Horsegod: Collected Poems by Robert Bagg
October 26, 2009
by Patrick Gillespie
• In exchange for a complimentary copy, I expressed interest in reviewing poetry by poets “in exile” – the self-published. Specifically, I was looking for poets who trade in meter or rhyme, the disciplines of traditional poetry. This book, Horsegod: Collected Poems, by Robert Bagg, was the first book I received. What a great way to start.
Me? A reviewer?
And in addition to this book, I have two more books to review. I ask myself: What if it were my own poetry? No poet wants a comment that discourages readers from reading their work.
I favor criticism that analyzes poetry on its own terms rather than according to the tastes of the reviewer. For an idea of what I mean, check out my post on Marjorie Perloff’s criticism. (What poet wants to read that his or her rhymes are too simplistic when that is precisely the kind of rhymes they are pursuing.) Poets make aesthetic choices, and my own philosophy is not to criticize them for that – but to observe. Let’s see how I do.
About Robert Bagg
Just a couple words, because there’s a perfectly good biography of Bagg at his own website. The thing worth noting (and to my profound envy) is that he met and studied with Robert Frost:
At Amherst he had the good fortune to study with Walker Gibson and James Merrill and to alarm Robert Frost, who chided him for writing about sex, noting that Yeats waited until old age to broach that aspect of experience.
I don’t know to what extent he studied with Frost or the others, but just to have met the great poet sends me into a tailspin of jealousy. Also worth noting is the experience Bagg brings to his poetry.
After a semester at Harvard he earned a Ph.D. in English at the University of Connecticut, taught briefly at the University of Washington (1963-65), and then for the rest of his career at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst where he served as Department Chair from 1986 to 1992. His teaching specialties were English Romantic Poetry, Modern Poetry, and Great Books from Homer to Hemingway.
A Limber Lope
To give you an idea of the kind of poetry you can expect to find, here are the final lines of a Sonnet called "Caption for a Wire Photo":
(…)machine gun slugs
seek out his jacket and rip up her dress;
exposed while sprinting for a house safe
from this blood-starved cancerous regime—
enraged by a remission all too brief—
their drab lives shed like debris from a dream
they click a neutral camera and point-blank rifle,
feel a shrill heaviness, and are forever still.
The rhyme scheme is that of a Shakespearean Sonnet but Bagg dispenses with an accentual/syllabic meter – normally Iambic Pentameter. He opts for a syllabic line (counting the number of syllables per line). His rhymes are a combination of true rhymes, slant rhymes and wrenched rhymes – reminding one of Emily Dickinson’s approach.
For this reason, his verse will read as rough, muscular, and knotted. But there is maturity in his choices – he’s an experienced poet whose stylistic choices are controlled and deliberate. He avoids an overly end-stopped verse, doubtlessly made easier by the use of a syllabic line and a variety of half-rhymes. The overall effect is of a poet who blends free verse and traditional poetry. A visit to Bagg’s homepage confirms as much:
"Bagg also often takes advantage of the freer practice of the twentieth-century, since the “freedom” it encourages allows for plunging ahead when necessary with little heed for decorum."
It does grant the poet greater latitude, but also surrenders some of the effects unique to meter (accentual syllabic) and true rhyme. Nevertheless, Bagg is a model for the younger poet. There is a middle ground between the traditional and free verse aesthetic.
I suspect Bagg is commenting on his own poetics in this seemingly whimsical poem “Girl with Her Pigtails Crooked”:
Her left leg lagged behind the right,
a firm step followed by a limp.
Her pigtails haggled down her neck
like lines of tangled hemp.
I watched the shameless way she lamed,
She needn’t limp so lumpily,
I thought, so I called down to her,
“Hey, you don’t need to limp!”
She let her hair have its head
—it went its separate ways—like rope
let out to trim a coming storm
She stepped into a limber lope.
Think of the pigtailed girl as this little poem and Bagg as the boy who calls down to her: “Hey, you don’t need to limp!” He lets his rhyme and meter, like the girl’s hair, go its separate ways, like “rope let out to trim a coming storm”. His little poem steps into a limber lope, a characterization that could apply to all of his poems.
Some Brief Narration
One of the showpieces in Bagg’s book is a narrative poem called “The Tandem Ride.” You can read the poem in its entirety by visiting Bagg’s webpage: (you're on it!) Robert Bagg: Poems, Greek Plays, Essays, Novels, Memoir. The narrative poem is a genre almost altogether unwritten and, though I may be wrong, I suspect that poetry journals are largely to blame. While the great variety of journals provide a venue to an equally great variety of poets, their interest in poetry is of a very limited kind: short; something that will fit politely on a given page.
