Professor of English
The University of Vermont
You Can Read A Poem:
The Guidelines Elaborated
Someone is speaking to us about something which seriously concerns her/him.
2. The lyric poem issues from a self.
3. That self wants to make contact.
4. The poem always – just like a person -- has a voice, a recognizable and unique voice.
5. There is almost always an emotional tenor to a poem.
6. We are all so uncomfortable with ourselves that saying something important often requires us to be indirect.
7. It is always better to read several poems by a poet, rather than just one; always better to start with short poems rather than long ones.
8. Embrace strangeness. To do this, you will have to trust your imagination.
9. Try strangeness on for size: use yourself as a touchstone. To do this, you will have to trust your imagination.
10. The poem is an esthetic object: form and ‘beauty’ are always part of what is
going on in the poem.)
11. Every rule for reading poems, including numbers 1- 10, can be discarded except this rule: LISTEN to the poem.
1. Someone is speaking to us about something that seriously concerns her/him.
A poem is human speech about human affairs. We should always approach a poem by listening to the words in the same way as we would listen to the words of someone we care about, someone who has just said: “Wait a minute. Listen to me. What I have to say is very important to me, and I want to make sure you hear it.”
Let’s look at a small poem that, in the sixty-five years since it was written, has become more and more famous. It is by William Carlos Williams, and the title is, seemingly, a part of the poem:
This is just to say
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
The poem appears to be a note, a note explaining what the author of the note did, and why he did it. It tells us that he ate some plums, even though he knew that someone else probably had intended to eat them at a later time, because he surmised they would be – as they turned out to be – delicious, sweet, and cold. It seems abundantly clear that the writer is speaking to someone else: the words are committed to paper because the person to whom the author is speaking is not present.
Barely noticed at the time of its publication, “This is just to say” has become one of the best-known poems of the twentieth century. Remembering that a poem can be many things to many people, and even many things to one person, we may be able so see many reasons why this poem has become as famous as it has. It roots the poem in the vernacular, the language of everyday life. It raises questions about framing (is the title part of the poem?). It blurs the difference between poems and other uses of language, such as notes, thus asking that fundamental question, how are poems different from other uses of language? It insists that the accidental and momentary might be fully as worthy of preservation as high art and tempestuous passion. The poem also explores, in a very brief but telling manner, the nature of desire, which is revealed as so strong that it leads to transgression: after all, the poet’s hunger for plums was powerful enough that he knowingly violated someone else’s agenda and autonomy .
But what should concern us here, is the stark way in which “This is just to say” reveals how directly the poem speaks. Let me repeat what I said immediately before the poem:
We should approach a poem by listening to the words in the same way as we would listen to the words of someone we care about, someone who has just said: “Wait a minute. Listen to me. What I have to say is very important to me, and I want to make sure you hear it.”And this is just what Williams has done. He has something of importance to say to his wife, for she seems to be the ‘you’ he is addressing. “I have eaten the plums, I know you were saving them, I’m sorry, I couldn’t help myself. (And, by the way, did you know just how wonderful life can be when we grab hold of it: delicious, so sweet and so cold.)”
William Carlos Williams
He is telling her what he
has done. He has said he knows he has injured her. He has apologized (but
only partially: we know he would do the same thing again). And he
has told of his delight in living in a sensory world.
In short, he has had a lot to tell her – and us. This is why he has
spoken to her, in a poem.
The lyric poem issues from a self.
As you read more and more poems, you will discover that the “self” the poem issues from is sometimes fragmented, unsure of its identity, suspicious of its own coherence. And as you read poems you will discover that not every poem is a lyric poem, a song from the inner core. Narrative poems tell a story; some poems describe a person other than the poet; dramatic monologues reveal a character through his or her speech. Yet whether the poem is a lyric or a narrative, about a person or ‘from’ a person, we can always respond to the poem by saying, “Who is speaking to me here?”
Clearly, Williams’ “This Is Just to Say” came from a self: plum-loving, bold, transgressive, superficially apologetic.
Here is a poem written in extraordinary circumstances. Its author,
Miklos Radnoti, was a Hungarian who, after working in a forced labor camp
in 1944, was sent on a forced march with three thousand men, of whom only
a very few survived the Nazis cruel treatment. He himself died near
end of the march, shot by his captors and buried in a shallow mass grave.
This poem was found on his body, after the war, by his widow. The
translation is by Emery George.
The man who, having collapsed, rises, takes steps, is insane;
he’ll move an ankle, a knee, an arrant mass of pain,
and take to the road again as if wings were to lift him high;
in vain the ditch will call him: he simply dare not stay;
and should you ask, why not? perhaps he’ll turn and answer:
his wife is waiting back home, and a death, one beautiful, wiser.
But see, the wretch is a fool, for over the homes, that world,
long since nothing but singed winds have been known to whirl;
his houewall lies supine; your plum tree, broken clear,
and all the nights back home horripilate with fear.
Oh, if I could believe that I haven’t merely borne
what is worthwhile, in my heart; that there is, to return, a home;
tell me it’s still there: the cool verandah, bees
of peaceful silence buzzing, while the plum jam cooled;
where over sleepy gardens summer-end peace sunbathed,
and among bow and foliage fruits were swaying naked;
and, blonde, my Fanni waited before the redwood fence,
with morning slowly tracing its shadowed reticence. . . .
But all that could still be – tonight the moon is so round!
Don’t go past me, my friend – shout! and I’ll come around!
There is no question a ‘self’ is speaking here. That self begins by saying that to keep marching is crazy, but if you were to ask why a man gets up after falling (as the poet appears to have done), he’ll tell you that his wife is waiting for him at home, and a calmer death, a death of old age, is preferable to dying by the side of the road.
The ‘self’ in the poem says
even that hope is crazy: the world is at war, and everything is wrecked,
destroyed. Home is filled with fear, and even the plum tree is broken.
Miklos Radnoti (1909-1944)
But his hope does not give
up that easily; how our ‘self’ wants to hope, to believe that home really
exists, still exists, remains somewhere for him to return to: “that there
is, to return to, a home.” An then, miraculously – tired,
collapsed, broken – the ‘slef’ imagines his home. I find it hard
to recall any lines of greater longing, of a vision of what Herman Melville
once called “domestic felicity,” than this lovely vision:
A vision at the center of which “blonde, my Fanni waited.” (With a love and longing like this, it is not had to see why she went, after the war, on the difficult mission of vinding and exhuming his body.)tell me it’s still there: the cool verandah, bees
of peaceful silence buzzing, while the plum jam cooled;
So the ‘self’ tells itself that the vision “could still be,” that home and love might be there when and if he can return. And that ‘self’ calls out to his fellow-marcher, and asks him to shout at him, to wake him from his stupor and reverie, so he can continue to march.
Pain, despair, realism, dreams, love, courage, will: a self is speaking to us in this poem. We recognize Miklos Radnoti in his words: they may be a poem, but that poem is speaking to us, from and of himself.
Now let’s turn to one of
the most famous of all American poems, Robert Frost’s 1923 lyric, “Stopping
by Woods on a Snowy Evening”. Who is speaking to us?
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
The speaker of this poem stops by a wintry woodland and watches snow drift down. In the act of stopping in the middle of the cold woods, he has moved outside of normal expectations. Even his horse “thinks” it odd to stop before he has reached human habitation. It is a surprise to realize that, in this familiar poem, the two middle stanzas – fully half of the poem – have to do with the horse.
As we look more closely at the lines, we see a conflict between social expectation, represented by the man who owns the woods and by the horse with its sense of what is usual and expected, and the allure of something else, represented by the woods, the snow, the darkness, and the ‘easy wind. Is that something else nature? beauty? reverie? lack of obligation? This speaker has a complicated self, one that might tell all the truth but most certainly will tell it slant (to echo Emily Dickinson), and so those questions are not easily answered. What we do know is that there is a conflict in the heart and mind of the speaker of the poem. He is pulled in two directions.
In the final stanza the opposition is made explicit: loveliness is in conflict (“but”) with the many promises the speaker has made, or has been pushed into making. He wants to stay, but must go on. Yet we sense that although he will continue the journey, he is not altogether sure he has made the proper choice. His repetition of the penultimate line in the final line indicates that he has, indeed, “Miles to go . . miles to go.” Those repeated miles indicate endlessness and point to boredom. “Sleep,”rest, surcease from obligation: these are a long way off, and he is doomed to slog along in the meanwhile.
The self this poem comes from is aware of inner conflicts. This self wants rest and delight, and independence from the demands of the social order. These statements are true whether the speaker of the poem is Robert Frost himself, or whether he has imagined a character who speaks to us: either way, Robert Frost directly, or Robert Frost through a surrogate, is telling us about the conflicts which rend him, and which will not be set aside until the night ends with sleep -- or even until human life terminates in the endless sleep of death.
3. The self which produces the poem wants to make contact.
need for contact is clearly expressed in a short poem of just two lines
by Walt Whitman. It is entitled “To You.”
Stranger, if you in passing meet me and desire to speak to me,
why should you not speak to me?
And why should I not speak to you?
There are many different kinds of contact.
Some poems come from the poet’s desire to make contact with a lover, a relative, a friend. We are all familiar with the notion that we can say important things through poems: the well chosen words, the brevity, the melody of the poem helps human beings express themselves – literally, since ‘express’ comes from the Latin meaning to press out -- in words.
Some poems emerge from the poet’s desire to make contact with herself by seeing her reflection or imprint in words. We do have a need to speak to ourselves, to see what we look like in a reflection: sometimes that reflection is in a mirror, sometimes in a photograph, and sometimes it is in the portrait of ourselves we make when we use words to describe what we feel within us.
Many poems arise out of the poet’s need to reach what Whitman called “you holding me now in hand,” the person who comes across the poem in a book or magazine. Poets write poems, in part, to bridge the chasm between the isolate individual self and all other persons in the world. It can be lonely, these individuated lives we live, and ephemeral, since our feelings often seem gone as soon as we have them. Poems reach out beyond the self to let other people know: who we are, what we have felt, what we share with other people in the world.
This much is always true: all poems want to make contact with the reader of the poem. Poems are actions in which the poet reaches across the gap of silence to communicate to the reader.
Consider this poem by the twentieth-century African-American poet Robert Hayden.
Those Winter Sundays
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?
In “Those Winter Sundays,” Robert Hayden is trying to make contact with his father, with himself, and with us, his readers. It recollects Hayden’s childhood, and in particular his father. It is surprising how much we learn about familial relations from just a few remarkably well-chosen words: “the chronic angers of that house,” “no one ever thanked him,” “speaking indifferently to him.” It is clear that life in this family, with this father, was difficult and strained, and that words, rather than alleviating these difficulties, exacerbated them.
Against these generalities memory brings specific things which the young Hayden saw but did not see: the physical warmth produced by “early..cold..labor;” the emotional warmth – it takes until the last line of the poem for the poet to recognize this as “love” – which drives out the cold and polishes his shoes so he could go out into another day. The chronic angers of the house can never disappear: they were real, and they survive in memory. But as the poet recollects his childhood, he sees that love drove his father, and that his father deserved better from him than a lack of thanks and indifferent speech. Calling his father’s duties – the meaning of “offices” – austere and lonely is the son’s recognition that his father’s love has gone without response, or without love given in return for his dedication to his son. And so the poem is an apology to his father: a recognition of his father’s love, and of his own failing to as a son to recognize it.
But the poet is not speaking only to his father. There is a great poignancy to the penultimate line with its repetition, here a token of agony and self-reproach: “What did I know, what did I know…?” Here the poet is talking to himself more than to his father, expressing an agonized self-reproach at his blindness. He was young, of course, and grew up in an angry house, but in the poem Hayden is grabbing himself by the shoulders, shaking himself, saying, “You didn’t know, didn’t respond; you just took love and overlooked courage and devotion.”
The poet is also, of course, talking to us, his readers, telling us about the lonely and austere offices of parenthood, seldom understood by the young, seldom fully appreciated; and about the heroism of the parents who persist in their duties out of love, who speak the language of the heart not in words but in the difficult nurturance of everyday life.
there are always two questions we can and should ask about a poem, neither
of which is “What does this poem mean?” (That question is part of the harmful tyranny of high school English. It drives people away from the poem.) Here are the most basic questions we want to ask of a poem:
· What is the person who is speaking, who is attempting to make contact, trying to say?
