A great free website, some copyright terms, and irony (when is it ironic and when is it not?)

One thing at a time, and then in neat order, I hope.  This weekend, I am expecting a wonderful though short visit from family (and I’ll be trying to keep Kathy Bertone’s tips in mind from her new book, The Art of the Visit, which I mentioned in an earlier post).  Therefore, I’m going to write my post for tomorrow (July 25) tonight, so that I have some brief time to prepare for their visit.  Also, I know that many of you will be watching the beginning of the Olympics this weekend and keeping up with them after that, so though I’m going to try to continue to have a post for you each day, for a few days at least they may not individually be the usual generous dollop of opinionated (and I hope also insightful) writing that I may have led you to expect.

I want to start by telling you about a wonderful website I ran across last year, while trying to view some of the fabliaux of Balzac ( a fabliau is a literary racy story, and when wordy old Balzac once got started, he could keep up with the best of Boccaccio, which is going some!).  The address of the website (for once I have a full address) is http://www.readbookonline.net, and it carries a wide list of free reads on the Internet of famous writers who for some reason can be read without your having to buy anything–and I’m guessing it’s an issue of an expired copyright on a particular edition of the work.

To go through a little of the copyright issue briefly while trying not to misinform you, if a work is not available to read for free on the Internet and furthermore posts an “all rights reserved” warning, it means basically that except for what is known by the Library of Congress as “fair use,” which allows the use of short excerpts for purposes of reviews, articles, or lectures and academic purposes, the work cannot be reissued in any form without permission from the copyright holder(s).  (You may notice that on my copyright pages for my novels, which were copyrighted by the Library of Congress before publication, I mention fair use explicitly as an exception I am allowing my readers; I may be quoted from, under fair use principles.)  The copyrights protected by the Library of Congress are still adequate for works later published on the Internet, though what I’ve read on Wikipedia about Creative Commons suggests that their licensing procedures add to the Library of Congress copyright and support it.  It has not yet been replaced, however.  (Anyone wishing further information about copyright should look on the government website of the Library of Congress for recent updates; I’ve not seen them for a while, so you mustn’t expect this information to be conclusive.)

This situation being what it is, and because I was not able to find a complete copy of two of what I regard as companion poems from the poet Louise Bogan’s book The Blue Estuaries:  Poems 1923-1968  on the Internet, I will need myself to observe the fair use policy and refer simply to the points I wish to raise about the poems by short quotes, leaving you to find the marvelous book of her poems in a bookstore or library (she herself was appointed the 4th Library of Congress Poet Laureate in 1945, by the way).

The first poem is entitled simply, “Women.”  The first stanza, which contains the seed of all the rest, reads, “Women have no wilderness in them,/They are provident instead,/Content in the tight hot cell of their hearts/To eat dusty bread.”  The poem goes on in this way, developing the theme of careful need and caution in spending the currency of the heart, until the last two lines, which suggest:  “As like as not, when they take life over their door-sills/They should let it go by.”  My exposure to this poem occurred at a time when I was myself being incautious about which man I loved, and I often rued the day I’d taken up with him.  So, to me, the first stanza spoke faithfully of my sense of captivity in the relationship, and the last echoed the way I often kicked myself mentally for being so stupid.

Well, we had been asked by one of my favorite teachers, a famous poet himself, to bring a poem into class by another poet, a poem we especially liked.  I brought the above poem.  He asked me for my thoughts on it, and when I went into what I thought it meant (without of course revealing my personal connection to the material), he said “Yes, but don’t you think she’s being ironic?”  I wish I’d had the words, the perceptions about the poem which I feel I have now, all these years later, because I don’t think my point of view about the poem has changed; I simply feel that as with many other literature classes both good and bad, instructors are able to freeze students in their tracks by suggesting that something is “ironic,” using that magical, all-powerful word of our time.  Students have sadly gotten used to being told that things they half-intuit, half-understand are “ironic”; it seems possible to me now that it’s an overrated term, perhaps used to rescue a discussion in some cases from the realm of the bathetic (and yes, that’s bathetic, not pathetic, though some discussions in literature classes can rate as both, I know).

One thing’s for sure:  the teacher asking the question was a kind man, and a gifted writer, with a full complement of the qualities needed to make a sensitive teacher.  If I’d only not been stricken tongue-tied by that word “ironic,” I could perhaps have said something like “The poet is showing keenness of mind and perception, but irony?  Plain and simple?  Not for me.  No, I think it depends on one’s perspective just what is ironic and what isn’t.”

For further support of my argument, I might’ve referred to the other poem, the one of Bogan’s which I would like to point to (though there is no external evidence of this outside the sense of the poem itself) as a companion poem of sorts.  It’s called, “Men Loved Wholly Beyond Wisdom” and has in the middle of it the lines “What a marvel to be wise,/To love never in this manner.”  It speaks of the “fire in a dry thicket” which is like the love in “women’s eyes” which men “must return.”  The poem speaks of “dissembling,” which granted is a form of doubleness just as irony is, yet I wonder if the desperation registered by the poem can really be said to be ironic.  Again, I think this is an issue about which even the most civilized of men and women might disagree.

So, we have the dry crust of bread in the first poem, which is the only care the women take for themselves in that poem, and the wildfire in the thicket in the second, also dry, that they feel as love for the men.  Though I might be wrong to hang so much significance upon the one word “dry,” it does seem that the suggestion in both poems, especially when taken together, is of heat and want of water or soothing love, with an arid, all-consuming passion taking up all the available emotional space (or air).  Again, it’s a matter of perspective as to whether or not the correct word for the second poem is “ironic,” or whether something more precise or comprehensive is needed.

Just to close off this discussion of mine with something which I feel is one of the better poetry book blurbs I’ve read, the poet Theodore Roethke says on the back of Bogan’s book, “[She] shapes emotion into an inevitable-seeming, an endurable, form.  For love, passion, its complexities, its tensions, its betrayals, is one of Louise Bogan’s chief themes….”  The one word “tension” (between two opposite or opposed things) is a possible reference to irony.  But see how much more there is to be said about what this poet has so stragetically done with her language!  If only, I tell myself, I’d been able to voice some of my own reaction a little better at the time I was asked!  At least, however, the poems are still around to be appreciated and learned from.  I hope this article will encourage you to read Bogan’s book for yourself, or to re-visit it if you’ve not seen it for a while.

And that’s my post for today.  Everyone enjoy getting ready for the Olympics, and hope for our friends in London and the environs that all is kept safe and copacetic for the visit of so many talented people.

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Filed under Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments

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