Some journals limit poems to as little as 25 lines, at most, two pages, but reluctantly. Many of my own poems are eliminated simply by virtue of their length.
The results are obvious. The birth of the poetry journal, of which there are hundreds, coincides with the ubiquity of the short lyric. The long, sturdy narratives of the romantics and Victorians gave way to short poems that neatly fit onto the page of the poetry journal. Poetry Magazine recently issued an edition of poems that have been published in their pages since their founding in the early 20th Century – The POETRY Anthology, 1912-2002. All but a handful of poems fit neatly on the page.
Nearly all the poems hum along in the first person or first person plural.
Reading POETRY’s anthology reminds me of the dusty old anthologies from the Victorian Era, proudly full of competent period pieces and timely poets – all of which and all of whom are forgotten by the next generation. They’re easy to find. Just look in any used bookstore. You can almost smell them.
Although I haven’t searched exhaustively, I’ve only found one or two stories in nearly five hundred pages of poetry (all among the very first poems published by the periodical) and they are also among the few not written in the first person. These are the better known poems. One is by Robert Frost – his “The Code” – Heroics. The other is by T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” As the 20th-Century progressed, poetic ambition seems to have grown smaller and smaller and ever more forgettable.
Bagg’s effort is a welcome departure. His Keatsian or Spencerian stanzas (depending on how they’re appraised) nicely carry the narration forward. There enjambment, made easier through the use of off-rhymes, helps the poem succeed where others fail.
She pushes a glass door open a crack,
emerges from a tropical greenhouse,
shoes squishing, then pauses – almost goes back-
aware her sweat-drenched translucent blouse
would amuse us, or might even arouse
us more than her breasts did normally.
She’d never say, Come on to me, guys, now’s
the right time! — but I sensed viscerally
she wasn’t the same girl we had chased up that tree.
This is a stanza of almost perfect rhyme (greenhouse and blouse is a wrenched rhyme), but the content and language are thoroughly modern. So many modern poets who write with meter and rhyme seem unable to combine the disciplines with a modern vernacular. Once again, the lack of meter (I don’t normally consider syllabics a meter) and off-rhymes give the poem an almost free verse feel. In some cases, the combined effect buries the rhymes. It’s a deliberate effect.
Some will like it, some won’t. Don’t come to his poetry looking for soaring melody. His voice is modern and rigorous.
In this book, at least, it’s not until the very last pages that this narrative impulse reappears and then on a much smaller scale. That’s somewhat of a disappointment to me, but may not be to other readers. Another disappointment is that the subsequent poems are primarily first person. Some address a “you”, but they all have the feel of a poet discussing himself. I wouldn’t call them confessional, though that term can be broad. There’s an element of confessionalism in all of his poems – but never self-pity.
The Heart of Bagg’s Poetry: His Imagery
And now we really get into the meat of Bagg’s poetry.
Bagg’s imagery is full of physicality and motion, is full of the body. As in his imagery, so too in his poems. He his not a poet, like Keats, at ease with ease, contemplation or sensuality – all qualities that later poets (during the Victorian era) considered too effeminate. Bagg’s physicality won’t be restrained.
In “Be Good,” the child “hugs the intolerable boulder/he has has muscled uphill since birth”.
The world he prefers to observe is also full of kinetic energy:
My iron is wide; you use your blessed driver
and hit it with your fullest strength,
skimming the club head so close to the earth
I hardly hear your shot, but see it fly
over everything toward the green… (“My Father Plays The 17th”)
In describing a couple’s decision to marry, his analogy is full of athleticism:
Ashley and Melissa, you have circled
marriage like a distant challenge––
a mountain ripe for climbing––plotting,
perhaps, a night approach across
a secret valley… (“A Toast for Ashley and Melissa”)
Bagg’s eye is drawn to sport and action (as in this translation from Sophocles Elektra):
Reacting quickly, the skittish
Athenian pulled his horses off
to one side and slowed, allowing
the surge of chariots tot pass him.
Orestes too laid off the pace,
in last place, trusting his stretch run.
But when he saw the Athenian,
his only rival, still upright, he whistled
;shrilly in the ears of his quick fillies
to give chase. The teams drew even,
first one man’s head edging in front,
then the others, as they raced on. (“Chariot Race at Delphi”)
In the powerful and substantial lines of his poem “An Ancient Quarrel,” where Bagg turns an appraisal of Yeats into a titanic wrestling match:
You might be stirring forces hard to quell––
that thrill exploding in your abdomen
when a trapped quarry turns his fear on you.
