Poet of the 'Dark Swans'
I knew about Mormon poet Clinton F. Larson long before I read any of his poems. That's because he married Naomi Barlow, my mother's best friend during her teenage years, and I heard stories about "Clint and Naomi" from earliest childhood.
Naomi was the friend my mother telephoned, at age fifteen, when a really cute boy moved in next door -- my father. Even when they lived a thousand miles apart, they remained in frequent contact. And I was keenly aware that Naomi's husband was a poet.
My mother once told me of a time when she and Dad and Clint and Naomi went out to dinner together, and Clint read them a poem he had just written. My mother like the poem, but then felt very stupid when it became clear that she had missed all the subtle meanings he had worked into his verse.
I resolved then and there that I would never write poems that made someone like my very intelligent mother feel dumb. As I grew older, I preferred poems with surface clarity, however deep the layers underneath might be -- William Wordsworth, Robert Frost.
When I got to BYU, I signed up for a poetry class from Professor Larson. It was in the late sixties, when Rod McKuen's poetry was all the rage. (It's hard to imagine today, and it was rather a surprise then, that books of poetry, by someone known only as a poet, could be bestsellers.)
There was never a poet more accessible than Rod McKuen. In fact, having read several of his poems, you immediately recognized all the others. But I was seventeen, an age of intense unnameable feelings, and McKuen's poems of loneliness, love, and melancholy suited both the era and my age.
Professor Larson knew immediately, when he saw my poetry, that I was VUI -- versifying under the influence of Rod McKuen. Perhaps because I was my mother's son, he took the trouble to advise me: "All you're doing right now is gushing. Free verse doesn't mean anything unless the poet understands form. So I don't want to see another piece of free verse from you until you've written a hundred sonnets."
Three sonnets later, I was a committed formalist, and when I eventually did write free verse again, I understood exactly what he was talking about. Having done "the numbers" -- accent and syllable counts, patterns of rhyme -- I had found the music of poetic language, and my free verse became far more powerful and effective.
I remember one class period when Professor Larson declared to us that the lyrics to rock music were definitely not poetry. He was absolutely correct, in the main, but one student in the class (not me) took the challenge and walked, unbidden, to the chalkboard. He started writing the lyrics to Paul Simon's "The Boxer."
It was an outrageous thing for a student to do, but Professor Larson merely watched the words as they appeared on the chalkboard. He finally interrupted the student. "And that's really a popular rock song?" he asked.
The whole class agreed that it was. (In that era, by the way, all songs playing on teen-oriented radio were called "rock.")
"Well, that is poetry," he said, "but you have to admit that lyrics like that are rare."
What I learned right then was that a teacher does not lose prestige when he treats a student's argument with respect and even changes his mind in front of the whole class.
But it was not for his teaching that Clint wanted to be remembered -- it was for his poetry. And there he ran into the quandary that affects almost all poets today, in this post-Eliot-and-Pound era. If you write the kind of obscure, allusive, encoded poetry that pleases academia, you have no popular audience; if you write for the popular audience, you get no respect.
Clint delighted in the encoded poetry; he was thrilled when he could use a word with multiple meanings in such a way as to use all the meanings at once. Yet this meant that most of his poems had to be explained in order to be valued.
But there were exceptions, poems that worked on every level at once. His narrative "Homestead in Idaho" was powerful as story and as poetry. But above all, there was the poem that most of us think of as the "Dark Swans" poem, though the title is "To a Dying Girl."
It begins like this:
How quickly must she go?
She calls dark swans from mirrors everywhere:
From halls and porticos, from pools of air.
How quickly must she know?
They wander through the fathoms of her eye,
Waning southerly until their cry
Is gone where she must go.
(For the whole poem, go to http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2007/12/the-best-mormon-poem-ever-written/)
I cannot read this poem without an upwelling of emotion. Yet the mastery of it is also astonishing. It is like a complete course in lyric poetry contained in thirteen lines.
Most poets labor all their lives and create no poem that demands to be a part of the life and heart of everyone who hears or reads it. Larson created this one, which moves him into the front rank of poets of my lifetime.
Another of his poems headed the Deseret News obituary of his wife, Naomi, when she passed away this April:
I am the touch of
Wind against your face,
The morning dew,
And the light of clouds
Where you come to me.
Here's another thing I learned from Clint and Naomi: That a poet is not some lofty, artistic soul, remote from ordinary human experience. He can be a husband. A friend. A teacher. A real man, with foibles and flaws as well as the marks of genius.
My mother misses Naomi as one of the dearest friends of her life. I miss Clint as my poetic mentor. Yet we also carry in our hearts all the gifts they gave us in their well-lived lives.
Copyright © 2010 by Orson Scott Card
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