ANALYZING THE POPULAR MODERNIST POEM

analyzing the popular modernist poemIntroduction

We look at a contemporary poem in a popular Modernist style to find things that distinguish it from prose.

A Favor of Love

Here is a middle section of a poem in a popular Modernist style: {1}

 

A Favor of Love

And Mr. Kim peers down his quizzical nose
and Mrs. Kim stands in mountain pose

openly hating the girl for dying of an overdose
among the lemons, mangoes, papayas, and limes
of the country of her family's origins
plunging among the plums and dying there
the color of a plum beneath her dark hair
for the girl is turning purple.
From the back of the store by the water the boyfriend
shouts that she's swallowed a lollipop head.
Now she is almost the color of an eggplant,
and young Mr. Kim by the register is asking her,
"Should I call 911?" in a pleasant, insistent whisper,
"Should I call 911?"
Big sound should boom from her, but only a bubble
squeaks at her lips. "Call 911! " I speak for her
raising my woollen arm, aiming for her
shoulder blades where I whack, whack her again,
and no lollipop pops out. But sound bellows out!
Like idiots everywhere, her boyfriend shouts
Calm down, Calm down, forcing water into her throat,
which must help dissolve the candy my backslap dislodged.
"Where's that Choking Victims poster you're supposed to hang?"
the boyfriend demands of young Mr. Kim.

From A Favor of Love by Molly Peacock

Except perhaps for the offbeat humour, the section reads as a commercial short story: a bit whacky but with the incident sharply observed and the dialogue convincing. Where's the poetry? That term is somewhat elastic today, and popular Modernist poetry aims not to be 'poetic' in theme or diction. Just prose then?

And Mr. Kim peers down his quizzical nose, and Mrs. Kim stands in mountain pose, openly hating the girl for dying of an overdose among the lemons, mangoes, papayas, and limes of the country of her family's origins, plunging among the plums and dying there the color of a plum beneath her dark hair.

For the girl is turning purple. From the back of the store by the water the boyfriend shouts that she's swallowed a lollipop head. Now she is almost the color of an eggplant, and young Mr. Kim by the register is asking her, "Should I call 911?" in a pleasant, insistent whisper, "Should I call 911?"

Big sound should boom from her, but only a bubble squeaks at her lips. "Call 911! " I speak for her raising my woollen arm, aiming for her shoulder blades where I whack, whack her again, and no lollipop pops out.

But sound bellows out! Like idiots everywhere, her boyfriend shouts Calm down, Calm down, forcing water into her throat, which must help dissolve the candy my backslap dislodged. "Where's that Choking Victims poster you're supposed to hang?" the boyfriend demands of young Mr. Kim.

Not exactly. That rhyming quizzical nose and mountain pose stand out, and indeed are played with. The poem opens with the wife/speaker running to Kim's market for something undisclosed that fill a person with simple, healing water. The water reappears with the boyfriend screaming Water! Water! and then the boyfriend's role metamorphoses into the speaker's as the last is accosted by a sobbing girl/girlfriend addressing her as Mommy. Now it's the speaker's turn to stand in mountain pose, to remember that her dying sister called her Mommy, to say mommily, Now don't eat any more lollipops, and reflect that Grown human beings making sacrifices return to the universe a favor of love.

Confused? Three themes are developed:

  1. personal sacrifices are expected of adulthood.

  2. dominant (boyfriend/Mrs Kim/speaker) and adaptive (husband/Mr Kim/sobbing girl) roles operate to allow sacrifices.

  3. such favours are stored for humanity in general.

The themes are not trivial, but are left to speak for themselves. The diction is too arch or knowing to be realism:

"Thank you for making this sacrifice,"

fill a person with simple, healing water.

And Mr. Kim peers down his quizzical nose
and Mrs. Kim stands in mountain pose

openly hating the girl for dying

"Should I call 911?" in a pleasant, insistent whisper,

I say mommily,

closing the cosmic circle

Grown human beings making sacrifices
return to the universe a favor of love.

