Thursday, March 26, 2015

Roses are Sometimes Not Red or Why Dr. Seuss Doesn't Write Poems

"Roses are red" is not a poem.

Dr. Seuss--not. Sorry.

Shel Silverstein. Sorry again.

Is this a continuum--verse to poem? Or is it two grab bags, two pencil boxes, two messy stacks of paper, the side of the goat and the side of the sheep, the Atlantic and the Pacific, the lady or the tiger, the lion and the lamb? I teach in an art school so I should be able to say "Roses are red" is to a poem as a stick figure is to the Mona Lisa. And is the difference skill or ambition or shimmer?

Yesterday a student said we agree to disagree when I would only agree to saying that Dr. Seuss writes narratives that rhyme. And sometimes there's not much narrative.

I once did a break down of what "Roses are Red" does and doesn't do:
  • It's succinct rather than flabby.
  • It's memorable.
  • It's traditional--harking back to some lines in Spenser which might be a little racier than the current version: 
                       She bath'd her brest, the boyling heat t'allay;
                       She bath'd with roses red, and violets blew,
                       And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew.
  • Alliteration, consonance, end rhyme, interior rhyme, and half rhyme contribute to its musicality.
  • The metrical pattern has a variation in foot at a key place (beginning of last line when we move to the beloved), conveying information and contributing to musicality.
What is the problem? Is it only a cliche through overuse? If it were a rare unremembered song in  the Roud Folk Song Index (#19798), would I feel differently?

And yet I think the problem for me is the images chosen. They feel easy. They don't seem to have any nuance. We are moving from "fact" 1 to "fact" 2 to "fact" 3, and pretending line 4 is also a fact. Does this kind of false argument have a name? Sometimes roses are not red. Sometimes violets are white. Their sensory existence is predetermined by nature which is not true of line 4. Is line 4 just flattery? Is line 4 just a swift sweep up of the common endearment--sweetheart or honey?

Maybe it's that these images--rose, violet, sugar--are unrelated in any meaningful way to the beloved. When Robert Burns says, "O my Luve's like a red, red rose" there's a connection between the beloved and the image. The image is there to begin a wave of possibility. We can enumerate the ways this might be--soft, fragrant, beautiful, swift to die . . . 

So what is missing is complexity, layers, some kind of shimmer to meaning that cannot be entirely nailed down? Holograms of meaning? The ability of the poem to keep opening/shifting instead of closing down?

When we return to a poem time after time is there still pleasure, discovery, an unfolding? Do we need the burden of purpose or an unburdening on the page or the making of a kind of armor that can be shared? A sense of the serious?