to the small poem and the quiet voice within

stephen dobyns | ducks


Editor’s Note: If this is a website celebrating the short poem, what’s this very long poem by Stephen Dobyns doing here?

The editor pleads: “Exception to the rule.”

The editor pleads: “But this is all about Bashō, and so much more. All about poetry, the demand-side economics of poetry, a poet’s life, not to mention Barthes, turkey bladders, eggs, ice, snow, the Atlantic, lighthouses, let alone ducks.

“This is one of those books you open late at night for the first time…run into the first poem that catches your eye (“Ducks”), and an hour or so later you discover you haven’t moved beyond “Ducks”…the poem has settled somewhere warm inside you… you can feel it, hear it, see Basho waving from a small boat, and there’s something like a smile on your face. You know you’re going to love this poem, this book a long, long time… and maybe the next night or next week you’ll try another very long poem from WINTER’S JOURNEY, and all this will happen to you all over again.” – Norbert Blei


for David Fenza

Warm in my truck by the lighthouse at Watch Hill
on a sunny morning in midwinter, I observe
the ducks bobbing among ice-covered rocks
and think of Bashō and what his position might
have been on the subject of the demand-side
economics of poetry, a term I have just learned,
which argues that the smaller a poet’s number
of readers, the less reason the poet has to write
and why bother if not a single line will stick
in the mind a nanosecond past the poet’s death?
And I also wonder about these ducks and why
their feet don’t get frozen down there among
the chunks of ice, or maybe they only seem not
to get frozen and instead the ducks are very brave
as they seek out sweet things to eat, or sweet
for a duck. Bashō wrote; I feel when I sit with
Kikaku at a party that he is anxious to compose
a verse that will delight the entire company,
while I have no such wish. Bashō of course said
this in Japanese, which I know as much about
as I know about the feel of ducks. As for Kikaku,
he is recalled only tor once being mentioned
by Bashō, despite his faith in the demand-side
economics of poetry. On ducks, Bashō wrote:
Sea darkening—the wild duck’s cry is dimly white.
This morning the ducks have been joined by terns,
cormorants, and gulls. There’s good eating if you
don’t mind diving for it and don’t mind the cold.
The day is so clear I can almost count the trees
on Block Island eight miles away. I doubt Bashō
when writing a poem ever said: This will knock
their socks off. But he did write. Eat vegetable
soup rather than duck stew. Which wasn’t meant
to keep ducks from being eaten, bur expressed
his belief in simplicity— plainness and oddness
being qualities he liked. Across the narrow strip
of land to the lighthouse the wind blows so hard
that a seagull by my truck has to beat its wings
like crazy just to stay in one spot. Many times
my life feels like that, Iots of work just to stay put.
Bashō said that within him was something like
a windswept spirit that when he was young took
to writing poetry merely to amuse itself at first,
but then at last becoming its lifelong occupation.
At times it grew so dejected that it nearly quit,
at other times it grew so swollen with pride that
it rejoiced in vain victories over others, Barthes
in an essay claimed that writers are driven only
by vanity, which is why they must appear in print,
and maybe this fuels the demand-side economics
of poetry, the wish for a kiss-me-kiss-me response.
Like most lighthouses, this one is a white pillar
of stone with a beacon on top, but surely it’s no
longer needed, since ships don’t come this close
and all have radar—even small boats would be
warned away by the buoys. In the fog, its horn
makes a moan like a cow mourning for her calf
and its light slowly rotates like an exploratory eye,
but the whole business could be knocked down
and sold to developers, which makes good sense
if you buy into the demand-side theory of life.
Bashō said that ever since his windswept spirit
began to write poetry it never felt at peace with itself
but was prey to all sorts of doubts. Once it wanted
the security of a job at court and once it wanted
to measure the depths of its ignorance by becoming
a scholar. I know I haven’t read as much as I might,
but it seems the demand-side folks and Barthes
are leaving out a big part of the argument. A poet
has a complicated emotion and produces a poem;
a duck has a complicated emotion and produces
an egg. The demand-side case says they differ
just in the nature of their product, poem versus egg,
and both could fetch the same price at the market.
Off to my left float two brightly colored milliards;
to my right are three brown ducks, clearly females.
They appear to be ignoring one another, but perhaps
I’m wrong, perhaps they shoot quick sexual glances
in each other’s direction and soon they will head
back to the marsh and create an egg. And good
for them, I say, the world could use more ducks.
What other creature so aptly describes a doctor?
Bashō also wrote: Cold night—the wild duck, sick,
falls from the sky and sleeps a awhile. And he said
he didn’t become a courtier or scholar because
his unquenchable love of poetry held him back.
In fact, this. windswept spirit knew no other art
than the art of writing poetry, and consequently,
it clung to it, he said. more or less blindly At times
I repeat those last words to myself: more or less
. Maybe many people would consider this
a bleak picture of the poet’s work, but in me
it awakens a sense of excitement, as when you love
to eat turkey bladders and then one day you meet somebody
else who loves to eat turkey bladders
and you feel you could talk to this person forever
and never grow bored. And I’m glad that Bashō
didn’t say the product or purpose was the poem’s
future life, but instead the product was the writing,
that Bashō was writing the poem for itself alone—
as reckless as that seems—and not for any future
profit. Doesn’t this put Bashō into the category
of nutcase, just as a person with an intense passion
for turkey bladders might be called a nutcase?
Sitting in my truck, locking out past the ducks,
out past Block Island and into the Atlantic, perhaps
in the direction of France, I see the water is a much
darker blue than in summer, as if the cold added
an extra layer of color The white tips of the waves
look more like ice or snow than flecks of froth.
How long could I watch without growing bored?
Maybe until I got hungry or needed to pee. As for
why ducks don’t get cold feet, to me it’s a mystery,
though I’ll wager books arc written on the subject,
just as books get written on the motivation of poets
and why they bother. A little ways from shore, light
reflects off the water as if from the sun’s hand mirror,
and I like to believe that shortly there will emerge
from the iridescence, more or less blindly, a small
boat carrying an aged Japanese poet, at which point
I’ll jump from my truck into the wind’s whirling
ambiguity and shout and wave my hat over my head.
Nothing is rational about this and it’s something
about which I should maybe keep my mouth shut,
but it’s an event the ducks and f hope to see happen,
not for profit, mind you, just for the thing itself.

[from WINTER’S JOURNEY, Copper Canyon Press, 2010, $15]


  1. Jackie

    I love Ducks (and all of the poems in the book). First time I’ve seen that format called a poem–usually a short-short as it is longer than prose poems I’ve seen before. But they are well worth it whatever they’re called. Glad you are highlighting Dobyns.

  2. Ralph Murre

    without orange feet
    it arrives at my table
    a l’orange

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