The Burning Boy and The Goose Girl: On the Economies of Poetry and Nature

Maurice Manning

Winter 2019

Among the piles on my wholly disordered bookshelves I have a cheap, yellowed Macmillan paperback edition of the Selected Poems of Thomas Hardy. This volume was selected by John Crowe Ransom and comes with his high-minded introduction. It is courtesy of Ransom, I suspect, that we think of Thomas Hardy as a modern poet. This edition of Hardy, published in 1961, has become one of the subtle jewels in my home library. The poems are essential; Ransom’s introduction is instructive and can apply to many other poets as well, even to the vast province of poetry itself. But more recently I’ve found another shimmering facet in this volume, namely, a browned index card left in the book by a previous owner. On the card, in careful blue ink, is a list:

clothes bag
tux, suspenders, garters
Mary’s address
shoe laces—black
poetry—Thomas, Yeats

Without intending to, the previous owner of this book has left his own poem behind. The card contains a list, a basic version of poetic form, yet the order of the list is revealing, something we appreciate in actual poems. Does this poem move from the most important element to the least significant? Or is bringing along the poetry of Thomas and Yeats the full blossom of this poem’s passion? And it’s tantalizing that wedged into the middle of the list is “Mary’s address.” Is Mary only casually a member of this list, or is she at its very center?

We can’t answer such questions, and that ambiguity—never to be resolved—gives this “poem” its most poignant dimension. We have a lyric version of a larger narrative. Let’s say the poet in this case is a young man, perhaps a college student named Sam. Earnest, studious Sam has a hot date with the sensitive and deep Mary. They’re probably going to a formal dance. Beforehand, however, they’ll have supper at a fancy restaurant, a place far beyond Sam’s usual budget. After the dance, or perhaps while they are cheek-to-cheek, Sam will mention these fellows he’s been reading lately, Thomas—certainly in 1961 this is Dylan Thomas—and the high-water mark for modern poetry, W. B. Yeats. “There’s such power in their words,” he tells her, “and the metrical complexity is like listening to Stravinsky or way out-there jazz. Yeats has these things he calls gyres, circular, recurrent cycles of history he ties, symbolically, to phases of the moon. It’s all a real mind-bender!” That’s about as far as we can go with the story of Sam and Mary. I expect he read “Fern Hill” out loud to her, or “Sailing to Byzantium.” And I hope for Sam’s sake that reading poems to Mary achieved the envisaged effect.

Sam’s list, interestingly, has not a shred of irony in it; the list believes that the world is ordered and that it is a just order. But it is ironic to the point of absolute wonder that Sam’s unironic list appears in a volume of poems by a poet whose chief fuel is irony, one edited by another poet who is also a paid subscriber to irony. And I don’t mean cheap, affected irony; I mean incisive, drama-forming irony, which flows through poems like a bloodstream. Sam’s innocent little poem is floating unknowingly in the Black Sea of irony. How did Sam’s index card that mentions the poetry of Thomas and Yeats become lodged in a volume of poems by Thomas Hardy? And why, fifty years later, did I, a poet with an interest in each of these poets, stumble upon Sam’s index card and marvel at it, as if it’s proof that poetry is a naturally occurring force in the universe?

Whereas Nature provides the seed that begets the tree that begets an infinite number of seeds over its lifetime, that beget forests of trees, that beget infinities of seeds, the metaphor we have in poetry is, well, metaphor, to plant in the ground of the poem and water with irony to yield the stinky, beautiful blossom of ambiguity. A tree is a rather efficient system, and we might think of a tree in terms of synecdoche, as a stand-in for all of Nature and her various self-sustaining, wholly integrated systems. So it goes with poetry and its systems, singular at times and self-sustaining, but also interrelated to other ongoing systems of human creation and the workings of the human mind. Quite a marvel indeed, often stumbled upon almost by accident.

Maurice Manning's latest book of poetry is One Man's Dark. He teaches at Transylvania University and lives with his family in Kentucky.

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