Swensen: just switched digs from Iowa to Brown; also resides in Paris

Cole Swensen is not in Dove’s anthology.  Too much crazy white girl poetry out there.   Here’s Swensen’s poem, reprinted on The Academy of American Poets’ website, called “Ghost:”

erodes the line between being and place becomes the place of being time and so the house turns in the snow is why a ghost always has the architecture of a storm The architect tore down room after room until the sound stopped. A ghost is one among the ages at the edge of a cliff empty sails on the bay even when a ship or the house moves off in fog asks you out loud to let the stranger in

It is always nice when an artist can be impressionist and expressionist at the same time.  Why not?  The Impressionist painter takes care that we understand what the object is, even in its impressionistic rendering—and this care eventually lost authority, as the fashion of expressionism/abstraction set in. 

The poets, however, unlike the painters, do not have a clear ‘art history’ time-line to go by, simply because poetry is not bound by painting’s more material rules. 

Poets need to decide for themselves, with each poem, whether they are going to be an Impressionist painter in 1872 or an Expressionist painter in 1915, or what have you.

Poets of a radical nature make their own art history with each poem, and not only the radical poets: writing a sonnet, or writing a poem about love, for instance, these sorts of things which do have a clear tradition in poetry, even then, the coloring of impressionist or expressionistic effects in any particular poem never need obey strict ‘art history’ rules.

The trouble with Swensen’s poem is that it isn’t clear when the poem is being impressonistic and when it is being expressionistic—the poem needs to make the reader aware of this in the poem; the poem can’t take it for granted, or hope that in vagueness the effect will somehow work.  We don’t know, for instance, whether the “stranger” at the end of Swenson’s poem is being used as an expressionist device, or an impressionist one, and we wonder, too, about every feature of the poem, the “snow,” the “architecture,” the “house,” the “being,” the “place,” none of these elements exist for us visibly or emotionally, since the poet has ignored every possible choice pertaining to line, shape, tone, color, and mode.  Swensen has been happy to be impressionist and expressionist at once—without understanding what she is doing.

Kay Ryan, according to Dove’s anthology, “has been a part-time teacher of remedial reading and English” at a small college since the 1970s.  She’s also won some major awards and was US poet laureate from 2008 to 2010.  Dove reprinted two of Ryan’s short poems about animals in her anthology.  “Turtle” goes to the dance:

Who would be a turtle who could help it?
A barely mobile hard roll, a four-oared helmt,
she can ill afford the chances she must take
in rowing towards the grasses that she eats.
Her track is graceless, like dragging
a packing-case places, and almost any slope
defeats her modest hopes. Even being practical,
she’s often stuck up to the axle on her way
to something edible. With everything optimal,
she skirts the ditch which would convert
her shell into a serving dish. She lives
below luck-level, never imagining some lottery
will change her load of pottery into wings.
Her only levity is patience,
the sport of truly chastened things.

Ryan brings to the reader both an object and memorable language that adorns that object—by this alone, Ryan is worlds ahead of Swensen.  Every poet should have a musical ear—this alone gives the poet a powerful tool in which to navigate and eventually solve the impressonist/expressonist problem above.   Ryan adeptly signals to us when she is being expressionist (line 1) and when she is being impressionist (line 2)—and when she is being both (the last 3 lines of the poem).

Slow and steady wins the race.

Ryan 90, Swensen 59


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