Saturday, February 28, 2009

Garth Greenwell on "First Morning"

Almost three years ago, I left a PhD program and took a job teaching English at a high school in Ann Arbor. While all sorts of things—in both the outer and inner circumstances of my life—have changed because of that choice, least predictable have been the changes in how I write. During years of graduate school, my poems had become increasingly inward and cerebral: landscape entered them only as allegory; there was almost no place in them for other people. When I was able to write again, the summer after that first year, I found that having been thrust into intimate contact with the lives of seventy adolescents had shifted my imaginative priorities. For the first time in several years, my most intense experiences were taking place outside of books, outside of my own head. I needed my poems to help me process those experiences.

I found myself thinking back to the first events of the year. It’s a tradition in my school that in the first week of fall semester each grade takes a class trip, a bonding experience for the kids—and, I half suspect, a trial by fire for the new teachers. After a single day of class, then—still disoriented, only just having begun to learn kids’ names—I found myself in West Virginia for three days of camping and white water rafting. During the bus ride down, I had the first of what would be many conversations of a kind and intensity found only in adolescence, and I remember very clearly feeling that I had been caught by something, that there was no possibility of escaping care for these young people and their lives.

It’s difficult for me to talk about these poems. I’m not aware of any theoretical agenda or conscious formal conceit while writing them, other than the basic pattern of a stanza. From one perspective, “First Morning” feels more or less like a transcript of experience: there really was a boy dancing in the fog that morning; there really were cows watching bemusedly our camp. From another, everything feels altered, if not entirely made up, and there are fundamental things in the poem’s dynamic that I can’t articulate. The relationship between the poem’s two encounters, for instance—the boy in the fog and the cows by the fence—isn’t clear to me. I know that the existence of such a relationship is crucial, and that the extent to which it is charged determines the extent to which the poem “works.” But I can’t express even to myself precisely what that relationship is.

What is clear to me is that the relationship isn’t easily schematic—that the cows don’t simply “represent” one or the other (the speaker, the boy) of the poem’s human participants. This troubled some of the poem’s earliest readers, who wanted the animals to be more assignably allegorical, to be more obviously an image for the desire the speaker turns away from. I do think the image of the cows is bound up with that desire, but I hope in a way that doesn’t make of Eros a simple division of predator from prey. Instead, I want the image to be somewhat more true to the way in which desire is always (or has always been for me) an experience in which predation is inextricable from proneness.

What I want this poem—and all of the poems I’m trying to write about teaching—to convey is the dilemma I feel most intensely as an educator. On the one hand, I feel a sharp sense of protective love for my students, a desire to hold them back another moment from the world they long for so fiercely. But balanced with this desire is the knowledge that I serve as an agent of that larger world, that the very process of education is the process by which we learn to seek the world’s sweetnesses—sweetest among them Eros—which are at once so intoxicating and so quickly ground out.


  1. For me, the last sentence of the poem is so evocative of how poets often try to use cumbersome, material language to try and get beyond language to something ethereal, our “slack jaws” working the “white flesh” of the page “referenceless” for the sake of a transcendent, “momentary sweetness.” From the last sentence of the essay, it seems that Greenwell intends the “grinding…out” to be more of an extinguishing, but I initially read it as more of a means of painfully bringing something into existence.

    As much as the idea of desire may be present in this poem, I found myself responding more to the idea of the gaze, and how our gaze seems to transform the thing that we behold: stare at the fog long enough you’ll find you’re looking at the camp and the trees, and the boy dancing. Look deeper into the woods and you’ll find you’re looking at cows. Look at the pastoral cows long enough & you’ll see that they’re smeared with shit and marked for death. The recurring images of whiteness, bareness, and blankness in the poem suggest both and emptiness of meaning and a space full of the potential to be inscribed with meaning--it all depends on how one directs one’s gaze at them. Perhaps it’s because I’m rereading a lot of Bishop right now, but what I delight in here is how the poem seems to speak, in such a lovely and understated way, so much to how the world constantly shifts under our gaze, even as we try to pin it down with language.

  2. Surely these are private associations, but I found this poem, in its very first lines, leading me to Rachel Loden's "My Night with Philip Larkin" ("That stuff was never what it was about / When he would wake at four o’clock to piss / And part the curtains, let the moon go on / With all the things worth doing, and not done, / The things that others do instead of this."), and that poem, of course, took me to Larkin's "Aubade" (Loden's poem names Larkin's in its own first lines). There are similarities not only in the content, but also in the music of all three--and it's not just a matter of meter, but also of how the sonic qualities of the words are brought out. And it is the music first that draws me back to this poem--a music so beautifully accomplished in the first stanza--but I am also drawn to the mind working, and see a cooperative movement of minds from "Aubade" through "My Night with Philip Larkin" to "First Morning." Each poem seems somehow more complete in the light of the others, and as Eros becomes more prominent--if the poems are read in the suggested order--Thanatos becomes less so, and the movement of the poems, taken together, becomes, like the movement of morning itself, a movement toward light.

