05 January 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/1

Several Voices out of a Cloud

Come, drunks and drug-takers; come, perverts unnerved!
Receive the laurel, given, though late, on merit; to whom
       and wherever deserved.

Parochial punks, trimmers, nice people, joiners true-blue,
Get the hell out of the way of the laurel. It is deathless
       And it isn't for you.

Louise Bogan

We'll start this year with Louise Bogan's vehement annunciation to what she feels are the true poets. The wonderful title implies a heavenly (specifically, divine) voice, glory hidden behind a cloud. Yet this isn't simply the voice of God (announcing: "This is my beloved poet, in whom I am well pleased!") because she has "several voices" out of that cloud: multiple deities? voices in a vision, or a hallucination? the voices of on-coming posterity? Whoever they are, their kingdom is not of this world, as they demonstrate with their topsy-turvy pronouncement, in which the last shall be first and the first shall be last (although Bogan's language is not Biblical, this brief poem for me consistently conjures up Biblical, specifically New Testament, links and echoes – and like the Bible, it is judgmental, separating without hesitation the sheep from the goats, even as it tells us that the sheep and goats aren't necessarily who we think they are).

She calls up for reward not just the marginal but the desperate and disorderly: drunks, druggies, perverts. It's easy enough to think of poets who fit each of those categories (bearing in mind that for a mid-century American like Bogan, "perverts" may just have been an alternate term for homosexuals, who may indeed have been "unnerved" – that is, with courage and confidence lost – given the social condemnation of them; though I suspect what she was really after in perverts unnerved is the repeated erv sound, and the rhyme with deserved). The laurel is associated with Apollo, the classical god of music and poetry (among other things), because of his unreciprocated love for Daphne. So for the drunks, drug-takers, and perverts to receive the laurel (that sign of poetic rapture and thwarted love) means their social failings are swept aside so that they may be exalted as poets, a title earned only by merit: this crowd may look like worthless riffraff to orderly minds, but not to the ecstatic voices from above.

The first stanza announces who is blessed, and the second who is damned (Bogan says get the hell out of the way of the laurel, which pretty clearly implies go to hell; she further announces that it is not for them since it is deathless (the laurel is in fact an evergreen), implying that death is the fate suitable to them). And who are the damned? Parochial punks, trimmers, nice people, joiners true-blue. Punks might seem to fit in better with the first stanza's group, but this poem predates punk rock and its associated attitudes; here, punk would mean a low-level creep, bully, or brat. (The word also referred to prostitutes, and to young men who bottomed in same-sex relationships (usually as prostitutes or in prison), but given the first stanza we can dismiss those meanings here, I think.) These are, in particular, parochial punks, and once again I think she was drawn to the sound (those contemptuous repeated puh sounds) but the adjective implies not just a low-level creep but a small-minded one. A trimmer would be a person who adapts his or her views to prevailing political trends for personal advancement but perhaps there's also the sense of someone who trims or decorates something, with the implication that there's merely trivial ornamentation going on there. Perhaps there's also the sense of someone who trims a ship's sails, that is, someone who adjusts them to maintain the vessel's equilibrium. A trimmer can also be a person who cuts a hedge back, making it neat and orderly. What all of these uses of trim have in common is that they involve cutting back the unruly, following prevailing winds or pre-established designs. As with parochial punks, the words imply something small-minded and mingy, something that values what is conventional, only because it is conventional. I think that's where the nice people come in; in this context, nice doesn't mean kind-hearted or thoughtful, but a sort of complacent petit-bourgeois smugness (probably linked to the earlier use of nice to mean fastidious or scrupulous): we are the decent folk; those who are different are therefore not decent. So by now you can see the implications of joiners true-blue: organization men, the "clubbable" ones (as in suitable for membership in a club, though from the poet's perspective, suitable for getting clubbed), those for groups and opposed to individualism, for whom true-blue indicates not so much steadfast loyalty as unthinking orthodoxy. She's very precise about whom she is excluding: not so much the sober and straight (as we might expect, as a contrast to those listed in the first stanza) as the small-minded and conventional.

Bogan seems to be talking mostly about writers of poetry, though you could read the poem (in particular, the second stanza) as applying to readers of poetry. But (to continue the gospel language) there are many mansions in my Father's house – that is, there are many types of poetry, and many ways of writing and reading it. I like this poem – in addition to the vivid and fruitful phrasing, it says something deeply reassuring, as religion also sometimes does, to people who feel they don't fit in with conventional social notions of success. Yet I'm not quite convinced by it, and there's something a bit smug about its easy division of the worthy from the damned. For every poet we can name who was a drunk or drug-taker or "pervert," we can name others who led, to outward eyes, quiet and dull lives – their explosions were interior. And of course a colorfully depraved life is no guarantee or indicator of artistic talent: we can name great poets who were addicts and drunks, but for each such poet there are hundreds of people who ruined their lives, and their loved ones' lives, with booze and drugs. And in many cases the various addictions interfered with the actual production of poetry. Think of Oscar Wilde's warning words about putting his genius into his life rather than his work, or the advice of Flaubert, that ur-god of Modernism, that you should be regular and orderly in your life ("like a bourgeois") in order to be violent and original in your work.

I took this from The Blue Estuaries: Poems 1923 - 1968 by Louise Bogan.

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