Category Archives: notes on poems

sighs, short and frequent, were exhaled

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

I thought of the opening of the “Waste Land” during an international Zoom call with a dozen lovely people, as they described how spring is breaking in their respective countries during this pandemic year.

If your mind turns to extraordinarily famous classics at such moments, you may be both pretentious and unimaginative. Then again, sometimes a new situation provokes a new look at a canonical text that has become a cliché from too much repetition.

Both T.S. and Vivienne Eliot contracted the Spanish ‘flu during the global pandemic. That experience, along with the First World War, might be in the background of his 1922 poem. Rereading it during a respiratory epidemic prompts new interpretations of passages like this one:

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

Even the phrase “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante, / Had a bad cold …” has new implications when read during COVID-19.

As for the opening, the combination of “memory and desire” seems apt for our moment, when many familiar experiences have become distant memories that we yearn to repeat. Lilacs look and smell lovely, but their springtime “breeding” may be a painful process. Each of the first three enjambed lines splits a participle from its object, creating a series of false starts. Are we moving again?

Eliot is surely responding to the cheerful opening of the first great long poem in English:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour ...

However, the opening of “The Waste Land” depicts rebirth as cruel.

Later, Roethke will ask …

This urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks,
Cut stems struggling to put down feet.
What saint strained so much,
Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life?
 -- Theodore Roethke, from "The Lost Son and Other Poems" (1948)

Eliot’s entitles his whole first section “The Burial of the Dead,” referring, perhaps, to that rite from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The Anglican prayer emphasizes peaceful rest followed by joyous resurrection: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord …” In contrast, I think Eliot’s narrator adopts a tone of metaphysical pessimism, as in classical Buddhism, Schopenhauer, or Silenus’ Greek phrase: “for humans, the best is not to be born at all, not to partake of nature’s excellence; not to be is best.”

This does not mean that pessimism is the spirit of the whole poem, which deliberately presents many voices and perspectives as Eliot portrays a metropolis in the aftermath of trauma.

In fact, it’s worth recovering an alternative to pessimism from the same poem. Apparently, the sequence Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata (quoting an Upanishad) means: “be self-controlled, be charitable, and be compassionate.” Eliot presents that advice in a passage that is liquid, when most of the poem is bone-dry, and calm, when most of it feels tormented:

Damyata: The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands.

And the whole work ends with the mantra “Shantih. shantih. shantih” (or “peace. peace. peace.”) So may it be.

Wallace Stevens’ idea of order

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,   
Why, when the singing ended and we turned   
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,   
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,   
As the night descended, tilting in the air,   
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,   
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,   
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.
     from Wallace Stevens, "The Idea of Order at Key West." 

Anchored fishing boats at night will send luminous streaks across the water to point directly at you, the viewer. They seem to partition the sea in an ordered way that gives you the central place. By doing so, they make the dark sea more attractive: organized, deepened, enchanted. Although you are not hallucinating or succumbing to egoism, your impression is misleading, for anyone else will see the streaks pointing at them. From the sky, the sea would not appear partitioned at all, although it must seem that way to you.

George Eliot uses a comparable metaphor:

Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent …

Eliot, Middlemarch, part 3, chap. 27

Eliot is concerned about moral egoism. I think Stevens’ main interest is the subjectivity of any order that we impose on nature. If we push such skepticism far, nature vanishes entirely and all we have is our description. But the boats really are at anchor off Key West.

This image from the end of the poem might offer some hints about how to read the earlier portions. It seems that the narrator is by the sea with his friend, Ramon Fernandez, and they have heard a “she” singing. Stevens said he invented the name of his friend, but he later acknowledged that he might have suppressed the memory of the real literary critic, who was not actually his friend, and who might have been too keen to impose order. (The real Fernandez was a communist at the time Stevens wrote this poem, on his way to becoming a fascist collaborator.)

As for the “she,” this is a pronoun without any concrete noun. She has no name and is not called a woman or anything else specific. She has a complex relationship with the sea: she may be describing it, or communicating the sound it makes, or creating it with her song; or she may have been invented by the narrator as a metaphor for the experience.

