I admit to being a James Joyce fan, in the original sense of fanatic, since my teens. On the basis of Joyce’s minuscule Collected Poems, Anthony Burgess speculated that Joyce condemned himself to being an amazing novelist because he was an amazingly horrible poet. I don’t agree. I’m more sympathetic to the idea that Joyce was a good poet impatient with traditional verse forms, including free verse, and needing to introduce poetic insight and technique into his prose, transforming it, often, into sheer poetry. Two editors, A. Norman Jeffares and Brendan Kennelly, set out to demonstrate this point of view a few years back in an anthology called James Joyce: The Poems in Verse and Prose. Be that as it may (and the book is on my shelves), I have only Joyce’s “verse” poems in Otros: but I have all of them, minus two satirical broadsides. That’s not a huge amount: the thirty-six poems in Chamber Music, the thirteen poems in Pomes Penyeach, and the single poem written on the occasion of Joyce’s father’s death and grandson’s birth, “Ecce Puer.” All are short poems.
Chamber Music was so-called both because the parts were intended to be set to music and because, supposedly, during the book’s first public reading, a woman urinated volubly into a chamberpot behind a screen. Other than this possible origin of the title, the book is a remarkably “straight” (not to say un-Joycean) sequence of love poems, from the initial thrilled beginnings to the final post-mortem nightmares of an affair. If the poems at times devolve into the singsongy—that was Burgess’ problem, and doesn’t happen as often as he suggests—that’s an inevitable consequence, I think, of their intending to be sung. Even when they aren’t, a skilled reader can draw listeners into the slight, finely-wrought, lilting mood of the individual poems, till they tip headlong into the stream of finding and loss the whole series creates. (Cyril Cusack is one such reader who has recorded it.) The later, mostly free-verse poems in Pomes Penyeach are leaner and in a way more naked, since Joyce is mainly speaking for himself rather than an ideal poet/lover, and allowing himself to say universal human things in vulnerable human ways. Craft is no less present, though: the first poem, “Tilly,” is an exquisite example, and here “Joycean” elements prevail, not only in the poem itself (we discover only at the end that the speaker is a tree that has lost a branch to a herdsman who tore it off for a switch), but in its placement: it is really the thirteenth poem in the book, because a “tilly” is an extra cup of milk the milkmaid adds on top of a dozen.
Take a look at the beautiful little poem “American Sketches” by Donald Justice too: it captures a kind of meaningful desolation one finds only on crosscountry trips alone: or in Hopper paintings.
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