  3. Nicky and Shane, thank you for bringing up Bishop and Larkin, clearly two of the poem's tutelary deities. They're both poets I constantly read: Bishop precisely for the quality of her extraordinary gaze, the way she gets so much of the detail of the world into the poem, all of it revelatory of the self; and Larkin for his equal embracement of muck and transcendence, his juxtaposition of the exalted and the profane. Of course I was thinking of "Sad Steps" as I began the poem ("Groping back to bed after a piss"), and I knew I wanted the poem to be able to shift--as that poem does--between ideality and excrement. For Larkin this sometimes seems a one-way movement, as in "Sad Steps" or "High Windows," poems I love that open up from the demotic to the sublime; but even more interesting are poems where these realms are more closely interlocked, where the movements between them are multiple and unstable. I think of "Church Going" and especially "Faith Healing," a poem that is at once so tender and so acidic about our longings for illusion.

    As for Bishop, her many encounters, where the poet finds herself changed by a meeting with something mute in human terms but full of meaning--a fish, a seal, a moose--are ideals for me of the poetic process. It gives me a great deal of pleasure to have you read my poem, Nicky, in the same tradition. And of course Bishop is always so suspicious (as is Larkin) of our tendency to romanticize such moments, about the ways in which--precisely because, as you say, they present spaces "full of the potential to be inscribed with meaning"--we can find in them a self-consoling illusion of communion or transcendent meaning. (My favorite moment in "The Fish" is when Bishop describes the creature's eyes: "They shifted a little, but not / to return my stare. / --It was more like the tipping / of an object toward the light.") What's marvelous about both Bishop and Larkin, though, is that suspicion, the move toward irony, never simply trumps the affirming gaze that finds meaning, even transcendent meaning, in our encounters with the natural world. Instead, suspicion and affirmation hang suspended, so that Bishop can arrive at her annunciation of "rainbow, rainbow, rainbow": at once a slick of oil and the promise of a merciful covenant.

    It can only come as a disappointment, after remembering Bishop, to return to the end of "First Morning"--but I do want to say how much I like your reading of the final image, Nicky. I think that it is both "extinguishing" and "bringing something into existence," and perhaps in a way that returns me to thoughts about education. If education is ideally, as the etymology suggests and as we were once able to believe, a "leading out" from illusion to reality, from Plato's cave to the light of the Forms, then the transformation it engenders is one that involves pain and loss as it brings something new into being. If the goal of education is to cause us to examine critically our most fundamental and cherished beliefs, this examination can lead either to a new and more responsible valuing of those beliefs or to their discarding. This is a process that's always fraught with danger, I think, as our culture's oldest stories of education and discovery (Pandora and her box, Eve and the apple--also Socrates and the hemlock) make clear. It is, as you say, Nicky, both a grinding out and a making new.

    Thank you both for your posts.


  4. What strikes me about Greenwell’s very fine poem is the extent to which its author pushes past “pastoral loveliness” toward abjection. Initially, as the speaker confronts the waking camp and later the fence-locked cows, “First Morning” seems to move into familiar territory. By the end of the fourth stanza, I half expect Greenwell’s turn toward a Wright-like epiphany. In fact, I can almost count the lines before the speaker will “break/Into blossom…”

    The unfinished thought at the end of stanza three (seven lines followed by a dash) marks not only structural and narrative shifts, but the poem’s literal and figurative turns. What arrives next is a dramatic shift in diction. Abandoning more dominant lyric language, Greenwell describes the cows and all their “…excrement; nostrils caked with mucus/and flies…,” “…an orange plastic disc / counting them out for slaughter.” But it is the mingling of the cows’ and speaker’s scent – characterized as “stinging and sweet at once” – that merges the poem’s disparate tonal halves. From this point forward, the poem commits itself to the mingling of language both high and low, thus dissolving its impulse toward pastoral and/or romantic exclusivity.

