Saturday, October 17, 2009

Clinton Larson: "The City of Joseph"

I realized today, after reading William's Payday Poetry selection for this weekend, that I've yet to offer a reading of a poem by Clinton Larson, "a major, early figure," to steal William's words, "in the modern era of Mormon letters," someone some consider (I believe it was Karl Keller that said this, but I could be wrong) the first real Mormon poet. (But that's a discussion for another day.)

So here's my brief take on "The City of Joseph," a poem originally published in the June 1984 Ensign. This comment was first posted here in response to William's Payday Poetry prompt and I'm posting it here as a continuation of my Mormon Poetry Project.

While "The City of Joseph" is obviously meant as inspirational verse (especially considering its venue of publication), I don’t find it sentimental in anyway. In fact, the language and imagery and the way Larson binds them together in his poetic vision are quite striking, quite accomplished. In fact, I think seeing it as a tightly-crafted vision of a poet-seer is one way to make sense of the whole.

To begin with, it incorporates a sweeping sense of Mormon history (specifically) and natural history (in general), of human presence in the world and the West, of the Mormon movement from east to west as directed by the Morning and Evening Stars. It opens with what I read as an allusion to the First Vision, with Joseph and his influence on a chaotic world at the center, as represented by “light” and “whiteness” rippling outward from the “meadows” over “the places where Joseph came / To find his Zion” as moved by and “in the spell of prophecy,” beginning with the grove he knelt in that Spring morning, then moving to the city he planned and helped build, then to the Saints’ movement West, and finally to the valley where he knew they would establish themselves, could make their home and further influence the world “because,” as Margaret’s mother says, “we believe” in Joseph’s vision and words and in the “harvest” to come.

The idea that poetic seership is at work also arises in the repetition of “vision/s” (five times) and the repeated occurrence of “eyes,” “seen/saw,” and the passage of “time,” which, the poet confesses, “elides antiquity and the nearby years,” suppressing history in immediacy, something the poet strikes out to remedy by following Mormon history from “morning” to “evening” and by drawing together Earth’s glacial prehistory (ever-present in the “moraine[s]”) with a specific woman’s (archetypal) progeny, a group of “children” who stand “on a hill”—“a holy place”—and consider their ancestral path, an act that sounds very much like temple worship (”devotion”) to me.

In fact that may be another fruitful way to consider the poem: as an endowment-like ritual through which certain images and key-words are meant to bring us together as the family of God, meant to bind us together in “gray cirques of vision” that will eventually clarify in the Dawn of Christ’s return.

But I’ll cut myself off there for now and say that I like this poem and think it worthy of reading again.