The narrator explores each of those hypotheses:

  • [the ocean’s] mimic motion /  Made constant cry … [The sea is singing.]
  • Even if what she sang was what she heard … / it was she and not the sea we heard. / For she was the maker of the song she sang. [She is singing.]
  • If it was only the dark voice of the sea / That rose … / But it was more than that, /
    More even than her voice, and ours …
    [It is more than she who is singing.]

Perhaps this section–about the moment of a subtropical sunset–offers a synthesis to follow the various theses and antitheses:

        It was her voice that made   
The sky acutest at its vanishing.   
She measured to the hour its solitude.   
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,   
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,   
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her   
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

One can read the poem very literally and imagine that Wallace Stevens, a man from the mainland, and his friend, a man with a Spanish surname, have seen a woman striding along the beach and singing about the sea. But her song has the very special power of making the whole world. Even though the narrator insists that “she was the maker of the song she sang,” her song is coterminous with the object of her singing–the sea–which suggests that she is not different from it but another way of naming it.

At this point, the literal reading collapses–much as a naive interpretation of the streaks of light collapses when you realize that they are not really pointing at you. The poem does not give us direct access to a real moment in the past when a woman, two men, and some boats were visible at Key West. The poem is the object that we see, and it has a writer and some readers.

Under the title of the poem is the name “Wallace Stevens,” which stands for an actual man, married to a woman, who became famous for writing words. It’s reasonable to begin with the assumption that the narrator who tells us, “She sang …” is this man, and that he either really heard her singing or made her up from scratch, thus functioning as her artistic creator.

It’s then reasonable to place the poem in a very long tradition of men writing about women who are their muses, objects of love, creatures of their art, and/or metaphors for abstractions, such as nature. The politics of this tradition is problematic, since the poet with the he-pronouns typically controls the “she” of his verse.* He certainly gets credit for the words that attach to his name. Stevens either maintains this tradition or possibly subverts it, depending on what you think of the phrases “mastered” and “maker’s rage for order” near the end.

I don’t disagree with using gender to analyze the poem, but I think it also asks us to question our metaphysics. Why are we so sure that the narrator is Wallace Stevens, the poet with the he-pronouns? Couldn’t she be speaking, or the ocean, or the reader?

In one recorded dialogue with a student, Basho instructed, “The problem with most poems is that they are either subjective or objective.” “Don’t you mean too subjective or too objective?” his student asked. Basho answered, simply, “No.” 

Jane Hirshfeld, The Heart of Haiku

The moment of sunset is neither day nor night. Stevens’ poem is neither objective nor subjective but right on that edge. Basho avoids tipping either way by means of imagism. His poems do not mean; they are. Stevens attempts it in a very different way–by arguing explicitly about the nature of his own verse in ways that skillfully undermine any fixed conclusion about who is saying what about what.

*For a good reading along these lines, see Brooke Baeten, “Whose Spirit Is This?”: Musings on the Woman Singer in ‘The Idea of Order at Key West.’ The Wallace Stevens Journal 24.1 (2000): 24-36. See also: nostalgia for now; homage to Basho; a poem should; and the tree and the rock.

Amanda Gorman rose to the occasion

Occasional poetry is verse written to be read or declaimed aloud: for instance, at a wedding, a funeral, a graduation, a coronation–or an inauguration.

Several genres won’t work for these purposes. For instance, the audience probably doesn’t have time for an epic or a ballad. Satire is not what the patron expects, at least not at a funeral or an inauguration.

Lyric verse is also problematic. Lyric poetry since the Romantic period has often aspired to authenticity: the author’s distinctive personality becomes concrete in words. But an occasion is not about the poet. If the poet’s sincere emotion happens to be completely aligned with the event, lyric can work. That can happen at a wedding or a funeral if the poet is a dear friend. But politics is less personal. How many poets are fully committed, to the bottom of their souls, to the presidency of Joseph R. Biden Jr.?

