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> Error of Judgement (part one)
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(last edited May 07, 2014 12:39PM)
May 07, 2014 12:36PM
Error of Judgement
and the uses of bias in poetry
It may come as a shock to realise that bias has any place at all in art. But even a piece of doggerel in which enraged teachers massacre a class full of rowdy schoolchildren can become a poem when composed with skill. This is Roger McGough's “The Lesson” (from “In the Glassroom”, Cape, 1976):
Here horror at teachers resorting to guns, swords and hand grenades to restore silence is counterbalanced by the artist's comic manipulation of language. We come away from reading this poem reminded that biased opinion – we can all empathise or at least sympathise with the frustrations of teachers - can be manipulated, too. The poem – for it is a poem - was written in the era of Pink Floyd's album “The Wall” (remember, “Hey, Teacher, leave those kids alone!”) and for several years thereafter was a popular ice-breaker in British classrooms. Nowadays, unfortunately, after the real massacres at Dunblane, Springfield and Newtown, the poem has become too hot. Bias in art often has short-term currency.
I want to look at two attempts at poetry, both of which encompass bias, though only one of which works as a poem. They are “Two Approaches to Gardening” by David Sloan and “Kitchen Floor” by Rachel Eckert. Both were selected by judges in the May 2014 Goodreads Newsletter Contest. Firstly, I will look at the poems themselves, and then go on to examine the error the judges made in choosing one of them.
Your legs spread open
like an old man's yawn.
At 27, I watched your life
dribble down your arm
and land on the kitchen floor.
Your lifeless eyes,
dead against the sunlight.
Drool, finger painting your chin,
leaving slug tracks on your shirt.
Where did you go in the moment
your life fluttered out the window
on mildewed wings?
I missed you long before the day
I watched you shoot the past
into your arm.
You look no different now
except for the blue lips.
The refrigerator hums,
its insistent voice
saying ice cubes
The time we spent
and didn't spend together
never meant more to me
I can't argue with you
and your silence makes
the tile on the floor
Ms. Eckert's piece could be addressed to a husband, brother, son or close friend and is a chilling, unapologetic diatribe against their drug addiction. The one clue that the addict is male comes in the opening verse, where a stain of incontinence gathers “darkness/like an old man's yawn”. In fact, the reader doesn't need to know exactly who the addict is. It's someone with whom time has been spent and not been spent, and whom the narrator has watched “shoot the past/into your arm”. There is a hint of backstory in the third verse, “I missed you long before the day”, but overall the lack of clear identification adds to the deadness of their eyes.
The poem is built from images of transformation. The "Drool, finger painting your chin” hints at a shared childhood. The addict has lips of a blue that pre-empt the ice cubes in the refrigerator. Life in essence dribbles down the arm onto the floor. There is the slug that takes flight “on mildewed wings”. Then the kitchen floor itself, the poem's title and perhaps a one-time scene of childhood play, now become symbol of the depth to which the addict has sunk.
How can such relentless negativity get worked into a poem? The narrator has nothing redeeming to say, no hint of hope to offer, nothing but outpourings of grief: “never meant/More to me than now”, or wonder: “Where did you go”, or horror: “smooth opals/dead against the sunlight”; and finally impatience: “your silence makes/the tile on the floor/look dirty”. Surely it would be impossible to see some counterbalance in a piece where the bias runs off the scale?
And yet this is actually a love poem, moving the reader to experience empathy with the speaker's grief, wonder, horror and impatience. Though there is no attempt made to explain the addict's situation and no hope for change is offered, there is still love there. By reading the poem, which is in the form of a private address (though rhetorical, due to the receptor's dumbness/numbness, "I can't argue with you") we are let into the speaker's world. The voice we hear, whether real or imagined, engages empathy with an all too common situation. This love is the balance.
Now for the second piece,
Two Approaches to Gardening
You don't seem to mind the rain as you kneel
straw-hatted in the garden and weed around
drooping peonies. The butterfly bush has finally
sprouted again, proof, despite your protests,
my zealous pruning has only mimicked murder.
You're so focused on this futile scrabbling,
as if weeding could keep stars from winking out,
or forestall other inevitabilities. I watch you work
without detection and wonder what keeps us
together. Children gone, we agree now
on so little; you want pine bark mulch,
I prefer seaweed. You're yearning for bees,
but I know who will have to tend them.
You desire fellowship, long phone calls,
a glass of wine in the evening. I could spend
days pedaling back roads skirting the bay,
sifting a weedy garden of words in need
of constant pruning. I've given what I could,
but you want more—even now, some
wordless assurance that, shears shelved,
I'll take my place beside you in the rain.
Mr Sloan's piece is addressed to the mother of “Children gone”, and by contrasting their different ways of gardening, it purports to map the gulf that has grown between the husband and wife. The bias in these four verses (plus one single line) is that we are only let in to the husband's point of view, wherein the wife is told of her failures and her unsuitability for him. As readers we are voyeurs to a sustained upbraiding of the woman.
In the first verse we are shown her toiling in the garden, despite the rain, as if this were careless of her, “You don't seem to mind.../straw-hatted”. Also that the appearance of new sprouts on a bush has proved her wrong about his pruning methods, which “only mimicked murder”. We are to assume she had accused him of murdering the bush with violent pruning. In other words, she exaggerates.
In the second verse, her weeding is further criticised as, “futile scrabbling”, leading the narrator to ask himself – actually to “wonder”, though without a shift in case we must assume she is still the nominal receptor - what they are still doing together.
In the third, we are told her desire for bees will only lead to more work for him; also, that he neither cares for her fellowship nor shares her tastes.
In the fourth (and the dripping wash-line that hangs below it), we learn the writer prefers to weed out unnecessary words than unwanted plants. Whose words these are, we are not directly told, though presumably she should know. He then confronts the woman with the claim she wants more than he has been able to give. He complains she wants him to shut up: “wordless assurance”, to stop criticising her: “shears shelved” and to rejoin her: “beside you in the rain”. Let's assume the rain is a metaphor for her tears. So what is she crying for? Presumably, the husband having “given what I could” and having a preference for “pedaling back roads skirting the bay” means that, at least in his view, they are finished as a couple.
The “Two Approaches to Gardening” then, would be an exploration of weeding vs. pruning, of Her method vs. His, and ultimately of the writer vs. the wife. The bias is that whereas his murderous pruning of the garden has proved effective, the man can also weed – so long as it's words and not small unwanted plants that are got rid of. The one critical reference to his pruning is dismissed as exaggeration on her part. The balance that should be there in the relationship is also missing from the verses. Her weeding is belittled; even the effort she puts in is decried as “futile” and as unable to stop stars “winking out” or “forestall other inevitabilities”. What a thoroughly useless person she is then; and he tells her so after spying on her, “I watch you work/Without detection”. The only other hint of balance comes in that lonesome, final line,
“I'll take my place beside you in the rain.”
which taken on its own might bring some kind of reassurance to her. Some crumb of affection, eh?
This is not only no love poem, it's no kind of poem at all. In fact, a divorce lawyer acting for the wife would be chuffed to set hands on such a document. They would sticker above the title, 'exhibit A' and present it as key evidence of the husband's mental and verbal cruelty. Then, if the case wasn't settled out of court, they'd have a field day with him in the dock. Hopefully extract tears of remorse from him, as his catalogue of emotional abuse was read out. And finally, in a masterly coup de grace, his preference for “skirting the bay” would be taken as evidence of adultery.
OK, that's it for the poems. Now for the judgement.
Jan 29, 2015 12:04AM
To err is human, to really blunder is godlike.
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