“Toads, and All This Fiddle”
(Each of the poems discussed in the following article is available on this website. Please follow the appropriate links to read the poem. Links are provided at the poem to return to this page.)
When asked his definition of a good poem, Howard Moss, the great poetry editor of The New Yorker, was purported to have said, “One I like.” Which is maybe what it comes down to. Of course, Howard Moss’s likes and dislikes were informed by his vast reading, and by his own experience of writing poetry over a lifetime. Now, faced with selecting my own “best” poems, I find myself falling back on the simple criterion of “ones I like.”
One poem that both Howard Moss and I have liked (it was originally published in The New Yorker) is “Oranges.” In fact, as is often the case with my best work, I remember vividly the circumstances surrounding the writing of the poem. It was 1975. I was on leave from the University of Wisconsin, writing a book on humor in American literature and working on my first book of poetry. My wife, Peg, and I had only been in Wisconsin for three years, having moved from St. Louis where I grew up, to take a job teaching creative writing.
It was a bitterly cold winter–the kind one never sees in St. Louis–and I had just bicycled home from my office. The wind off the lake was fierce, my eyes were watering, and my eyelash had frozen to my parka hood zipper–I had to stop and warm the eyelash between my thumb and forefinger to free it. When I arrived home, my wife was out, and when I sat down to write about the ride and the cold and the eyelash, the image of an orange came to me, and the poem took off, seemingly writing itself. I remember saying a little prayer, to God or the muse or my subconscious or whatever was generating the poem, to let me finish it. Just then my wife walked in downstairs and my heart sank. Would she interrupt me? Would I lose the poem? But what happened instead was that she walked into the poem, which became, in effect, a love poem to her. Rather than interrupting the poem, she pointed it in the direction it wanted to go.
Part of what I like about the poem is my sense of its communal generation–my wife, the weather, the conventions of poetry, and I all came together to produce it. Partly I like its celebratory nature and its sensory quality and the fact that, even after the poem was published, it continued to surprise me. As I was closing the poem I was thinking more of tactile and olfactory than of visual imagery–the touch, the smell, of oranges on the lips. It wasn’t until a reader later pointed out the visual image of the ending–lips look like orange slices–that I saw that element of the poem.
“Oranges” was a gift, a poem that seemed to write itself, that was “inspired.” Of course, it was also the culmination of years of work, reminding me of Dylan Thomas’ observation that although he only wrote when he was inspired, he found that the more he wrote, the inspireder he got. Did “Oranges” take thirty minutes to write? Or thirty years?
“The Facts of Life” also seemed to come effortlessly. Having explored the brief sensory lyric in my first book, I found myself moving toward narrative and humor in my second. Humor has been a defining characteristic of American poetry since Walt Whitman, with his hyperbolic self-celebration, and Emily Dickinson, with her witty self-deprecation, provided the models for subsequent generations of poets. When my six-year-old daughter asked where babies came from, and my wife, having read an article in a popular magazine recommending full disclosure, began telling her the whole wonderful story, it seemed more awkward and embarrassing than funny to me. But as I began writing about it later the situation seemed funnier and funnier, and even the rhymes participated in the joke on us. What starts as a free verse poem shifts to the surprising couplet in the middle (“penis, vagina, sperm, womb, and egg./ She thinks we’re pulling her leg.”) with its near rhyme of “penis va-“/ “She thinks we’re” and its exact rhyme of “egg” and “leg”–wordplay that always evokes laughter at a public reading. Like “Oranges,” “The Facts of Life” is a love poem, in this case the humor leading us to an embrace of the “truth” of metaphor, symbolism, and tale, over the “lie” of literalism.
Perhaps I feel a special affection for these two poems because they are personal (though I hope not private) poems drawing directly on my own intimate experience. “At Chet’s Feed & Seed” is, perhaps, less obviously personal, being more an observation of a public scene. But, like “Oranges” and “The Facts of Life,” it is a kind of love poem, drawing on humor and sound for its effects. Sound has, in fact, been a central element in my work–often words, or lines, or entire poems are generated more by sound than by sense. In Alice in Wonderland Lewis Carroll has Humpty Dumpty advise Alice to “take care of the sounds and the sense will take care of itself” (a play on the English maxim, “take care of the pence and the pounds will take care of themselves”). Robert Frost similarly insisted, “subject matter is important, but sound is the gold in the ore.” One of my earliest influences, in addition to Emily Dickinson and Dylan Thomas, was Gerard Manley Hopkins who argued that you should read a poem not with your eyes but with your ears.
“At Chet’s Feed & Seed” was written with my ears. The rich variety of sound–alliteration, assonance, consonance, internal rhyme–is meant to evoke a sense of buoyancy, exuberance, and sufficiency in the scene, and (as a kind of in-joke on the chicken man and myself) aurally to reflect the animal imagery. The repetition of “t” “ch” “k” “b” “blk” in words like “each,” “scratch,” “clabber,” and “scutter,” suggest a chicken’s clucking to me, while the vowels in “stupid,” “approval,” and “do,” suggest a cow’s “moo.”