· A more particular question: what are these words saying to me?
We have looked at what Hayden is trying to say. To his father: ‘I’m sorry, I recognize now your concern and fulfilled obligation and love.’ To himself, he is saying, ‘I did not know much then; now I wish to have some of the traits of my father, to whom I owe more than I ever knew before.’ To his readers he is saying, ‘Love sometimes flows even when we perceive it not.’
What is he saying to me, to you? That is a question we each answer for ourselves. Every poem begins in silence, moves through speech and contact – and ends in a form of mute dialogue. The words which come to us from outside will, when a poem is successful and we are open to its workings, elicit something from us. Only sometimes is the final stage a dialogue in words with the poem, as when we talk about it with a friend, or in a classroom discussion. Sometimes we find outselfs in internal arguemtn with a poem. For well over a quarter of a century, W. H. Auden’s observation (in his “In Memory of William Butler Yeats”) that “poetry makes nothing happen” has risen into my consciousness every few weeks, and each time I find that my own voice rise internally to challenge Auden’s assertion. More often, the poem becomes an additional voice to the many voices that inhabit us, and we hear it speak in our minds and through our mouths. For myself, I think I can say the poem speaks to me about my relations with my own father – and to my sons. At moments I think about my father differently because Hayden’s words echo in my head. The poem modulated, and continues to modulate, into one of my own many voices: in becoming mine the contact between poet and reader is affirmed.
after Hayden, another African-American poet spoke about parent-child relations,
but from a very different perspective. Here is contemporary
poet Rita Dove describing how she feels as she nurses her daughter:
Like an otter, but warm,
she latched onto the shadowy tip
and I watched, diminished
by those amazing gulps. Finished
she let her head loll, eyes
unfocused and large: milk-drunk.
I liked afterwards best, lying
outside on a quilt, her new skin
spread out like a meringue. I felt then
what a young man must feel
with his first love asleep on his breast:
desire, and the freedom to imagine it.
The cold chill of Hayden’s winter mornings is here nowhere in evidence: this is a sunny summer poem about a “warm” poet “lying on a quilt”. The first stanza focuses on the infant, like a sleek animal, guzzling milk, nourishing herself on what her mother willingly gives of herself. Sated, the infant slides toward sleep: Dove’s description of what has seldom been described in poetry is wonderfully precise, even to the concluding metaphor, as the child’s stuporous satisfaction is compared to the first flush of drunkenness:
FinishedIf the first stanza concentrates on the mother’s observation of her child, the second concentrates on the mother’s examination of her own feelings as the infant has finished nursing. The “new skin” is like a meringue, soft, sweet, frothy-light. Surprisingly -- poems must often surprise us so that we can see anew what we would otherwise take for granted and so not see at all -- Dove compares herself to a young man. In love and fulfilled, satisfied and drained, the desire she feels is not for something specific (the young man has, we are led to imagine, already had his sexual consummation) but for a rich and gloriously satisfying future. Having left behind the imperative of immediate need, both the young man, and by comparison Dove, are ‘free to imagine’ desire for that glorious future which they hope lies before them.
she let her head loll, eyes
unfocused and large: milk-drunk.
To whom is Dove speaking? Far less than Hayden is she speaking to another: the first stanza, and the poem itself, do capture for her infant daughter feelings which one day the daughter may wish to hear about, but that is not the primary motive driving Dove into speech. Like Hayden, she is speaking to herself, she delineates the sense of wonder and comfort she feels, and comprehends that her feelings for her infant child include a huge hopefulness about the richness which lies ahead, in time. But, quiet and personal as the poem is, and even more than Hayden, she is speaking to the reader,. ‘This is what it means to be a woman, a mother: you may not have heard this before, but I am telling you. Here is something you should know about, just as I – previously without a child, previously enmeshed in society’s images of woman and motherhood – never understood: There is a delicate yet rich wonder which suffuses parenthood.’ She tells us that to be a parent is more than to perform “love's austere and lonely offices”: it is to experience astonishment, desire, and opulent freedom.
One might claim that the poet tries to make contact because of the essential loneliness of the self. That phrase, ‘the essential loneliness of the self,’ can sound very good, particularly in those moments when we feel not merely our individuality, but our difference from and distance from other people. But both Dove and Hayden’s poems make clear that the poem makes contact (with self, other, reader) because we human beings have a deep need to comprehend: to comprehend ourselves, the world we live in, and the experiences by which self and world intersect.
poem is always trying to get the reader to comprehend something.
The poet makes contact to convey (to self, to another, to the reader) comprehension.
What is to be comprehended differs from poem to poem, depending on what
the poet is most concerned with at the moment of writing:
· How I [the poet] feel
· What I [the poet] see: This is how the world looks through my eyes
· What I [the poet] am experiencing, or have experienced
· What the world is really like, under the veneer of the superficial, as I [the poet] perceive it
· What I [the poet] or you [the reader] must see if we are to be truly and fully human
· What I [the poet] could be, if what I imagine and desire could become reality, as here in the poem my imaginings and desires have become words
· What I [the poet] am doing, since words not only describe the world, they act in it *1
Footnote 1 The poet contacts the reader so that an action can be performed. This dimension to language is emphasized by a philosophical movement known appropriately enough as Speech Act theory. Its basic approach can be seen if we try to ‘explain’ saying “I do” at a wedding. “I do” is an action (marrying the participant to another person who says the same thing), rather than a statement which is true or false. Speech acts can be what is called felicitous or infelicitous. For instance, Hayden’s apology to his father is felicitous because it meets our expectations for what an apology should be. Embedded in Hayden’s apology is a sense of regret and an awareness he should not have acted as he did. William Carlos Williams’ apology to his wife, on the other hand, may be infelicitious, since although he apologizes (“forgive me”) it is clear to the poet and the reader that he does not regret his actions, and would perform them again: the poem ends with the assertion that the plums were “delicious/so sweet/and so cold.” Since speaking is always ‘doing,’ when the poet makes contact he or she is doing something to or with the reader, or doing something personal, but not solitary, since the 'doing' is always before the reader's gaze.4. The poem always, just as when a person is speaking, has a voice.
Strangely, this is both one of the easiest and hardest things to understand about a poem.
The hard part is coming to an understanding of just how important voice is to the poem. I have been reading poems for forty years, and it is only in the last decade that I have recognized that it is voice, more than any other thing, which determines what is a good poem and who is a good poet. Good poets are poets whose voices are their own.
The single best determinant of a successful poet is that s/he inhabits a recognizable and unique voice. The voice in the poem is the ‘stamp’ of the personal, the impress of the poet on the words. Since in a poem someone is speaking to us – that, we recall, is the first of these guidelines – it stands to reason that the more clearly the written words resonate with the feel of an actual, definable human identity, the more we will believe that an individual human being is speaking to us. The alternative, of course, is receiving words rather than hearing them: receiving words is what we get from newspapers, junk mail, menus, contracts. (Poems can take the form of newspaper articles, shopping lists, indexes. But in being turned into poems the shopping lists – like a note on the refrigerator – are framed by the poet’s decision to use this form. It is the difference between reading a newspaper article in the daily paper, and having a good friend say to us, “Listen to this:” and then reading it to us. The voice is there, as is the sense that a particular human consciousness wants us to hear this.)
It is surprisingly difficult for most of us to understand just how important is this dimension of voice, this impress of particularity and identity on words. When most of us try to write poems, we are dominated by the voices of others, most often from the ‘tradition’ of writing poetry, and so we don’t sound nearly as individual as we do when we speak on the phone. (When we speak on the telephone, our timbre, our regional inflections, our accent on certain sounds or syllables, our use of pauses and dramatic intonations ‘color’ the words, turn the words into speech. When we write, those vocal colorings are stripped away. So the words themselves need to be colored by tone, style, use of language, and other purely verbal characteristics.) Too often when people read poems, they have a tendency to ignore the particularities of voice, and read the poem as words-on-the-page. By not listening to voice, they cut ourselves off from the poem: they don’t hear a person speaking to us, they read words on the page. Intimacy is lost, as is connectedness, contact.
There are tens of thousands of poems about the sadness of death or the power of love. The most successful poems are successful not because they tell us new things (though often they do tell us new things) but because they convince us that they come from a speaking person: someone has so effectively deployed words that we are convinced we can ‘hear’ the individual poet, and not just the conventions of language, speaking.
So once we have decided to listen to the voice of poems, hearing the poet’s voice can move from being a hard thing to do to an easy one. We are, after all, accustomed to voices. Voices are among our first experiences of the human: prior to sight, and co-equal with touch, voices reveal to each infant human being the existence of other people. That the poem, more than any other human artifact except its cousin the song, foregrounds the voice is one of the reasons poems can be so vital to our existence, and so dear to us.
When the telephone rings and I pick it up, even though I cannot see the person at the other end of the line, I can tell if my mother, my friend Bernie or Richard, my colleague Mary Lou or Patty is on the other end of the line. Within two seconds. Most of us can instantly recognize the voice of a cousin when she calls, even if we have not spoken with her for five years. What this means is we already know how to distinguish one spoken voice from another. If we pay attention to poems, we discover that they too have a voice: if we listen to them, not to what they mean but to how the words are deployed and what sorts of subjects and idiosyncratic markings of language recur, we can recognize the voice of a poet almost as readily as we can recognize the voice of a friend. So, although there are technical things that can be learned which help describe voice in a poem, things like how polysyllabic their vocabulary is, whether metrical systems are used or which or figures of speech predominate, whether the voice is inflected by irony or speaks with a seeming directness, we all have already-learned ways of recognizing the difference between one voice and another.
In reading poems, it is possible to make a person feel small and inadequate if someone demands that he or she explain why one poet sounds different from another. But each of us has enough background in distinguishing voices to be able, if we pay attention, to say, “This poet sounds different from that poet.”
is a late poem by William Carlos Williams. Compare it with the poem
“Musée des Beaux Arts” by W. H. Auden in the earlier web page
: both, after all, have the same subject: Brueghel’s painting, “Landscape
with the Fall of Icarus.” Here is Williams' poem:
Landcape with the Fall of Icarus
According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring
a farmer was ploughing
the whole pageantry
of the year was
sweating in the sun
the wings' wax
off the coast
a splash quite unnoticed
poems contemplate the same painting and tell us the same thing: Brueghel
painted the tragedy of Icarus as “unsignificant:” “a splash quite unnoticed
. . . the ship that must have seen something amazing … had somewhere to
get to and sailed calmly on.”
Brueghel's Painting: Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
Yet the two poems sound very different. One is portentous, the other quietly descriptive. One sprawls into everyday speech, the other utters short bursts of language; this in turn means that one – Auden’s poem – is comprised of sentences, while the other -- Williams’ poem – is so enraptured by the painting the speaker is not even sure where his sentences begin and end. Read the first phrases of each poem out loud, and see how different they sound:
“About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters: how well they understood its human position; how it takes place while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…”
“According to Breughel when Icarus fell it was spring a farmer was ploughing his field…”
Auden is a wordy guy, so he uses literally three times as many words as Williams. Auden draws conclusions even as he begins to speak – we all know people who talk like that – while Williams tries to ‘just’ retell the story of the painting. Auden uses the world – in this case the painting – to bolster his argument, to provide an example of what he wants to say; Williams is so caught up in what he sees as he looks at the painting that he feels the landscape “tingling”.
It is not a question of preferring one poem to another, although we often do make such choices, and with good reason: some poems make better, or more substantial, contact with us than others. (As for me, I love both poems: I love Auden’s willingness to summarize, the way in which his portentousness is balanced by his humor and his love of the painting with its “exquisite delicate ship;” and I love Williams’ direct response, unmediated by punctuation: the way the painting reappears in front of us on the page, transformed into language.)
is a poem that has recently become a favorite of mine. Its subject
is outrageous, the events it recounts literally impossible. But the
voice of the poet is captivating – angry and petulant, astonished, friendly,
informal, theatrical, bombastic – yet the poet uses an everyday manner
of address to make the unbelievable, believable. That voice, complex
and yet direct, seduces me into accepting the outrageous events it tells
me. I love the poem as much, I think, as the poet must have loved
writing it. Its author is Vladimir Mayakovsky, a Russian who wrote
in the second and third decades of the twentieth century. At the
time he wrote this, a couple of years after the Russian Revolution – this
is the only fact you will need, for the poem is so full of its vibrant,
preposterous, enchanting voice that it needs no help from me to allow you
to ‘hear’ Mayakovsky speaking – the poet was living in a summer retreat,
making posters to for the Russian Telegraph Agency, Rosta.
