaking down. Through disillusionment and despair we gain wisdom.
AH: Which poem is more powerful.
JH: I’d say Bibbins’s poem. I’m not terribly blown away by either poem, since neither has me excited to read them a second time, but I think Bibbins is the clear winner here since he seems to be attempting a more difficult poem. They succeed in their tasks equally well.
Result: Bibbins def. Wylie
Current Score: Ballades 0 Epithalamions 2
Laura Kasischke “After Ken Burns”
Delmore Schwartz “Calmly We Walk Through this April’s Day”
JH: Did you know that Ken Burns had a cameo in the movie Gettysburg?
AH: No, I didn’t. I do know that he was frustrated to learn that at least one ancestor fought for the British in the American Revolution.
JH: Yeah, I saw that episode of Finding Your Roots, too. I’m sure this poem will have more to do with him as a documentary film maker. [Reads] This is a really good poem. I can see the similarities to it and a documentary. I think a couple of the lines might be quoted directly from Ken Burns. The poem ends with a bit of a twist when you consider that a documentary documents life and events, “she opens (what choice does she have?) although she has not yet been born.” This is juxtaposed with the image of the ghosts of the wounded. So we have past and future. The cracked plate, which is the opening image, represents the present. The plate, you can say, transcends time in a way, since, depending on how old the plate is, it could have been around when the ghosts were living and it may still be around with the unborn woman is on the verge of turning into a ghost herself. Here’s my favorite stanza, “the scales, beaks, and teeth of creatures, but also/ their imaginative names (elephant, peacock) and their/ love of one another, the excited/ preparations they sometimes make/ for their own deaths.”
AH: I wonder if Ken Burns has read the poem? Let’s move on to Schwarz.
JH: [Reads] This poems is amazing because it seems much older, as if William Blake wrote it, or something. There are just so many great line, “What is the self amid this blaze?/  What am I now that I was then/ Which I shall suffer and act again,/ The theodicy I wrote in my high school days”. I may be misreading this, but I like to think the blaze is experience or life. In the quote, we are asked what still remains of the former self, after we’ve been ignited over and over. We are scarred, yet move to scar again. Theodicy has to deal with the “problem of evil” and why a good God would allow it to happen. This would emphasis further that the experiential scorching  is not pleasant. This is why it’s a burn and not a tingling blessing. Even the universe must go through what we must go through, “The great globe reels in the solar fire.” I said William Blake earlier, but it sort of reminds me of Hart Crane, too.
AH: Which poem is stronger?
JH: This is very difficult, because both poems are exceptional. I’m going to lean towards Schwarz, because I think it is and will remain ultimately more universal. At some point, people might not know who Ken Burns is, and that specificity, might diminish the enjoyment of that poem a little. Although, I think it will last as a great poem, too. Meanwhile, Schwarz’s poem, as I said, seems ancient. It is as universal and lasting as Beowulf.
Result: Schwarz def. Kasischke
Current Score: Ballades 0 Epithalamions 3
Ruth Stone “Another Feeling”
Alice Fulton “Wow Moment”
AH: Ballades need to get on the board. They need to win five out of the next six match ups.
JH: Let’s see what Ruth Stone’s got. [Reads] I wish I had more background on this poem. The narrator of the poem sees a big with broken legs, possibly flattened by traffic, since a group of young pigs are crossing the highway. The narrator, with good intentions, calls the Humane Society. Based on the tone, and some obvious word choice (“ominous”), the pig may be facing a worse fate, since the narrator regrets calling for help. Hands sweat and heart races. It’s a nice, but not complex poem, unless I’m missing something.
AH: Maybe you need a “Wow Moment”
JH: [Reads] This poem is a quasi-confessional poem in tercets. I just cannot get into this poem. My interest dissipates after the sixth stanza. I’m sure it’s a good poem, but I’m not encouraged to use much brain power towards it. The “Wow Moment” of this poem doesn’t seem to arrive. The language seems slightly artificial, too. I think it has a heavier dose of Latin-based words, as opposed to the German-based words of our language, which general gives meat to poetry.  Latin-based words always seem evasive. Maybe because Latin was integrated into the language primarily for legal matters. People generally inject a dose of Latin-based words into their language when they’re either trying hard to impress someone intellectually (on a job application, for instance) or if they work in the tech industry, the sciences or as a lawyer. The poem is obviously a good poem, because it seems to be roundly popular. However, for me, I am not gravitating towards it. My lack of patience will, most likely, keep me from whatever reward the poem might offer a reader.
