Biting off More Than I Can Eschew

By Arlene Weiner

“The trouble with you, Arlene,” a friend said, “is you can’t stay mad.” How right she was. Too much negative capability, I suppose—I begin to put myself in someone else’s shoes, see there might be another side to the story. As soon as I make a sweeping generalization, I think of an exception.

So though I once said, “If I ever write a poem about Icarus or Persephone, just shoot me,” I quickly repented. True, I’d read too many, in classes, workshops, and elsewhere. But now I began to think, “Why? Why those figures?” One reason is the emerging poets’ pride in knowledge, in taking possession of mythology, a knowledge not shared by everyone, but something discovered, almost private. But primarily because these are two young figures that are attractive to the (mostly young) poets writing about them: the ambitious young man wishing to soar, the romantic young woman imagining herself prized by the Dark Lord. In these stories the limbs of wish and fear are entangled, because they are warnings—Don’t stray from the path, don’t aim too high! Persephone is a Little Red Riding Hood in classical draperies, Icarus falls. I haven’t seen many contemporary poems about young men in myth whose ambition is satisfied,.like Perseus or Jason. (Well, if you know Jason’s whole story, you know he’s slime.)

I’m not the only one who issues prohibitions for poetry. Teachers say: No adjectives and adverbs! Show don’t tell! No ideas but in things! Just like my (now given up) ban on Persephone and Icarus, their bans probably come from reading a lot of poems, sometimes from, let’s say, passion fatigue. Sometimes the fatigue is more specific, a “not [that trope/subject/word] again!”

Once I showed a poem to a poet friend, and she said, “Not ‘shards’! Please don’t use ‘shards’!” It seems that she’d been judging poetry contests, and the word “shards” appeared over and over, a kind of mark of poeticism. And since she said that, I’ve seen the word many, many times, in workshops and, yes, in published poetry. Again I ask, “Why?” Why is the word “shards” so attractive? As with the allusions to the myths, one reason is that it displays a little learning: it’s a word out of the common, a discovery. It also has a sound that is quite close to “sharp,” which pleases because it means something sharp. Most of all, because it means something fragmentary, and fragmentation is the great subject of modernism.

As my friend understood, I’m easy. I wouldn’t deny myself the pleasure of Jack Gilbert’s Falling and Flying, a perfectly fresh use of the Icarus story., and I’m still willing to entertain a poem with adjectives, adverbs, Persephone, or “shards,” even Persephone and “shards.”


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