Monday, January 12, 2009

apres-holiday three-way, pt. 3

Where Hoagland concerns himself with the operation of three poetic tools—image, diction, rhetoric—at work in the poem, Stephen Dobyns advocates analyzing three different contexts—emotional, intellectual, and physical—in a poem in his essay, "Metaphor and the Authenticating Act of Memory."

I thought of applying Dobyns’s approach to this poem after reading Hoagland’s analysis. They are two different approaches, but complementary. And this poem lends itself well to both.

Dobyns begins his essay with a definition of art. “A work of art, such as a poem, seeks to communicate with a reader,” he says. He contends that an understanding of artistic communication can be reached by thinking about the relationship between the three types of context and the events in a poem.

Just as Hoagland contends that extraordinary poems employ all three altitudes—image, diction, rhetoric—Dobyns contends they employ a balance of emotional, intellectual and physical contexts. He argues that when one of these contexts is exaggerated, the poem breaks down. “For instance, when the intellectual context is exaggerated, the poem tends to become emotionally barren; and when the emotional is exaggerated, the poem becomes sentimental.”

Goodman’s “Birthday Cake” employs all three contexts in a balanced way, just as the poem employs the tools of image, diction and rhetoric in what Hoagland calls a “fluctuating alloy” in its “savagery and sophistication.”

The poem shifts from a predominantly emotional context in the first stanza to one that is predominantly intellectual in the second, and then predominantly physical in the third. I say predominantly because, in each stanza, there is also another (sub)context at work.

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?

The first stanza of the poem has a strong emotional context. Hoagland identifies strong emotion being conveyed in the rhetorical questioning here, as well. However, I read the poem differently than Hoagland; I don’t see the emotional tone as being childish and resentful as he does. Rather, I read the tone as being one of frustration, not resentment—the tone of a stammering old man, who could just as easily be complaining about the number of stairs up to his apartment as the number of candles on his cake, for example.

There is also a physical context to this stanza which, as Hoagland points out, is conveyed through the poet’s diction. He argues the poet’s repetition, and his decision to break the lines unevenly, support his reading of a childish, resentful speaker in the poem. However, I think the stanza’s diction better supports a reading of the tone as an older, frustrated one. Its language re-enacts the heaving of one’s lungs, huffing and puffing, in an effort to blow the candles out, and being unable to. Because they are too many, too many, too many… What is implied here is that a task that the speaker used to master—the task of blowing out candles at a birthday—is now one that has mastered him. This physical re-enactment of breaths being taken in the poet’s speech supports a reading of the emotion being expressed here as frustration.

With this frustrated, breathy first stanza, the poet turns us neatly into a second, entirely different context in the second stanza, turning on the word “although” where the speaker seems to catch his breath.

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.

As Hoagland notes, the words flow lucidly and articulately here where they were broken and underscored through repetition in the first stanza. This gives the stanza an intellectual context; the speaker is speaking authoritatively in making judgments about “our folk.” It states we are “savage,” have “few festivals,” and judges emphatically that, of these few, the birthday cake celebration is the “most loveliest” of them.

There’s also an emotional (sub)context here. I disagree with Hoagland’s reading of the speaker’s emotion shifting here from being childish and frustrated to being sympathetic and culturally-minded. Here I believe Hoagland is stretching in his perceived resonances and associations in making this claim.

I don’t see a shift in tone here, except for a brief moment with the judgment of the cake; the double-superlative “most loveliest” does stick out here. Here the speaker sees the cake with a childish wonder, as if it were his first memory of a birthday cake. However, it is a fleeting memory; it stands in contrast to the rest of the poem's tone. The final few lines suggest this. As readers, we can’t get too enthused about the “most loveliest” sight of the birthday cake because it’s only the best of the "few festivals" our "savage" people have to offer. It’s as good as it gets, but it ain’t that good.

Where Hoagland reads the beginning of this stanza as being evocative of a communal, tribal scene, I read it as being wickedly ominous. The “fiery crown …through the darkened room advancing” is downright spooky, especially if you read it as not the fiery crown advancing, but rather the darkened room advancing, shadow encompassing, the symbolic advancing of the ultimate darkness that terminates old age—death.

After pausing to give us the only bright spot in the poem, the speaker returns to the frustrated tone of the poem in the first stanza.

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.

The image of the “fiery crown” that the speaker pauses to praise in the second stanza is now a “thicket” that is “too hot and thick.” The repetition of thick in this line, and isn’t it time in the next, re-establishes the emotional context of the first stanza.

However, the speaker’s frustration finds a resolution here where it was previously unresolved. The first stanza ends with a question mark, as if the suggestion to give up this ritual was a matter of debate. This stanza ends in a period, implying there is no debate. It is time “to eat the fire and not the cake.”

The emotion is acted upon here, and the act of consuming the fire gives this stanza a predominantly physical context. The line “and drips the fires from my teeth” suggests an animal hunger motivates this act, the fire dripping (like blood) not burning (like fire) from his teeth. It’s primal, and as such, a fitting act for “our folk” who the speaker earlier characterized as savage.

By consuming the candles on his birthday cake, the speaker succeeds in resolving the conflict underlying the frustration expressed in the first stanza. He can’t blow them out; they are too many; he’s too old to perform the task required of this ceremony. But, by eating the fire instead of cake, he symbolically devours his old age. Paradoxically, the speaker consumes what is consuming him.

And if we read the poet himself as the person who is speaking in the poem, then we can read this poem itself as an absurd, virile act that defies old age. Here, at its conclusion, I find myself in agreement with Hoagland when he says “the aging king of his ego eats his own crown, affirms his virility and concedes his absurdity all at once.”

However, in the savage act of eating the fire, it is not “his absurdity” that he concedes, but rather the absurdity of “our folk.” Our absurdity. Humanity’s. It is the finite aspect of our human existence, and our unwillingness to accept youth's loss, to be mastered by mortality, that is being defied by this poem.

Through a balance of emotional, intellectual and physical contexts, “Birthday Cake” effectively does what Dobyns says a poem should do—effectively communicate with a reader. It communicates a metaphysical truth about humanity, and the reader recognizes it in the poem, even if he or she cannot articulate why. Not until I sat down (and labored) to analyze this poem could I begin to articulate why I liked it. I could only say, “this poem fucking rocks.”

This is what great poems do.

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