AH: Stone?
JH: Yes. Although, I’m sure others will disagree with me.
Result: Stone def. Fulton
Current Score: Ballades 1 Epithalamions 3
Ishmael Reed “I am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra”
May Swenson “Green Red Brown and White”
JH: [reads] Reed’s poem is a fun jazz-inspired work. He mixes popular Americana, mostly Western, with Egyptian mythology. It seems to allude to a forthcoming coronation after the overthrow of Set. A well-made mini-epic.
AH: On to Swenson?
JH: Ok. [reads] This isn’t one of her best poems. At least, it isn’t for me. The four colors mentioned in the title reoccur throughout. The specificity of the color can only be guessed from the objects from which they are attached. There are some good lines, “each path leads both out and in/ I come while going   no to and from/ There is only here/ And here is as well as there”. If the poem was like this throughout, I’d say it would win the day. But the rest of the poem doesn’t invite me into it. In fact, I find the non-specific colors damaging to the poem. If I had to guess, the connection with the colors and the pathway that is mentioned is that the colors are a path. We are shown a color, but not a color specific enough to take use anywhere. I may be over-analyzing that part of the poem.
AH: So Reed wins?
JH: I think most people would like Swenson’s poem, for some reason, but I’ll go with Reed.
Result: Reed def. Swenson
Current Score: Ballades 2, Epithalamions 3
Robert Lowell “Skunk Hour”
Robert Pinsky “Impossible to Tell”
AH: Now we move to our second of three Lowells. I wonder if they’re all related?
JH: Yeah, they are. John Lowell, a federal judge and early congressman, is their common ancestor. He is Amy Lowell’s great-great grandfather; James Russell Lowell’s grandfather; and Robert Lowell’s great-great-great grandfather. So they’re all extended cousins, but not too extended. Robert Lowell and James Russell Lowell are actually more related to each other, since they’re common ancestor is Rev. Charles Lowell, a son of Judge Lowell. James Russell Lowell is the son of Rev. Charles Lowell. In fact, the first American Lowell, Percival Lowell, wrote a poem on the death of Massachusetts colonial governor John Winthrop. Poetry is deeply a part of them.
AH: Let’s talk about the poem.
JH: This is one of Robert Lowell’s more well-known poems. It’s a confessional poem about a crisis, dedicated to poet Elizabeth Bishop. It’s a very New England-centric poem, with the mention of village selectmen, lobstermen and Victorian hierarchy. The skunks in the poem are demonic, and seem to reflect the inner thoughts of the narrator, who feels within himself a hell. The poem starts in the seaside, which is beautiful, and it ends with a skunk wedging its head into a container of sour cream.
AH: We should probably move on to the next poem:
JH: This is quite a match of titans here. [Reads] It’s a long tercet poem, dedicated to poet Robert Hass and to the memory of Elliot Gilbert. The poem, in part, is about Pinsky’s friendly relationship with both Hass and Gilbert. Many amusing anecdotes in there. From anecdote, the story goes straight into a prolonged, possibly allegoric, joke involving Pinsky’s dead friend. A rabbi, attempting resurrection, uses every method, language and diety that he can think of to get the man to arise. The prolonged joke seems to go unfinished, and this would be consistent with some of the anecdotes earlier about leaving unfinished jokes on each other’s voice mails. It then seems to revert back to anecdote and fluctuates to where we can’t tell what is biography and what is imagination. I think the line, “A joke that seems at first to be a story,” is a good description for this poem. The Japanese poet, Basho, also plays a part in this poem.
AH: Without analyzing the poem further, which poet should go on to round 2.
JH: This might be one of the toughest decisions yet. Both poems are without fault. I’ve stated that serious poems, especially tragic, will beat out the fun poems, most likely. However, Pinsky’s poem is a poem about loss and mourning, told in a joke. How better to honor a history of laughter than to have this sort of elegy? I think Pinsky has to win here.