The translation is by Max Hayward and George Reavey:
What can one say after reading this poem? We can only repeat the wonderful words spoken by this idiosyncratic and wonderful voice: “Always to shine, to shine everywhere, to shine – and to hell with everything else!” I think if we heard Maykovsky’s voice on our mental telephone a year or two from now, we would recognize it instantly. That’s how strong voice is, and how deep our recognition of it.An Extraordinary Adventure Which Befell Vladimir Mayakovksy In A Summer Cottage
(Pushkino, Akula’s Mount, Rumyantsev Cottage, 27 versts on th Yaroslav Railway.)
A hundred and forty suns in one sunset blazed,
and summer rolled into July;
it was so hot,
the heat swam in a haze—
and this was in the country.
Pushkino, a hillock, had for hump
Akula, a large hill,
and at the hill’s foot
a village stood—
crooked with the crust of roofs.
Beyond the village
gaped a hole
and into that hole, most likely,
the sun sank down each time,
faithfully and slowly.
And next morning,
to flood the world
the sun would rise all scarlet.
Day after day
this very thing
to rouse in me
And flying into such a rage one day
that all things paled with fear,
I yelled at the sun point-blank:
Stop crawling into that hellhole!”
At the sun I yelled:
“You shiftless lump!
You’re caressed by the clouds,
while here—winter and summer—
I must sit and draw these posters!”
I yelled at the sun again:
instead of going down,
why not come down to tea
What have I done!
Toward me, of his own good will,
spreading his beaming steps,
the sun strode across the field.
I tried to hide my fear,
and beat it backwards.
His eyes were in the garden now.
Then he passed through the garden.
His sun’s mass pressing
through the windows,
in he rolled;
drawing a breath,
he spoke deep bass:
“For the first time since creation,
I drive the fires back.
You called me?
Give me tea, poet,
spread out, spread out the jam!”
Tears gathered in my eyes—
the heat was maddening,
but pointing to the samovar
I said to him:
“Well, sit down then,
The devil had prompted my insolence
to shout at him,
I sat on the edge of a bench;
I was afraid of worse!
But, from the sun, a strange radiance
I sat chatting
with the luminary more freely.
and that I talked,
and of how I was swallowed up by Rosta,
but the sun, he says:
look at things more simply!
And do you think
I find it easy
Just try it, if you will!—
You move along,
since move you must;
you move—and shine your eyes out!”
We gossiped thus till dark—
Till former night, I mean.
For what darkness was there here?
We warmed up
to each other
and very soon,
openly displaying friendship,
I slapped him on the back.
The sun responded!
“You and I,
my comrade, are quite a pair!
Let’s go, my poet,
in a gray tattered world.
I shall pour forth my sun,
and you—your own,
A wall of shadows,
a jail of nights
fell under the double-barreled suns.
A commotion of verse and light—
shine all your worth!
Drowsy and dull,
wanting to stretch out
for the night.
shone in all my might,
and morning ran its round.
Always to shine,
to shine everywhere,
to the very deeps of the last days,
and to hell with everything else!
That is my motto—
and the sun’s!
5. Emotion is almost always a major part of a poem.
Our emotions are never entirely divorced either from what we experience or from what we say, and so it should come as no surprise that there is an emotional tenor to every poem.
Lyric poetry exists precisely in order to investigate emotion. Just as the biology laboratory is the place in which we expect the physical structure of vertebrates to be examined, just as the psychology lab or the psychiatric clinic is where we expect a clinical investigation of human behavior, so the poem is the place in which we expect, or ought to expect, our own emotions to be examined. Since the lyric poem issues from a self and is always concerned with emotion, it follows that the lyric poem is the domain in which our own feelings can best be encountered and explored. The poem exists to reveal us to ourselves, as well as to reveal the interior selfhood of another person to us. By examining the poem closely, then, we can examine ourselves: who we are, who we might be, what we might expect of the variety of feelings which course through us at every moment.
As all poems have an emotional tenor, it is difficult to decide just which poem might be a particularly good example of the emotional dimension to a poem. Let’s look at a poem more difficult, on its surface, than any of the poems we have read so far. This poem is called “Large Red Man Reading,” and it was published by the American poet Wallace Stevens in 1950, near the end of his long and rich career as a poet. The poem imagines – and a considerable stretch of the imagination is needed – that the dead return to earth, as ghosts, to listen to a man reading from a book of poems.
Although Stevens is usually regarded as one of the most philosophical of
poets, this poem, while philosophical, is about the everyday life we inhabit,
and how rich it is, how particularly rich in feeling. The poem is
at once about feeling, as you shall shortly see, and an expression of feeling:
the feeling it expresses is the poet’s love for the things we encounter
each day as we live in the world, the world which is revealed to us by
our feelings for and about it; and of his love of the poems which capture
those feelings so astonishingly vibrantly.
In the first stanza of the poem, the ghosts return to earth to “hear” the phrases that the man reads aloud from “great blue tabulae,” a mythic phrase suggests turns the pages of a book are akin to the tablets on which the divine law was handed to Moses. The ghosts who had expected more of death have returned to encounter “what they had lacked,” as the ending of the poem asserts.Large Red Man Reading
There were ghosts that returned to earth to hear his phrases,
As he sat there reading, aloud, the great blue tabulae.
They were those from the wilderness of stars that had expected more.
There were those that returned to hear him read from the poem of life,
Of the pans above the stove, the pots on the table, the tulips among them.
They were those that would have wept to step barefoot into reality,
That would have wept and been happy, have shivered in the frost
And cried out to feel it again, have run fingers over leaves
And against the most coiled thorn, have seized on what was ugly
And laughed, as he sat there reading, from out of the purple tabulae,
The outlines of being and its expressings, the syllables of its law:
Poesis, poesis, the literal characters, the vatic lines,
Which in those ears and in those thin, those spended hearts,
Took on color, took on shape and the size of things as they are
And spoke the feeling for them, which was what they had lacked.
In the second stanza
Stevens identifies the book from which the large red man reads: it is the
poem of life, and it sounds surprisingly like the poem that Ralph Waldo
Emerson had insisted that American poets should write in a famous speech
made 114 years earlier, “The American Scholar:”
What would we really know the meaning of? The meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and the gait of the body . . .Ralph Waldo Emerson
Like Emerson, the ghosts want “the pans above the stove, the pots on the table, the tulips among them.” So strong is their need for the physical presence of actuality that “they would have wept to step barefoot into reality.” They long for the feel of things, for shivering at frost and crying in pain at the thorn of a rose; even the ugly, just by its physical presence, would make them laugh at the delight of existing in a sensory world, a world in which one feels things, once again.
The poem, according to Stevens, is the place where being is expressed (stated, pressed forth as wine is expressed from grapes or oil from olives); in the poem existence is shaped (outlines, law) into syllables. Stunningly, the poem reverts to Greek: poesis, poesis, it cries out. The Greek word reveals how close is the relation between making and poetry, since the linguistic derivation of ‘poem’ is the Greek verb poiein, to make. In Greek, poesis means both ‘to make’ and ‘poetry.’ The “literal characters” of the poem -- its letters and syllables – are vatic, or prophetic; and what they prophesy is the real world and not the world of spirit: the pans and pots and flowers, not the domain of soul which, presumably, is occupied by the ghosts.
What the ghosts lack is “the shape and size of things as they are.” How often do we take for granted, the poem cries out with emotion, the wonders which are all around us: stoves, tulips, thorns, the miracle of words? How often do we ignore the feelings which “color” everything we experience, those feelings which give to things their dimension? We feel our way through the world, using not just our senses but our emotional responses.
Stevens tells us many things in this poem of ghosts revisiting the world
to listen to a large red man read from blue/purple pages. First,
he tells us that the things in this physical world, the pots and tulips
and thorns and sounds, are important,. Second, he tells us
that nothing is as real as the way we feel our existence. Third,
he tells us that poems are the proper province for the expression and discovery
of feelings. And, finally, he tells us that he loves the world, loves
the feelings one can have in the world, and loves the poems where being
is outlined and expressed. This poem is far more than a poem about
philosophy: it is a love poem.
Each of the lines in the poem “took on [the] color” of Stevens’ love for
a world in which things, feelings, and poems exist.
6. We human beings are more uncomfortable with ourselves and with our fellow human creatures than we like to acknowledge, and in consequence poems are more indirect that we might expect them to be.
That is what Emily Dickinson asserted in “We introduce ourselves,” and I believe she is right in that assertion. We would like to hang loose and be honest, be it with others or ourselves, but we find this more difficult than we wish. Partly, it has to do with “Etiquettes, embarrassments, and awes.” Partly, our difficulty has to do with language itself: words are not transparent, and syntax is not infinitely subtle. We each know that it is sometimes difficult to ‘put into words’ what we are thinking, feeling, or want to say. This, after all, is why cultures so often revere poets, for poets do what Whitman claimed for himself: “I act as the tongue of you,/ Tied in your mouth, in mine it begins to be loosen’d.”
Here is a poem about us speaking the truth, which is what poems try to do, by Emily Dickinson. Let’s pay particular attention to the surprising advice she gives in the first line, for the remainder of the poem elaborates on this advice.
Tell all the Truth but tell it Slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children ease
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind – [Written around 1868, first published in 1945]
Dickinson's counsel sounds strange at first, but the more one ponders the opening line the more apt it seems. We quickly discover that underlying the poem is a recognition of terror. Terror is, if we search our own memories or our experiences with children, what kids feel when a storm brings lightning and thunder. And that terror needs to be explained so that the child can “gradually” grow used to the explosive power of storms. The poem’s surface suggests “superb” brightness and “dazzle.” But then, in this poem, the positive terms such as bright, superb, delight, kind, dazzle, are all circuitous ways of saying that the truth is so startling and dangerous it can lead to blindness.
So Dickinson recognizes that we cannot just tell the truth: we always, if that truth is to be heard, have to sneak up on it. In more discursive forms than a poem like this, speech can begin with introductions, preambles, prologues. But the poem is economical: its power derives from saying more than is usually said in fewer words than are usually used. That economy – we will discuss this later – and the seemingly contradictory need to approach truth circuitously mean that poems often use devices to sneak up on their subjects, to come on them aslant. Metaphor, simile, exaggeration, irony, all of these are called figures of speech, or tropes. Poets play little games so they can get said those things they want to say. These games are ways of telling the truth, but telling it slant.
In the public world, the world E. M. Forster once famously called the world of ‘telegrams and anger,’ people often say that we must be direct, that there can be no shilly-shallying around, that we should say what we mean. But I don’t think the social world, public or private, works quite that way.
Imagine for a moment someone walking up to you and saying, ‘I love poetry.’ You’d think he was either pompous, or crazy. Imagine someone you know saying, ‘I have known you for several weeks. I love you.’ I’m not sure you would think he or she was crazy or pompous, but your response would not be the straightforward response the person who declared his love expected. We want to be wooed; we need decoration, flowers, song, a carefully prepared intensity, when someone speaks to us of love. We don’t really want flat statement, and are sometimes frightened by it. (We do want the words ‘I love you’ said, it is just that they need to be said as part of the game of love, and not without preamble or context.)
One more supposition. Imagine a friend walking up to you and saying, ‘You are going to die.’ And then pausing ominously before continuing, ‘It could be in many years, but it could also be tomorrow.’ The statement is no doubt true, but we don’t want to hear it. Not phrased that way, bluntly, directly. We can take the truth, Dickinson says, but only if we are eased into it. We must tell the truth slant, in a roundabout way.
