Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Friday, April 29, 2016

X, with squirrels

Yeats, Poems, 1899
Design by Althea Gyles
A memory of a famous author just floated by. I'll call him "X." He had come to visit a poetry workshop of grad students and undergrads. I was there, and curious; I knew that X was sometimes mentioned as headed for a Nobel.

The first thing he did was to shred a poem by a freshman into something else entirely: burning fire slaw, perhaps, or poisonous confetti. She was a pleasant young woman, and she had written a poem about a squirrel. The subject met disapproval. No doubt the poem needed shredding, and perhaps there are instances when a fine, fierce shredding can be salutary. I fear this one was not. It seemed a rather loveless incident. I couldn't help imagining or discerning (which?) that there was a desire to obliterate the young woman--a girl still, she seems, a child in memory. I can dimly conjure her face, and some of the grad students smirking and exchanging glances in what must have been satisfaction. I doubt that such pleasure is good for human beings of either sex. Their poems were, in fact, better--they were young men who, after all, were four to ten years older than she was--and received a modicum of praise.

What surprises me in the memory is my attitude. I was a sophomore and didn't have a poem in the batch being considered that night. While sympathetic to the plight of the unfortunate, upset freshman, I remember wishing hard that a poem of mine had been up for consideration. It seemed to me that I would not be easily torn to pieces. And if ripped and my limbs scattered, I would be quite able to put myself back together. Or so I believed.

I feel a little strange, recalling the young person who was me, so secretly confident and determined. Perhaps one needs to be so inwardly bold in order to pursue the craft of words in our time. But I can't remember if I thought of "To a Squirrel at Kyle-na-gno" from The Wild Swans at Coole, and how a squirrel runs "through the shaking tree." Did I recall "An Appointment," which finds Yeats turning from the being "out of heart" with government to the leapings and delight of a squirrel (Responsibilities and Other Poems.) Did I volunteer that Yeats, whose poems I loved, had not been too grand and proud to write a poem about a squirrel, and not only once?

I hope so.

Kyle-na-gno is one of the seven woods of Coole... Yeats names them in the dedication to Lady Gregory in The Shadowy Waters:
Shan-walla, where a willow-bordered pond
Gathers the wild duck from the winter dawn;
Shady Kyle-dortha; sunnier Kyle-na-gno,
Where many hundred squirrels are as happy
As though they had been hidden by green boughs,
Where old age cannot find them; Pairc-na-lea,
Where hazel and ash and privet blind the paths;
Dim Pairc-na-carraig, where the wild bees fling
Their sudden fragrances on the green air;
Dim Pairc-na-tarav, where enchanted eyes
Have seen immortal, mild, proud shadows walk;
Dim Inchy wood, that hides badger and fox
And marten-cat, and borders that old wood
Wise Biddy Early called the wicked wood:
Seven odours, seven murmurs, seven woods.
We move from shade to sun, from Kyle-dortha to Kyle-na-gno. There's a poet watching, but no chance of a workshop. Kyle-na-gno means "the nut wood" or "the hazel wood." No wonder so many squirrels are happy there in a flourishing green, hid from death and change. 

9 comments:

  1. love that poem. it describes where i live... and i hate people like that "expert". the scale, banality to prowess seems to not apply to poetry. words are different in different contexts, and arbitrary criticism reeks more of ego disease than anything else. communication of "a world both rich and strange" is a unique human activity and should be respected as such, imo, anyway...

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    1. Mudpuddle, you must live in a very pleasant place! And I, also, am devoted to the "rich and strange."

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    2. 19 acres of doug fir, alder, maple, cedar, salal, oregon grape, ferns, elderberry, thimbleberry, grass, nettles, with home built trails and an old mobile home...

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    3. Now I have an idea where Mudpuddle lives.... And it sounds fragrant and lovely. The idea of making one's trails makes me regret being a downtown woman. But the village is small and woods are near.

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  2. How interesting that despite your own concerns at the time, you've never forgotten the unkindness of X.

    Squirrels—bah. Tonight I wrapped two more layers of bird spikes around the base of my homemade bird feeder, and I wait in vain for some hungry hawk or owl or fox to notice the three plump thieves who want a too-easy meal...

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    1. Well, I did think that your bird spikes looked rather frail in the photograph I saw!

      It's rather sad to think that the unkind things that we do may live on so sharply. Poor X. Though I suppose being famous may be quite satisfying to him.

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  3. To be shredded is physical torture but to be ignored is worse: the term being undefined, the limbo a slight on one's very existence.

    For the final twenty-five years of my journalistic career I was editor of a handful of magazines. As editor I was the ultimate boss, Lord Tomnoddy, monarch of all I surveyed. Thus on the other side of the fence: receiving the written work of others, occasionally rejecting it out of hand, more often shaping it to a magazine's needs.

    Initially I tried to be kind in my butchery, especially if the author was looking on. But it was no good. Writing towards a specific goal involves peeling away layers of sensitivity; in submitting the finished article one is both nude and temporarily resident in South Georgia (islands in the south Atlantic; ie, cold and wind-sered). Watching as a single sentence (Nay, a single word!) is cut away is akin to being a spectator at one's own amputation - one sees one's self dismantled. Except the wound is internal and cerebral.

    So I became brisk and emotionless. There seemed to be no other way. Occasionally minor friendships developed after these episodes of blood-letting and that surprised me. Of course, my own stuff was also hacked over the years and I regarded it as a measure of adulthood that I could experience this with an impassive face. Looking forward to the day when the boot - as it were - would be on the other foot.

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    1. I had to look up the Lord of Fitzdotterel's eldest son, and was surprised how many places he pops up and that he is sometimes a horse.

      I once made someone very angry by editing his work, though I've never been your position. He later apologized in a heartfelt way, which embarrassed me no end. I couldn't decide which bothered me more, being yelled at or being the recipient of such an apology.

      And I taught, once upon a time, and had to negotiate with young people. Tact is in my bones (put there forcibly by my deep-South ancestors, it seems); maybe that's why they are not very strong bones.

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    2. After consideration, I find that I don't mind being ignored--I suppose I am generally ignored, as I work at home and live in a little village in the wilds of upstate New York. And I don't like to go out in the cold. It's generally cold here, not so sweet for a Southerner.

      If I had it all to do over again, I might prefer a nom de plume. The kind of invisibility or ignoral I dislike has to do with books and readership.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.