The reference to the Vietnam War in “At Chet’s Feed & Seed” introduces a political dimension into the poem. “The Hell Mural” presents an even more clearly political agenda, using the rigid, repeating form of the sestina to explore issues of nuclear armament and the ethics of mass annihilation. The poem had its genesis in a short documentary film I saw about Iri and Toshi Maruki, two Japanese artists whose life project has been to paint what they call “the bomb,” by which they mean all evil and war and atrocity. They paint in the nude, on huge canvases on the floor that are displayed in a museum dedicated to their work. Their statements about art were very moving, including, among other things, the idea that they wanted to pass their work on to others who would keep it alive in different forms. The form I decided to pass their work along in, the sestina, seemed especially appropriate for reflecting their method. The six stanzas and envoi consider the repeating end-words from multiple angles, which is what the Maruki’s art does–looks at the same horrors from every angle. I was active in the nuclear freeze movement, and “The Hell Mural” was my attempt to contribute to the on-going political dialogue.
As “The Hell Mural” is my best effort to depict hell, “In the Amish Bakery” is my best effort to depict heaven. The image of the staid Amish family jumping on their trampoline is what stays with me here, the various incongruities in the poem evoking the kind of surprise and whimsy and humor that would have to be present in any heaven I’d want to spend the afterlife in. When I was writing the poem I really didn’t know the answer to the question I opened the piece with about why the image of the trampoline came to mind in the context of the imagined deaths of my wife and daughters. I’m still not sure I know, though it probably has something to do with the power of celebration and humor and memory and sensory evocation to provide Frost’s “momentary stay against confusion” in the face of loss and mortality.
My speculations on heaven and hell and mortality began at an early age, generated in part by my father’s illness. Paralyzed with multiple sclerosis for most of my life, my father appears in each of my books, often in multiple poems. When my first book was accepted and I realized that my father would be seeing the poems about him for the first time (and they didn’t always present him or our relationship in the best light), I asked him, in the nursing home where he spent his last years, whether he’d prefer that I remove them from the book. He said something that has been very important for my writing. He said, “I’ve felt so useless to anyone over the years that if I can be of some use to you in your writing it would make me happy.”
Appropriation of other people’s stories, and the exposure of friends’ and family’s lives, has always been a vexing problem for writers, so my father’s permission was liberating. In the poem, “Hardware,” written after my father’s death, I acknowledge his importance for me as a kind of “tour guide” and “translator” of the foreign country of adulthood, suggesting that no words are finally sufficient to accommodate the enormity of his loss. Faced with such sorrow, the heart has only “doohickeys and widgets, watchamacallits and thingamabobs” with which to try to make do.
Two other poems about my father, “The Friday Night Fights” and “Fielding,” are from the title sequence of my book of one hundred sonnets, The Uses of Adversity. The book resulted from my decision to write a sonnet a day for a year, a project which was an outgrowth of my interest in traditional forms and their revival in recent poetry. Although I wanted my sonnets to be fairly rigorous, with a clear gesture, at least, to iambic pentameter, to a consistent rhyme scheme, to a structure built on a central contrast whether in the Petrarchan octave and sestet or the Shakespearian quatrains and couplet or in some hybrid, I also wanted the sonnets to read as conversationally as free verse, employing common diction, slant rhyme, speech rhythms, and a liberal use of enjambment and caesura.
“The Friday Night Fights,” perhaps more accessible to older readers who remember the ABC sports show from the 1950s, aims to explore the affinities of conflict and caring, how even fighting can be an expression of affection and love. “Fielding” aims to fix in the memory a moment of happiness and exhilaration before a lifetime of frustration and struggle ensues.
Ever since its invention in 1230 by Giacomo da Lentino in the court of Frederick II of Sicily, the sonnet has, in its length and intensity, leant itself to serious poems about love and death such as these. It has also, in its structural resemblance to the joke (the Shakespearian couplet can be something of a punch line), leant itself to humor. “The McPoem” draws on Donald Hall’s humorous label dismissing the kind of poetry sometimes referred to as “the workshop poem”–“the McPoem, fifty billion served.” My answer to Hall echoes, of course, Marianne Moore’s poem entitled “Poetry” that begins, “I, too, dislike it. There are things that are important beyond all this fiddle” and ends by defending poetry as an art that can “present for inspection imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”
Burgers and boxing, oranges and eyelashes, good fairies and God, Hell murals and Amish bakeries, conflict and affection, watchamacallits and thingamabobs–these are some of the things that poetry can incorporate and celebrate, and, if the poems are good poems, translate from the commonplace and the mundane to the miraculous and the extraordinary. Even a list of clichés, like those in my recent poem “Blessings,” can have their day.
Are the poems included here good poems? I guess it’s not up to me, finally, to say. I do know that I like them. But then, I also like toads, and all this fiddle. –Ronald Wallace
This article has been excerpted from Contemporary American Poetry: Behind the Scenes. To access the poems, please choose Selected Poems or follow the individual links above.