Here is the strange paradox of language: If we want to use language effectively, then we must use a certain amount of indirectness. It is not merely human psychology which requires indirection. Language itself is at best a remarkably supple but still awkward instrument: it is not a perfect match for the world. Turning the simplest experiences into words can be difficult; how much more problematic, then, trying to deal with ephemeral perceptions or with feelings so deep we cannot plumb them ourselves.
On the website which precedes this, I claimed that the poetry of T. S. Eliot was one of the reasons fewer people read poetry today than did in the last century. In the second decade of the twentieth century Eliot had a number of problems. He had an unsatisfying and perhaps almost non-existent sex life. He got married to a woman who rather promptly had a nervous breakdown, partly caused by her proximity to Eliot. He had to deal with the arrival of his adored mother, who crossed the ocean to visit him in England, a circumstance complicated by his need to prevent her from seeing how desperately unhappy his life had become. Out of this matrix he made an immensely difficult poem, The Waste Land. (If a poll of twentieth century writers and scholars were taken, asking ‘What is the most important poem of the twentieth century’ I have no doubt that The Waste Land would win by a landslide.) (if you want to read The Waste Land, a long but rewarding process, you can find it at: The Waste Land.)
The Waste Land drove readers crazy. Some readers responded to the great emotional power which had forced the poem into being. But most readers were turned off by its range of literary allusions (many addressed in footnotes supplied by Eliot himself), its dependence on a vast knowledge of anthropology and Eastern religion and philosophy, its brilliant ventriloquism of many voices. They did not want to push through (and who could blame them!) the many levels of difficulty, the many diversions and indirections, the many poses and masks, which Eliot had adopted “to tell all the truth / [but] tell it slant” not only to others, but to himself. The poem is both an escape from the truth, and a bold attempt to tell it in the only way the uptight but brilliant young poet could manage to tell it. He not only found “success in circuit” by taking such a roundabout way of revealing himself that most readers of the poem never even knew he was the subject of his poem, he was pretty successful in hiding that truth from himself. Even Eliot came to believe the poem was about Western history and the decline of modern society and not, primarily, about himself.
Walt Whitman comes on to many readers as one of the most honest poets who ever wrote.
That’s the way he likes to present himself most of the time, and he’s so effective that we tend to believe him. Yet Whitman understood, all too well, how deeply buried are the truths about himself the poet needs to put into words, but fears to make public. Here is a poem seemingly about biographies, though it is actually – the truth in this poem is approached indirectly – about his own reticence, the hiding and withdrawal which take place underneath that widely-recognized openness:
When I Read the Book
When I read the book, the biography famous,
And is this then (said I) what the author calls a man’s life?
And so will some one when I am dead and gone write my life?
(As if any man really knew aught of my life,
Why even I myself I often think know little or nothing of my real life,
Only a few hints, a few diffused faint clews and indirections
I seek for my own use to trace out here.)
This is the domain of the poem: only a few hints, a few diffused faint clues and indirections. The truth will be told, but not directly.
The reason I went on at length about Eliot a page
back, though, was to partially rehabilitate him. In a magnificent
passage, he helps us to understand that it is not only our difficulty in
introducing ourselves to ourselves that makes indirection the province
of the poem, but also our inability to make language do precisely what
we want it to do. In his late poem “East Coker” from
the book called Four Quartets, Eliot wrote about just how difficult it
is to put one’s feelings into words. I think no one every captured
that difficulty better:
Trying to learn to use words[:] every attempt
Is wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate – but there is no competition –
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
T. S. Eliot, Painted by poet Wyndham Lewis. In the Durban Art Gallery, RSA
We try, through poems, to “get said what must be said” (the phrase comes from William Carlos Williams). But saying precisely what we needs to be said is difficult. The poet writing the poem is, in Eliot’s military terminology, making “a raid on the inarticulate.” Eliot was writing in the period after the First World War, and although he was never a soldier he uses the extraordinarily difficult and ultimately senseless experience of trench warfare as a metaphor for the difficulty of writing. It is as if we go to war on our own reality to compel it to shape itself into words, but we have shabby weapons, a mess of a battleground, and undisciplined and disorderly allies. No wonder the battle is fought “under conditions that seem unpropitious!”
Eliot is being particularly modernist when he says each raid on the inarticulate is “a wholly new start,” adhering to his friend Ezra Pound’s artistic credo: “Make it new!” But Eliot is right nevertheless, because each poet must begin anew: words from the past belong to the past, and the poet’s need for expression comes from his own existence at the particular moment in which he feels and experiences whatever it is that demands to be put into words. Even his own previous efforts are of little help – “One has only learnt to get the better of words for the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which one is no longer disposed to say it” -- because past competencies are linked to old conditions, while what the poet is feeling now requires new language and new forms.
Worse, the modern poet has the sense that what she may find at the end of this battle has already been found by other writers, his predecessors, giants like William Shakespeare, John Donne, or Emily Dickinson. The modern poet cannot compete with them, and does not even try, although here Eliot may be disingenuous: He tried to be a great poet, and so for that matter did Shakespeare, Donne and Dickinson. Nonetheless, each raid on the articulate is a new attempt to do what has been done before, and each momentary recovery of lost ground is doomed to failure as time moves relentlessly onward. “Perhaps [there is] neither gain nor loss. For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
In this “general mess
of imprecision of feeling” where the poet works with “shabby equipment,”
the poem will labor mightily to speak to us. But it will not be able
to say, plainly and forthrightly, what it means. Our struggle with
language means that even when we try to “tell all the truth,” we must,
like Emily Dickinson, “tell it slant.”
It is always better to read several poems by a poet, rather than just one.
At some point, hopefully fairly soon, you will move beyond this guided introduction to reading poetry entirely on your own. If there is one point at which your budding confidence that you can read poems will get tested, it is that moment when you open a book of poems and are overwhelmed by how many there are to choose from, how unfamiliar they all look, and how difficult it is to understand the first new poem you begin to read.
Don’t worry. You don’t have to read the poem if it seems to make no sense. There is nothing wrong with trying another, and another.
When we go into a clothing store, we look over the rack, or several racks. We know we don’t have to buy the first item we see, and we also know that if we look around no one will insist we leave the store. When we go to the supermarket we look around to see which fruits and vegetables appear freshest and most appealing, or are selling at the best price. We don’t automatically buy iceberg lettuce because that is the first item in the vegetable section, or artichokes, arugula or asparagus because they are first alphabetically.
Let’s pursue the food analogy in another direction, not with a store but a restaurant. Just as food is sustenance, so is human communication. But not every dish on a menu is equally appetizing. Read poems as you would read a menu: think about a number of different items as your eye moves over them, and decide which is most appealing, which you might like to taste. Or, closer to home, read poems as you might read magazine articles: try reading, and if the words don’t grab you, pass the poem by and try another. Few of us read Newsweek or Vogue, or a newspaper for that matter, straight through. We browse, and pay attention when we come across something that interests us. Poems are sustenance, but they are not medicine: you don’t need to ingest if you find a poem which is not to your taste!
A corollary of this is based
on the menu experience as well. Just as in a new restaurant – let’s
say, the first Thai restaurant you ever went to – you can select one or
another dish from the menu but eventually have to order something
you will go hungry, so in a selection of poems you eventually need to try
one poem, reading it all the way through, and reading it carefully to see
what sort of ‘flavor’ and ‘nourishment’ it provides. The first time
you tasted Thai food, it may not have appealed to you. But tastes
are partly learned: the best example of which this is that people in Thailand
like Thai food, in large part because they have eaten it all their lives.
Poems, as we will see when we get to the next guideline, stretch us to
encounter new things and, and Eliot reminded us a few clicks back, poems
also stretch language so that it can perform new tasks in new ways.
So at some point you need to choose a poem and work on figuring out what
the poet is saying to you. (If after working on a poem you find you
don’t like what it says or how it is saying it, fine. You can turn
to another poet. After all, if you found Thai food too spicy or too
strange you wouldn’t go back to a Thai restaurant the next night: you’d
pick an Italian restaurant or a steak house.)
One of the great truths about poetry, and literature in general, is embodied in a well-know phrase out of popular culture: ‘different strokes for different folks.’ Hart Crane is a fine and important American poet. I can’t read him. Edgar Allen Poe wowed the major French poets of the later nineteenth century, and has an enduring place in American literary history. I don’t like his poems. There is nothing wrong with Crane or Poe, but there is nothing wrong with me, either. We each have needs and tastes that are our own, and sometimes no matter how high the praise for Thai Masaman curry or French foie gras or Russian caviar, we just don’t like them. Poetry, in defiance of what some high school teachers and college professors tell us, is the same way. We don’t all have the same appetites or the same friends: why should we all have to like the same poems?
Don’t get me wrong. After reading around in a book of poems, checking out a number of them, you have to choose one and read it carefully. (Just reading around by itself is important. We can get an idea of the lay of the land by strolling through the landscape, and similarly by wandering through poems we can get a general – and sometimes capacious – sense of what is there for us to explore at greater length. And since, as we have seen, voice is the central feature of the poem, listening to a poet for a time, and listening to her speak in a variety of different situations, is a good way to become acquainted with her voice. That’s how things work in everyday life: encountering the voice is poems is not very different.) But, having read a poem or two carefully, if you don’t like what you have encountered: Trust yourself. That was what Emerson said in 1841. “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” He concluded, and it is just this I am trying to tell you when I say that there will be highly-regarded poems you don’t like, “I suppose no man can violate his nature.”
The three great enemies of poetry are the notion that finding the meaning of a poem is the most important thing we can do with a poem, the notion that appreciating the craft of a poem is the most important thing we can do with a poem, and the notion that poems are like medicine, that because they are good for us we have to swallow them whether we like their taste or not. Far better to listen to the voice of the poet speaking, and to trust yourself to respond to the poem.
Since this guideline has
to do with how to approach a new poet, here is a corollary. Go
for short poems. I have a sneaking suspicion Edgar Allan
Poe was right when he said in a magazine article (which he wrote while
hard-strapped for cash):
If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression—for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and every thing like totality is at once destroyed…. It appears evident, then, that there is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary art—the limit of a single sitting….Holding in view these considerations, as well as that degree of excitement which I deemed not above the popular, while not below the critical, taste, I reached at once what I conceived the proper length for my intended poem—a length of about one hundred lines.Edgar Allen Poe [Click for "The Raven"]
Poe was writing about how he composed his poem “The Raven,” and we may take this passage, and the whole essay it comes from, “Philosophy of Composition,” as tongue in cheek, mocking his own sincerity as a poet. But Poe (even if I don’t respond well to his poetry) was a brilliant man, and even in his mockery and commercialism he tells us the truth. Shorter poems have a coherent intensity that ebbs and flows in longer poems.
Shorter poems are also shorter. Just as when you are in a Thai restaurant for the first time, you will feel less trapped with something you don’t like if you order an appetizer or a small portion rather than a large dish, so with poems. Small or short is not necessarily better than large or long, but if you have to swallow something, short is easier to manage than a huge amount of reading. With a short poem – and I am more radical than Poe, since for me short is twenty lines or less – the reading is over quick; if you don’t like what you read, it is only minute until you finish up and can turn the page. One of the things which leads to a distaste for of poetry is the sense of obligation, of having to flog on through endless pages of words. So when you encounter a new poet, a new book of poems: browse, read short poems, find one or two you like, read them more carefully. And then, if you don’t like what you have listened to, don’t feel obliged. Put the book aside and turn to something else. (If you were partly intrigued and partly turned off, put the book aside as well. You can always come back to it later.)
Here is a poem by Wallace
Stevens which I have quoted to myself for many years. It is a wonderful
example of browsing through poems. Each time I read the poem I browse
through the first three stanzas, and then happily, almost in a trance,
recite to myself the mischievous and fun-filled final two stanzas.
This is a poem which I have never really read, even though I must have
browsed through it two hundred times over the course of thirty years.
But it doesn’t matter, at least to me, that I don’t know the ‘meaning’
of the poem, that I haven’t really figured out how its parts relate to
one another. What I like, and the poem is about exactly this, the
process of liking, is what it playfully tells us in the final five lines.
Granted, we die for good.
Life, then, is largely a thing
Of happens to like, not should.
And that, too, granted, why
Do I happen to like red bush,
Gray grass and green-gray sky?
What else remains? But red,
Gray, green, why those of all?
