Wednesday, July 24, 2013


There was a poem in the April 29 New Yorker by Lia Purpura that I liked, clipped, pasted in my commonplace book, and subsequently committed to memory:


In the beginning
in the list of begats
one begat
got forgot:
work begets work
(one poem
bears the next).
In other words,
once there was air,
a bird could be got.
Not taken.
Not kept.
But conjured up.

It was an easy poem to memorize because it's so tightly and logically organized. First there's the context, when (in the beginning) and where (in the list of begats), then the core assertion: they left out something important (one begat got forgot): "work begets work." As, for example, in the act of writing, one word leads to the next, or, as Purpura offers, "one poems bears the next."

My guess is that in the composition process, the assertion "work begets work," is what came first. It's the kind of phrase one might hear and then begin turning over in one's mind. Taken by itself, it's a truism. An apt and perhaps useful or insightful truism, but a truism nonetheless, and certainly not one that would initially suggest itself as being the basis for a poem, except for the way the syllables move. Work begets work. All that crackling. And then there at the center, the word "begets," with its procreative denotation, its biblical associations, and its (at this point latent) metaphorical power. Given the phrase "work begets work," I can easily imagine how a writer with a playful spirit, and alertness to sounds, and some knowledge of the bible might reverse-engineer the rest of the poem's first sentence.

What interests me more is what happens in the second act. "In other words..." is an interesting move, the move that says, essentially, let me clarify my assertion. Let me come at it from another direction. Let's try an example. "In other words..." what?

"Once there was air, a bird could be got." The key word in that sentence, the loaded word, the word in need of yet further clarification, is the word "got." It's an everyday word with a long history and a lot of possible meanings. (Its definition in my copy of the American Heritage Dictionary takes up sixteen column inches of very small print.)  The syntax demands that we read it in its old-fashioned sense as a past participle; current usage would be "gotten," but the two word sequence"be got" is clearly intended to echo (and extend) the one-word "begets" and "begets" we've already seen and heard.

So what does "got" mean here? Purpura anticipates the question, and answers it. Not "taken," which would be one plausible interpretation. Not "held," which would be another. But "conjured up," which comes as a surprise, right? Suddenly, unexpectedly, we're talking about conjuration, about magic. Given the existence of air, it is within the province of the imagination to conjure up birds.

So in one sense this is a poem about how poems get written, about how writing itself works. Given something, given anything—a phrase, a sequence of sounds, the existence of air—the imagination is capable of conjuring up whatever it might be that would follow. The poem is also an endorsement of the writerly work ethic, and a demonstration of how that effort sometimes pays off. The work itself is what generates the product, and the point of "conjured up," as I take it, is that at the end of the process there is at least the possibility of a discovery, the kind of surprise that poems can (and this poem does) deliver.

Another thing: I love the way the texture of the poem shifts with "conjured up." "Conjured" comes as a relief after all those buhs and guhs and tuhs. But different as it is, it's integrative as well: the "ur" sound occurs earlier in the poem in two places: "work begets work" and in "bird," both of which are relevant: the work leads to something being conjured, and what's conjured is the bird. So there's a kind of sonic binding going on, a kind of ur-sprache, an incantation.

Purpura is having a lot of fun with sounds, it's hard not to notice that. For example, the final "P" sound brings the poem to a satisfyingly clean conclusion. Having noticed that, having been prompted by the arrangement of sounds in the poem to pay attention to sounds, it's hard not to notice that that "P"sound occurs only once before, as in initial sound in the word "poem." The Poem begins the process of conjuring which in this case ends with the word uP. Sonic binding again. A beginning and an end. The poem enacts exactly what it is talking about. It begins in the mundane and ends in magic.

In another sense, this is also a poem about evolution, even cosmogenesis. Given the space-time continuum, shall we not expect energy and matter? Given planets, shall we not anticipate planetary creatures, real or imagined? Given ocean, shall we not expect fish? Given air, shall we not expect birds? Or in their absence, be inclined to imagine them?

This poem gets a lot of work done in a very short space. It's compact and clean and makes a point about the "work" of writing with elegance and grace. I'm considering asking my students to take a look at it this fall, see what they think.

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