Tuesday, July 07, 2015

What I Like About You, David Yezzi: Reading "Crane"

What I like about you, David Yezzi, is that you wrote the poem "Crane," which I read when I was working my way through the small mountain of books sent to me in my capacity as a judge for the Poets Prize.  And I'm glad I got to introduce you at the prize ceremony in the Roerich Museum in New York. You didn't win the prize, but you came close: your Birds of the Air was, along with Mark Halliday's Thresherphobe, a runner-up.

"Crane" is, I think, an unusual book in the context of contemporary American poetry, its virtues (attention to meter and rhyme, and to extending a metaphor) being so old-school that they're refreshing.  The viewpoint, too, is a little outside that which I find in the ordinary range of my poetry reading.  Maybe the best way to describe that point of view, if we can scrape the barnacles of prejudice off the term, is to call it "middle class," or even "bourgeois," if that doesn't offend somehow.  Here's the poem:

Paper creased is
with a touch
made less by half,
reduced as much

again by a second
fold—so the wish
to press our designs
can diminish

what we hold.
But by your hand's
careful work,
I understand

how this unleaving
makes of what's before
something finer
and finally more.

So it's mostly a two-stress line, which is unusual except in some comic contexts, with an xAxA xBxB xCxC xDxD rhyme scheme—the sort of thing that gets you cheered in some circles and booed in others regardless of what else is happening in the poem.  And there are some other things: a nicely placed volta with the "But..." just past the poem's halftime buzzer, and an intensifying of sound echoes with "finer" and "finally" to mark the end.  All solid stuff.  But what I really like is the metaphor, and not just because I learned a little origami back in my student days, so I could perch on a barstool and casually twist a matchbook cover into a butterfly for the woman I was trying to charm (a remarkably unsuccessful strategy, it turns out).

It's all in the phrase "to press our designs," isn't it?  It works on the literal level, since the folding and pressing of paper realizes the origami design.  But it also has a calculating sense to it, and this helps turn the folding of the paper into smaller surfaces into a metaphor for what happens to private life when we are called away from it by our ambitions (in career, in work of all sorts, including the work of art).  This in itself isn't a bad observation, but it's the volta, the turn away from this point, that makes the poem interesting—because the reduction of life caused by the pursuit of our designs ultimately leads to an enriching of life, the creation of "something finer/and finally more" than what we had in the unsullied sheet of paper with which we started out.  All that work that takes us away from other things, that seems to narrow us or limit us—but only for a time, because the focused labor we expend in pressing our designs pays off, and lets us create something that turns out to have been more than worthwhile.  In the end, the poem is that rarest of things (and a very bourgeois thing, in the old Max Weber sense): an ode to deferred gratification.

(At this point the Voice of the Loyal Opposition can be heard, in incredulous tones, muttering "An ode to deferred gratification?!? An ODE to DEFERRED GRATIFICATION?!?").