The Swimming Child

May 20, 2011

Our wise men want to call him Icarus. But he can’t be
that Icarus. There are no melted wax wings, no vaunting
ambition, just the salt crust on his face and limbs.

Perhaps he did fall from the sky and no
one heard his splash. Perhaps as the waves moved
around him, like a bright red buoy tied to the sea,

his swimming bequeathed to the water
the necessary movement for the waves. Perhaps left to swim
ashore, it’s our words that have drowned, not his soul.

Or could it be the waves have calmed?
Could it be that the sea is silent? That there
is nothing left to come ashore?

What if he’s like a cloud of paramecium
or something, and the swimming child emerges
alive from the river estuary and not dead from the sea?

My child, my child! The swimming words,
so much in abundance, about to reach
the river’s mud, amid the river’s eels…

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8 Responses to “The Swimming Child”

  1. John Stevens Says:

    Once again, I only partially understand (I’m a bit dim) but it sounds and feels like a modern-day tragedy, perhaps one reported on in the news media in an abundance of words, maybe a loss of someone close to the poet (my child! my child!).
    There’s a moment of hope in the penultimate stanza. An ambiguity at the end.
    And as always an assured voice and mood.
    (But you could give us more clues, Jim, you could give us more clues!).
    PS: you should add Icarus to your tags; I still pick up readers for my Daedalus & Icarus poem a year ago.

  2. extrasimile Says:

    Thanks John, I did add the Icarus tag to the poem, and I did go back and read your Icarus poem—nice, more on this below—and of course, as one of your commentators points out, Daedalus is remembered quite thoroughly by Mr. Joyce. Daedalus, the maker of the labyrinth that imprisoned the Minotaur; Daedalus, the tekton; Daedalus, the maker of wings; Daedalus, the archetype artist: all rolled up into Stephen Daedalus, silence, cunning, and exile.
    Now, this ‘clues’ thing.
    One idea I’m fond of is that poets/ writers teach us how to read, that every poet teaches you how to read his or her poetry.
    Another idea I’m fond of is that the first thing a teacher should teach is that you are smarter than you think. (It’s also the last thing a teacher should teach… and the middle thing.)
    And a good teacher challenges his students.
    Thus a position that says, you are smart enough to understand this challenging stuff is not an unreasonable one in my book.
    Now, this poem, as an example, doesn’t strike me as being any more difficult to read than something you’d find in a medical journal, say, or an engineering text book, or any of the fields of knowledge we value in this world. The real issue might be that poetry doesn’t seem to have any relevance to our lives. It doesn’t seem to tell us anything. Spend your time studying molecular biology, you’re in a position to do some real good. Spend it studying poetry…
    Your call for clues on the surface makes sense—like, if he’d only tell us what he’s talking about—like this poem is something of an illustration of an idea or a story or an experience I had—and that the goal is to come to understand this idea/ story/ experience, if only we could penetrate beyond the words. Truth to tell, I never start out with anything more than some words and explore from there. Richard Serra’s notion that ‘work comes from work’ is a good way of putting it. I don’t know if there is anything more to know than what is actually on the page. I certainly didn’t start out to write a poem about Icarus, and I don’t know that this poem is about Icarus—better to think of it as a little adventure in to a word field, my field, yes, the words as they interact with me, and perhaps as a paean to a force field full of words—all articulation is joyful, yes?—and not as a mysterious message.
    That said, it is not for no reason that philosopher’s characterize consciousness as ‘intentional’ and words do ‘mean’ something, and words do ‘refer’ (sometimes) to things… so, I suppose it is disingenuous to take such a high road. Do I smell ‘art for art’s sake’ burning in the bushes?
    And do I mean to say that what I’m writing now does not have relevance and reference to ‘The Swimming Child’? No, of course not.
    Robert Duncan puts it well:
    Often I am permitted to return to a meadow
    as if it were a given property of the mind
    that certain bounds hold against chaos,
    that is a place of first permission,
    everlasting omen of what is.
    Here’s a clue about the Swimming Child. Like your poem, both the Auden poem and the Brueghel painting are not far from its meadow. I’d forgotten about the Matisse—illustrator of Ulysses. (How could I?) Those paper cut outs! Real wings, I think.

