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Pablo Neruda’s ‘Walking Around’


Pablo Neruda

My exposure to Pablo Neruda first came through Robert Bly, who deemed him a ‘wild romantic’ whose ‘love of life never falters.’ Yet his poetry is full of what seem like immediate contradictions to this sentiment. One of his more famous poems ‘Walking Around’ begins: ‘It so happens I am sick of being a man.’ This is Bly’s translation, though in several readings of the poem he prefers the translation of ‘man’ to ‘human being’, adding a particularly darker telos to the poem.

This poem encroaches on Whitman’s operatic line but never truly approaches it. Instead, it’s immediate Whitmanian likeness is its engagement in catalogue but with two important differences: the poet is having a negative response to the litany and there is no redemption through metaphysical unity or the more human notion of simple fraternity.

Here the litany acts as negation, a desire to opt into unseeing. His desire ‘to lie still like stones or wool’, already a kind of sensory erasure, is corrected and redoubled by the lines that end the stanza. ‘The only thing I want is to see no more stores’, etc. He seems put off by the notion of utility that stones, wool, stores, spectacles, and elevators have; in the Aristotelian sense, he is put off by the intrinsic telos of these objects, their existence as a means to an end.

The poem goes on in this realm of dark action: ‘it would be marvelous /… to kill a nun.’


Robert Bly

This kind of action, a violence antithetical to the Whitmanian ethos, is one bereft of utility. But the poem takes an interesting turn. While impish to the point of murder, it comes to confirm a love of life, though through a back door. He states, ‘I don’t want so much misery. / I don’t want to go on as a root and a tomb, / alone under the ground…’ Death becomes rendered as a new kind of telos, it is this ‘go[ing] on’, presumably for infinity, that gives the poet his desire to live, with purpose or no. This desire to live necessitates an acute, poetic vision, however grotesque.

That’s why Monday…
pushes me into certain corners, into some moist houses,
into hospitals where the bones fly out the window,
into shoeshops that smell like vinegar,
and certain streets hideous as cracks in the skin.

There are sulphur-colored birds, and hideous intestines
hanging over the doors of houses that I hate,
and there are false teeth forgotten in a coffeepot,
there are mirrors
that ought to have wept from shame and terror,
there are umbrellas everywhere, and venoms, and umbilical cords.

On the surface, this poem seems to be functioning in opposition to his odes, and I believe Neruda wants to initially convince the reader of that. The colloquial, somewhat affected nature of ‘It so happens’ seems to be in direct response to an interlocutor. Perhaps it is a response to Bly’s assertion that he is a poet whose ‘love of life never falters.’ Or perhaps it is an attempt to get out from under the shadow of Whitman in the Bloomian sense. Neruda does seem to engage in an agon with Whitman. Maybe this is why, superficially, the litanies do not have a Whitmanian resolve; we do not end up in the ocean or some terrestrial, metaphorical equivalent, as so often happens in his odes. But I think that, thankfully, neither Neruda nor the poem can escape Whitman and life is affirmed.

Here’s the poem:

It so happens I am sick of being a man.
And it happens that I walk into tailorshops and movie houses
dried up, waterproof, like a swan made of felt
steering my way in a water of wombs and ashes.

The smell of barbershops makes me break into hoarse sobs.
The only thing I want is to lie still like stones or wool.
The only thing I want is to see no more stores, no gardens,
no more goods, no spectacles, no elevators.

It so happens I am sick of my feet and my nails
and my hair and my shadow.
It so happens I am sick of being a man.

Still it would be marvelous
to terrify a law clerk with a cut lily,
or kill a nun with a blow on the ear.

It would be great
to go through the streets with a green knife
letting out yells until I died of the cold.

I don’t want to go on being a root in the dark,
insecure, stretched out, shivering with sleep,
going on down, into the moist guts of the earth,
taking in and thinking, eating every day.

I don’t want so much misery.
I don’t want to go on as a root and a tomb,
alone under the ground, a warehouse with corpses,
half frozen, dying of grief.

That’s why Monday, when it sees me coming
with my convict face, blazes up like gasoline,
and it howls on its way like a wounded wheel,
and leaves tracks full of warm blood leading toward the night.

