Since I’ve been talking about word choice all week with my translation section, I thought I would go back a few chapters in the textbook to once again take the idea of “word choice” in the writing of poetry head on. This time, instead of using a poem from the chapter or any of the prompts given (questions that give hints as to what type of word choices the poet might have made), I decided to pick a poem from the anthology of poems at the back. They don’t have any pre-chosen topic to focus on, but one is as good as the next to use to talk about this general topic.
I chose this poem, because I haven’t posted any of Ruth Stone’s poems yet and I felt that I wanted to have as much variety in this blog as I could. This isn’t a translation, Ruth Stone is American. She wrote in English. She was a runner up for the Pulitzer Prize in 2009. Born in 1915, she’d been writing poetry and teaching creative writing for quite a long time. She’s won many awards and she’s the cleverest poet that’s never been heard of (outside of poetry circles, that is).
Her poem “Second Hand Coat”won a Book Critics Circle Award in 1987 and is really quite wonderful. I read through it and saw the description of the woman who wore the coat before her, “cotton gloves,/ate at the Holiday Inn, had a basement freezer,/belonged to a bridge club” and wondered how she came to those conclusions.
In the textbook (Introduction to Poetry, 7th Ed., Kennedy), the Editor states that a poem is not written with ideas, but words and those words are not random, but carefully “selected and arranged with loving art.” They are selected to the point of knowing the exact dictionary definition and all of the tandem definitions specified. So a word like “Fall” can be defined by my American Heritage College Dictionary (4th Edition, Houghton Mifflin) as: ” To drop or come down freely under the influence of gravity”, but also (of the many definitions) “Autumn”, “To pass into a particular, condition or situation: ‘to fall in love'” or “To lose primordial innocence and happiness. Used of humanity as a result of The Fall [from grace and out of the Garden of Eden]”. I’ve seen many poems talk about the season of Autumn while connoting the fall from grace at the same time, both correct definitions of the word. When Hart Crane was writing a poem he left gaps in one of his sentences “The seal’s wide __ __ gaze toward Paradise,” it said. He left it that way and went to look for a word in the dictionary that began with the letter S. When he found the word “spindrift” and read its definition “spray skimmed from the sea by a strong wind” he knew that he’d found the exact word to fit that line. Once again word choice and knowing exactly what the word means is important, this word said exactly what he wanted the sentence to say.
So, why did Ruth Stone pick the words she picked to describe this woman she’d never met? Surely, she didn’t find a basement freezer in the coat’s pockets, but something found therein indicated that she’d had one. But more specifically why did she pick the six items of description that she picked? She looked at these pockets and saw someone from middle America who did things that an older, middle aged woman would normally do. But this person didn’t do any of those other things she was the type of person who played Bridge, washed her undies, wore nice cotton gloves. It speaks of someone polite and clean. The words “wash”, “gloves” and “Bridge” all speak to someone who engages in polite society, of rules and order (who hasn’t heard of the woman who uses the white glove to find the dust on her daughter’s book shelves?).
More importantly, she feels as if she is slowly becoming this other woman as she slips on her arms. Here “arms” mean coat arms and the actual arms of the woman (the first owner of the coat) herself. She slips on her “skin” and skin is the layer of coating we wear over the insides of our bodies (our birthday suit as it is often referred to), but in this case it refers to an additional layer of “skin” on top of our own skin, or clothes as we like to call them. So, if clothes make the man, then these clothes are creating a different woman.
There is a magical transformation going on as one woman turns into the next. “I thing when I wake in the morning/that I have turned into her”. It might not be a coincidence that the word “morning” means the beginning of a new day, she is beginning a new part of her life when she realizes that she is now someone else.
We know that it is not magic that what she is doing is sympathizing with this woman and noticing that the items she had stuffed in her pockets before giving away the coat are the same items that the poet is now starting to stuff her pockets with. The magical transformation, in this case, is not a bit of CGI, or the wave of a wand in a fairy tale (Prince to Frog), but age which in itself is magical. Women often find that they turn into their mothers (with much regret and trepidation). And as they learn more about life and about who they really are, separate from the people they associate with, they start to see a different woman surface, someone only similar to the woman of her youth. “Where are you?” the poem asks. And everyone has that moment of readjustment. “Where” is not simply an interrogative word asking for place, but asking who am I in this new place now? Where do I belong? How do I place it in my psyche now that I am a different person? It might not fit the pigeon holes that the younger woman had so conveniently dug so long ago. Now, new ones must be dug, ones that better describe what it means to be this new person (this old person) now.
Second Hand Coat
by Ruth Stone
in her pockets; she wore nice cotton gloves,
kept a handkerchief box, washed her undies,
ate at the Holiday Inn, had a basement freezer,
belonged to a bridge club.
I think when I wake in the morning
that I have turned into her.
She hands in the hall downstairs,
a shadow with pulled threads.
I slip her over my arms, skin of a matron.
Where are you? I say to myself, to the orphaned body,
and her coat says,
Get your purse, have you got your keys?