Friday, September 16, 2011 | By: Brianna

Poetry Friday -- I Need to Be More French. Or Japanese.

Today is Friday, which means that Brianna should be reading and "analyzing" poetry.  So here we go.

This week I read Beth Ann Fennelly's "I Need to Be More French.  Or Japanese."  I read it aloud on YouTube, but you can feel free to read the poem all by yourself on the link that I'm attaching to the title of the poem

First off, the title of the poem flows pretty nicely into the actual text of the poem, and I respect that.  I can never get my titles to do things like that, but I think it adds a nice effect to the poem.

One of the big themes/thoughts of this poem is the idea that the speaker isn't subtle.  She (I'm going to call the speaker a "she" for now because pronouns are fun) prefers California win "its big sugar, big fruit rolling down [her] tongue" (53) and she says that she wears a lot of yellow, thereby "pledg[ing] to wear more gray, less yellow" (53).  The tension in this poem lies in the idea that the French and the Japanese are more subtle, more refined, and less boisterous than the speaker.  So this idea that the speaker needs to be something that she's not is interesting.

The imagery is centered on French and Japanese...things.  I don't know how else to describe it.  The speaker uses a quote from Cezanne to illustrate that people sound smarter in French, and "The Japanese prefer the crescent moon to the full, / prefer the rose before it blooms" (53) which is an interesting image because it sounds as if the Japanese prize potential rather than the finished product.

The first half of the poem focuses on this clash amongst French, Japanese and the speaker's tendencies, all the while illustrating how not French or Japanese the speaker is.  The French designer who makes an appearance in the poem disdains the speaker for this "not Frenchness," so perhaps the speaker has been confronted with this "not-ness" before?

The turn (which one of my poetry professors would be SO excited that I'm pointing out) takes place (I think) around "OK: I didn't really.  But so what..." (53).  At this point in the poem, the speaker is embracing her true self.  She's owning her qualities.  But at the same time, she's still comparing herself to the French and Japanese, which makes things interesting.  She writes "If I were Japanese I'd write a tone poem / about magnolias in March, each bud long as a pencil...I'd end the poem before anything / bloomed..." (53-54) because the image that the speaker paints for the Japanese is all about potential.  Before anything bloomed.  Perhaps the speaker can consider herself one of those magnolia buds?  In contrast, "If I were French, I'd capture post-peak, in July, / the petals floppy, creased brown with age..." (54), making the French sound like the "day after" a party.  A really good party.  But the images of both beginning (from the Japanese) and end (from the French) come together as the "red-tipped filaments" all over the lawn signal an end for the French, but a beginning for the Japanese because they look like matchsticks.  "..and it's matchsticks, we all know, that start the fire" (54).

1.  Fennelly uses a lot of landmarks/geography in this poem.  We've got the temples of Kyoto, the Pont Neuf, and Wrigley Field.  Write something that integrates landmarks.  Subtly, of course.
2.  Are there objects or images that can symbolize both a beginning and an end just the way they are?  Write about it.
3.  Find a way to integrate dialogue into your poem and give those people some character, like the French designer in this poem.
4.  End your poem with spent firecrackers, since Fennelly didn't, but said that she would.
5.  "I hereby pledge to be reserved."  What kind of character would make such a pledge?

"I have stood on the Pont Neuf, and my eyes,
they drank it in, but my taste buds
shuffled along in the beer line at Wrigley Field."
- Beth Ann Fennelly in "I Need to Be More French.  Or Japanese."


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