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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Number 286: Douglas Goetsch "Smell and Envy" and John Clare "Evening Primrose"

Smell and Envy

You nature poets think you've got it, hostaged

somewhere in Vermont or Oregon,

so it blooms and withers only for you,

so all you have to do is name it: primrose

- and now you're writing poetry, and now

you ship it off to us, to smell and envy.

But we are made of newspaper and smoke

and we dunk your roses in vats of blue.

Birds don't call, our pigeons play it close

to the vest. When the moon is full

we hear it in the sirens. The Pleiades

you could probably buy downtown. Gravity

is the receiver on the hook. Mortality

we smell on certain people as they pass.

-- Douglas Goetsch

Evening Primrose

When once the sun sinks in the west,

And dewdrops pearl the evening's breast;

Almost as pale as moonbeams are,

Or its companionable star,

The evening primrose opes anew

Its delicate blossoms to the dew;

And, hermit-like, shunning the light,

Wastes its fair bloom upon the night,

Who, blindfold to its fond caresses,

Knows not the beauty it possesses;

Thus it blooms on while night is by;

When day looks out with open eye,

Bashed at the gaze it cannot shun,

It faints and withers and is gone.

-- John Clare

Hap Notes: I don't suppose Goetsch is talking about Clare here, I just thought the juxtaposition was interesting. Douglas Goetsch is a gifted teacher in addition to being the award-winning author of a half dozen poetry books. He taught at New York City public schools as well as at writer's workshops throughout the U.S. at various universities. He is the founder of Jane Street Press. His poetry is luminous, clever and well thought out. He is also an excellent prose writer, especially about poetry.

You can find more Goetsch here:

John Clare (1793-1864) was born in Helpston, England. His family was poor and his parents were illiterate. He went to some bit of formal schooling and reputedly wrote his poetry after his manual laborer jobs ploughing and threshing. In his life time he had several books of poetry published. He struggled with being an outsider to the literati of England ( he was called the "peasant poet") and an outsider to the rank and file workers amongst whom he had grown up. He suffered later in life from delusions and depression. He died in the Northamptonshire County General Lunatic Asylum.

You can find more Clare here:

In the two poems, I think it is obvious that Goetsch is a city boy and Clare is a country boy. Goetsch is making a very good point about the "observational" poetry of "nature lovers" who write a few lines about flowers or birds to which many city dwellers cannot relate or, at least, relate to with a certain amount of tough derision. That poetry often seems to be redolent with saccharine idyllic word pictures. (Although I am duty bound to point out that there is plenty of wildlife in the city- hawks, squirrels, birds, raccoons and even rabbits. There is wildlife everywhere on the planet if you look for it.)

Clare is talking about a beautiful night-blooming flower that never sees the sun. Which, I suppose, could be a really good analogy for city dwellers who do not get a chance to see the natural world much. Or an analogy to one whose potential is somewhat hidden from public daytime viewing, much as Clare was as a youth.

The masthead is a close up of a primrose. The inset is Goetsch (top) and Clare (bottom).

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