Another major direction has been irony and indirection. A lyric poem doesn’t plainly say what the author thinks; it demands intense interpretive work from the audience. But that won’t work for an occasion, especially a mass event dominated by speeches. The last thing we want at an inauguration is any text that is easy to misinterpret by careless or hostile listeners. Clarity is essential. Although lyric verse can be impressively clear about the concrete objects that it describes, it is rarely clear about the implications.

Some styles of lyric poetry do work well for occasional purposes. For example, in the era of Dryden and Pope, English lyric poetry did not usually aim for authenticity, originality, or ambiguity. Poetry was more often an art of elegant expression. Many poems stated conventional opinions, but with excellent use of formal properties that listeners were prepared to appreciate–clever rhymes and classical rhetorical devices.

Thus (Royall Sir,) to see you landed here
Was cause enough of triumph for a year:
Nor would your care those glorious joyes repeat
Till they at once might be sure and great...

Dryden, "To His Sacred Majesty: A Panegyric on his Coronation" (1662)

According to Elliott Colla, “Occasional poetry remains … more central in non-Western traditions such as Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Japanese, Korean and Chinese.” But in English, the neoclassicism of Dryden and Pope has been little admired. Some astute critics recognize its quality, but very few active poets aspire to write in that vein.

In fact, Romantic and modern lyric poetry is anti-occasional, in the sense that it is written by an autonomous individual for the private consumption of other private individuals, dispersed in time and place. When it seems occasional, it fails (except if that appearance is ironic.)

Most of the previous poems at US presidential inaugurations have dissatisfied me in one of two ways. Some have been genuine lyric poems that fell flat when delivered through a microphone to a mass audience. Robert Frost prepared a somewhat wry commentary in verse about occasional poetry but couldn’t see his text in the bright sunlight and declaimed a lyric instead. Others have essentially been speeches with irregular line breaks. But it is not clear why a poet is qualified to give a speech at a major political event. The poet is a formal craftsperson, not an expert on policy.

One exception was Maya Angelou, who spoke as a leading public intellectual as much as a poet. I thought her poem was basically a speech, albeit with more of a fictional narrative spine. In any case, she enriched the 1993 inauguration.

Amanda Gorman has the advantage of working in the tradition of spoken word poetry: verse written for public performance and usually drawing on oral genres, from folk stories to hip hop. Spoken word is occasional verse; it is written to be performed at events.

Gorman didn’t give a prose speech, because her words were carefully chosen for rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, and assonance:

This is the era of just redemption
We feared at its inception
We did not feel prepared to be the heirs
of such a terrifying hour
but within it we found the power

She accentuated those formal properties in her performance. Indeed, her performance was much better than the words on the page, and that is intrinsic to the genre. (In contrast, T.S. Eliot does a poor job reciting his poems.)

Gorman wrote for the occasion–words that would be useful for Biden and Harris and for Americans of good will who were watching the event. She didn’t necessarily disclose all that she believes about the new administration or the country. (I have no basis to speculate about her full beliefs.) Nevertheless, she was authentic as a performer, much as Lady Gaga gave an authentic performance of the “Star Spangled Banner” or Anya Taylor-Joy poured herself into the role of Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit. Each of these people chose to support the event at which they starred.

This is not to doubt Gorman’s words, but to take them as “occasional” in the best sense of the word. What the nation needed on this occasion was to hear this particular person reassure us that:

Somehow we do it
 Somehow we've weathered and witnessed
 a nation that isn't broken
 but simply unfinished ...

Shelley: England in 1819

England in 1819

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King;
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,—mud from a muddy spring;
Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,
But leechlike to their fainting country cling
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.
A people starved and stabbed in th' untilled field;
An army, whom liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield;
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless—a book sealed;
A senate, Time’s worst statute, unrepealed—
Are graves from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.

This is one sentence. Minus the adjectives and adjectival phrases, it says: “A king, princes, rulers, people, army, laws, religion, and senate are graves from which a phantom may burst to illumine our day.” (It’s interesting that one phantom will arise from all these separate graves.)

