Saturday, April 21, 2007

Urged by your propinquity

I, being born a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body’s weight upon my breast:
So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.
Think not for this, however, the poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity, - let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.

I have just finished marking a batch of poetry essays by my first year seminar groups, and utilize this blog to post a general comment. I will not, of course, be commenting on or quoting any individual student’s work.

From the Norton Anthology, the students could choose between Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Sestina’, Robert Graves’ ‘Warning for Children’, and two intertextual pieces, Richard Howard’s ‘Nikolaus Mardruz to his Master Ferdinand, Count of Tyrol, 1565’ and Charles Tomlinson’s ‘The Picture of J.T. in a Prospect of Stone’.

Along with these, a fifth option: Edna St Vincent Millay’s ‘I, being born a woman…’ sonnet. I thought this was quite a risqué choice on my part, but I have been retrospectively reassured by a google search which indicates that the sonnet is pretty much common game all over the Western higher educational system.

It proved to be quite a popular choice, just edged out by the Elizabeth Bishop poem, where, as it proved, the best work was done. On the Millay poem, everyone, unprompted, saw the point of it being a sonnet, and rejoiced in its audacity in re-making the mode. But the thing that I found most interesting was a persistent (but not ubiquitous) misreading, in the lines:

Think not for this, however, the poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity…

Around this point in the poem, the happy initial acceptance of a woman’s right to have sex without further commitment or meaning beyond a physically satiating thrash in the missionary position, often faltered. The sexual act, it seemed, had to mean more to a woman, or this would lower female sexual experience to the level that ought to be reserved for the doings of men. The arch of Millay’s syntax enabled such sentimentalists to retrieve something higher, and out leapt the comforting thought that she will, after all, ‘remember him’, there will be some ‘love’ or ‘pity’. No one could say that the poet hadn’t done her best to be understood (‘Let me make it plain’), but the phrase which parenthetically clarifies ‘this’ as the treason of the body against the mind, intervening between the crucial ‘not’ in line 9 and line 11, enabled the latter line to wriggle free and reinstate niceness. Other excuses were found: the speaker was voicing female ‘broodiness’ (in the real world, a pregnant woman would surely tend to want a conversation ‘when we meet again’). Or the poem was often read as narrating part of a relationship, rather than our poet recruiting the nearest man to do what she found necessary.

My main feeling is that my students always write about (capital P) ‘Poetry’. On go their most solemn expressions, and they have elevated expectations. That the sonnet overturns thousands of pieces of male-authored discourse was seen, but the wittiness of saying these unsayable things was gradually forgotten, and with it was missed the archness of that ‘urged by your propinquity’, and that dry, distanced ‘a certain zest’ (leading up line five coming disconcertingly straight out with what she wants). Sagacious noting of alliteration in that fifth line never asked why ‘b’s’ feel so right here. I doubt that the author banged, bonked, or boffed, but we do these days, and there’s a bouncy element of joy in the sound. The whipcrack ending had already been internally subverted in the minds of many of these readers (on the ‘I shall remember you with love’ lines), so little was said about what it denies to the man. Of course, nobody (not even the occasional male student who had blundered into this dangerous territory) remotely imagined that a man so brusquely required to comply with a lady’s wishes might find these terms unacceptable. Women must have sentiments, but only a fool would impute them to men.

Here’s Vincent again, doing a lyric after Shakespeare’s sonnets, the speaker positioning herself both outside and inside the amatory imbroglio:

‘The Philosopher’

And what are you that, wanting you,
I should be kept awake
As many nights as there are days
With weeping for your sake?

And what are you that, missing you,
As many days as crawl
I should be listening to the wind
And looking at the wall?

I know a man that’s a braver man
And twenty men as kind,
And what are you, that you should be
The one man in my mind?

Yet women’s ways are witless ways,
As any sage will tell,
And what am I, that I should love
So wisely and so well?


Decidedly Bookish said...

I'm glad that we first years are such an unceasing source of interest!

DrRoy said...

Well, it is what I have been doing the last few days, no time for any early stuff. No, not exactly out and out fascinating, but this attempt to applaud no strings attached carnality and establish that the woman will feel the finer sentiments too was slightly amusing. If everyone read the light verse they ought to have read in childhood (Belloc, 'The Hunting of the Snark', etc) they would pick up on the style, the wit of poetry far more readily.