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Because there is a profound difference between writing something to be read and writing something worth reading; and in that difference might beauty be found.

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Monday, February 11, 2013

"Bethany Man" by Ricardo Pau-Llosa -- Verse Daily, 2/11/13

from Beloit Poetry Journal (Winter 2103)
poem found here

first lines:
From afar it looks like the bus is stranded
by a field, the tourists mulling about with cameras


grammar, and syntax too

-- reformatted, minor edits 12/10/2013

Fair warning: I'm going to dump on this one.

Just because it is a poem does not mean you get to ignore grammar. It does mean you get to be creative with grammar, if you establish your new rules for the grammar within the poem (or, possibly, within the context of poems collected together). One of the more fascinating experiments in grammar I've come upon is Olson's use of an open parenthesis without its closing partner. (I say Olson, here, because it is in his work first I saw it, and through his work most deeply thought about it.) I have come to use it myself, in places where I wanted to have that insertion of an idea into an idea, but then have the two ideas continue together, rather than the inserted idea ending, giving way to the interrupted ideas whole return.

But that license to play is not universal. You cannot simply flop in some creative grammar in a short poem and make it work. This is why Felicia Hemans, however much the social critics try to trump her as a great poet, wrote mostly unsophisticated crap: she had no control over her grammar (not to mention her metaphors, but that's another story. And I say mostly because I cannot say to have read the whole of her work, so I'll give her the benefit of the doubt that she got something right somewhere along the way.)

The same goes for syntax. And I would not be surprised if you had less ability to modify syntax than you do grammar: after all, line breaks and white space can work grammatical wonders, if cleverly wielded. Though, don't hold me to that. I've no data at hand.

Here, the clause

from afar it looks like the bus is stranded by a field

is a terrible misconstruction. It actual meaning is: 'it appears that the site where is bus is stranded is a field (as opposed to a forest, or a beach, or what).' It is not saying it appears that the bus is stranded. (Alternatively, it could be read as saying that, somehow, a field managed to strand the bus. But that's just silly.)

Also, the clause

waiting for the replacement bus to take them into town

carries the meaning that the replacement bus is already there. If it was not already there, they would actually be waiting for the bus to arrive. This may seem to be a little restictive of a reading, but in context it is, at every effort, my natural reading. The replacement bus is there. Which is one of the reasons why you need good test readers for your work -- to see the misreadings that you as the writer are missing (or suspecting).

Another curiosity: Mr. Pau-Llosa gives six events that happen in the field, eight events and things beckoning the viewfinders of the tourists' cameras: birds, crickets, seeds, sprigs and blooms, a moth, beetles, lizards, and ants. Yet, of those eight, only two (birds and sprigs and blooms) are really things that are readily photographable. But the poem, by its syntax, by the sentence not breaking after "where they think it came from," makes the list an extension of what the tourists are looking to photograph.

Also, did you notice that "the weeds that spring here" clashes with the opening "from afar"? (Unless what was meant was that the plants were "springing here" as one summers in the Hamptons? Nah, that can't be. It doesn't really work, anyway.)

Finally, how do the tourists (or the birds or bugs or lizards for that matter) "not believe in escape"? That idea is wholly new to the the poem: after all, (1) the tourists know that a replacement bus is coming (or is already there); and (2) they are where they want to be, so they are not really imprisoned in any way. "Believe in escape" is thus a pure non sequitur punchline. There is nothing in the poem previous that supports its sudden appearance, and, unfortunately, plenty to reject it.

Some might say I'm reading to closely. I don't I don't think that that is terribly close reading at all. I think that is basic, capable reading, that's it. Some may say I should permit a bit of play -- after all, it's poetry. I say bullshit: poetry is about control. Even in its most free it is still about control. As I've said before: if you don't show control, it only ever looks sloppy -- and unsophisticated; or, worse, incompetent.


  1. I think it is a lovely poem. You unfortunately will never be able to appreciate anything in your life with this attitude.

    1. Curiously, your comment arrives just as I am beginning a post very much to the point of "appreciation" of poetry. I will link it here when it is up.

      In preview, if I may ask, how does my willingness to go "there's a problem with this poem" at all mean that I am unable to appreciate poetry? If I go to club and hear a horrendously bad band, is my saying "oi, they are terrible!" a sign that I cannot appreciate music? Most people would say it means the opposite, no? So why does that not also apply to poetry and literature? Why is it that saying "this poet did not really succeed with this poem" or "this poem does not work" or "this poem is flat terrible" (not that I'm saying "Bethany Man" is "flat terrible") is somehow a statement of the inability to appreciate or enjoy poetry/literature?