About as soon as I posted my dialogue with her on the aubade, Tarfia sent me a link to Kenyon Review Writers Workshop faculty member Carl Phillips’ own “Aubade: Some Peaches, After Storm,” which I’m adding to our reading list, though I wanted to make a note of it here as, compared with some of the other poems on the list, Carl’s poem shows how a poem’s genre can reside below its surface, acting as a skeleton: it works even if we don’t see it as such.
The sense of after-ness, of an ending is clear in the poem’s delicate opening, the title having announced the power that’s passed: “So that each / is its own, now—each has fallen, blond stillness.” The peaches, fallen away from the tree, image the speaker, now floating free and diminished by the absence of the lover—which we feel even if we don’t define the situation exegetically. The poem ends, then, on a note that expresses the hope of the aubade: that the speaker will be reconnected with his lover and, thereby, saved from the loneliness:
how you stand—like a building for a time condemned,
then deemed historic. Yes. You
will be saved.
The aubade, as a form, provides the arc, the movement—the chart over which the improvisation of the poem can be accomplished.
Carl’s poem uses the genre—if you can read the form, some of the poem’s qualities may seem amplified—but never seems constrained by it, and as such is a model for what we’d hope anyone could achieve in the game of the genre.
For a writer coming to a new genre, it can seem that such poems are built on a detailed mastery of the genre as a form, and one can fear that a literary critic’s knowledge of the form is necessary for success, but I think Carl’s poem, masterful and knowledgeable as it is, succeeds in its negotiation with the aubade not because it knows some deep secret, but because it understands the gesture of the form—the “idea” or the feeling of the aubade.
This is something that, for some, only comes after reading dozens and dozens of a certain kind of poem (though I think that’s mainly because most teaching of literature seems aimed at interpreting the text as a tale or code as opposed to an assessment of the text’s form). But one can get there more quickly. I often advise my students who are working with a genre form to read with—as the detectives in the HBO series The Wire called it—soft eyes, looking for the underlying movement. One way to do this is to read a lot of example poems very quickly and see what sticks; another way to do this is to read while sleepy or distracted, reading out of the side of the eye, with the peripheral vision. And that’s the kind of game, undertaken in the service of a larger game (writing the poem), Tarfia and I will be promoting in our workshop.
Stacey Harwood (of the Best American Poetry Blog fame) asks whether I’d consider Frank O’Hara’s “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” an aubade.
Whether or not a true critic would agree with me, yes, I would. The poem doesn’t, at first read, seem to be an aubade. Yes, the poem is about sunrise, but the poet isn’t even awake at the beginning of the poem, and he certainly doesn’t seem melancholy or forlorn. There is no “lover” in the traditional sense. The sun comes to play the part of the lover, however, and even though the poem begins with the sun’s arrival, it moves toward the sun’s departure. So, though it may not begin as an aubade, it certainly ends as one. The sun may seem more like a muse than a lover, but the combination of muse and lover that’s possible when one reads this (soft eyed) as an aubade (or against the background of the aubade) amplifies the always implicit relationship between the romantic object and the poetic source that animates so many lyric poems—and which may be part of the soul of a lyric poem, though I expect you’d need David Baker to weigh in on that.
With respect to our craft notes series on genre-based games, O’Hara’s poem seems to do a fine job of drawing into itself the “rules” of the aubade in order to “score,” to make a strong and successful move.
A postscript to a postscript: since we’ve posted this as an addendum to this week’s craft note, we’ll observe our own movable calendar and post the note on the elegy this coming Tuesday instead of Monday, to give you (and us) some time to breathe.