That is not what I said:
Not those of all. But those.
One likes what one happens to like.
One likes the way red grows.
It cannot matter at all.
Happens to like is one
Of the ways things happen to fall.
Wallace Stevens and his wife Elsie, who he happened to like and then happened to like not as much
8. Embrace strangeness.
Every poem, every poem, has something which is strange, new, difficult, disquieting, perplexing. Poems should, as I have just finished suggesting, be accessible to us; at the same time, we need to be prepared to encounter strangeness in a poem. Sometimes it will be the whole poem itself which will seem strange or unfamiliar; at other times the poem will make sense until we begin to think about it more carefully, and then we will realize that something or other in the poem is not fully explicable.
A short while ago I used the example of a Thai restaurant to illuminate a point about how we might approach a new poet and her poems. Here is one last example drawn from this metaphor. (Truly, this is the last time!) Thai cooking, just as French cooking or Mexican cooking or Louisiana cooking, requires skill and effort, and the best Thai or French or Louisiana cooks are those who have mastered often-complex techniques and comprehended the history and diversity of their cuisine. We can enjoy Thai or Mexican cooking without understanding much about the traditions and procedures of those ways of cooking, but the more we pay attention to the ingredients in a dish, the more we know about the ways of cooking the dishes we eat, the more complex and rich our enjoyment can become. It is the same with poetry. We can get a great deal from the voices which speak to us in poems, but if we are willing to work at listening closely to those voices, listening really closely, new dimensions of enjoyment and reward are open to us.
So, although I think readers of poems should always be encouraged, I am going to venture into difficult territory for a few pages. Bear with me.
Poems are always strange because of what they do. Poems use language to different purposes than newspapers, television advertisements, political slogans, even everyday conversations. I’d like to propose four dimensions to poems which underlie the odd guideline we are exploring here: Every poem has something about it which is strange.
The first flows from something we have already explored, in elucidating guideline six: We human beings are more uncomfortable with ourselves and with our fellow human creatures than we like to acknowledge. Because we are awkward with ourselves we speak indirectly; because we find language tough to manipulate, especially when it comes to putting the evanescent or the complex or the profound into words, poems will often be more difficult to read than traffic signs. When a hexagonal red sign says “STOP” it is supposed to mean only one thing, and to mean it clearly: ‘Do not drive your car through this intersection without stopping and looking around. Stop here because the law requires it; stop because your life may, literally, depend upon it.’ But poems are filled with “etiquettes/embarrassments/and awes,” and are not like STOP signs. So we already have come upon one reason why poems can appear strange to us. There is much about them that is hidden, contorted, or difficult to put into words.
The second dimension to poems which accounts for their always being strange to us is that the poem comes from another person. The poem is a voice, but although it may serve as a surrogate for our own (“I act as the tongue of you/Tied in your mouth, in mine it begins to be loosen’d”), the voice of the poem is not our own. I think this is one of the finest reasons to read poems, that they are one of the best (and in our age only) places where we can really pay attention to the voice of another. When we read a poem, as opposed to being in conversation or watching a person on television, we have the leisure to listen to the words over and over again. The different-ness of the other person does not have to wholly disappear into the need to make contact, to grab hold of the ‘message.’ When we read a poem our first impulse is, surely, to see what it says to us that we already know, or know about. After all, the poem seeks to make contact, and we seek to make contact with the poem. But the person speaking through the poem is not me, nor you: she is another person, and just as in life, we should not be in a hurry to turn everyone into a replica of ourselves.
There is a very strange story
by Henry James called “The Beast in the Jungle.” [Want to read it
online? The Beast
in the Jungle] In it a rather self-analytic young man, John Marcher,
meets a young woman named May Bartram. She is a companion to him
through life, sharing with him his recurrent sense that something special
will someday happen to him. So self-absorbed is Marcher, though,
that he fails to recognize that what is happening to him is that he has
become oblivious to the love that is offered him by May Bartram.
He has a final opportunity to recognize this love and embrace it, but fails
to do anything. And then this discussion occurs:
He tried for a little to make out what they had; but it was as if their dreams, numberless enough, were in solution in some thick cold mist through which thought lost itself. “ It might have been that we couldn’t talk?”I know of no other passage in all of literature which makes this point as strongly. Each person speaks to us from “the other side.” Only fools and blind men cannot see that there is a point of view different from their own. And that every human being, every single one, has a unique and consequently different way of viewing the world from my way, or your way.
“Well,”—she did her best for him—“not from this side. This, you see,” she said, “is the other side.”
“I think,” poor Marcher returned, “that all sides are the same to me.”
In the poem someone is speaking to us, and although the words might fit us, might speak for us, they are also in a most powerful sense the voice of another. An other. An other person. To dissolve all the strangeness of a poem so that it seems fully familiar is to wipe away the existence of the person speaking to us, to dissolve all human difference. Thus, the poem must remain strange even as we try to hear what it is saying and make sense of it.
The third dimension to poems which makes them strange to us is also something we have encountered already. Most poems are economical and compact, saying a great deal in a few words. Ezra Pound was, I believe, the greatest teacher of poetry in the twentieth century, a statement which can be supported by the fact that he personally taught a great many fine poets – Eliot, Williams, Frost, Hilda Doolittle, William Butler Yeats – how to be even better poets.
He wrote a short little book to teach people how to read poems, a primer of reading, and called it The ABC of Reading. At the very heart of his book was a discovery which Pound, a notorious amateur scholar and bibliophile, found when browsing through an antiquated German-Italian dictionary. The German term “dichten,” which means to make poetry, was translated by the Italian term “condensare,” which means what it seems it might mean, to condense. Poetry is always condensed. And in the process of reducing the number of words so that the experience or emotion is as intense in language as it is in life, things are left out or jammed together. Leaving things out is called ellipsis, and it can make for strangeness in language to those of us who are used to one thing connecting up to another. Jamming things together means that lots of explanatory material, lots of linkages, are lost. In ordinary speech, we sprinkle phrases like “I mean” and “That is to say” into our utterances, and add plenty of hesitations like “um” and “uh” so that we have time to find the words and our listeners have time to take them in; in the poem not only are these left out, but transitional material is often not provided. The mind may leap from one thing to another because they are similar, but in ordinary language we try to smooth out those jumps. Not so, often, in poems, which discard many words and phrases because of the need to condense. No wonder poems often seem strange to us: they are concentrated utterances. Not to mention that, in attempting to leap more directly from the thought or perception into language than we do in everyday conversation, poems can seem strange because their structure is not mellowed by the process of ‘making sense.’ The condensation and urgency of poetic speaking, then, will often make the poem strange to us.
is a fourth dimension to strangeness in the poem. The best approach
to this function of the poem is through an essay published in Russia in
1917, Victor Shklovsky’s “Art as Technique.” [You can read the whole,
stunning, essay at Art
as Technique] The critic Shklovsky quotes a passage from Leo
where the author of War and Peace and Anna
I was cleaning a room and, meandering about, approached the divan and couldn’t remember whether or not I had dusted it. Since these movements are habitual and unconscious, I could not remember and felt that it was impossible to remember – so that if I had dusted it and forgot – that is, had acted unconsciously, then it was the same as if I had not. If some conscious person had been watching, then the fact could be established. If, however, no one was looking, or looking on unconsciously, if the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been.
Shklovsky goes on to a remarkable reading of this remarkable passage:
And so life is reckoned as nothing. Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one's wife, the fear of war. "If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been." And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects "unfamiliar", to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.
I think we could all agree, to a large extent at least, with Shklovksy’s assertion that “art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.” But what is astonishing is the move he makes from this assertion to a second assertion: “The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception.”
What Shklovsky is telling us is that if we want to avoid the quandary Tolstoy found himself on the brink of – as if our life has never been, because we go through everything on automatic pilot – then we will have to slow down and see what is in front of us. And he asserts, remarkably but I think rightly, that the poem must be difficult so that we do not slide over the words, zoom down their slippery slope toward one or another ‘meaning.’ No, Shklovsky insists, if the poem works well it must be difficult, it must make the world appear unfamiliar. In this way, and only in this way, will we look at the poem and the world more carefully, and see what is there. (The French critic Roland Barthes, we recall, made the same point forty years later when he wrote that “Those who refuse to reread are doomed to read the same text everywhere.”) If we do not slow down and read the poem carefully, we will never encounter the ‘unfamiliar,’ which always inhabits the poem. And the purpose of the unfamiliar is to make us take a fresh look at things: to see the divan [couch] in front of us, to see the marvelous world which we too often take for granted, to hear the voice of another instead of an incessant repetition of our own voice.
If the function of art is to break through habit to the actual – “things as they are perceived and not as they are known,” -- the method it uses is to make things unfamiliar. This making unfamiliar Shklovsky called Ostraneniye, literally ‘making strange.’ And that is the final reason why every poem has something of the strange about it. The poem must create difficulties for us so we do not just slide over words, or life, unconsciously!
William Carlos Williams wrote a little-noted poem about strangeness, one that also addresses the other-ness of other people who inhabit our world, those whom we all too often fail to see or hear. In “The Forgotten City,” the poet tells the story of driving home from the country with his mother in the car, traversing New Jersey in the middle of a hurricane. Williams finds that the heavy wind and rain have made “the parkways impassible,” so he is forced to find a new route home: “I had to take what I could find . . . to get back to the city.”
The Forgotten City
When with my mother I was coming down
from the country the day of the hurricane,
trees were across the road and small branches
kept rattling on the roof of the car
There was ten feet or more of water
making the parkways impassible with wind
bringing more rain in sheets. Brown torrents
gushed up through new sluices in the
valley floor so that I had to take what
I could find bearing to the south and west,
to get back to the city. I passed through
extraordinary places, as vivid as any
I ever saw where the storm had broken
the barrier and let through
a strange commonplace: Long, deserted avenues
with unrecognized names at the corners and
drunken looking people with completely
foreign manners. Monuments, institutions
and in one place a large body of water
startled me with an acre or more of hot
jets spouting up symmetrically over it. Parks
I had no idea where I was and promised myself
I would some day go back to study this
curious and industrious people who lived
in these apartments, at these sharp
corners and turns of intersecting avenues
with so little apparent communication
with an outside world. How did they get
cut off this way from representation in our
newspapers and other means of publicity
when so near the metropolis, so closely
surrounded by the familiar and the famous?
“I passed through extraordinary places,” the poet writes. Why does he say this? Well, it seems that the commonplace has become strange (“a strange commonplace”). The hurricane has had the effect of defamiliarizing the place in which he lives. New Jersey doesn’t look like New Jersey any more. The streets would seem normal but for several things: they are deserted in the middle of the day, they have names unknown to him since he’s had to take a new route, and the few people visible appear drunken and to be acting in inexplicable ways, since they are pushed by the wind and struggling against the driving rain.
So strange are Williams’ surroundings that, even though he knows he is in New Jersey, he can say, “I had no idea where I was.” The storm has forced him out of his usual routines, into a new route; it has affected his New Jersey environment just enough that instead of feeling familiar, it looks exceeding strange. Things loom up: monuments, public buildings, a large expanse of water (lake? flooded parking lot? water treatment facility?). “Parks.” Perhaps nowhere in the poem is the poet’s disorientation and his encounter with what is immediately before him more effectively portrayed than in that single word, “Parks,” coming as it does after one of only four periods in the poem, jammed against his claim that “I had no idea where I was.” “Parks” exists cut off from everything else, without connection or transition, just as the poet is cut off because of the storm and the new route it forces him into.
The wonderful thing about this poem is how open Williams is to the experience, to the utter strangeness of a place which would otherwise, on another day, be recognized as urban New Jersey. Speaking of “extraordinary places, as vivid as any I ever saw” he imagines himself an urban ethnologist who “promised myself I would some day go back and study this curious and industrious people.”
The poem begins with a statement of time and place, proceeds with a description of the hurricane, explores the remarkable ‘seeing’ that can take place when the normal barriers that keep our habits and our perceptions within their usual bounds, and then moves to a surprising conclusion. For by the end of the poem – affirming our guidelines that poems are strange – Williams asks: How is it that these people, occupants of a neighborhood he has never seen, living on streets he has never heard of, living industrious lives, are so “cut off” from the everyday world he moves through? (Williams, a physician who served his neighbors in a working-class and immigrant community, was no stranger to the varieties of life in America.)
