Meg Kearney: The Poet of Meat-Eating Squirrels?
Everyone agrees education is a powerful tool, and reading and writing is perhaps the most important educational piece of all.
My 10 year old daughter is already writing adventure stories with descriptive elements; she watches movies (Harry Potter, etc) and reads (Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Nancy Drew, etc) so fictional narrative is second nature to her; it’s not entirely surprising that she enjoys filling notebooks with stories for her own amusement. In narrative fiction, “things happen,” and the author passively reports ‘things happening.’ When, and if, my daughter asserts herself with a ‘lyric I’ and proffers opinions in essays, I’ll know she has truly arrived as a person of Letters.
The poem and the essay are the heart and the mind of the literate person—who might possibly make a difference in society’s influential conversations.
Beyond both the illiterate and the literate is the super-literate, the one who brings philosophical force to reading and writing. The goal of education should be to make every student not just literate, but super-literate: philosophers, active thinkers, questioners of the status quo, and also makers of beauty, architects of taste, builders of bravery and morale.
This rambling preface is by way of saying that when we critique poems, we are doing more than that: we are peering into the mind of society itself; poetry and teaching poetry are not marginal or trivial activities; the fact is, nothing is more important.
That is why Franz Wright’s harsh and principled refusal to participate in Meg Kearney’s Workshop is not just bad manners; it’s more like a cultural flashpoint.
We do not mean to pick on Meg Kearney, but her poem cries out for analysis; it’s the kind of poem manufactured in Writing Programs across the country: this is the format of the modern poem as developed at Iowa 50 years ago, a development based on the Modernist revolution. I’m sure millions (tens of millions?) of poems like this are cranked out each year. Here is the poem again:
I suppose squirrels have their hungers, too,
like the one I saw today with the ass end of a mouse
jutting from its mouth. I was in the park;
I’d followed the stare of a dog, marveled
as the dog seemed to marvel that the squirrel
didn’t gag on the head, gulped so far down
that squirrel’s throat nearly all that was visible
was the grey mouse rump, its tail a string
too short to be saved. The dog and I couldn’t
stop gawking. The squirrel looked stunned himself —
the way my ex, The Big Game Hunter, looked
when I told him I was now a vegetarian.
We’d run into each other at a street fair
in Poughkeepsie. The hotdog he was eating
froze in his hand, pointed like a stubby finger,
accused me of everything I’d thought
I’d wanted, and what I’d killed to get it.
Let’s examine it:
Narrative: I was in a park, with a dog, and the two of us marveled at a squirrel with a mouse stuck in its throat, the squirrel’s stunned appearance reminding me of my ex when I told him I was a vegetarian; his hotdog pointed at me like a finger accusing me of everything I’d thought I’d wanted, and what I’d killed to get it.
Metaphor: A stunned squirrel (eating a mouse) compared to a stunned person (eating a hotdog). A hotdog compared to a stubby finger.
Meaning: Humans, who like squirrels, apparently don’t need meat to live, will kill to get meat, and other things, they only think they want.
Form: A six sentence paragraph, broken into 17 lines.
The poem can be edited down to 14 lines, eliminating unnecessary information (I was in the park, I saw my ex at a street fair in Poughkeepsie).
Squirrels, too, have their hungers.
I saw one today with the ass end of a mouse
Jutting from its mouth. I followed the stare of a dog—
We both marveled that the squirrel didn’t gag on the head
Gulped far down, the mouse rump and tail
All that was visible, its tail a string too short to be saved.
The dog and I couldn’t stop gawking.
The squirrel looked stunned himself—
The way my ex, the Big Game Hunter, looked
When, meeting by chance, I told him I was now a vegetarian.
The hotdog he was eating froze in his hand,
Pointing like a stubby finger, accusing me
Of everything I’d thought I’d wanted
And what I’d killed to get it.
These slight edits are not important—Kearney’s poem is prose, and hangs on what it says; tweaking its ‘poetic rhetoric’ isn’t going to save or kill the poem.
What’s wrong with this poem?
We have to ask this because that’s what Criticism is. That’s what the human mind is for—it asks, what’s wrong?
The heart writes the poem, the heart that wants to be happy. The heart knows when it’s happy and by ratio of its happiness the heart doesn’t need the querulous mind; maybe the poet was happy when they wrote the poem, but when we at Scarriet read Kearney’s poem, it does not make us happy. So the heart looks to the head for an explanation: why aren’t we happy? If the head can’t tell us, we will be really unhappy. Now is that period where we don’t know and we want to know, and we hie into the great blank.
The head is shrewd, and knows we need to do more than just read and re-read the poem—the poem has its own justification for its existence—they all do; the answer lies outside the poem, and so here’s what our critical mind does:
We make an ideal comparison; that is, we bring in other elements of the universe in order to judge the poem. Not understand the poem—judge it; they are very different. Some would say judgement here is wrong, and all we need is understanding. But they err. Understanding and judging are both vital and necessary. The former focuses, the latter compares. The understanding revels in the infinite; the judgment seeks necessary limitation, and works on merely excelling its neighbor. The understanding is profound, but never sure; the judgement, certain, because comparison is all it requires.
We ask: is there a different means by which whatever this poem expresses could be expressed better?
Kearney’s poem is built around an image: a squirrel with a mouse half-way down its throat. This picture is the poem’s aesthetic spirit; it animates the poem. The poem lives or dies by this squirrel image because poetry is a temporal art—we don’t experience a poem, like a painting, immediately; we experience a poem sequentially, in pieces, as we read. Aesthetically, then, if the squirrel-with-mouse image fails, the poem fails, no matter what follows. Opening bars of music are enriched by subsequent bars, not rescued by them if they are flawed. Just as a painting is not looked at until it becomes good, a poem or piece of music cannot be displeasing in the beginning and then unfold until it becomes pleasing—the masterwork always pleases—even in what might be called discords. The poet herself tells us the picture of the squirrel with the mouse was “a marvel,” so marvelous and stunning, a non-human witness marvels at it. The poem banks on this image—described in prosaic terms. Poetry is not painting, so work has to be done to convey the image in words—in Kearney’s poem this work is not a poetic process, but a descriptive, prose one.
In our comparison: What if we had a poster which was a photo of a squirrel choking on a mouse (the precise image of the poem) and a caption beneath it: “Hungry?”
Our poster—Kearney’s poem in a different medium—more efficiently, effectively, and viscerally expresses what Kearney’s poem expresses—for the squirrel’s hunger and our human reaction to it (marvel, laughter, self-criticism, disgust) is the same in poster and poem.
This is why Kearney’s poem fails. It does not fail, really, until the Mind Acts, until this Criticism (which is not criticism, per se, but only observation ranging away from the poem itself) is gently put beside it. Kearney failed to take into account the potential idealized use of her rough-and-tumble image within the context of the medium (poetry) she was working in.
A Workshop close-reading of Kearney’s poem cannot unlock the mystery. The New Critics’ insidious influence (the New Critics’ success paralleled the rise of the Creative Writing Program, and, in fact, the same gentlemen were involved) is more baleful than anyone knows.
Franz Wright knows in his heart the reality of this. We have just articulated it for him.
Poetry itself is not meant to be “difficult.” (T.S. Eliot, the New Critics’ godfather, was wrong on this point.) But once we claim to teach it, the sea of judgement will come down from the heavens and the unthinking sowers of confusion will be found out.