Thursday, October 08, 2009

`It May Sink Later But It Hasn't Yet'

Miss Shaker, our third-grade teacher, used the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as a pretext for introducing us to Robert Frost. As a class we watched the ceremony on television and I remember Frost fumbling with his papers and memory. I don’t remember which poems Miss Shaker gave us – “Birches,” probably – but I know she coupled Frost with Carl Sandburg, both of whom were deemed sufficiently folksy and all-American, I suppose, to be introduced safely to third-graders. I’m certain we read Sandburg’s war horse "Fog." The pairing of these poets now seems ridiculous. Sandburg is a joke and we’re still coming to terms with Frost’s austere greatness, but I thought of them again as a matching set while reading Kay Ryan’s “The Paw of the Cat” in the Oct. 12 issue of The New Yorker:

“The first trickle
of water down
a dry ditch stretches
like the paw
of a cat, slightly
tucked at the front,
about auguring
wet. It may sink
later but it hasn’t

Writing a non-ironic, saccharine-free poem about a cat (even a metaphorical cat) has been difficult since Christopher Smart gave us Jeoffry, “the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him,” in “Jubilate Agno.” Ryan writes of water in a parched arroyo, and Sandburg makes fog, but both see something feline in the aqueous. Ryan’s visual acuity, as always, is first-rate, as with the cat’s paw “slightly / tucked at the front.” The internal rhyme of “wet” and “yet” is a Ryan trademark, as is the way she plays with a cliché: A cat “sinks his claws in you” and the water “may sink / later.” My favorite phrase is “unambitious / about auguring / wet.” Augur is from the Old French – “divination from the flight of birds.” We imagine cat stalking bird and remember Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence.”

Ryan’s poem also reminded me of her review of The Notebooks of Robert Frost in the September 2007 issue of Poetry. After Dickinson and Moore, Frost is the poet who most often comes to mind when I’m reading Ryan’s poems. Here’s what she says in the review about Frost’s use of metaphor:

“Predictably, where we find the biggest quantity of the subtlest thinking in the notebooks is in Frost's writing about poetry. Regarding poetry, Frost speaks with profound and fascinating authority and cannot be tiresome. His double vision of metaphor alone—calling it the foundation of all understanding and at the same time counting on it to fail (`Every metaphor breaks down')—gives a nicely mystical crack to his poetical systems. He's always trying to catch the elusive cross-forces of sound and sense working within the poem…”

So too with Ryan. A poem is potent if its 11 skinny lines, 33 words, can spark so many thoughts, memories and associations in a solitary reader.

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