POETS Day! Mark Van Doren

[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]

POETS Day has arrived and it couldn’t have come at a more auspicious moment. About this time desperation for that final gift is settling in and you’re looking at videos and news reports of Black Friday melees and realizing that not only are those people done with Christmas shopping but their wounds have likely healed. It may be that the receiving end of a WalMart stomping pays peace of mind dividends. At the very least you could rely on mall related PTSD as an excuse to get you out of work early and jumpstart the… well…

Maybe jumpstarting the weekend isn’t for you this this time around. It’s still POETS Day and you still have to all that dissembling, obfuscating, truth fudging, and gleeful trespassing of societal norms and all the delicate pieties that preserve our hopefully durable civilization, but this time you are doing it for reasons other than increasing your opportunities for pleasure so it’s kinda selfless. No happy hours, no grassy parks to lay in, no pond swimming or light masochistic jogging. You have to get out of work so go ahead and Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday. The problem is that this POETS Day you’re gobbling up extra me time to shop for others, and that’s the worst kind of shopping there is.

Do your duty and stare at sweaters, wonder why earrings cost the same as big jewelry, accept that a candle is an impersonal gift but time is of the essence, ditto wine, get ticked off at Amazon Music, Amazon Kindle, Amazon Video, and just plain old Amazon for giving out so many things via subscription and pulling the curtains down on the good old days when you could get by with grabbing a bunch of CDs, best sellers, and DVDs and sort out which one you wanted to give to which friend after a few pre-wrapping drinks. Not that you even had to do that. The clever among us kept a bag with unlabeled wrapped stuff in our car and gave whichever present was on top to people as you ran into them (“I knew you would like that cd because I noticed how much you like songs.”) Now you can’t just figure out how many gifts you need to give and get that many stuff; you need to consider wants and personalities. Don’t look so dour about it. If you run out of ideas/patience there’s always a wine or candle shop on the way home.

Before you hit the mall, may I suggest a little edifying verse? It’s good for after too.


Mark Van Doren has the distinct honor of being only the second poet featured in these electronic pages whose progeny directly or indirectly attracted the attention of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, but I’d imagine that’s a sore subject for his family so I’ll act like I’m above drawing attention to it. There’s a lot more to the man than having a son who probably would have done well on proto-Jeopardy even if he wasn’t fed the answers.

He wasn’t just a professor of English at Columbia University. He was a “renowned” professor of English at Columbia University, the “renowned” included in multiple reference site entries. As a faculty member he was instrumental in crafting the university’s humanities curriculum but more impressive to me, as an outsider (a way, way, distant outsider), is his involvement in putting together the great books curriculum at St. John’s College in Annapolis. If you are unfamiliar, at St. John’s you don’t have majors or minors. Everyone takes the same classes. Your geometry textbook is Euclid, biology would be Darwin, etc. The joke is that you start with Plato and end with Plato but all manner of bases are covered in between. My sister and her husband are both graduates and they’ll wax poetic about the college all day long, in ancient Greek if you want them to.

Van Doren’s Columbia students included Whitaker Chambers (!), Thomas Merton, John Berryman, Jack Kerouc, and Allen Ginsberg. He served as president of The American Academy of Arts and Letters, wrote scholarly works on Shakespeare, Dryden, and Hawthorne, and published collections of essays on poetry and criticism. He won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his Collected Poems. I would think walking into a class taught by a Pulitzer winner would be intimidating – thrilling, but intimidating – but he is remembered as personable and accessible. From a Newsweek article written about him just after his retirement from full-time teaching: “I have always had the greatest respect for students. There is nothing I hate more than condescension—the attitude that they are inferior to you. I always assume they have good minds.” An award named after him is given to great teachers chosen by students at Columbia College.

I don’t own any collections by Van Doren and neither does my local library. Neither Amazon, Guttenberg, nor Hoopla have anything to offer electronically other than a single volume of blank verse that I’m not really interested in because I’ve bought from that publisher before and they refuse to format their electronic offerings. The intra-library system and Amazon can both have physical copies in my hand in a matter of weeks, but I’m obsessing over this poet right now and there are many shiny objects to distract me between now and a future date so it’s without any sense of context that I’ve read his poems. Forgive me for that.

What is clear is his ability to capture a momentary thought. I came across a 1938 quote from an unknown source listed only as “a reviewer” which is a shame because whoever penned it described quite well what I’ve read. He or she wrote that Van Doren’s poetry was “a domestic metaphysical verse at a very sensitive level, a heightened reality, a satisfying recognition of the gods inhabiting things.”

This week’s poem is “Looking for Something Lost.” I think it’s a good example of “breath-unit” meter or “the three second line.” Syllable count doesn’t tell you much here other than that the third, fourth, and fifth lines of the first stanza have, respectively, the same number of syllables as the third, fourth, and fifth lines of the second stanza. The rest is all over the place in that regard but the time taken to read each line, accounting for natural pauses where a voice may linger or add emphasis, reveals a pretty tight structure. Read the last two lines of each stanza aloud and note that though the second to last line is longer than the last in each case, the flow of speech forces a beat or break after the word “there” in the first stanza in order to properly stress the words “there” and “breathes” and a similar beat or break comes after “dark” in the second stanza in order to emphasize “shines on.” The rhythm flows from our habits.

There is almost an a/b/a/b/c/c d/e/d/e/h/h rhyme scheme but he leaves the a and the d from the opening line of each stanza unpaired in the third line. Instead, the first and third lines of each share a stressed internal sound. The word “lost” repeats in the same position in both lines of the first stanza and the second stanza has “never” and “bravery” (imperfect with the “-y” but that’s a minor point as it’s the “v” that mates the two.)

“Looking for Something Lost” is a fleeting thought the poet freezes, fleshes out, and once considered brings to conclusion. It’s clever and elegantly realized. As the unnamed reviewer put it, “a satisfying recognition of the gods inhabiting things.”


Looking for Something Lost

Mark Van Doren (1894 – 1972)

Looking for something lost is mind
And matter playing a game.
The thing knows it is lost, and waits;
The adversaries are now the same;
The wallet under the leaves
Lies there and breathes.

And what if the something lost was never
Matter in the beginning:
Purpose, or hope, or bravery,
Or innocence, the spirit’s cunning?
The piece of soul that is gone
In the dark shines on.

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