  3. John Stevens Says:

    Well, I expected a closely-argued reply, and you delivered it! I don’t dissent; but I differ.

    That’s to say, I accept that poets do not have to make clear what they are talking about; that they may start with some words and explore where those may lead – and the subconscious, or imagination, has a vital role. And I like the notion that teachers should respect the intelligence of their students (are you a teacher, by the way?).

    The result can be challenging but rewarding, like much Modernist literature. People return to The Waste Land and Ulysses (both of which I love without greatly understanding what to make of them). But …

    … such writers are not widely read. Walt Whitman & Tennyson had a wide readership, as did Robert Frost & Yeats. But Marianne Moore, HD? I think not. Eliot is a partial exception: semi-widely read, much admired but off-putting to many.

    Here in Britain poetry is currently enjoying a bit of a renaissance. There are readings in pubs, Carol Ann Duffy is popular, a Sunday morning current affairs programme I’ve just listened to has a regular poet slot (someone who quickly makes up a rhyme about the programmes’ main themes and raps it out at the end) and on Saturdays the BBC is giving us Wordsworth’s Prelude on radio. But this renewed interest is built on instantly accessible poems. Perhaps some listeners and readers will move on to give time to more opaque works, but only if the path is reasonably clear, not too overgrown.

    I don’t wish to be inflexible about this question of clarity. I’ve been reading great chunks of William Carlos Williams’ Paterson – which I do not find easy, but do find enjoyable. And I get a lot of pleasure from your own poems, even when I’m greatly puzzled. So I would say that the poet has every right to let the words take him or her where they will, to expect the reader to work a bit, but …

    … it is a shame that where a poem has real thought & inspiration it does not also have the widest possible readership to appreciate it. I think that’s my essential case: I want poetry to reach people; I don’t like to see thoughtful and imaginative writing being neglected (and I include yours here).

    Have I gone on too long? Do I scrape a pass mark?

  4. extrasimile Says:

    I went to see King Lear yesterday. Shakespeare does seem to cross the divide: a writer clear and difficult, popular and profound, peaceful and violent.
    Lear is at the source of words, yes? At the source of poetry. Fighting…what? The sound of words?
    Here’s Wallace Stevens summing up some thoughts on poetry. (from ‘The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words’) ‘It is violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. It seems in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation; and that, no doubt, is why the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives.’
    I heartily agree, except to say, that it doesn’t work.
    And, yes, John, teacher is my day job. And, yes, I’ll give you an ‘excellent’.

  5. John Stevens Says:

    My day job, until I retired, was as a British civil servant, so I wrote a very great deal of prose. The aim was always precision and clarity – even our ambiguities (those little ‘economies with the truth’) had to be precise and clear to us.
    It’s hard to shake off that legacy, which is why I’m drawn to debates about what poetry can or should try to be.


  6. I really don’t understand it. 😦

  7. extrasimile Says:

    Hi Midnight:
    Perhaps this poem is doing battle with the understanding. So, maybe to not understand is part of the deal. The beginning of wisdom, and all that.
    Take Icarus, for example. In the first sentence you’re told that the wise men are wrong. It can’t be Icarus. Then in the second stanza, it ‘perhaps’ is Icarus. Here the W. H. Auden poem, ‘Musée de Beaux Arts’ and the Brueghel painting, ‘The Fall of Icarus’, come into play. Auden points out the indifference surrounding this stunning event—a boy falling out of the sky. In my poem, Icarus, it seems, does not die, but swims ashore. This swimming however gets complicated: it might very well be the source of all movement in the ocean—or it might be Icarus once again over- extending (or I am extending for him). One man swimming in the ocean does not account for the oceans power—except this is something that myths do: explain things we don’t quite understand in terms of man’s prowess. (Careful, God may be implicated in this dynamic!) This venture into myth is quickly squashed, however. Icarus may be only a cloud of paramecium. The last stanza—My child! My child!—is this poem about child birth? Well maybe it is. But then everything gets fed to the eels. At least the swimming words do. That is what happens at the end, isn’t it?


  8. Thank you so much, sir, for enlightening me about this poem. I really appreciate it. Now I have ideas in my mind. Thank you.


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