The “king” is George III, suffering by now from advanced dementia. He has seven surviving sons, which would be the narrowest definition of “princes.” But Shelley could mean a broader category–“princes” in the sense of the crowned heads of Europe. They are back on their thrones after Waterloo, erecting a system of reactionary absolutism that will last until 1830.

“Rulers” would mean the whole government, starting with the Prime Minister, Robert Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, who suspended civil liberties from 1817-19. The “people” are suffering from the Corn Laws (which prohibit importation of grain) and early industrialization. The “army” refers to the cavalry who charged a peaceful demonstration for parliamentary reform (the Peterloo massacre of August 16). The “senate” is parliament, although I don’t quite follow how that noun relates to “Time’s worst statute.” And the “Phantom” is something like liberty.

The situation is bad but unsustainable. The rulers may be evil, but they “drop, blind in blood, without a blow.” The army wields a two-edged sword, liable to slice its own bearer. The people, however, seem passive: they think and do nothing in particular but are “starved and stabbed in th’ untilled field.” The Phantom may (or may not) burst forth; it’s not clear that the people can decide that.

The poem is a sonnet: fourteen 10-syllable lines, rhymed, with a final couplet that answers the question posed by the rest of the poem: What will happen? However, the form is not strictly conventional. Shelley uses just four endings (-ing, -ow, -ield, and -ay) in an ABABAB CDCD CC scheme.

Christopher Spaide says that the poem was too radical to publish in 1819. By the time Mary Shelley included it in Shelley’s posthumous Poetical Works (1839), she thought it needed an explanation, since the “younger generation … cannot remember the scorn and hatred with which the partisans of reform were regarded some few years ago.” In other words, the sonnet went from revolutionary to quaint in 20 years–not because an actual revolution ensued in Britain, but because the political situation mellowed as reforms eased the crises of the day. No Phantom burst, but the laws arguably became less sanguine and the people less likely to be starved and stabbed.

See also Brecht, To Future Generations.

“the body of us all”: Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay”

Anne Carson’s long poem entitled “The Glass Essay” relates how the narrator, having been dumped by her romantic partner, goes home to Canada to visit her mother (a difficult-sounding person–prone to rehashing old criticisms) and her father, now suffering from Alzheimer’s. Being a scholar, this narrator takes with her

… lot of books—

some for my mother, some for me
including The Collected Works Of Emily Brontë.
This is my favourite author.

She thinks about Emily and Charlotte Brontë, about herself, about her father and her mother. She feels strong emotions. For example:

Anger travels through me, pushes aside everything else in my heart,
pouring up the vents.
Every night I wake to this anger,

the soaked bed,
the hot pain box slamming me each way I move.
I want justice. Slam.

I want an explanation. Slam.
I want to curse the false friend who said I love you forever. Slam.
I reach up and switch on the bedside lamp. 

But the poem moves toward something that I can only call transcendence. The narrator concludes with a perspective and a moral concern that goes infinitely beyond herself and her own circumstances.

But how can you transcend your circumstances if you are a modernist writer who favors concrete images and objective correlatives? How can you transcend earthly pain if you cannot invoke God? (“I am uneasy with the compensatory model of female religious experience and yet ….”) How can you transcend the injustices you have faced if you believe that your identity as a woman matters–that not everyone has the same problems, that differences are important?

One answer, Anne Carson suggests, is time. “Days passed, months passed and I saw nothing.” She finally attains insight, but only after a long wait. Another answer is hard thinking. The narrator probes herself, nature, and other people. She asks the hard questions and debunks her own answers.

Most importantly, you need the courage to believe and say things that are un-ironic, explicitly ethical, and close to cliché:

I saw a high hill and on it a form shaped against hard air.

It could have been just a pole with some old cloth attached,
but as I came closer
I saw it was a human body

trying to stand against winds so terrible that the flesh was blowing off the bones.
And there was no pain.
The wind

was cleansing the bones.
They stood forth silver and necessary.
It was not my body, not a woman’s body, it was the body of us all.
It walked out of the light.

This is moving because it is so hard-won.

See also: on the moral dangers of cliché and on the proper use of moral clichés.