The answer is provided in the question he asks: “How did they get/ cut off this way from representation?” They are not portrayed in newspapers – or books, or movies, or poems – even though they live close to New York, which was and is the publishing and media capital of the country. Even among the familiar, we do not see people, and things, because the habits of our everyday lives– just like the habits of driving on the parkway – prevent us from noticing what is in front of our eyes. Likewise, we do not see them because they are not presented to us in the forms and forums which teach us to see what is important, the “the newspapers and other means of publicity.” These people and their neighborhood have been “cut off from representation” even though they are “closely surrounded by the familiar and the famous.”
It is often the poem which represents, re-presents, the unseen and the unnoticed, just as novels and movies and paintings compel us to see what we would otherwise be too blind to notice. And it is in the poem, above all other places, that language works through strangeness to force us to reconsider words and thing. In that way, poems teach us, help us, to live a life which is rich and full, and not on semi-conscious auto-pilot.
Emily Dickinson also wrote about the experiences of strangeness in the
midst of the familiar. Though she lived before the age of indoor
plumbing, and must have gone to collect water from a well several times
a day, she found wells everlastingly strange.
What mystery pervades a well!
The water lives so far—
A neighbor from another world
Residing in a jar
Whose limit none have ever seen.
But just his lid of glass—
Like looking every time you please
In an abyss’s face!
The grass does not appear afraid,
I often wonder he
Can stand so close and look so bold
At what is awe to me.
Related somehow they may be,
The sedge stands next the sea –
Where he is floorless,
And does not timidity betray
But nature is a stranger yet;
The ones that cite her most
Have never passed her haunted house,
Nor simplified her ghost.
To pity those that know her not
Is helped by the regret,
That those who know her, know her less
The nearer her they get.
Perhaps fearful of falling, Dickinson recounts how looking into a well, seeing just the “lid” of the water and not what lies beneath, is like “looking in an abyss’s face!” Neither grass nor sedge (sea grass) seems fearful of water and the watery depths, but then they are without consciousness – unlike the poet – and are part of nature rather than being conscious of nature.
So Dickinson concludes that for the human mind “nature is a stranger yet.” The more we talk about (‘cite’) nature, the more we look at nature (sight, a pun on ‘cite’), the less we know nature. The world remains strange to us: the more we know, the less we really know. The world, for Dickinson in this poem, remains forever strange. Feeling fear, awe, regret, she would seem to have little need of a poem to tell her to move through the world with her eyes open, rather than on auto-pilot. But her poem speaks to us of how strange the world is, if we only choose not to take it for granted. (The poem is even richer than I can suggest from this brief survey. The face we see when we look into a well can be, depending on where the sun is, our own: so the ‘abyss’ might be a characteristic of one’s self! If nature’s house is haunted, occupied by a ghost, might she be speaking to us of the absence of God? I leave you to listen further to this strange poem).
How, you might well be asking at this point, how can each of us respond adequately to poems if they are strange to us? Well, I said earlier we should listen to Emerson, who exhorts us to “Trust thyself.” Now I would offer an addition. When you come up against a poem and feel its fundamental strangeness, trust the imagination. Imagination is itself a strange term, outside the validity of logical proof: it refers to that human capacity for making wholes from parts, or seeing connections where none are visible. The imagination is what makes poems, or for that matter symphonies or novels or paintings or movies or even advertisements; it is also what enables us to read a poem, even a strange poem, with sympathy and understanding. When we read a poem, we are always engaged in a process not so very different from the one which made the poem. The poet takes the strange richness of the world and transforms it into words; we take the strange richness of the those words and turn them into a coherent poem, and then take that poem and turn it into a vision of the world beyond the poem.
Here are two passages I often turn to. I cannot prove either is true, for one is a statement of belief, and the other is a defiant assertion. I find each comforting, and each has to me the ring of truth, a truth which cannot be proved but which can be, I think, grasped by the imagination.
In 1817 the British poet John Keats at the
age of 22, wrote a letter to his friend Benjamin Bailey. It is obvious
from the passage’s opening sentence that Bailey had written him about his
troubles, one of which was that he doubted the “authenticity of the imagination.”
Listen to Keats’ response:
O I wish I was as certain of the end of all your troubles as that of your momentary start about the authenticity of the Imagination. I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination.One hundred forty years later, in old age and having suffered a stroke, William Carlos Williams wrote something very similar:
John Keats William Carlos Williams
Only the imagination is real!Accept that there is strangeness in the poem. And allow not just your rationality but your imagination to play with that strangeness. In that way, the concentrated word will open into a blossom, the awkwardness of language will nevertheless allow meaningful speech, the consciousness and heart of an other will be revealed to you, and you will be able to encounter both the poem and the world with a sense of discovery.
I have declared it
Time without end.
9. Inhabit the poem. Try strangeness on for size – but only after you have embraced it as strange.
To you, this guideline may seem in conflict with the previous: guideline eight says to keep the poem strange, and this guideline says to inhabit the poem, to try it on to see if it fits us in a familiar fashion. You’re right: the guidelines are, in fact, contradictory.
To understand how one can
take contradictory approaches to a poem, let us go back to the middle of
the nineteenth century, to Walt Whitman’s spiritual mentor, Ralph Waldo
Emerson. Whitman read Emerson’s essays with great passion, as did many
other Americans in the middle of the nineteenth century. ("I was
simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to boil," Whitman told
an interviewer who asked how he had found himself, how he had become a
poet in his mid-thirties after having been a journalist for twenty years.)
In the essay “Self-Reliance,” from which I have already citedthe passage
on trusting one’s self, Emerson wrote words which I always find remarkable:
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored alike by statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.Ralph Waldo Emerson
Whitman took up the same theme fourteen years later at a critical moment in his epic poem, “Song of Myself.” Approaching the end of the poem the poet insists that he will always be present to us, his readers:
I each straying from me, yet who can stray from me?Yet several pages later, as Whitman prepares to finally take leave of the reader, he asks for a last moment of contact by saying,
I follow you whoever you are from the present hour,
My words itch at your ears till you understand me.
Listener up there! What have you to confide to me?Whitman immediately realizes that the second of the two statements I have italicized contradicts the first. Logically, he cannot depart and stay, move on and remain behind. Transforming Emerson’s prose passage into his own poetic voice, Whitman wrote lines which are as stunning as, and even more memorable than, Emerson’s.
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,
(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.)
Do I contradict myself?As we did with Emily Dickinson’s “We introduce ourselves,” let’s pay great attention to these brief lines from Whitman. He begins with a question, one which is less rhetorical than other questions which arise in “Song of Myself.” In all candor, he is contradicting himself, and his question reveals that unlike some talkers Whitman is actually paying close attention to what he says. He reveals a degree of self-consciousness about the poem that is surprising. All right, he acknowledges, I contradict myself. (How important small details like punctuation are. Every time I read these lines, I am struck by the absence of a comma after “then.” It is not that the line is ungrammatical without the punctuation, it is that Whitman is so dismissive of self-contradiction that he cannot be bothered to pause over it.)
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
The next line is one of the great parentheses in all of poetry. For what Whitman tells us in parenthesis is a not an afterthought, an aside, something ancillary to the main argument. The parentheses enclose as capacious a statement as any human being has ever made about himself or herself: I am large, I contain multitudes. Whitman is not to be reduced by the laws of logic to a defined and singular identity. There is always more inside me, Whitman says, and so it is that whatever I say, contradictions arise. Inside my chest countless other me’s are always ready to burst into speech. I am Whitman the poet and Whitman the lover and Whitman the wanderer of the streets; more, I am at times my neighbors and my ancestors and the possibility of every existence that might occur in America.
No one ever chastised Whitman for being narrow. His is an expansive personality. His greatest glory is that he insists that his experience is, and can be, ours as well. “Song of Myself” announces this at the outset, in its opening lines:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,Characteristically, Whitman proclaims his own glory only to immediately assure us that every statement or celebration he makes of himself we can make of ourselves.
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you
So, yes, this guideline to inhabit the poem and try strangeness on for size contradicts the guideline to embrace strangeness so that it is not domesticated too quickly. But the poem can be both: strange, and something related to ourselves. We are at times, after all, strangers to ourselves. More often, perhaps, than we care to admit. By reminding us of the strangeness of life, the poem allows consciousness to leap beyond the routines of habit and so re-encounter the marvelous qualities of existence. But the poem also does something else: it allows us to try on new perceptions, new emotions, new forms of consciousness. This ‘trying on’ does not occur simultaneously with our experience of strangeness, but sequentially, following only after the poem is encountered as different from what we already know. It is as if the poem is sometimes a strange new kind of clothing, a sari or a dress designed by John Galliano or a sweater made out of recycled plastic milk bottles. We see it as different; we think about how strange it is, how different from our daily clothing; and then we proceed to it on and see if it fits, and if it does, we see how we like ourselves in this new outfit. (Clothing from recycled plastic milk cartons: how quickly the strange becomes familiar, as has happened with Polartec fabric. Microfleece, made quite literally from recycled plastic jugs, has become an ‘ordinary’ part of everyday life.)
John Galliano, for Dior Polartec, for wintertime
Each of is, I believe, like Whitman – we are large, and we contain multitudes. We can be lovers and we can be bored, we can explore and we can come to terms with the familiar. We can give ourselves over to emotion, or we can insist that what we see directly in front of us is more important than what we feel. Through the remarkable powers of the imagination I can be, at least for several intense moments, white, black, Asian, male, female, gay, straight; I can be facing death in a concentration camp or mellowing out as I sit in a green meadow flooded with sunlight.
At some point in our encounter with a poem we need to try the poem on for size. Not quite as we would try a pair of jeans, which either fit or not, though some poems will be like jeans, and actually fit us right off. We can read one and say, ‘Yes, that’s me, I feel that way, the poet has captured it exactly as I have felt it. I am so grateful to have found my inner life put into words: it is like looking in a mirror, so that I see what I am and what I look like. And at the same time, I am grateful to know that others look like me as well: I am not alone in the world.’
But there are other poems which remain strange for a long time.
These poems speak to us about the lives of other people, people not ourselves.
It is not just that in the poem we can hear the voice of another, as we
saw earlier. The voice of another, if we listen to it closely, can
enlarge our own existence by opening up new possibilities for us.
We are capable of larger resonances, able to educate ourselves to feel
in new ways. The poem helps us to grow, and in ways which almost
no other human activity can match. The poem teaches us to feel new
emotions, or to occupy our emotions on a larger or more intense scale;
it allows us to see new things and sometimes to see them in new ways, thus
enlarging our perceptual world. Additionally, the poem sometimes
opens us up to potential uses for words and language that we had not realized
before. To give examples: Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays”
may help us to recognize that even though we carry grievances and hurts
toward our parents, we may be able to feel a deep love for them that we
did not have the perspective to entertain when we were younger. Emily
Dickinson’s “We Introduce Ourselves” can show us just how awkward we human
beings are with others, and with our selves. “This is Just to Say”
can enable us to see that the everyday use of words – a note on a refrigerator
– is also creative and meaningful, while it also can make us aware just
how profound is the joy we take from tasting the things of this world.
I love poems as much for the new ways they teach me to feel and see, as for their confirmation of my own ways of feeling and seeing. I discover myself through poems, but I also discover the self I can be. Years ago I was struck by the coincidence that both Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud took as their personal mottoes the same line from the Roman playwright Terence: Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto. The Latin encapsulates the very essence of the orientation to life that we call humanism. It means, ‘I am a man: nothing human can be alien to me.’ Terence was one of the first to voice what Whitman said so marvelously: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Karl Marx Sigmund Freud Terence
In attempting to embrace strangeness, I counseled that we need to trust the imagination. Here again we need to trust the imagination. If another human being has experienced something – whether it is a strange emotion, a powerful intensity, a remarkably different way of perceiving – we have the capacity to experience it as well, through the use of our imaginations. Nothing human can be alien to us.
I would like to revive in
different form a word, ‘touchstone,’ used by the nineteenth century poet
and critic Matthew Arnold.