You go in flailing hand to hand, frenzied
because your own survival’s now at risk.
His barbarous thrusting voice impales you
deep in the place from which your war-cry soars.
Now it’s the pure joy of battle driving…
Notice words like exploding, trapped, flailing, thrusting, impaling. One might object that words like these are only to be expected given the subject matter of the poem. I don’t argue the point, except to point out that Bagg is also in control of the subject matter, and gravitates toward the physical, the muscular, the strain of motion. He has an eye for it.
It’s no wonder, as with the very first poem cited in this review, that Bagg, more than once, is drawn to the topic war. He doesn’t valorize or glorify war, very much the opposite, but his sensibility is drawn to the physicality of war, and its horrors.
And it’s also no wonder that Bagg shocked Frost with the sheer physicality of his poetry’s sexual content. The poem “Cello Suite,” the closest Bagg comes to pure lyricism, is nothing if not a celebration of the sensual physicality of sex and procreation:
Cheek to her cello’s gnarled scroll,impulsive
once wildly made, crests,
then calmly overflows
the cello rosewood curves.
As she lifts her bow to the skies
her lover’s hand slides
under her shoulder,
her breasts lift
to his passing forearm.
(Unfortunately, WordPress doesn’t allow me to reproduce the layout of the poem.)
In the lovely lines of his poem “Twelfth Night”:
If music be love’s food, disguise
must be love’s speech, each wanton thrust
engendering a gentle parry––
a playfulness that implicates
interested parties wearing tights.
At the start of this poem Bagg praises Viola’s “masculine pluck,” and one gets the feeling that this is no idle praise, that this is precisely the thing that has drawn the poet’s eye to this character – her masculinity, her insinuated physicality. There is nothing Keatsian or feminine about her (though there is and he knows it). In this poem, at least, there is an unmistakable homoeroticism that Bagg clearly enjoys and with which he is beguiled.
But Bagg’s eye for physicality carries a price. In the entirety of “Twelfth Night” and “Cello Suite,” for example, the reader never once smells. There’s no taste and, oddly enough, there’s no sensation (touch). Bagg prefers motion, sometimes repetitively, where he might have evoked a different sense:
“her sliding tears/reflect her mother’s” & “her lover’s hand slides/under her shoulder”
This isn’t to say that Bagg never evokes the more effeminate senses (as Victorians called them) but never with same eye for the physicality of the body and the world:
Now he’ll go.
His body hardens with still-clenching muscle.
I edge my right heel back along his side,
tuck my head to his neck, feel his ears poke
out straight, and out of rotting earth we churn––
reanimated halves of the one beast
both off us want mightily to be: the Horsegod.
We pound through reeking sludge and angry brush
;that claws at our face, snags our thrusting legs.
We are joy pulsing through a line of verse!
Even in these lines, the word reeking has more the feel of physical assault than an appeal to our sense of smell. In what way does sludge reek? What does it reek of? Bagg doesn’t tell us.
As with Bagg’s revelry in sexuality, it should come as no surprise that the physical decline of age is an experience that Bagg feels keenly – it’s slowing and diminishing vigor.
intensifies what’s left
of our skills and passions,
we linger over them
as over a single malt’s
We fear the softening
of our golf swing
will put even the easy
carries beyond our reach;
strife will become
affectionate peace… (“Bittersweetness”)
Bagg is not at ease with an affectionate peace, he fears it. Lovemaking, to Bagg, is strife, of both body and mind. His poetry, a lovemaking of its own order, is full of strife and motion. These are qualities the reader can expect in Bagg’s work. There is more than a touch of Hemingway in Bagg’s vigorous verse and he draws out the comparison himself:
Now that your honed survival skills assert
themselves, ask fellow Hemingwayfarers
this: When the powers in your loins and mind
wane, should you punish both with a twelve gauge?
Or keep on bringing dark bulletins back
from our last war zone–as Phillip Roth does
(who holds the title Hemingway renounced),
determined to die ringside to himself
matched with an unbeaten serial killer. (“Heavyweights”)
Younger poets and readers looking for a model – for a poet who makes vigorous and muscular use of rhyme and sometimes meter – couldn’t do better than to read Bagg’s verse. His language is modern, forceful, and uncompromising.
Bagg on the Internet
• Visit Bagg’s Homepage for links to other books, opinions and more poems.
• Bagg takes exception to David Orr’s opinions on Political Poetry.
• Three of Bagg’s Poems brought to you by the Brockton Public Library
• The Oedipus Plays of Sophocles: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Kolonos, and Antigone – Translated by Robert Bagg