“The Spring Poem,” an early poem by Dave Smith, appears in Cumberland Station as well as in The Roundhouse Voices: Selected and New Poems. Smith uses as epigraph and prompt Louise Gluck’s suggestion that “everyone should write a Spring poem.” The poem—part pun and part aesthetic statement—is formulated as a Shakespearean sonnet. The first three lines provide the sonnet’s “problem.” In this case, the hypothetical function of the poet is laid out by the speaker: “Yes, but we must be sure of verities / such as proper heat and adequate form. / That’s what poets are for, is my theory.”
In a 1996 interview with Ernest Suarez that appears in Contemporary Literature, Smith responds to the question of whether or not he still believes this to be the role of the poet. “When I wrote ‘The Spring Poem,’ I was a little more smug, as young people tend to be in what they know,” admits Smith. “At this point in my life, I am a little less sure of how much I know and how firmly I know it. But I don't think I would change radically my opinion about what constitutes the basic virtues of poetry.” He goes on to say, “I believe that feeling is the primary wellspring of poetry, but I also think feeling has to be trained; it has to be shaped. It must be made emergent from discipline. I don't think feeling and artistic discipline are independent but rather codependent, the one really enhancing and making possible the other. That's what the argument of any sonnet says.”
After the initial three lines, the poem moves into the realm of the imagistic; however, Smith does not provide the default buds and blossoms and sun-drunk robins. Rather, “A car warms / its rusting hulk in a meadow; weeds slog / up its flanks . . . .” Both expected and unexpected representations of spring are verities, though we too often—with Gluck herself a notable exception—are given the pat, romanticized version in poetry, not the “spunky mildew,” “sweaty tufts,” and “damp rump of a back seat” Smith’s poem reveals. The sonnet’s volta begins at the end of the poem’s ninth line, the first two words of a sentence that is enjambed along the poem’s final quatrain: “A spring / thrusts one gleaming tip out, a brilliant tooth / uncoiling from Winter’s tension . . . .” The pun is sprung: the spring poem is both about the season of birth AND the fact of an abandoned car’s decrepitude as it falls apart amidst the season’s regenerative energies. The sonnet’s closing couplet reinforces a realistically complicated and, therefore, truthful notion of spring, as the personified automobile “Each year . . . / hears nails trench from boards and every squeak sing.” This is suggestive, I’ll insist, of human frailty in the face of the mythic idea of spring as the season of rebirth, of Easter. April may well be, to give Eliot his due, the cruelest month, but it’s much more complicated than that.
The poetry I like springs forth from any number of aesthetic manipulations. The poems that stay with me, that I hold close, however, tend to be those like Smith’s “The Spring Poem,” poems that present a complicated vision of the world. There is no truth that is one dimensional; any poem that would have it so is, at its heart, a forgery. “[F]eeling has to be trained; it has to be shaped” says Smith,” and I believe it is so. Most of the bad poetry I’ve written myself (there’s a fair bit of it), or that has come across my desk in my role as an editor, is at fault not because it lacks feeling but because it lacks a disciplined vision. Prose chopped into raggedy, thoughtless lines is not poetry, no matter how much feeling is contained therein. When Smith argues that poetry “must be made emergent from discipline,” I take this to speak to more than a poem’s formal shell; rather, I take “discipline” to mean as well that a memorable and useful poem is one demonstrating a mind at work that is structured and honest enough to recognize complexity, one that allows for—even insists upon—the ambiguous nature of nature, poetry that is sure of verities AND of their slippery design. Follow this link for another great poem set in spring, William Carlos Williams’ “Spring and All.”
Follow THIS LINK for a complete listing of all the artists in this month's A Poetry Congeries, with John Hoppenthaler.