Each poem is a touchstone, though not necessarily in the sense that Arnold meant, which was that the best poems are measures by which we can know what a good poem is. A touchstone is, literally, a black stone which allows one to test whether a metal is gold or silver because it allows those metals, when rubbed against it, to leave characteristic streaks. Two significant forms of touchstone come into play when we encounter a poem. We are touchstones to the poem: we observe the way the poem rubs up against us, and if what it maintains does not feel right, we have every reason to reject the poem as unsatisfactory, stilted, even dishonest. This rubbing must be, of course, against our best part – that nothing human is alien to us – and not against our experience narrowly conceived. After all, we want to encounter the new in poems, to experience what is strange about them But even as we remain open to their strangeness and the new things they say, we ultimately test them against who we are and what we know, and so it is worth remembering that we need to trust ourselves: if the poem seems false or dishonest to us, we can reject it as unworthy.
At the same time as we are a touchstone for the poem, the poem is a touchstone for us. It challenges us to see and feel as deeply and intensely as the poet sees and feels. It is one of the few ways we can actually measure the depth and intensity of our existence. Television would have us measure our lives at every moment: do you own the right car, use the right deodorant, drink the beer which will bring you the most satisfying social life? But these are usually measures of our social insecurity, not of who we are and how we are living our lives. In the poem, we encounter a real test of who we are.
I had originally written that “This is nothing to be frightened of, usually.” But I am not so sure. The poem does not set out to put us down. But by showing us – not telling us, as in a sermon, but showing us, by allowing us to inhabit, briefly, a consciousness not our own – that there are other ways for human beings to be and feel and see and think, the poem may always rise up as a challenge to who we are. Weird as it may sound, reading poems requires courage. The courage to allow the poem to show us that we have a deficiency, and the courage to allow ourselves to change and grow so that we can be more than we were before we read the poem. Poems can be teachers, showing us how to live more deeply and broadly. Most poems, of course, will not push us and change us. Still, if we do not have the courage to be open to the twin possibilities of deficiency and change, we will read poems as verbal puzzles or as corporate reports on the status of another individual. That is the function of the touchstone: we can test if the poem is real, but the poem can also test our own reality. Reading poems requires courage, and that is another reason why school exercises in analyzing poems so often seem beside the point.
Here is a poem which I treasure, for it seems to me one of the very finest works produced in the twentieth century. It is a poem in which a work of art – in this case, a sculpture and not a poem – is encountered as a touchstone of frightening power. In it, the German poet Rainier Maria Rilke stands before a fragment of a sculpture in the Louvre Museum in Paris. The head and legs and arms of the figure of a man have been knocked off during the centuries which intervened between the Golden Age of Greece and our own modern day; all that remains is the torso of this sculpture of the God of light, Apollo.
Rilke and a torso like the one he saw:
Rilke, in this translation by Stephen Mitchell, stands before the sculpture
transfixed. As he looks at what is in front of him, he measures his
own life against what he sees.
Archaic Torso of ApolloIn the sonnet’s first line Rilke is speaking to us, in general terms, about general things. The head is gone, and we cannot know it – although even in its absence Rilke recognizes the ripeness and fruitfulness which were its defining qualities. Even without eyes, though, the body can still see what is before it: from here to the end of the poem, it is no longer “we” which the poem addresses, but the “you” who is at once Rilke standing before the torso, and we sitting with the poem in front of us. Even though the brilliance is supposedly turned down, it still gleams brightly.
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
Rilke observes the torso closely to examine just what is so powerful, what dazzles him. The sculpture is sexual – it retains that “dark center where procreation flared” – and he cannot take his eyes away from the “curved breast” and “hips and thighs.” So full of life is the torso, so artfully made is it, that time and damage have not defaced it. It retains the animal magnetism of the primal human body, shoulders glistening not with fur but like fur; it still contains an energy that constantly sends light outward, as if it were a supernova exploding into brilliant light across endless time and space. The stone sculpture – opaque, solid – is paradoxically a source of light, “like a lamp,” “dazzling, “translucent,” “glistening” “like a star.” The light it sheds, of course, is on human nature, which two millennia ago was capable of making a work of such power; and on the human body, which however many layers of clothes we dress it in retains such vitality that we are stunned when we confront it, even when it is writ in stone.
In an astonishing turn, the eye-less sculpture looks at Rilke, takes his measure: “for here there is no place that does not see you.” Scrutinized with such thoroughness and intensity, the poet moves to what I think is the most stunning conclusion in all of poetry. Du musst dein Leben ändern: You must change your life.
We read this poem over and over again to see how this ending is earned. As we think about the poem, it becomes more and more clear how appropriate this final line is. As a sexual being, the hyper-civilized Rilke find himself inadequate when compared with a piece of stone. As a seer, he sees less than the opaque rock before him, which despite its stoniness embodies a vision of humanity greater than his own. As poet, Rilke feels himself far inferior to the artists of classical Greece, who could create works of such enduring power that even when the sculpture is defaced overwhelms him. Nothing in his modern life is capable of standing up to a scrutiny of what ancient Greece was, saw, made.
“Archaic Torso of Apollo” at first seems to be the kind of experience we reject in our contemporary world of pop psychology. It recounts an experience of inadequacy, insufficiency, belittlement. There is no way to claim that the torso in the Louvre is supportive and nurturing. And yet. . . and yet. The poem is, I believe, a poem about empowerment. Rilke stands before the sculpture and realizes the need for self-transformation. The poem, I think, captures that first step in a process of enlarging and hence remaking his self.
I know of only one other
experience exactly like Rilke’s. Many years ago I was friends with
a painter, a man named Charles Howard. He had spend a lifetime painting,
and continued to paint even in his old age. I once asked Charlie
how he had come to be a painter. In response, he told me this story.
Charles Houghton Howard, "The Progenitors," 1947
Charles Houghton Howard, "The Ascending Aperture," 1949
He was born the child of a well-known architect (Charles Galen Howard, who designed the campus of the University of California, Berkeley). He went to college, graduated, sauntered into life without a goal or a purpose. His father subsidized a trip to Europe, and Charlie roamed from one city to another. One day, finding himself in the small northern Italian town of Castelfranco Veneto, he went into the cathedral there, where he saw a painting by Giorgione above an altar, "The Virgin Mary on the Throne with her child and St. George and St. Francis". Transfixed, he looked at the painting for three quarters of an hour, left the church, was physically so sick that he vomited, and took the next train to Paris so he could learn to be a painter. Charlie Howard would have known what Rilke meant when he said he stood before a sculpture and realized, “You must change your life.”
Thus, the poem, like a sculpture or a painting, can serve as a touchstone to the life we are living. It can show us, by contrast, what we are missing in life; and in the process of making such a contrast, by revealing our lack to us, it can both impel us to remedy that lack, and show us how to do so.
So: Having recognized that a poem is strange, that it is a voice from a person not ourselves and comes from place in which we are not, the next step is to say, ‘But I shall try it on nevertheless. I am a man, a woman: nothing human can be alien to me.’ We need both to preserve the strangeness of a poem, and also make it ours.
Randall Jarrell, a very fine poet, wrote a marvelous
essay on Walt Whitman in which he counseled readers to listen closely to
what Whitman says and does in this poems. Pay attention to his lines,
he wrote in the piece, entitled “Some Lines from Whitman.”
Randall Jarrell, poet and critic
Jarrell cites a passage in which Whitman retells something he read about in the newspapers, a ship whose passengers and crew were afflicted with typhoid; the survivors were finally rescued, heroically, by another ship whose captain braved illness to save his fellow men and women. Jarrell’s criticism is remarkable for the generous way in which it calls attention to the power of the passage by refusing to intervene between the poet and reader: it is one of the few passages in critical commentary which I recall again and again, and accordingly I will let Jarell speak abaout this passage instead of me. But you will see that Jarrell understands, and shares with Whitman, a sense that through the power of the imagination humani nihil a me alienum puto
I understand the large hearts of heroes,Thus, the poem not only teaches us who we are, but who we might become. We are, each of us, individual human beings. We are also, and at the same time, members of the human family, with much in common with one another, and capable of enriching one another about what we can be.
The courage of present times and all times,
How the skipper saw the crowded and rudderless wreck of the steam-ship, and Death chasing it up and down the storm,
How he knuckled tight, and gave not back one inch, and was faithful of days and faithful of nights,
And chalk’d in large letters, on a board, Be of good cheer, we will not desert you;
How he follow’d with them, and tack’d with them three days and would not give it up,
How he saved the drifting company at last,
How the lank loose-gown’d women look’d when boated from the side of their prepared graves,
How the silent old-faced infants, and the lifted sick, and the sharp-lipp’d unshaved men;
All this I swallow, it tastes good, I like it well, it becomes mine;
I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there.
“In the last lines of this quotation Whitman has reached—as great writers always reach—a point at which criticism seems not only unnecessary but absurd: these lines are so good that even admiration feels like insolence, and one is ashamed of anything that one can find to say about them.”
10. A poem is an esthetic
object: form and ‘beauty’ are always part of what is going in a poem.
Until this point, we have looked at the social dimension of poem, stressing that it has to do with one person making contact with another, using voice and depending on the exercise of the reader’s imagination. Here we smuggle in the guideline that most English teachers put at the top of the list; but then, English teachers too frequently help ruin the poem for us. They make it seem like work, not intimate conversation; they make us feel small and inadequate in the face of the poet’s abilities.
The esthetic dimension to the poem is important, to be sure, but we should come to it later rather than sooner. Poems consist of shaped words, and insofar as the shaping is pleasing to us, the poem is an esthetic object. It gives us pleasure by the way in which the vast domain of human experience is narrowed down and passed through the web of words, so that the chaos of experience and language have a form and pattern that we can perceive.
Some of the shaping of language has to do with sound. The lifts and falls of language, its patterns of accented and unaccented sounds, give the poetic voice – and here it is the actual voice speaking the poem – a shape of continuities we call meter, or when the shapes do not refer to classical models, rhythm. Some of the shaping sound patterns in the poem have to do with repetitions of particular sounds: consonant sounds (alliteration), vowel sounds (assonance), and consonantal-vowel clusters (rhyme). These shapings please us in the same way that music pleases us: if what we hear has recognizable patterns and contours, then we inhabit a world which is not pure chaos.
Sound in poems confirms that
the poet’s language is part of a coherent human world. I know of
not better statement of the relation between sound and coherence than occurs
in Vladimir Nabokov’s remarkable novel, Pale Fire. Nabokov
invented a poet, made up a poem he presumably wrote, and invented a paranoid
scholar whose annotations to that poem comprise of the bulk of the novel.
Irony abounds on irony in the novel: everything that is said about the
poem in the commentary is either accidental or mad, and yet the ultimate
irony is that the accidental and the mad come very close to wisdom.
In the poem, the poet, John Shade, writes:
I feel I understandHe recognizes that the ordered sounds of the poem suggest to us that there is order in the world around us, if we only have the vision and talent to see it.
Existence or at least a minute part
Of my existence, only though my art
In terms of combinational delight;
And if my private universe scans right,
So does the verse of galaxies divine
Which I suspect is an iambic line.
But poems consist of more than sounds. We also take pleasure in recognizing how adroitly the poet has managed to “tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” The figures of speech, or tropes, by which one object stands for another – simile, metaphor, symbol – not only enable the truth to be told, they stimulate a delight in the inventiveness of the human mind, the mind which can come up with such successful strategies for referring to one thing to mean another. Wow, are we humans smart and inventive: to come up with these strategies (which is what the poet does); to understand them (which is what readers do); and to appreciate them (which is what both poets and readers do). And we can pile invention upon invention: through saying one thing and meaning another, which is called irony (or if more blatant, sarcasm), we can say two things at one time, or even three or four. The mind is a marvel.
In an introduction to a book of his poems entitled The Wedge, William Carlos Williams wrote about this shaping process, and how it reveals us to ourselves through language.