Result: Pinsky def. Lowell
Current Score: Ballades 2 Epithalamions 4
Audre Lorde “A Woman Speaks”
Richard Wilbur “Cottage Street, 1953”
AH: Epithalamions need one more win. Can Wilbur top Lorde to bring his team to the second round?
JH: I just read Lorde’s poem and it’s going to be difficult to top the burning divinity of her poem. It reads like one of those ancient Egyptian poems from the Book of the Dead, or like one of the Gnostic poems. It’s a powerful poem about women and for women. Sisters, witches and mothers are mentioned, but no male counterparts. The narrator seems like a witch conjuring the magic of the universe. The poem sort of alludes to the inequalities of her time. She defiantly lets the world know that, “I am treacherous with old magic/ and the noon’s new fury/ with all your wide futures/ promised/ I am/ woman/ and not white.
AH: Next poem.
JH: [Reads] Because of the date, I think this is probably an autobiographical narrative poem about a tea party. One of the central characters is evidently the poet Sylvia Plath, who is described as, “pale” and “slumped.” The poem asks if “we would prefer it weak or strong.” This line comes right after the description of Plath and after Edna Ward is described as “framed in her phoenix fire-screen.” Thus, with body language we are also shown weak and strong. The party and their desires must go to Ward, who controls the tea. Plath, who we are told wishes to die, is considered “impotent” in her ability to praise. Once again, strength and weakness are revealed in the poem. Life is then compared to tea — the “brewing dusk” of life. The narrator lets us know that Ward will die in 15 years, having lived 88 “summers of/ such grace and courage as permit no tears.” Meanwhile, Plath will die sooner, living as a “brilliant negative,” writing poems “free and helpless and unjust.” The contrast throughout the poem between Ward and Plath is exceptionally done. I wonder what Wilbur’s real opinion of Plath is.
AH: He’s still alive?
JH: Yeah, he’s 95. He’s lived three Plath lifetimes, going on four. Plath would be 20 or 21 in 1953, so she probably wasn’t recognized as much of a poet yet. So her “impotent” praising of Wilbur, probably is that as a yet successful poet, her praise means nothing at the time for accomplished Wilbur, who would be in his early 30s at the time
AH: So this sounds like it will be another close vote.
JH: Yes, it is. If I were a woman, I’d probably lean towards Lorde’s poem, since I would get more out of it, but I feel like I get more out of Wilbur’s poem. This might also be because it’s easier to understand when I’m having to speed read through poems and judge them.
AH: This means Epithalamions will go on to Round 2. We will continue with the last two matchups anyway.
Result: Wilbur def. Lorde
Current score: Ballades 2 Epithalamions 5
Gerald Stern “Waving Goodbye”
Li-Young Lee “Persimmons”
AH: Didn’t you say Gerald Stern was funny?
JH: Yes, he’s quite a character. I’ve seen him read a few times. His personality and his poetry is both great, but I think his personality is even larger than his writing. No poet wants to hear that, but great personalities can’t help it. Think of Gore Vidal, who was both a great writer and a great personality. Ultimately, I think more people liked listening to him than reading him. Stern might be the same way. Although, a different personality.
AH: Poetry time.
JH: [reads] This is a touching poem. Stern strips us down to the loving animals we are, or that we can be. His action are as “an animal would.” Without context, one would probably presume the more ferocious elements of animals, but he uses them to express his body language at dropping his daughter off, who is presumably leaving for an extended time, if not mostly permanently. If the story is truly autobiographical, I’d like to know the backstory, but by leaving so much mystery, it allows the poem to be more universal. I think.
AH: On to the next poem.
