8TH ANNUAL NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: DAY 26 :: CHRISTOPHER IACONO on EA ROBINSON
Welcome to the OS’s 8th Annual NAPOMO 30/30/30 Series! This year, contributors far and wide were gathered by five incredible curators, who are also our 2019 Chapbook Poets — to learn more about this year’s amazing curators and their forthcoming chapbooks, please click here! You can also navigate to the series archive, of over 200 entries, here! This week’s curator is Ryu Ando, author of the forthcoming chapbook [零] A Phantom Zero.
In the spring of 1990, when I was a junior in high school and making my first attempts at poetry, I discovered a poet who would influence my own writing almost three decades later. That poet was Edwin Arlington Robinson.
For those who have read my free verse poems and experimental fiction, this may be hard to believe. After all, according to an article on the Poetry Foundation website, Robinson wrote “traditional forms at a time when most poets were experimenting with the genre.” In fact, some of Robinson’s poetry has a sing-song pattern that I only tend to use for humorous attempts — I would never use such a pattern for anything as serious as any of the poems mentioned below.
What I’ve always appreciated about Robinson is his ability to surprise in his poems. Take, for example, “Richard Cory,” which was the first work of his I’d ever read. To say the poem “surprised” me would be a bit of an understatement: After my English teacher read it out loud, most — if not all — of the students in the class gasped at the last couplet:
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
Even thirty years later, I still find it pretty shocking. One of the reasons is the poem itself doesn’t offer any hint that the title character is going to commit such an act.
After all, Richard Cory seems to have everything going for him: he’s popular, rich — the envy of all. But we only get to know Richard Cory from the outside. We don’t learn about the character’s internal struggles, but that’s the point: The society Richard Cory lives in has certain expectations based solely on physical appearance:
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.
Cory also excites people just by acknowledging their existence with a simple “good morning.” That’s because, as we learn in lines 9–14, the people who admire this man belong to the lower class:
And he was rich — yes, richer than a king —
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread…
So the poem tells as much about the society as it does the man, who either has no outlet for his feelings or is too proud to do so. So he so the only way out for him is to end his life.
It’s a rather simple poem, almost childlike. One could argue that it’s the set up for a fairytale… only to tell us the tale doesn’t exist. (I’m sure mentions of a “king” and “crown,” two words that evoke fairytale lands, were no accident.) And fairytales contain lessons. One time, in a response to a critic who thought his poems were too bleak, he wrote, “The world is not a prison house, but a kind of spiritual kindergarten, where millions of bewildered infants are trying to spell God with the wrong blocks.” Perhaps this explains why poems like these are taught to high school students: It’s the end of innocence. Welcome to the real world, kids.
The surprise ending is something I strive for in my own poems and stories, and “Richard Cory” is a big reason why. How cool would it be to have a literary work that shocks the reader in such a way?
However, there’s also another aspect of “Richard Cory” I admire and try to incorporate into my own writing: the parts that are unwritten. Robinson didn’t tell us why Cory killed himself. He left it up to us, but he didn’t really leave us any clues. Some may not agree with this approach: readers usually want something in the parts leading up to the big climactic moment. But there are none. So we have to look at what’s missing as much as what’s there.
But what if Richard Cory didn’t kill himself? Well, he may have ended up like the subject of another Robinson poem, “Miniver Cheevy” (1910). But unlike Richard Cory, Miniver was not born into a good life — or at least he didn’t give off the appearance of being born into a good life:
Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.
As far as his “reasons,” Miniver wishes he was born during another time. While resting after a day of work, he imagines himself as a knight, whose bravery would be told in stories and portrayed in works of art for generations. But it’s not just medieval times he wants to go back to, as he thinks about ancient Greece and the House of Medici — he seems to be want to be a part of any time but the one he’s living in now:
Miniver cursed the commonplace
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;
He missed the mediæval grace
Of iron clothing.
Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it.
And as he did with “Richard Cory,” Robinson gives us an ending that sticks with us:
Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.
However, even though Miniver loathes the age he’s living in and having to be part of a daily grind just to make money, we never really learn why he feels this way. It’s not uncommon for people to wish they were someone else. But Miniver seems to be crippled by his fantasies and hatred for twentieth-century life, so much that he turns to drinking.
Once again, we have to look at the parts that aren’t written. Other than being a “child of scorn,” we don’t know anything about his parents. But one thing we can deduce from the poem is they weren’t rich. The fact that he “grew lean” implies that they probably made enough money just to survive, but not much more. It’s unclear whether they educated him or he educated himself. Either way, his knowledge about “days of old” seemed to be all he had by the time he was an adult.
“Mr. Flood’s Party” (1920), another Tilbury Town poem, also features a man longing for the past. One night, under a harvest moon, Old Eben Flood (a play on “ebb and flow”) is sitting alone on a hill, looking down at the town below, drinking by himself, singing “Auld Lang Syne,” and toasting a bird “on the wing.” The only one at the party is, well, himself, but it’s no celebration — he’s returned home just to say “farewell”:
“For auld lang syne.” The weary throat gave out,
The last word wavered; and the song being done,
He raised again the jug regretfully
And shook his head, and was again alone.
There was not much that was ahead of him,
And there was nothing in the town below —
Where strangers would have shut the many doors
That many friends had opened long ago.
The ending here is not quite as shocking as “Richard Cory” or even as startling as the one in “Miniver Cheery.” After all, “Mr. Flood’s Party” is pretty depressing throughout. And by the end, it’s already been well established that Mr. Flood’s friends are no longer around. But Robinson still manages to surprise, though it’s a little more subtle this time. By ending with a line about friends from long ago and an image of open doors, he’s ending things on a somewhat positive note: Old Eben Flood did have friends. He probably had good times with those friends. He was probably welcome into their homes anytime. So once again, what’s not in the poem is just as important as what’s in it.
So not every poem Robinson wrote had the power to make a classroom full of seventeen-year-olds gasp, but they leave some kind of impression on readers. And leaving those kinds of impressions is something I strive for every time I sit at the keyboard and write my own story or poem.
Christopher Iacono lives in Massachusetts with his family. You can learn more about him and his works at cuckoobirds.org.