When a man makes a poem, makes it, mind you, he takes words as he finds them interrelated about him and composes them--without distortion which would mar their exact significances--into an intense expression of his perceptions and ardors that they may constitute a revelation in the speech that he uses.Then, in a late poem Williams suddenly questions whether there has been any value in his having so long dedicated himself to writing poems. Though traveling cross-country by rail after having just given a number of successful poetry readings, he is at the moment of the poem truly uncertain about what he has done with his life: Does it mean anything, was the writing of poems worth doing? A series of seemingly inconsequential experiences as he spends a few hours crossing the Mexican border at El Paso to visit Juarez affords him a powerful recognition that poetry is, even when closely examined, a wonderful thing. Each of the experiences is, in his mind, connected to an elemental natural music, “a music of survival.”
A self-portrait painted by William Carlos Williams in 1914 as he was first beginning to write poems
And I could not help thinkingNabokov, at the end of Pale Fire, says the same thing. His crazy paranoid scholar, Charles Kinbote, is nearing the end of his line-by-line annotations to John Shade’s poem when he writes what is certainly one of the great paeans to language, and to poetry:
of the wonders of the brain that
hears that music and of our
skill sometimes to record it.
We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing. We take it for granted so simply that in a sense, by the very act of brutish routine acceptance, we undo the work of the ages, the history of the gradual elaboration of poetical description and construction, from the treeman to Browning, from the caveman to Keats. What if we awake one day, all of us, and find ourselves utterly unable to read? I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable.As Nabokov and Williams indicate, our ability to use language, and in particular the skill of the poet in making the poem, should not be short-changed. Because the word ‘esthetic’ sounds so recondite – distant, difficult, abstruse – we often underestimate how important the esthetic is to human life. We enjoy baseball games because we are pleased with the way human activity is shaped by the rules of the game, and we love particular games because the skill of the players allows more to be done within those rules than we conceive could happen. We enjoy movies, music, images; we find pleasure in the shaped world in every dimension, not excluding a new haircut, well-executed carpentry, a flaky pie crust. In every aspect of our world when we find human activity rich and finely-performed we take pleasure in what we as men and women are able to do. If we can admire the work of couturiers, great chefs, and mechanics, there is no reason we should not admire the work of poets. Admiring their craft and skill, responding to the way in which they reshape the world into shaped language, is an important constituent of experiencing a poem.
The work that poets do is even more elemental than that of couturiers, chefs, and mechanics. We must clothe ourselves, we need to eat to live; getting from one place to another in our modern world is almost unthinkable without cars, busses, planes. But at almost every moment of our waking lives we occupy a world of language. People speak to us, and we speak back. We read, whether it is newspapers or signs. When we are alone or without contact, we speak to ourselves: in interior monologues, in the naming of those things which are in front of us, in shaping and reshaping our ever-present desires. The domain of the poet is language; by remolding language so that it makes new meaning, brings new pleasure, the poet enriches us in extraordinary ways.
But we should not bow down before poems as if they were religious icons we need to worship. Though a poem can be cause for rejoicing at the wondrous powers of human creativity, what we want to avoid, above all, is making poems distant, inaccessible, mountains to be ascended only by stalwarts of the faith or extremely well-trained Alpinists..
Here is a poem which
meditates on the difficulty of making poems, one which recognizes just
how skilled the poet must be to produce something which appears ‘natural.’
The poet is William Butler Yeats, and what we encounter in this poem is
the mainspring of his genius, for Yeats is always aware of the dialectic
of existence. Dialectic of existence? It simply means that
Yeats understands that in human life almost nothing is resolved, final:
whatever we say, another truth can be uttered, and whatever we value, a
part of us wants something different. (We are large, we contain multitudes.)
In the poem Yeats sits with two women, one a friend, the other a woman
whom he loves very much. The three talk of poetry: In the wonderful
opening section, Yeats speaks of how hard it is to write a poem, and how
little the poet’s work is valued by the world.
We sat together at one summer's end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, "A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world."
That beautiful mild woman for whose sake
There's many a one shall find out all heartache
On finding that her voice is sweet and low
Replied, "To be born woman is to know --
Although they do not talk of it at school --
That we must labour to be beautiful."
I said, "It's certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam's fall but needs much labouring.
There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
precedents out of beautiful old books;
Yet now it seems an idle trade enough."
We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time's waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.
I had a thought for no one's but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we'd grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.
William Butler Yeats, and the two women he addresses in the poem: Maud Gonne and Augusta Gregory
But Yeats’s initial outlandish and therefore wonderful comparisons – to be a poet is like being a seamstress; the seamstress poet works harder than the most menial day laborer, whether the scullion who scrubs a kitchen floor or the old impoverished man who break rocks into paving stones – gives way to the reflectiveness of the friend, who says that personal beauty is likewise a difficult labor.
Responding, Yeats says that all things of beauty require labor: not
just poetry and beauty, but love itself. At the mention of love silence
descends on the poem. Well, not on the poem, for it continues, but
in the poem, since no one speaks. The three personages of the poem
watch the sun decline and darkness descend: a carefully crafted beauty
settles on the poem, although notably it is a beauty of endings.
We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time's waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.
In silence, not making contact, the poet speaks his
secret wish: He too would like to love in the old-fashioned way, working
to shape his love and make it beautiful in his lover’s eyes. At the
same time he entertains another thought: that he has grown hollow, tired,
weary, incapable of such love. Is his weariness the result of modern
times, which have leveled the “old high way of love”? Or is his weariness
the result of his having worked “harder than all these” scullions and rock-breakers
on the craft of poetry? For it may be that the cost of making the
beautiful poem is that one makes beauty instead of living life, or embracing
love. (In another poem about poetry and love, “Words,” Yeats concludes
with these trenchant lines, “I might have thrown poor words away/And been
content to live.”) The last lines of “Adam’s Curse” move the poem
away from statement, and into dialectic. Praising the craft of love,
the poet he acknowledges he may not be able to master it. Time,
which has worn away the fullness of the moon, and a weariness resulting
from his poetic labors, have both incapacitated him. And lack of
courage, too: much as he wishes he could, Yeats cannot say with Rilke,
“You must change your life.” He dreams of doing so, but silently,
resignedly. He has too readily accepted
Adam’s curse, which is not only that will men and women labor (the first half of the poem), but that suffering and not paradise is to be our portion (the neurasthenic resignation of the last two lines.)
Still, though “Adam’s Curse”
is dialectical, it asserts emphatically that there is a relation between
beauty and labor, and thus teaches us that we much work at anything beautiful:
personal looks and grace, love, the poem.
10. In reading poetry, there is only one rule that is essential: LISTEN TO THE POEM.
You can throw all the other rules out if they don’t help, if they constrain you, or if they come between you and reading the poem.
Poems bust precedents and expectations, and they certainly don’t feel any obligation to adhere to guidelines.
That is not to say that writing poems is not deeply involved with following precedents. English has its vocabulary, its syntax, its grammar, just as every other language does. We are born into language, a world of language, and we learn to use the words as they have been used before. At the same time, each of us – and not just poets – modulates what has been done before, recreates language in a new way. That’s why we each have our own distinct voice. When poets try to achieve a voice on the written page, they frequently have to step beyond the precedents for using language that have been created by their predecessor poets, and by people in general. So no matter how many rules or guidelines we adopt for reading poems, there will be poets who challenge those guidelines, who say ‘Sorry, not so fast. What I have to say is so vital that I am going to have to break some rules in order that you can notice what is going on in this poem, instead of just passing it by. I am going to be a man with a hammer pounding the truth into your head.’ There will be poems which say, “I’ll do what I damn well feel like doing. There is no proper way to make beauty, so don’t try to hem me in with rules.”
What matters in poems is the private business that takes place between the poem and you. Don’t let any rule, any expectation, preclude the contact the poem seeks to make with you.
What follows is a poem I have listened to closely. It has, quite literally, changed my life. Once again, it is a poem by William Carlos Williams, a poem first printed in 1923 as part of a radical poetic manifesto called Spring and All, a strange work which contains chaotic numbering, sentence fragments, a mixture of prose and poetry. I don’t think I knew what it had to say before it said it; I am certain my behavior as I move through the world has changed because I have read and reread the poem. I do know that this is a poem I have listened to, closely, attentively, often.
By the road to the contagious hospitalWilliams was a doctor, a general practitioner who often did obstetrics, and this poem, as I reconstruct it, recounts his drive home from the hospital after delivering a baby. (I can’t ‘prove’ any of this, but the road and hospital at the start, and the wonderful “They enter the new world naked,/cold, uncertain of all/save that they enter” in the middle, and the imagery of beginning life at the end, all strongly suggest the setting.) The poem begins with a landscape, cold, muddy, brown, dried, patchy, scattered, dead – and then a sudden turn takes place. It happens at a moment of word-play, one word reminding the poet of another (leafless/lifeless); as Williams uses the second word, paying attention to the world about him and the connection that words have to things, he realizes he must qualify it – “lifeless” is modified by “in appearance.” Spring is approaching, dazed and nowhere near its full vigor and glory. But it is approaching.
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast—a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen
patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees
All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches—
They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold, familiar wind—
Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wild carrot leaf
One by one objects are defined—
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf
But now the stark dignity of
entrance—Still, the profound change
has come upon them: rooted they
grip down and begin to awaken
We begin to reread the first line even as we move through the poem: the hospital is contagious not primarily in the normal sense that some of its patients have infectious diseases, but because the just-born baby and the renewal of plant life seem connected. The world around the poet may be ‘cold’ – the word is used three times – but it is not ‘dead.’ Something is happening just beyond the threshold of visibility. Grass, wild carrot (or Queen Anne’s lace, as it is commonly known) are just beginning to sprout. One’s visibility must be sharp, one’s consciousness must be focused on the moment, to see this new life in the midst of the dead leaves and the “purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy/stuff” which meet the eye as the cold wind blows clouds overhead.
As the poem proceeds, there is a third birth, one contagious with the new-born babies and the rebirth of spring. Williams’ vision, literal and not merely symbolic, is renewed. As the plants emerge from the brown ground, so objects are clarified to his alert consciousness. “One by one objects are defined— /It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf” Williams writes, referring not merely to the grass and wild carrot, but to his own visual world. Having begun with the hospital, the road, the sky, Williams has by the end of the poem won the ability to see the small changes that are taking place in a world filled with birth. As the child is born into the world of things and sensations, as the plants “grip down and begin to awaken,” so the poet’s sight is born anew, itself rooted, gripping, beginning to awaken.
A fourth birth takes place, this one outside of the poem. The poem itself is contagious. As it shows us how Williams’ consciousness becomes rooted in the particularities of the moment, as the moment and what is contained in it are defined, so I as reader of the poem learn to pay attention, to see, to observe with a clarity which roots me in the world. “Rooted,” I too “grip down and begin to awaken.”
I said that this poem has transformed me. I live in Vermont, where the winters are long and harsh. Each February, I notice the buds swell on the trees a month and a half before any of my friends recognize that “dazed spring approaches.” Each March I squat down, looking at the brown grass between patches of snow, to see if I can see the beginning of the spring. (Did you know that when snow melts quickly on a warm day, a finely textured, airy web of silver mold is deposited on the ground? A mold that lives on snow, so airy and translucent it is not seen until the snow melts, at which time a half-hour’s sun will dry it to nothingness? I know this because, literally, William Carlos Williams taught me to look for the approach of spring, and to see its smallest manifestations.)
I observe the approach of spring when others are still aware of nothing but endless winter because of the poem, “By the road to the contagious hospital.” It has taught me to observe more closely than I did before. It has taught me to value beginnings, those moments of transformation when the natural world subtly changes, heralding far greater changes in the future. The moment of transformation, evanescent but sure, actual yet full of promise, is easy to miss but of extraordinary beauty and significance. And such moments are all around us, if we are only willing to open our eyes to what lies beneath the “dead, brown leaves” which seem – only seem – to be around us everywhere. Williams taught me that. Each time I read this poem I see once again how marvelous birth is, and how we, as well as the natural world, are always poised on the brink of transformation.
Williams’ poem is, to use the words of his friend Wallace Stevens, about “the exhilaration of changes.” And it does what every good poem can do: it opens us up to seeing more, feeling more, understanding more, of the life that goes on around us and within us.
That’s why there is
finally only one rule: Listen to the poem. If it is a good poem,
it will speak to you. What is a ‘good poem’? One which, if
you listen to the voice talking to you, speaks things you want to hear,
need to hear, delight in hearing.