Is it Tuesday? Every Tuesday a new poem appears in the box and on the blog.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Poem 12--Deborah Keenan

One of the Old Songs by Deborah Keenan

Today's poem is by another local poet, the wonderful Deborah Keenan, author of eight books of poems and award-winning teacher in Hamline's MFA program.  

This poem begins with the overheard song sung by a passing pedestrian.  Interestingly, the singer is "the guy," not, as he becomes later, a "stranger."  The definite article "the" calls attention to this guy--who is he? why does his song matter?  It's almost as if he is bringing a specific message to the speaker, a notion reiterated later when she says the song becomes her "gospel."

The lyrics themselves are central to the poem.  "White bird, in a golden cage, on a winter's day in the rain" provide not only the thematic core of the poem, they provide the words the poet uses throughout. 

The speaker says that the songs she hears on a given day--"whatever songs/ the radio assigns me, whatever songs strangers sing" become her songs for the day, her "way of trying to stay/in the world I was born into."  The speaker, then, makes a cage of the songs she hears, building of them a structure to contain her.  In the same way, the poem uses those lyrics as its building blocks.  The word "day" is used six times in this 14 line poem, as is the word "song".  The overheard song lyrics become a structure within which the poet must move, restraining her to a cage from which she sings.

But an interesting thing happens as the poem progresses.  Because I read this as a sonnet (almost any poem with 14 lines gets called a sonnet in my book), at line nine, where we'd expect to see the 'turn' in an Italian sonnet, something begins to change.  The speaker stands at her kitchen sink, singing the song, and she understands herself to be the bird.  But as she has this understanding, the song moves inside her, where she begins to live it "in [her] body and mind."  Charting the verbs that have preceded this moment (variations of "singing" the song), the verb becomes "live," as now the song "lives" in her.  The speaker, in spite of her understanding of the situation, is no longer the caged bird singing, she has in fact caged the song in her own body, making it her own.   I am reminded of Wallace Stevens' "Idea of Order at Key West" in which the singer beside the sea is "the maker of the song she sang." Even if "the guy" at the beginning has given the speaker a song for the day, her "gospel,"even if the speaker believes the song to be representative of her own life, by the end, she has made it her own.  In the end, the poem is about creativity and making one's own song from the found material of daily life, no matter how quotidian it may, at first, appear.  

What a great poem!  

One of the Old Songs     by Deborah Keenan

The guy walked past singing White Bird, in a golden cage
on a winter’s day in the rain.  One of the old songs,
by the group, It’s A Beautiful Day.  Whatever songs
the radio assigns me, whatever songs strangers sing
as they pass me, those are my songs for the day.
This is my creed, my gospel, my way of trying to stay
In the world I was born into.  I sang the song
doing the dishes that night, and it felt right singing
White Bird, in a golden cage, on a winter’s day
in the rain.  It was winter, I was white, as I always
would be. I understood myself to be in a golden cage,
large enough to live a whole life in.  I understood
it’s a beautiful day, and I lived the song in my body
and mind for that whole beautiful day.

For more information about Deborah Keenan:

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