    If Greenwell is reluctant to make allegorical the boys and cows, or to somehow pit the speaker and his counterparts into reductive and representative categories (predator vs. prey, adult vs. adolescent, imagined vs. real), I say “bravo.” It is Greenwell’s very reluctance to disclose – again, note the anxiety suggested by the incomplete thought that marks the third stanza – that gives “First Morning” its power. Ultimately, what the cows’ “slack jaws” work is “referenceless” (emphasis mine). In this sense, I’m reminded of Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” – the speaker as both skunk and anti-skunk, possessing attributes that place him simultaneously in and out of human and animal worlds. Ultimately, the “momentary sweetness” that is ground out in “First Morning” comes courtesy of the tension between the pastoral and abject, the romanticized and realized, as well as the beauty of phrasing high and low that Greenwell proves needn’t always be divided.

  5. Hi Garth,

    You speak very eloquently about how the transition from a PhD program to a life working with young students changed your poetry. Has what you've found about the relationship between your work life and your poetry influenced your thinking about what you want to do in the future?

    First Morning is a beautiful, fascinating poem. I’d like to offer another perspective on the relationship in the poem between the cows and the boys in the camp. It seems clear to me that the cows provide _some_ sort of mirror on the boys -– the structure of the poem suggests this, and the language through which the cows are introduced ("six cows stood worshipful and blank") resonates strongly with classroom imagery. The way in which the cows receive the approach of the speaker ("Until some fine / invisible line between us snapped / they let me close") speaks to me of the tricky boundaries in the intimate relationship between teacher and student -- particularly regarding the sort of erotic feelings which the speaker has just turned away from. And, given the unavoidable Biblical symbology associated with Garth's choice of fruit, it seems difficult to escape the sense that the apple given to the cows —-despite it being described as an "unclear emblem" —- here stands in some way for knowledge.

    But in other ways, the mirroring seems richly ambiguous. Does the juxtaposition in the cow imagery of "pastoral loveliness" with "abjection" say anything about the boys? And what does it mean that the gift of the apple is not only "good" and "generous" but also "empty?" Does the cows' being marked for slaughter reflect on the boys in any way? What of the description of the cows' eyes and gaze being both "alien" and "human?" And, most interestingly, does the final line, which -- as has already been said -- seems to both be about "extinguishing" and "bringing something into existence" say anything about the teacher and his students?

  6. Alan and Shara,

    What a pleasure it is, how humbling and how luxurious, to have my poem read with such kindness and such intelligence. Thank you both.

    Alan, to address just one of the many rich points you make, I think you're right that the cows suggest the students in many ways, and I'm struck by your reading of the similarity between the cows' affect and that of students in a class. This hadn't occurred to me before, though now that you've suggested it it seems hard to miss. (Perhaps it's that my own students, while "blank" from time to time, are "worshipful" almost never.) And yet somehow I resist--I don't think it's just coyness--aligning the cows and the students too closely. I admit that it's hard not to seem coy, even to myself, when I say that the biblical allusion wasn't foremost in my mind as I wrote that apple. But the cows are far from any Eden, and in their state of physical abjection I want the apple to represent the idea of sweetness itself, of a passing sensuous reprieve from misery. In that sense, I think the cows are an emblem of a certain way of looking at existence itself, and so could represent the speaker--who has rejected his own vision of momentary sweetness--as easily as the students.

    This is just to say that I want the image to enjoy the largest resonance it can sustain. And certainly--to pick up your reading again--knowledge itself can provide a similar kind of reprieve, "the hermit's carnal ecstasy," as Auden has it in "Lullaby."

    The experience of teaching high school, and of seeing the effect that working with my kids has had on the way I write poems, certainly affects how I think of my future. In the short term, it has meant avoiding a return to academia. When I came to Ann Arbor, I thought I was taking a single year's leave from my Ph.D program. One year extended to a second and a third, and last summer I decided finally to sever my ties. I was afraid that I would feel remorse about that decision, but it hasn't hit yet, and I'm beginning to expect it less. More generally--and this is a strange thing to say--I'm trying to learn to invest more in external experience itself, to be more adventurous, to explore with a greater sense of whole-heartedness the world outside of books. I think this new longing for experience has contributed to what I feel as a need to uproot myself again: I've just taken a job teaching for the next two years in Eastern Europe.

    Thank you again for responding to this poem.


  7. It seemed to me, in reading around this landscape, that the representations of the cattle, in addition to the turn from waking boy to animal, also mirror the privatized movements of the speaker's mind as a projection of whatever "will" stirs in the psychic grasses and a restraining "power" (however transparent or feeble). I found this particularly resonated with me in the description of the fencing as, "ridiculous, forceless," yet the cows still stand there "worshipful and blank." I wouldn't go so far as to label this association strictly freudian (agh!), but I do believe it works for me within some surface components of the id and relationship to superego, especially with the stark introduction of the apple and its context of a "forbidden" fruit and scheme of innocence.