Friday, November 12, 2010

Poetry Friday: Apples and Indirection

Laurie Lee, photographed by Bill Brandt

Sentimentality is regarded, properly, as lethal when it comes to poetry. What you want in poetry (maybe I should say what I want) is not overt sentiment but the observable world; that is, not grief but "for all the history of grief, / an empty doorway and a maple leaf." (Archibald MacLeish.) Not abstractions, but the world of birds, bugs, rivers, pearl buttons, ginger snaps, the muscles of the arm, a suspension bridge, a peony, oars in a rusty oarlock. 

But wanting a poem to be heartfelt - that's what I've been puzzling over for the last year or two: how to make room for sentiment without becoming sentimental. It's hard to stay balanced. What needs to be done is to talk about something by talking about something else - it's basic, it's what metaphorical thinking is all about, it's what a magician does with sleight of hand - misdirect the audience's attention.

For this week's Poetry Friday, the day after Veteran's Day, I'm offering up a poem by Laurie Lee, an English poet whose memoir (Cider with Rosie) I read because a close friend insisted I should (he was right - I loved it.) This poem is just what I'm talking about when I say "indirection." It's a poem about apples, and it is about apples, thank God -  but also about much more. I gave this poem to my mother when my dad died - it said more than I felt able to say about her grief, though maybe a combination of both (direct, indirect) is how you best handle "the season's dole." Mom married my dad just before he shipped out for the Philippines during WWII. I think of this poem when Veterans' Day comes around each year.

The last of our apples have fallen to the ground now - it's November, how did November happen? - and I've been putting the rotten ones into the compost. Windfall apples are on my mind. So is my mom. So are boys eating apples, growing into young men who go to war.  November thoughts.


Behold the apples’ rounded worlds:
juice-green of July rain,
the black polestar of flowers, the rind
mapped with its crimson stain.

The russet, crab and cottage red
burn to the sun’s hot brass,
then drop like sweat from every branch
and bubble in the grass.

They lie as wanton as they fall,
and where they fall and break,
the stallion clamps his crunching jaws,
the starling stabs his beak.

In each plump gourd the cidery bite
of boys’ teeth tears the skin;
the waltzing wasp consumes his share,
the bent worm enters in.

I, with as easy hunger, take
entire my season’s dole;
welcome the ripe, the sweet, the sour,
the hollow and the whole. 

                        Laurie Lee

"Wanton" apples....ready for that stallion Lee mentions....

Laurie Lee continued his memoir with two other volumes, taking him from childhood to manhood - and since one of them deals with his war experiences (As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning: A Moment of War) his poem seems especially appropriate for the Veterans Day we just experienced yesterday (see also my last post, which addressed Veteran's Day more directly - well, there was some indirection there, too - it talks about Robespierre and chocolate rats.) I'm hoping that some veterans come home from the current wars still able to see the sweet and the whole, not just the sour and the hollow.
UPDATE: I'm keeping this post up for a second week, so for today, November 19, the Poetry Friday round-up is over at Random Noodling. Go there, follow the links to other poems, other blogs. And definitely read the poem Diane has posted there by Kevin Young. It's wonderful

Poetry Friday for 11/12 is being hosted by SCRUB-A-DUB-TUB - go there, take a, I mean go there take a look at what people are posting.


  1. i'm afraid every attempt i make at heartfelt ends up reading like something i wrote as a sophomore in high school: staged, forced, unwieldly.

    but i liked this. like apples i enjoy, sweet with just enough bite to keep them from tasting medicine-y.

    thanks for sharing. also, the round-up this week is over at rub-a-dub-tub and not at liz's place.

  2. I know what you mean, David re: staged, forced, unwieldy. It's why I like poems that come from tricky little assignments - I can relax about the "heartfelt" part - they become puzzles I solve.

    I've fixed that Poetry Friday link - thanks for the heads-up. I couldn't find the host this morning - must have been working off an old list.

  3. That's a great poem -- and I love how you articulated the difference between sentiment expressed through concrete details and the sentimentality found in abstraction. I also love the specific details you chose -- a peony, a suspension bridge, etc.

    I recently read a book that I quite enjoyed, until the last chapter, when all of a sudden, the narrator seemed to step up on a soapbox and preach a long paragraph of abstractions about the beauty of ordinary people. I felt like if the book did its job right, the paragraph would be unnecessary.

  4. Oh, isn't that disappointing, Hannah, when a good book falls apart like that? It's as if the author just didn't believe readers would get it and decided to pound the "message" in to them with a 2x4. I always feel kind of bloodied up when that happens.

  5. "I, with as easy hunger, take
    entire my season’s dole;
    welcome the ripe, the sweet, the sour,
    the hollow and the whole. "

    I really needed that reminder of the grace of a full life. It's a week of sour for me, but I am biting into it full force. Thanks for the poetry of it!

  6. In my own work I worry about sentimentalism too.

    The best definition of the sentimental I've read is: incompletely imagined emotion.

  7. Thank you for introducing me to this poem. I'm thinking of my husband's uncle, a WWII veteran who died at 85 just recently -- and the young marines who presented the flag at his funeral during this modern-day time of war. And while he lived a full life, it seems a blink when looking at photos of him as a young man in uniform, his wedding photo, and listening to stories swapped by my husband and his brother about fishing with this uncle and trooping through the countryside when they were kids. (All that from apples.)

    Thanks, too, for your terrific thoughts on balancing sentiment against sentimentality.

  8. Martha - I feel like we should write those kinds of stories down, don't you? The men aren't doing it as much - I'd like to feel they won't be lost.

  9. Loved this poem, thanks for sharing, Julie. My dad was a WWII veteran, too. And although apples do not remind me of him, roast beef and Thanksgiving dinner certainly do.

  10. Julie, I loved this poem when you emailed me a link to it, and I loved re-reading it again now. And I finally read your words, too. Love what you say about the need for the concrete. I find myself constantly crossing the line into abstraction and trying to pull myself back into the world of *things*--things that illuminate all those vague feelings without directly talking about them.

    And, as a side note, your note reminded me of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, one of my favorite short story collections I remember from college. I need to find it and read it again.