Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 9, 2009

On Poetry: First thought, full bloom

It's the rainy season here in Traverse City. After the winter we've had, spring makes me a little goofy, which may be why I like this poem about rain and mud and love by Paul Valery, the French poet, essayist and philosopher. As with all poems that please me, it doesn't quite do what I expect.

The language starts out all flowery and charming. Its tone is like a Shakespearean sonnet. "Deign" (condescend), the speaker starts up -- but "deign" to what? He doesn't finish his thought until the end of the poem! He's getting as distracted by his darling Laura's beauty as she herself is distracted. Each line is an image of her, and we remain off-balance, not sure what we're reading, until we get to the end.

Girl With Mind Wandering
Deign, Laura -- now again the rainy season's here --
Beside me all perfume, your shoulder leaning, dear,
On my indulgent love attentive as you go,
Laura, all soulful look that looks at nothing though,
Deign, brow and the wide eyes so lost in heaven's own blue,
Even while your dreaming feet, as fated to, splash through
Pools mirrored lush in mud you wade and set a-spraying,
Deign, dear, to listen once to what your lips are saying ...

-- Paul Valery (1871-1945)

And how does he feel about her, after all? This is the surprise. She may be beautiful, she may seem soulful, but he's completely exasperated with the way she goes on and on like a Valley Girl, her brain detached from her words.

It's funny that "a-spraying" is rhymed with "saying." Her words spray out like the spring mud.

Here's a good example of a poem some would dismiss as "old" because it begins with a word we seldom use these days. Maybe we should complain because it's a little hard to keep up with. Maybe we should raise our feminist hackles because the man's the alert one and the woman's the ditz.

But we lose a lot if we don't take the poem for what it is, a purely joyful dance of rhyme and language, "blue," "through," "to," "you," and "pools," and then "lush," "mud" -- I could go on.

If only those of us who write poems could learn to balance exactly between the dreaming/splashing-in-the-mud part of it and the self-conscious hard work of it! If we lean too far in one direction, the poem is lazy, self-absorbed and glib. If we lean too far in the other direction, it can get too precious, too worked-over, none of its rough edges left.

David Wagoner, a fine poet and former editor of Poetry Northwest, told me he has a trick he uses: he puts his editor-self away for awhile, as the poem begins to take shape. This is the time for splashing in the mud. He doesn't let that editor have a word to say until the mud-part is finished.

Then the editor is allowed to step in and begin to revise, edit, refine.

How long does this part go on? "A poem is never finished, only abandoned," Valery said. As with all art, what we hope for is to keep the spring liveliness of the first thought as we move into the final version's full bloom.

Fleda Brown is professor emerita, University of Delaware, and past poet laureate of Delaware.