The Close Reading Project - Close Reading a Poem I Dislike (to Discern Why I Don't Like It)

side eye emoji for a poem I don't like
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Close Reading of a Contemporary Poem That I Disliked to Figure Out Why I Didn't Like It

In this segment of the Close Reading Project, I took up the task of closely reading I had read and disliked to examine the reason for my original reactions. It was one of the most illuminating exercises I had ever taken up, and has helped me immensely with revising and editing my poems.

CLOSE READING: "On Marriage" Meghan O'Rourke

For “On Marriage”, after a closer read, I could see that the parts that were turning me off the most were from the texture and the form. I will give credit that on the exterior elements, I do see that the writer was trying to convey that there is tenderness and complexity in the marriage being described. However, if the poem had a different title, I would not know the function of the poem – I would not have been able to guess that this was a poem about marriage because there is no clear direction from couplet to couplet without the unification from the title. This is an example of form forcing so much potential out of a poem.

One of the most cringe inducing things, for me, about formal poetry, is when a rhyme is made clearly for the sake of rhyming and not for a more organic purpose. The spirit of the poem dictates the organic rhyming. Robert Duncan addressed this in “Ideas of the Meaning of Form” when he writes about the work of Robert Lowell and Marianne Moore, or at least, the poems of theirs that he believes successfully use conventional verse, “the rigorously counted syllables, the certainty of end rimes, the conformation of stanzas arise along lines, not of a self-imposed necessity but of a psychic need,” (95). If conventional verse and line is used simply for the sake of convention, the strain is clear.

This strain becomes evident in the first couplet of “On Marriage.” The end words seem as if they were plucked from the air. In the essay “How to Read” by Ezra Pound, he stresses that “the durability of the writing depends upon exactitude” (22). But with the strain of

Stone by stone, body by body in the grass:
For this we trade our lone compass

meaning is muddled. There is nothing exact about this couplet or the most of couplets to follow. First are the sounds. “Grass” and “compass” is an off rhyme and when one is forced to rhyme “grass” with “compass” one must say “comp-ASS”, which, though I am thirty and should be better than that, makes me giggle. This is an example of sound ruining mood, because I can sense from the repetition and word choice in the first line “stone by stone, body by body…” there’s a softness, a carefulness trying to be conveyed but I am forced into hearing the coarse sound of “ass” in the next line, and I cannot help but be removed from the mood of the previous line because of the last sound of the couplet and its crass connotations.

Next is the image being described and resulting metaphor: stones and bodies in the grass are traded for a compass, a singular compass, shared by an “our”. The “our,” we can guess from the title, is the married couple. The married couple trades stones and bodies in grass for a shared compass. I do not understand the significance of the symbols of bodies and stones in grass, nor of a shared compass. The metaphor and its mysterious symbols are not elaborated on further, either. Instead, the metaphor is extended and becomes even more confusing.

The couple who give up bodies and stones in the grass for a compass, in the next couplet,

Become swans instead, adrift in glaze-
Light, kilned in the arms of each other

The couple become swans that drift in a “glaze-Light”. The image of swans in glaze-light is confusing, because how does that image happen: swans in a light that is from glaze? In the second couplet is the verb “kilned” suggesting a glaze light from a kiln. But this leads to more confusion of image and metaphor as the couple goes from being swans back to humans because they are “kilned in the arms of each other.” They are either humans, again, or swans with arms.

In the next couplet, the couple is transformed yet again

Into vessel-vassal new. Or shrew,
As he case may be. What would you do?

It was at this point that I had to double-check the context of this poem. Was it supposed to be a parody? I looked at the other poem featured by the author in the June 2008 issue of Poetry magazine, “My Life as a Subject” and saw that it was an earnest submission. It was long; it rhymed; it was not a parody, and it did a fairly good job as a poem. So, I had to assume that this was an earnest attempt at poetry by the author as well. And that confounded me. The publication of work that can be so disappointing in a major publication makes me question taste and judgment. How did this poem of such low quality get accepted for publication? This distrust of mainstream work is as long lived as the distrust of unconventional work by the mainstream, so I know I’m not alone in this type of dilemma. However, it is still difficult to endure because it makes me question my trust in the opinion of others more experienced than I am.

But back to the poem: What is a “vessel-vassal new”? The definition of a vassal is “a man who promised to be loyal to his lord in return for protection and land” or a “subordinate or dependent” (American Heritage). A vessel is “a hollow container as a cup, vase, or pitcher; receptacle” or “a person seen as the agent or embodiment, as of a quality”. So, they become a container for one person who owes allegiance to another. Both of them become a singular container for a person who owes allegiance to another person. Presumably they are the container together and they are the people who owe allegiance inside the container and they are also the people who are owed allegiance. But that's a lot of leaping and muddling of roles and images. Or, perhaps that is a vassal-vessel? So instead they are one person who owes allegiance to another's container? Or is that a vassal-vessel and I had it right the first time? Whatever it is, it's a frustrating kenning. I think I could run through the possibilities many times and never come up with a definitive conclusion as to what this is representative of in regards to the married couple in question.

Nor does it matter because they couple transforms yet again into a shrew. This is confusing, as well, because how can a couple become a singular “mouselike animal” or a “scolding woman”?

Next comes the most maddening transition in the poem because the speaker asks “What would you do?” and this question comes from no where except, it seems, the desire to rhyme something with the word “shrew”. Also, who is being addressed here? The other person of the “we” or the reader? Whoever that “you” is, they are asked to

Listen to the footsteps in the thistles.
Put the kettle on for tea, and whisper it to me.

This couplet is nicely melodious with gentle, soothing images. I wish there were more lines like this in the poem. The words “listen”, “footsteps” and “thistles” make hushed noises with the “st” in the middle of the words. The internal rhyme of “Put the kettle on for tea, and whisper it to me” is also a pleasant rhyme and the lines convey a clear, serene image. It’s frustrating that these lines come at the end of a poem that doesn’t seem to connect to the other couplets.

The close study of this poem that I do not like made me realize that a successful poem needs clear images, ones that don’t ask the reader to make wild leaps. It has “invention” of language but also “keeps the language efficient” (23) as Pound describes great literature in “How to Read.” Its form is noticed because of how well it is executed and not because of how it interferes with the function of the poem. The parts work in harmony with each other.