I’ll never memorize Robert Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth.” I’ve tried for several hours. I think it’s because the poem is held together by sound. My memory, however, wants a rhetorical progression. But I could play cards with the poem.
Closer to an empty nest, Victoria and I have taken again to rummy after fifteen years or so away from it. My strategy is this: when you have three cards that represent a potential set and a potential run, discard the card that shares an attribute of the other two. For example, if you have the seven of hearts, the seven of diamonds, and the six of diamonds, discard the seven of diamonds. Why? Because you’re making your deck an extension of your hand. Victoria won’t want the card — you have too many associated cards for her to care for it — and she also is discarding stuff she doesn’t want. All the upside (and expanded deck) with little downside (no points to get caught with if she goes out).
“Eye and Tooth” would be filled with these triplets if alliteration were runs and assonance were sets. The first line’s “sunset red” is the first triplet. “Sunset” itself starts a run, and “set red” starts a set. Too much sound to memorize. (But discard “set.”)
Plus, the poem promises formalism, but it’s only a tease. The poem flakes out in each of its nine quatrains, deliberately prosaic from a metrical standpoint after a couple of lines but thumping good from sound and image standpoints.
Despite all the sound devices, it doesn’t sound good, which in this case is good. It’s better read silently with the lips moving as they would on a dreaming man. Dream you’re reading it, and it’ll sound fine. Dream you’re memorizing it, too.
I’m getting a head start on SoloPoMo, using some material I posted on an obscure WordPress.com blog while I mulled over how to redo my blog. I’ve selected Robert Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth” for my own celebration of SoloPoMo.
SoloPoMo is my way of celebrating National Poetry Month, which falls a month before SoloPoMo. (More on that — um — later.) During SoloPoMo, I write about a single poem (or write because of the poem or in spite of the poem or just to spite it or bait it) off and on all May. I did it last year with Charles Wright’s poem “Images from the Kingdom of Things” from his 2006 volume Scar Tissue, and it was a lot of fun. I actually blogged every day for a month for the first and only time in my life.
Dave Bonta at ViaNegativa is also in his second year of his somewhat different approach to celebrating National Poetry Month. Instead of reading one poem during May, as I do, he reads approximately 1,200 in April. Each day that month he reads and blogs about an entire book of poetry. Despite the dissimilarities in our approaches, I credit Dave (and my contrarian streak) with inspiring my own approach.
This project has other signs of being uniquely mine besides its being late — a month late — from the get-go and being derivative of another, more talented person’s better idea. It’s also overly ambitious (trust me on this one). My early exuberance may be my eventual downfall, too — another hallmark of my projects. If I follow through on this, many of my posts will be short. I have a lot of schoolwork this month.
I don’t know which approach you’d find more challenging — Dave’s or mine. Dave, though, is encouraging his readers who may not have the time or inclination to take on his personal poemload to read and write about only four volumes of poetry in April.
Despite my apprehensions — and unlike Dave — I’m offering no watered-down version of SoloPoMo. My own SoloPo this year is Robert Lowell’s poem “Eye and Tooth” from his 1964 book For the Union Dead. If you’d like to join me in practicing SoloPoMo in May, email me or leave a post comment with the poem you intend to dwell in for the month and, if you’re blogging about it, a link to any evidence of that dwelling. (I’m at peter at slowreads dot com.) I’ll put your name, your poem, and your link on slowreads’s home page all May.
I’m even starting early because I originally planned to hold SoloPoMo contemporaneously with National Poetry Month this year, and I have some material. I’m late for April, but I should be well into the poem by the time May rolls around.