And the line-breaks are more expressive than is possible with prose. Try changing them:

openly hating the girl for dying of an overdose among the lemons,
mangoes, papayas, and limes of the country
of her family's origins
plunging among the plums and dying there the color
of a plum beneath her dark hair for the girl is turning purple.

openly hating the girl for dying
of an overdose
among the lemons, mangoes, papayas, and limes of the country
of her family's origins
plunging among the plums and dying there the color of a plum
beneath her dark hair
for the girl is turning purple.

The piece doesn't look like conventional poetry, but the words are ordered for expressive effect, make their point effectively, and round the theme off neatly.

Balloons

That last point is important. This is a Modernist poem: it has outside referents and achieves closure. The technique may be a cinematographic, and the speaker obtrusively present, but these are not private musings. Our example has to be a narrative of sorts, with themes that are not trivial or over-exploited.

1. We start with some jottings in a shopping mall:

"Come along, Tim, we're going home."

Balloons are back this week.

He dare not watch them going out of sight.

2. And develop them to find some connecting link or theme:

Miles, tell him, will you? They're too expensive.
Your mother's right. Come on, son,
we'll think about it. Sure, some other time.
I want it now! The small fist brandishes
the sneaker, petulantly goes to hurl it, sees
his father's jaw set hard, his mother stare at him.
Yours is he? the assistant quizzes, crouching down
and smiling. Gratified, he smiles on back, holds out
her present which she takes. He turns to them.
His mother looks as though to throttle him, father
sighs at his watch, apologizes and apologizing,
he takes the offered hand and walks the boy out.
She follows, erect in silence. Long silence.
Over him the long legs striding, striding
and the faces sway benevolent, preoccupied.
But he's his buoyant self again, trots off and stops.
Oh very well, let's get him something. Here.

Balloons are back this week: green, iridescent
red, sunlit blue, it doesn't matter: each small boy can,
by a string attached, reach, touch and draw
his trembling present back. He hasn't much to do but hold
its nascent breath or watch it quietly tumbling in the air.

Down the long mall he watches them, secure on the thread
that he is like them and in each airy thought breathes
in with them and with their world. He stops
and they will wait for him: he runs and they will pick him up,
on, on and forever as still more buoyantly the days
in the ordinary sunshine accumulate, float them forward,
clicking the door open for him, sitting him in front,
listening and not answering back until they are a dot
on the mall's hard-polished floor from which he will
strain his eyes at and dare them never to look back.

Just prose jottings, not connected up. Verse usually needs to be written line by pregnant line, but now we approach the writing as a short story writer, picking out themes, rearranging material, aiming for a beginning, middle and end:

Balloons

Mike, tell him, will you? They're too expensive.
Your mother's right. Come along now, son.
We'll think about it. Sure, some other time.
But I want it now! The small fist snatches at
the sneaker, petulantly goes to hurl it, sees
his father's jaw set hard, his mother glare at him.

Yours is he? the assistant quizzes, crouching down
and smiling. Gratified, he smiles on back, holds out
the offering which she takes, turns back to them.
His mother looks as though she'd throttle him, father
sighs at his watch, takes the hand, walks it out,
his wife now following, erect in silence, bearing

On as over him go legs striding and striding
and above the faces sway, preoccupied, benevolent.
And he's his sturdy self again, trots off and stops.
Oh very well, let's get him something. Mike?

The balloons are watching for him: green and iridescent red,
sunlit blue. He settles for a red one, runs with it, tugging
at the string to reach and touch and draw its trembling
presence back, or have it quietly tumbling in the air.

Down the long mall he will see them as they walk. He'll stop
and they will wait for him: he runs and they will pick him up,
on, on and forever as still more happily the days
in the ordinary sunshine accumulate, float on forward,
clicking the door open for him, sitting him in front,
listening and not listening until they are but a dot
on the past's hard-mirrored surface, which he will
strain his eyes to see and tug more desperately
for all the bright days later they never would come back. 

A 568-page free pdf ebook on practical verse writing is available from Ocaso Press. Click here for the download page.
C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author

 

References

1. A Favor of Love. Molly Peacock. http://www.library.utoronto.ca/canpoetry/peacock/poem1.htm

 

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