Reed Whittemore 1919–
Stephen Dunn’s poem, “What They Wanted,” describes a conversation between an “I” and a “they” of which almost nothing is known—these two blank personal pronouns carry the emotional weight in this poem, a device commented on once by Shelley in his A Defense of Poetry:
A poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one; as far as relates to his coneptions, time and place and number are not. The grammatical forms which express the moods of time, and the difference of persons, and the distinction of place, are convertible with respect to the highest poetry without injuring it as poetry.
As we might expect, Shelley’s prose is as wonderful as his poetry, and to immerse oneself in Shelley’s mind is to realize how paltry and small the modernist commentators are. Stephen Dunn’s extraordinary lyric, “What They Wanted,” is precisely described by Shelley’s prophecy. In Stephen Dunn’s poem, as worthy as anything by Donne, grammar alone evinces “moods of time, differences of persons, and the distinction of place” and without any limiting, mawkish ‘look these are flower petals and they resemble and symbolize faces at a metro station!’ Stephen Dunn’s poem participates in the “eternal, the infinite and the one.”
MARLA MUSE: When one comes up with an arresting image like petals on a wet, black bough, well, what is one to do with it?
Compare it to faces at a metro station, of course!
MARLA MUSE: Of course!
And then your friends can put your little poem in a textbook, and students from all over can learn that you changed the western world with your song.
MARLA MUSE: And therefore you did!
And also be sure that your friends publish here and there in passing commentary what a churlish little creep Shelley was…
MARLA MUSE: That particular comparison, between Shelley and themselves, they would rather not contemplate…
Nor do they have to, since only “the new” is glorious, and Shelley is so old…
MARLA MUSE: Be sure you call Shelley a blackguard and keep him guarded…
In a dungeon. And give the key to Harold Bloom and Helen Vendler.
MARLA MUSE: Bloom had an early affection for Shelley, probably because Bloom resented Eliot’s hold on American letters, and what better way to annoy Eliot than to champion Shelley, but Bloom’s hatred of Poe, who is the American Shelley, makes no sense at all. American Letters is mad, I’m afraid.
Don’t be afraid, Marla. Without Woodman, we’ll still carry on.
MARLA: Of course! The egotistical sublime has nothing to fear from the egotistical whine…
Stephen Dunn’s “What They Wanted” is magnificent, but Reed Whittemore’s “Smiling Through” is a masterpiece of sentimentality and one of the most moving poems ever written; the stoic nostalgia, the grim joy, the open eye staring through the mist, as memory aids the theme in reticent, perfect touches; we read this poem like watching a master paint or sculpt wrapped in the purest nonchalance of otherworldly skill; we trip down the staircase of Whittemore’s poem and stop at each landing in tears. The poem begins:
Who are these figures in the street?
They are my friends.
They are wearing armbands.
They are marching along with my coffin, and smiling
The clear yet misty point of view is established at once and never wavers. The poem encloses us in its cobra grip.
Both Whittemore and Dunn do this; their poems invoke a unique setting, equal part real and unreal, and never waver from an aesthetic purpose in which setting, mood, and speech harmoniously contribute to the shining dimensionality of its end.
Either of these works are strong enough to play in the final, but one must be eliminated here.
With heavy sorrow we announce the Whittemore loses. Dunn made one perfect pass at the end, and won 58-57.