JH: [Reads] This poem is familiar. I think I read it in a class taught by Cyrus Cassells. It begins with an anecdote about not knowing the difference between persimmon and precision. The poem continues to talk about persimmons with precision. The poem goes on to talk about other words he’s mixed up–fight and fright, for instance. One word can cause the other, and vice versa. The comic moment is when his teacher, who had scolded him for not knowing the difference between the persimmon and precision, brings a persimmon to class, cuts it up, and give it to the class to eat. The narrator, knowing that the persimmon isn’t ripe, refuses to eat the persimmon and watches the faces of the other children. The humor here is, in part, that the teacher who defiantly enforces the difference between precision and persimmon, doesn’t know the difference between a ripe and unripe persimmon. Throughout the poem, we get several anecdote, and in most cases, the persimmons have a sort of magic quality and are consistently compared to something greater than they actually are–the sun, for instance.
AH: Is there a winner?
JH: Do you know that in Korea persimmons have a reputation for scaring tigers?
AH: Does it work?
JH: I’ll go to the zoo and find out, but it may only work in Korea.
AH: North or South?
JH: Let’s say North and see if we can convince Kim Jong-un to try it.
AH: Who wins?
JH: The tiger
AH: No, I mean…
JH: And Li Young Lee.
Result: Lee def. Stern
Current Score: Ballades 2 Epithalamions 6
Rae Armantrout “The Way”
David Lehman “June 11”
AH: Armantrout is going to have to win this one to make her team’s defeat somewhat respectable.
JH: I don’t think it will be too difficult, since Lehman is more of a poetry editor, essayist and administrator. He does write good poems, but his poem will have to be one of his best. And Armantrout will have to be at her worst. I don’t think that will be the case. Lehman’s advantage is that I don’t always understand Armantrout’s poetry.
AH: Let’s see if you understand this one.
JH: [reads] Yeah, this might be one of those Armantrout poems I don’t like. Most of the lines are about three to four words. Each stanza is a couplet, except the first, which is a tercet, and one single line. Each stanza stands perfectly on its own, but seems to have little connection with each of the other stanzas, except for a few. I like this part the most, “As a child,/ I was abandoned/ in a story/ made of trees.” I like that I can think about the trees having made the story, because they have become paper. I think the line I quoted should have ended the poem. The title, “The Way,” could mean that all these statements are different pathways to wherever one is trying to get to, or may be a reference to Taoism. I’m sure it’s a great poem that I’m terribly misunderstanding, but I’d prefer to have a little more to work with. I’m somewhat of a maximalist by nature, and minimalism can confuse me. I can say that the poem doesn’t bore me, which a lot of minimalism can do.
AH: No time to talk of personal aesthetics. Move along.
JH: [Reads] This poem is meant to be funny. It’s Lehman’s birthday. He wants a Pepsi with a lot of ice cubes. He then moves on to a tangent about France, where they don’t understand that in America soft drinks are “an excuse for ice cubes.” Despite this inconvenience, Lehman would still like to go to France for a couple of days. He then mentions poet Philip Levine on being asked if he’s like to go to China, “yes if he could return the same day”. Is it quick boredom? Distaste for the other culture? Too much love for the American way? A desire to just be at home (“lazy in the hammock” as Lehman puts it). I’m not quite sure. Maybe it’s because I’d want to be in France or China at least a month if I ever got to go? I don’t see the point of vacations lasting only a couple days. I’m having a difficult time understanding the poem’s point. It reads like a Frank O’Hara poem, but without the force. It’s a humorous anecdote with some good lines, but the best line comes from Levine.  Good for Lehman for remember it, though.
AH: Who wins?
JH: You know what? I am going to say Armantrout. I didn’t think she’d win after reading her poem, but I feel, that while I do not understand her poem, that her poem is probably saying something much more profound than Lehman’s poem, which I think is just trying to be fun, which it is. This isn’t too much of a loss for Lehman, since he will get another chance at a poem while Armantrout will not.
Result: Armantrout def. Lehman
Score: Ballades 3 Epithalamions 6
The Epithalamions (Li-Young Lee, David Lehman, May Swenson, Robert Pinsky, Richard Wilbur, Mark Bibbins, Ai, Delmore Schwartz, Alice Fulton) will progress to the 2nd round.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Delmore Schwartz was Lou Reed’s English professor at Syracuse. –Paul


    1. historymonocle says:

      That’s awesome. Yeah, Schwarz died early. I think I heard about him through an essay by John Ashbery.

      Liked by 1 person

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