Friday, January 9, 2009

apres-holiday three-way, pt. 2

In his essay, “Altitudes, a Homemade Taxonomy,” Hoagland discusses three poetic tools which he calls “altitudes.” These are 1) image, 2) diction and 3) rhetoric. In calling these tools “altitudes” he is speaking figuratively about them, suggesting in this metaphor that one tool is “higher” than the other – image being the lowest altitude, rhetoric being the highest, and diction somewhere between the two.

Now, Hoagland is quick to stamp out the contention that he is talking about a hierarchy in poetic craft here. By no means is he suggesting that a poem fashioned primarily by image-making is inferior to one which relies more upon employing the tools of diction or rhetoric. Rather, by speaking of these tools as “altitudes,” he is suggesting the hierarchy of accessibility intrinsic to these tools.

As I stated in pt.1, Hoagland upholds “Birthday Cake” by Paul Goodman as a poem that employs all three of these tools successfully. In doing so, the poem has, in Hoagland’s words, not only a “great visceral force and urgency” but also “intellectual precision” and “rhetorical persuasiveness.”

The poem’s force and urgency is generated primarily by the poem’s use of imagery. Image is a poetic tool that that confers, as Hoagland says, “unmediated communication.” Take this central image in the poem, “Birthday Cake”:

…the fiery crown

fluttering on the chocolate

and through the darkened room advancing

Of this image Hoagland notes how it is “perceptually intense.” In other words, it’s readily visualized and accessible. Imagery is immediately gratifying because, as human beings, we are visually-oriented. In very few words, Goodman is able to create an image that is instantly perceived and understood.

However perceptually intense Goodman’s images are in the poem, they do not work alone upon the reader. His imagery works in conjunction with diction in the poem to work upon the reader at a different (“higher”) level, as well.

Hoagland defines diction as “speech that is consciously making reference to the history of its usage.” In the second stanza of “Birthday Cake,” we can see how the poet’s conscious choice in words works with the image he presents the reader.

although the fiery crown
fluttering on the chocolate
and through the darkened room advancing
is still the most loveliest sight
among our savage folk
that have few festivals.

The image of the cake, alone by itself, is a powerful one; however, the poet chooses the metaphor “fiery crown” to describe its candles. He chooses to describe our folk as “savage” and calls, by inference, a birthday party a “festival.”

Hoagland argues that the speech the poet is using here is not at all arbitrary. It is, rather, consciously being employed to work associatively upon the intellect of the reader. He says that words such as fiery, crown, savage and festival work together to evoke “feudal resonances of crowns and fire are communal and sacred.” The darkened room suggests “a cavernous, pre-electric setting” where savage folk gather for warmth and comfort.

One may or may not agree with Hoagland’s interpretation of the poet’s diction, or whether the poet was consciously making his decisions in his speech throughout the poem, but one cannot refute that the poet’s diction puts the reader’s intellect to work. His diction in this stanza works with his image of the birthday cake, causing associations and resonances to percolate in the mind of the reader.

The poet is also expressing an opinion about birthdays, as well. In this way, Hoagland argues, the poem possesses a rhetorical persuasiveness. At first glance, after the first stanza, it seems predominantly to be advocating a course of action.

Now isn't it time
when the candles on the icing
are one two too many
too many to blow out
too many to count too many
isn't it time to give up this ritual?

What the poet seems to be saying here is relatively straightforward—why do we even bother with birthdays? As Hoagland says, this rhetorical question implies its answer—“Yes, it’s time to give up this ritual.” He also notes the poet’s diction here—through its “repetitive simplicity” and it’s “run-on syntax”—underscores this contention. Twice he’s asking “isn’t it time” to give it up. The candles on the cake are “too many … too many … too many.” It suggests “feverish emotion,” a frustration with getting old.

However, with the second stanza, the rhetoric shifts. The image of the birthday cake prompts this shift, and the poet calls it “the most loveliest sight / among our savage folk / that have few festivals.” The second stanza argues for the ritual where the first stanza argues to do away with it. Hoagland understands this shift in rhetoric from “an aging, childishly resentful speaker” to one who “sympathetically recognizes” its use and “considers the welfare of the culture as a whole.”

The third stanza steps back from this more considerate, sympathetic stance once again to childish, emotional one:

But the thicket is too hot and thick
and isn't it time, isn't it time
when the fires are too many
to eat the fire and not the cake
and drip the fires from my teeth
as once I had my hot hot youth.

Once again Hoagland points out we have the same broken, run-on syntax in the first stanza and repetition “isn’t it time, isn’t it time” here. However, while the diction is similar, the rhetoric—what the poet is arguing—is markedly different. Instead of the ruminative “self-pity” found in the rhetorical tone in the first stanza, here the tone is angry and forceful, and the poet advocates action, creating an undeniably strong and forceful image – eating the fire of the candles instead of the cake. “Here,” Hoagland argues, “the aging king of his ego eats his own crown, affirms his virility and concedes his absurdity all at once.”

Having shown Hoagland's approach to poetry in general, and this poem in particular, I will next summarize Dobyns's approach to poetry in pt. 3. Then I will give my reading of "Birthday Cake," using Dobyns's approach as a means of entry into the poem.

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