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Attention undergrads: if you want to be published by the New Yorker, skip the creative writing workshops (which are really only good for learning what not to do and to sleep with artsy wannabe types, which may also be a lesson in what not to do) and learn your classical scholarship.  Anne Carson, Rosanna Warren, and now in this week’s issue, Ruth Padel, have the classical scholarship chops and, collectively, they use their muscular language and find wonderful and strange approaches to the writing of a poem.

Padel is a Brit of whom I know little but she has been shortlisted twice for Britian’s prestigious T. S. Eliot Award. She has the publications and the classical scholar chops. She also writes a fair amount of essays, including this disjointed one about women working within the male tradition of rock ‘n’ roll, most of which I find interesting and agreeable. It appears she is also a direct descendant of Charles Darwin.

I also find most of her poem in the October 27, 2008, issue of the New Yorker agreeable and interesting as well. There’s a lot to like: the muscular language; the different voices; the pseudo-formal structure of the poem; the Judeo-Christian allusions; the sudden turn in the fourth stanza; the pomo craft-making maker aware that I’m making making parts of the poem; the cool, specific words like “damascened” and “plectrum” and “eBay”. The whole thing is air-tight and polished as it should be.

But the poem is 60 lines in length and for some reason I was really rankled by the final line of “and his banner over me was love.” I don’t mind the change in register that is provided by the italics–in fact, I like the clearly defined window to the poet’s thoughts throughout the poem–but the last line is burdened to do the job that was supposed to be done in the preceding 59 lines. In short, the last line didn’t earn the right to be there.

By most accounts, a 60-line poem is considered a long poem and so, again by most accounts, it needs to do more to earn its keep than a shorter poem–not only in the print-publishing world where space is at a premium but also in the demands for the reader’s attentions. I like longer, more expository poems where the poet can noodle around a bit. Length is not a problem.

But my hang up about Padel’s poem is not about length, but more about the imagery she employs and how it should do more. (I’m second guessing myself as soon as I say this. The imagery is so histo-religioso-politico-co charged that maybe it’s best not to ramp it up by assigning additional meaning to Nazareth and Jesus and the days of creation.) But it’s hard not to think about that: not only is Nazareth in the title, and the major places of the Holy Land sprinkled throughout the poem, but the poem’s structure is imitative of the Book of Genesis passage that is the creation story.

How do we reconcile Padel’s oud-making story with the Old Testament creation story? Can we? Is it there? I want it to be–I really do–but I don’t see it. The poem is so sure of itself and I’m so sure of it, so, of course, I think there must be something wrong with my thinking. There must be a parallel structure between the days of the week in Padel’s poem and the Book of Genesis. Mustn’t there?

I just don’t see it. And what does it mean to use all the trappings of allegory and not have the allegory? It’s hard for me to reconcile. I also need to bust out the good book and see if the italics are verses from the Bible. They seem like biblical verse and, to me, are the most important and interesting parts of the poem. That, and the “genetic code” line. That was wicked and surprising and launched the poem in a totally different direction–a necessary direction, otherwise it woul just have been an ornate manual, like those old-timey Audubon guides.

Further Reading:

Ruth Padel’s website.

A Jacket magazine review of Voodoo Shop

The women poets Padel loves.

Padel on form.


The Author

D.S. Loney is a poet and writer living in Washington, D.C.


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