by April Bernard
This is a slightly edited version of the dinner speech delivered to the MFA graduating class, on the night of June 28th, 2014.
Tonight I will read five poems by poets whom I count among my many ancestors. It turns out that you can, after all, choose your own family and assemble your own family tree. Like me, you are allowed to be presumptuous, foolish, and hopeful enough to count yourselves as “descended” from those master writers you most admire. But remember that there is work to be done, always, to collect your inheritance.
I am limiting myself to the dead; and for this occasion, I thought I would find poems that seem, directly or indirectly, to comment on the business of writing. Let me begin with an Elizabeth Bishop poem from the 1940s, “The Bight.” Bishop has been placed so high on her pedestal that people often forget how funny she can be; in this poem, she begins by executing a series of expert metaphors and simultaneously mocking her reliance them. This is one of those poems about what it means to try to put the world into words, and always to feel like a bit of a failure. She is in Key West, watching the activity in the little bay, or “bight,” she can see from her study window. A key word here is “marl,” the material being dug up—it is a lime deposit composed of, among other things, bird guano, and used for making fertilizer. The only other thing I will say is that you should notice the multiple meanings for the word “correspondence” that comes at the end of the poem. She means, of course, letters between friends, but she is also commenting on the nature of metaphor itself.
on my birthday
At low tide like this how sheer the water is.
White, crumbling ribs of marl protrude and glare
and the boats are dry, the pilings dry as matches.
Absorbing, rather than being absorbed,
the water in the bight doesn’t wet anything,
the color of the gas flame turned as low as possible.
One can smell it turning to gas; if one were Baudelaire
one could probably hear it turning to marimba music.
The little ocher dredge at work off the end of the dock
already plays the dry perfectly off-beat claves.
The birds are outsize. Pelicans crash
into this peculiar gas unnecessarily hard,
it seems to me, like pickaxes,
rarely coming up with anything to show for it,
and going off with humorous elbowings.
Black-and-white man-of-war birds soar
on impalpable drafts
and open their tails like scissors on the curves
or tense them like wishbones, till they tremble.
The frowsy sponge boats keep coming in
with the obliging air of retrievers,
bristling with jackstraw gaffs and hooks
and decorated with bobbles of sponges.
There is a fence of chicken wire along the dock
where, glinting like little plowshares,
the blue-gray shark tails are hung up to dry
for the Chinese-restaurant trade.
Some of the little white boats are still piled up
against each other, or lie on their sides, stove in,
and not yet salvaged, if they ever will be, from the last bad storm,
like torn-open, unanswered letters.
The bight is littered with old correspondences.
Click. Click. Goes the dredge,
and brings up a dripping jawful of marl.
All the untidy activity continues,
awful but cheerful.
Let’s jump back 400 years or so to Sir Thomas Wyatt. In one of his unhappy epigrams he wrestles with a related language problem, though far more briefly.
Throughout the world if it were sought
Fair words enough a man shall find.
They be good cheap; they cost right naught;
Their substance is but only wind.
But well to say and so to mean –
That sweet accord is seldom seen.
By contrast, Gerard Manley Hopkins here accounts for at least a partial success, in this poem from 1864.
“It was a hard thing”
It was a hard thing to undo this knot.
The rainbow shines, but only in the thought
Of him that looks. Yet not in that alone,
For who makes rainbows by invention?
And many standing round a waterfall
See one bow each, yet not the same to all,
But each a hand’s breadth further than the next.
The sun on falling waters writes the text
Which yet is in the eye or in the thought.
It was a hard thing to undo this knot.
From the tentative to the triumphal vein: Marianne Moore’s first visit to New York City took place in the nineteen-teens—she had a wonderful and terrifying time, and referred to that trip as her “Sojourn in the Whale”; the whale of the city had swallowed her up and then spat her back out. She had a fondness for that Jonah metaphor, and in this later poem, actually called “Sojourn in the Whale,” she begins by talking about Ireland—which, if you look at the map, seems to be about to be swallowed by the English Whale to its east. She is of course writing about Ireland’s history of oppression under English rule, and also about the condition of being a woman writer. I would invite male writers to allow themselves for the moment to be feminized, and to identify with this as well—for are not all writers sojourning in the whale of our oppressive culture? In any case, the outcome here is, surprisingly, ok, as was the Biblical Jonah’s.
Sojourn in the Whale
Trying to open locked doors with a sword, threading
the points of needles, planting shade trees
upside down; swallowed by the opaqueness of one whom the seas
love better than they love you, Ireland—
you have lived and lived on every kind of shortage.
You have been compelled by hags to spin
gold thread from straw and have heard men say:
“There is a feminine temperament in direct contrast to ours,
which makes her do these things. Circumscribed by a
heritage of blindness and native
incompetence, she will become wise and will be forced to give in.
Compelled by experience, she will turn back;
water seeks its own level”;
and you have smiled. “Water in motion is far
from level.” You have seen it, when obstacles happened to bar
the path, rise automatically.
Finally, I will end with a mysterious poem by Wallace Stevens, one that means a great deal to me without my ever having completely understood it, called “On the Road Home.” Perhaps it can be seen as less about writing and than about conversation—between the writer and the reader; between each of you and your fellow writers; between the student and the teacher.
On the Road Home
It was when I said,
“There is no such thing as the truth,”
That the grapes seemed fatter.
The fox ran out of his hole.
“There are many truths,
But they are not parts of a truth.”
Then the tree, at night, began to change,
Smoking through green and smoking blue.
We were two figures in a wood.
We said we stood alone.
It was when I said,
“Words are not forms of a single word.
In the sum of the parts, there are only the parts.
The world must be measured by eye”;
It was when you said,
“The idols have seen lots of poverty,
Snakes and gold and lice,
But not the truth”;
It was at that time, that the silence was largest
And longest, the night was roundest,
The fragrance of the autumn warmest,
Closest, and strongest.
Graduating class of June 2014: How lucky you are to be writing in this glorious, motley, flexible, polyglot English language. Claim your ancestors— all those great novelists, story writers, essayists, memoirists, playwrights, and poets. Claim your inheritance by reading their work again and again; and while you should never try to write like them—for each new age needs its own particular literature—you should always, in your work, endeavor to be worthy of them.