John W. Evans was born in Kansas and grew up in New York and Chicago. His memoir, Young Widower (University of Nebraska Press, 2014), won the 2013 River Teeth Book Prize and a 2014 ForeWord Reviews Book Prize, and was named a Best Book of 2014 by the Iowa City Public Library and The Bookworm Sez. His poetry collection, The Consolations (Trio House Press, 2014), won the 2013 Trio Award and the 2015 Peace Corps Writers Book Prize. His poems and essays appear in Slate, The Missouri Review, Boston Review, ZYZZYVA, The Rumpus, and Poetry Daily, as well as the chapbooks, No Season (FWQ, 2011) and Zugzwang (RockSaw, 2009). John is currently a Jones Lecturer of Creative Writing at Stanford University, where he was a Wallace Stegner Fellow. He has worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bangladesh, a public school teacher in Chicago, and a college teacher in Romania. He lives in Northern California with his wife and three young sons. He is currently at work on a new memoir.
John Evans, a Stegner Fellow at Stanford '08/'10, now a Jones Lecturer, leads off October with a post on how a love poem works, possibly the kind of poem that has introduced more people to poetry than any other kind.
“Atlas” and “Crown”
Every couple of quarters, I teach a class in the education building. It’s a second-floor classroom with windows and a chalkboard, just off the stairs. After class, I’ll walk the long way down the hallway. I like to pass a certain professor’s office. She tacks a poem to the bulletin board outside of her office every few weeks. I almost never recognize the poet but the poems are always good. A few years ago I liked this poem so much I stood outside of her office copying it onto the back of an envelope:
I went home, typed “Atlas” into my desktop “Good Poems” folder, and then read up on Ursula Askham Fanthorpe. She was British, prolific, the first woman to be nominated to the post of Professor of Poetry at Oxford. She died the year before I first read “Atlas.” In obituary after obituary, the newspapers noted that she had not published a collection of poems until she was fifty years old, when she gave up her job as a beloved schoolteacher to become (her phrase) “a middle-aged drop-out.” Awards and recognition followed with each of her subsequent nine collections. In 1999, following the death of Ted Hughes, she gained notoriety as a dark horse and populist candidate for the Poet Laureate. The UK Guardian put her forward as “the people’s candidate.” Her candidacy failed but she continued to write about “those people on the edge of things” with humor, candor, and grace.
“Atlas” is a poem of two stanzas, and nearly a sonnet with its suggestion of a volta between those stanzas, and a turn to the self at the end. The first stanza is loosely formatted into couplets that do not rhyme and rarely end-stop. The “love called maintenance” is personified as a busy and attentive partner, domestic in her affections, who tends to the ordinary stuff of living while making “The permanently rickety elaborate/Structures of living” go. The diction here is plain but not simple (I love the literal and symbolic uses of WD40). The syntax elaborately tags that repeating “which,” building out a long sentence that only ends with the poem’s first mention of “Atlas.” In the second stanza, maintenance becomes “the sensible side of love.” Now, the attentions of the partner grow abstract and internal. The speaker figures herself as a house. This turn from the material world to the figured is quite moving. Atlas, at first a metaphor for a “kind of love,” becomes also the partner’s consideration, which literally holds the speaker (“my suspect edifice”) up. The two forms of “love” in the poem ground the speaker to the Earth, at the distance of Atlas’s embrace. “Atlas” ends as a traditional love poem, a tribute as much as an acknowledgement, and an elegant one at that.
Since that afternoon, I’ve taught “Atlas” nearly every quarter. It sustains formal and informal attentions, clinical and ardent readers alike. “Atlas” is the sort of poem that one student admires for its elegant attention to craft, and the next because, hey, that is how love works, or should work, or once did work, and no one ever seems to really disagree. Which is to say, “Atlas” is a poem of harmonies and consensuses. It wants the reader to feel mended rather than riven. And I always think of one of my favorite author interviews when I read “Atlas” and wonder where it could have possibly come from. In her interview with The Paris Review, Kay Ryan explains that she couldn’t possibly write every day:
I spend vastly more time away from my desk. I’ve spent maybe one hundredth of my time writing. It seems like many people think that if you drive yourself crazy, then you can write. I’m absolutely not interested in that. It made sense to me to be as whole and well as I could be, and as happy. I wanted to see what a fortunate life would produce. What writing would come out of a mind that didn’t try to torment itself? What did I have to know? What did I have to do rather than what can I torment and bend myself into doing? What was the fruit on that tree?
Rather than write daily, Ryan even shingled her roof during three of the nine years between Strangely Marked Metal (1985) and Flamingo Watching (1994), two beautiful collections and two of her best.
Ryan gave that interview in 2008, the year of Fanthorpe’s death. I don’t now that Fanthorpe and Ryan ever met, though I imagine they might have been fast friends. Much of how Fanthorpe was praised after her death dovetails nicely with how we admire Ryan now, what the Guardian called those “qualities of sly wit and an incisiveness of statement that is invariably gentle [but begins] to surface in her well-crafted and accessible verse.” One of my favorite poems by Kay Ryan is her elegant lyric, “Crown.” It gets at that certain paradox of attentiveness that I see implied in “Atlas.” How, the harder we try to find certain things, the more we risk disrupting and even unsettling those other things we love and admire, and might do better to leave in place. Truly a writer’s dilemma.
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