The favor of a reply

Just as naturally as one thing leads to another, one poem may lead to another. It is reported that Robert Frost raised the question as to what could properly be done with a poem, once it was written. It could be published, yes. But what else? Beyond explaining it? teaching it?

Answeringm it! was his recommendation. Rejoining, favoring it with a response.

Sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively, poems can be understood as rejoinders -- to an earlier poem, perhaps, or to a comment, or to an experience. In agreement, in opposition, but always with attentionm . As in the circulation of the heart, this attentive diastole is what the initiating systole is destined to induce. The favor of a reply has been solicited, an accommodatting sequel. We might define a poem, as we might define a phenomenon of nature or of art, as an invitation. An invitation to attendm . Will you kindly accept this cordial challenge? Acceptance can be more than a courtesy. It can be thanks and homage to the host request.

For as often as we incoprorate a valued phrase into a poem we are presenting our compliments to the source. And we intend our response -- however ironically tinged -- to be acceptable. Even parody, which is not necessarily funny, may pay deference, acknowledging the power of the model while attempting some suitable resemblance to it.

Replying to a poem with a poem is as bracing as elaborating an argument in which you have the last word -- at least, until a rejoinder comes along. Sometimes it's no more than a phrase or an image, rather than an entire poem, to which you are countering. A prose offer, perhaps. A word's incitement, like the serve of a verbal tennis ball. I remember an innocent-seeming statement that came toward me with such intensity I had to summon all the technical means at my command to make a riposte. The provocation was a verse form called sestina,m that elaborate convention consisting of six stanzas, of six lines each, with a concluding tercet. There I was, racing across the court, racket poised for the volley. It was a challenging shot, the flushed pursuit of which is delineated in the following terms: Rather like a riding down-m hill on a bicycle and having the pedals pushm your feetm . or so John Ashberry says he once told somebody. I disagree. It's uphill work, and the way gets steeper the higher you go - thirty-nine spiral laps around the mountain. It's fair to ask, why choose to pedal up a mountain? Because it's there? And you have this bike? Down in the valley all those easygo- ing poets get around without having to push unduly. Down there they live sensible journeyman work aday lives. Fair to ask, Is it only this once you climb so hard? Only this once to prove you can?And later you'll leave a mountain to other zealots? You know, of course, it's the work of centuries, this peak. You don't put it down lightly. Now take a moment to consider the push and tug of language, so like what planets undergo geologically: their eminences come and go hard. And whether this turns out to be your once- in-a-lifetime conquest, or only the first, you'll push for dear life: It's you against the mountain, against gravity, against doubt and the down pull of sloth. Comes a moment in the work- in-progress when you feel trapped in a work of supererogation. You're spent, exhausted. You'll forgo transcendence. Oh to be down at easy-living sea-level once more! Curse this desperate mountain! You breathe deep, to your very toes, and push like mad. And push. And push. You tell yourself, This is nothing but a work ing hypothesis, and no certain mountain. Whether you'll ever prove its point, is touch and go. And you push. And you push. And you push this last once more, gasping. And look! You're there,m with a down- to-earth view from the summit, once and for all! No more anguished pushing, no more working your challenge to the bone! Go, go tell it on the mountain! And listen for a response.

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