“Origin” and “Bees”: The Latest (New Yorker) Installment of Official Verse Culture

Preface: Because people don’t tend to read blogs for contextualizing entries, a fair number of readers might assume that the following article reflects an all-out hostility to poetry that appears in The New Yorker. Before any reader makes that assumption, I would urge her or him to read my blog post (November 9, 2014) on Suzanne Lummis’s poem about Ophelia, which also was published in The New Yorker.

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“shall i uncover honey / where maggots are” – “The Kingfishers,” Charles Olson

In a recent issue of The New Yorker (Sept. 3rd), a poem entitled “Origin” (pages 52-53) begins:

“I was born inside a mourning dove.”

The poem poses a riddle, initially, since birth is a process by which a living creature separates from its gestating entity. It doesn’t prove to be an interesting riddle; rather, its pathos at the poem’s conclusion only serves to underline how far short its opening falls from matching even the effort of a popular song. “Jumping’ Jack Flash”‘s use of figurative language in its first line is far more intriguing. providing the reader with enough complexity to move with accelerating interest to the second line. (Though Keith Richards is credited with the music, it is Bill Wyman’s primary riff that underscores this impetuous metaphor of the British generation born during World War II.)

Katie Condon’s trope plays with the long-standing obsession of poets with dead animals, as well as the constant proximity of death to animal life. One could take this subject and turn it into a compelling poem, but it would require an artist who pays more attention to the use of her pronouns. “I” and “us” and “you” are sprinkled around this poem like garnishes on a plate of microwaved frozen food that do nothing to hide its high salt content. Did no reader of this poem before it was published suggest to Ms. Condon that she needs to review the relationship between these pronouns?

While fans of this kind of poem might view my comments are overly harsh, I want to remind them that far more strident attitudes towards Condon’s poetics are at work in contemporary verse. I can imagine many avant-garde poets (and their significant affiliates) sneering “Quietude” and viewing the sentiment of the poem as a kind of maggot that the Fly of Limited Imagination has graced the carcass of Tradition with. I’ll leave it to other blogs to argue that case, but I will say that if “Origin” is an example of what Ph.D. candidates in Literature and Creative Writing are producing these days, then academic poetry is truly taking a turn towards the banal.

In fairness to Ms. Condon, I am cutting and pasting the link to her website, which appears to provide links to other poems she’s had published. I am not in any rush to read them, but perhaps those who yearn for “success” as poets might want to hurry to her site to see what they should emulate.

http://www.katiecondonpoetry.com/poetry-1/

I myself find Condon’s poem most useful as a reminder to visit William Blake’s “The Fly.”

“The Fly”

Little Fly
Thy summer’s play,
My thoughtless hand
Has brush’d away.

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink & sing;
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

If thought is life
And strength & breath;
And the want
Of thought is death;

Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.

In Condon’s poem, what is conspicuously missing is the “blind hand.”

As for the ending of Condon’s poem (“I am // as afraid as you.”, I jotted down a quatrain shortly after reading her poem:

THE MAGGOT

No maggot is afraid.
The tiny egg, when laid,
Knows thickened, sated Fate
Will never make him wait.

Turning this critique on myself, I hope that anyone who finds my rejoinder as insufficient as I do quickly turns to someone who could have done a far better job: J.V. Cunningham. Just as I suggest that readers would be better off reading Blake than Condon, I do not pretend that my work is more deserving of sustained attention than those who have far surpassed my efforts.

Post-Script: Oddly enough, there is also a poem about “Bees” in the same issue, and the juxtaposition recalled a poet who would have viewed this pair of poems with utter disdain. As such, I have just now gone back to the beginning and inserted an epigraph.