Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #22

This week's selection reminds me of an ant: it may not look like much at first glance, but upon further scrutiny, it becomes clear that the little thing can carry a lot of weight. The 20th century poet Jean Follain was well-known and admired for his brief, dream-like verses (he liked to call them "miniatures") which capture simple moments and inbue them with universal significance. That is certainly the case with t his little gem, which I really admire for the way it transforms an act as simple and common as the kicking of a can along a frozen road into a comment on, of all things, man's lonesome place in the universe. What could the kick of a discarded can possibly tell us about the human condition? In the hands of the right poet, quite a bit indeed. Somehow, the emptiness of the can reminds us of the "God-shaped vacuum" inside every human heart (Pascal).

If this poem first strikes you as being about nothing, read it again. Then again. Imagine that dark, frozen road without a soul around. Think of how you'd feel listening to the echo of the can dissipate into the night. Now, in the picture in your mind, don't those stars seem to shine a little colder?


Music of Spheres

He was walking a frozen road
in his pocket iron keys were jingling
and with his pointed shoe absent-mindedly
he kicked the cylinder
of an old can
which for a few seconds rolled its cold emptiness
wobbled for a while and stopped
under a sky studded with stars.


I Am Not What I Am said...

A fascinating post. For some reason this poem, makes me think of an old Twilight Zone episode, entitled (oddly enough) 'Kick The Can'.

In that show, a group of elderly folks encounter another elderly fellow. Unbeknowest to them, he has some magical qualities and entices all of them (but one) into playing a game of 'Kick The Can'.

As the one fellow who had rejected the game offer hears them playing the voices slowly turn into children's voices and when he goes out to see what's happened, his elderly friends are gone. They have been turned into little kids.
He wants to join them, but its too late and they leave him.

Like that TZ episode, I found this poem to be melancholy. What captivated me as a reader was the fact that the writer chose to make each stanza brief.

In that essence, there was a simplicity and directness to it, in essence, it forced the reader to think about his or her own 'kick the can' moment (after all, we all have them). I would even go far as to say it might be Hemingwayesque (very little offered by the poet in terms of own insight).

All in all an appropriate poem for the longest day of the year.

Mutt Ploughman said...

It is a great post, once again, in Duke's POTW series. I don't know where the hell Duke comes up with these diverse selections in this series. He either has accumulated way more poetry in his personal library than I knew he had, or he Googles it or something, but I have never even heard of 35% of the poets he's been digging up. SOLID research, Duke.....

I found this particular poem to be very interesting too. As I Am Not commented, it is somewhat melancholy, but if you consider your own standing in the scope of the universe, how can it not be to some extent? What I find interesting about these recent selections, and poetry in general, is the way poets take the simple stuff that one overlooks along the way and turn them into something to notice, and something that can tell you more about yourself, humanity, the world, etc. This is pretty much what Duke has already said, but it's worth pointing out again. This is the best thing about poets. They make you take another look at things, and chances are when you do you're gonna see things through their vision you didn't see the first time around. We NEED poets for this! They really do play an extremely important function in literature and in culture.

Duke Altum said...

I appreciate both of your comments very much. Mutt's absolutely right, we need poets to point out and articulate and give us healthy pause in a world so caught up in itself it no longer seems to be able to discern between right and wrong, sacred and profane, the beautiful and the horrific. My very first POTW selection, from one of the best in the business, (Richard Wilbur) hits upon this theme in a way, and is worth repeating here:

"A thrush, because I'd been wrong,
Burst rightly into song
In a world not cruel, not lonely,
Not governed by me only."
("On Having Misidentified a Wild Flower")

Here Wilbur tacitly links the importance of articulating and noticing the specific, to a right understanding of the world in accordance with the original design of its Creator.

I didn't plan this, but bringing up that little poem strikes upon a point regarding Follain's poem: I should have added the observation that we, as believers in a benevolent Creator God who is Love, of course do not agree with the bleak assessment of an unfeeling, impersonal, Godless universe that seems implicit in "Music of Spheres." But my point in sharing it was not to say that I necessarily agree with its perspective on the world, but to praise the poem's ability to capture what it FEELS like to have that perspective... because as I An Not so rightly observed, we may not share the poet's point of view, but we DO all have moments when we FEEL like we're all alone down here. Don't we? This ties back to that line from Szymborska's poem from last week: "The hour of and-what-if-nothing-remains-after-us." We all live through such hours.

Anyway, I agree with both of you guys, that the poem is big-time melancholy. I Am Not's reference to the Twilight Zone episode was very interesting... never seen that one, but it's somehow appropriate. (How weird is it too that it was called 'Kick the Can'?!?) And while I would love to say I had planned it specifically for the longest day of the year, the truth is I wasn't even aware of that until you brought it up! Another strange coincidence though...

Thanks for the great feedback you two, glad you have gotten something out of the series.