One of the great pleasures of continuing to live, to read, and to teach is the way certain poems, over time, prove magnetic in their ability to attract and incorporate whatever new stimuli one happens to encounter. I’ll be trucking along, preparing to discuss Herbert Mason’s Gilgamesh (1971), when the hero’s loss of a magical, secret, life-restoring flower sets off a faint bell, which rings louder and clearer until I can hear the question it wants to ask: “What do I remember / that was shaped / as this thing is shaped?”
The answer to that question lives in the same poem as the question itself: William Carlos Williams’s “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” in a scene that finds the poet gazing at a man on the subway, a man who seems at first a stranger, then Williams’s father, then Williams’s own reflection:
The two flowers collapse into one, as do Williams and Gilgamesh, Williams’s father and Utnapishtim, the father figure from whom Gilgamesh extracts the flower’s secret. And then all at once I have not just one poem to share with my class, but two, and then three, when I realize that Jericho Brown’s new sonnet, “The Tradition,” also makes flowers of men, also seeks to resurrect through seeing and naming, just as Gilgamesh, wandering, cries out the name of his lost beloved Enkidu. Perhaps, as semesters and years go by, Brown’s poem will become a new magnetic center, a piece I will copy and pass around table after table.
None of these is the poem I meant to write about. The magnetic poem I am thinking of today is Russell Edson’s “The Fall,” which, like a Wooly Willy toy, provides a hairless and neatly defined face upon which one can arrange any number of metallic beards.
Edson’s magnificent poem is at once straightforward and supremely weird. In one magnetic arrangement it sticks to Daniil Kharms’s “Blue Notebook #10,” which opens similarly (“There lived a redheaded man who had no eyes or ears”) before surrendering to a looped-up logic it also shares with “The Fall” (“He didn’t have hair either, so he was called a redhead arbitrarily”). Not far off sits Mary Ruefle’s “The Feast,” in which the poem magics up an unbelievably vigorous dinner, only to turn it all to an emphatic nothing. Students and I discuss poetry’s weird ability to call an object or idea into existence, alongside its ability to destroy or make vanish. The next week our classroom fills with houses rising and sinking, with boxes containing worlds that collapse into themselves.
In a different arrangement, “The Fall” makes a mustache of Bas Jan Ader, the Danish-born performance artist whose series of Fall films present his slim figure sliding off his roof in a chair and then hanging by his arms from a tree until he drops into a river, tilting sideways and falling over a sawhorse, riding his bicycle without hesitation into a canal. Students consider how to surrender to a poem’s gravity, how to fall from one line to the next without needing to say why.
In yet another beard, it is Edson’s use of the word “man,” rather than the expected “boy,” that acts as an attracting force. How odd, we notice, yet how subtly so, and then I must share with my fellow readers this snippet of John Ashbery, who, when asked if he likes to “tease or play games with the reader” answers:
Funny you should ask—I just blew up at a critic who asked me the same question, though I shouldn’t have, in a list of questions for a book she is compiling of poets’ statements. I guess it depends on what you mean by ‘tease.’ It’s all right if it’s done affectionately, though how can this be with someone you don’t know? I would like to please the reader, and I think that surprise has to be an element of this, and that may necessitate a certain amount of teasing. To shock the reader is something else again. That has to be handled with great care if you’re not going to alienate and hurt him, and I’m firmly against that, just as I disapprove of people who dress with that in mind—dye their hair blue and stick safety pins through their noses and so on. The message here seems to be merely aggression—‘hey, you can’t be part of my strangeness’ sort of thing. At the same time I try to dress in a way that is just slightly off, so the spectator, if he notices, will feel slightly bemused but not excluded, remembering his own imperfect mode of dress.
We discuss the difference between dressing oneself in polka-dots and stripes and one of those dreadful polyester cat-in-the-hat hats—which so clearly broadcasts an easy disavowal of one’s look—and dressing as Ashbery might, trying to imagine ourselves into his wardrobe. The next week a student comes to class wearing loose, knee-length cut-off denim shorts, just to see if we’ll notice.
I suppose that if I am lucky to live and teach long enough, eventually “The Fall” will be as hirsute as Cousin Itt, whose name I’ve only just learned was originally spelled with that extra “t,” and which, in Spanish versions of The Addams Family, was changed to Uncle That, a fact that leads me to consider the effects of choosing from among our various pronouns, and so on, and so on. Another little black speck, another—off we go.
Read more Teacher Features: Poet-teachers on Teaching Poetry