And it pushes me into certain corners, into some moist houses,
into hospitals where the bones fly out the window,
into shoeshops that smell like vinegar,
and certain streets hideous as cracks in the skin.

There are sulphur-colored birds, and hideous intestines
hanging over the doors of houses that I hate,
and there are false teeth forgotten in a coffeepot,
there are mirrors
that ought to have wept from shame and terror,
there are umbrellas everywhere, and venoms, and umbilical cords.

I stroll along serenely, with my eyes, my shoes,
my rage, forgetting everything,
I walk by, going through office buildings and orthopedic shops,
and courtyards with washing hanging from the line:
underwear, towels and shirts from which slow
dirty tears are falling.


John Ashbery: A Madness to Explain

Franz KlineI’ve put a moratorium on my thoughts for the past few weeks for personal reasons. That being said, today’s post is the culmination of a much-needed rupture in the mental pressure vessel and a recent descent into John Ashbery’s early poetry, so mind the length. I needed to be inside Ashbery’s early work because on the surface it requires very little thought and so one can easily sink away into it.

Ashbery’s early poetry is built on the simultaneous consent of absurdity and plausibility, resulting in a poetics that is at once baffling and revealing. While superficially it tends to resist meaning, it is in itself a poetics of meaning, calling into question the reliability of the mind and our forms of expression, which is almost always language. Some dislike Ashbery’s poetry for its presumed difficulty, however what must be understood is that the poetry is unabashedly self-aware of its nonsensical semantics. T.S. Eliot writes, ‘The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.’ Ashbery is very indirect, using seemingly disjunctive salvos of words in order to force his poetry into his own meaning.

John Ashbery Although Ashbery does not aim to declare meaning, I don’t think it can be said that he does not mean. In fact, almost all of Ashbery’s poetry is an explication on the social context in which he lives. He seems most concerned with the manner in which our consciousness handles direct, corporal experience. Ashbery, once an art critic in both Paris and New York, was at one time relegated to—and so is acutely aware of—our ‘madness to explain’; he apparently concluded that our desire to explain is futile, as the translation between human consciousness and the language it uses to express itself so often fails. For this reason Ashbery puts forth something like a Derridean poetics, riddled with play and slippage, exploiting our desires for a transcendental signified but never cutting the carrot from the string. It becomes impossible to give ‘A description of the blues’ for language cannot adequately describe the feeling that the blues has in its listeners; (‘[W]ords are only speculation / (From the Latin speculum, mirror): / They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music’ (Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror)). Ashbery is deeply conscious of this inability when he writes, ‘I am not ready to line phrases with the costly stuff of explanation’ (‘The Skaters’).

That no explanation is given does not mean there is no meaning. In fact, his poetics is an almost perfect example of the objective correlative, whereby events, objects, and words are placed before us, never revealing their purpose but in their succession formulating an appropriate sentiment. As Ashbery writes in ‘The Skaters’, the ‘carnivorous / Way of these lines is to devour their own nature’ resulting in a ‘bitter impression of absence, which as we know involves presence’; it is from this presence derived out of an absence that we develop meaning, and though it is almost always ineffable, it exists. In this way, according to T.S. Eliot, Ashbery’s poetry is a ‘Genuine poetry [for it seems to] communicate before it is understood.’

Just as it is unlikely to find meaning in a single brush stroke of an abstract painting, so too is it unlikely to find meaning in a single word or even poetic line. The importance of Ashbery’s work is found in ‘the rhythm of the series of repeated jumps, from / abstract into positive and back to a slightly less diluted abstract’ (‘The Skaters’), just as the movement of an abstract painting draws the eye back and forth to its indeterminate focal points until an impression is left in the viewer. Ashbery is truly able to turn the page into a canvas and—in the medium of poetry—Ashbery’s poetry seems closest to gestural abstraction.

The most important question we can ask in regards to Ashbery (or any poet, for that matter) is, ‘Is anything given?’ Here, the answer is yes. Many of Ashbery’s poems give two things. First, it affirms the instability of the mind and in this way becomes a poetics of and on thought:

So much has passed through my mind this morning
That I can give you but a dim account of it:

…the human brain, with its tray of images
Seems a sorcerer’s magic lantern, projecting black and orange cellophane
On the distance of my hand …. The very reaction’s puny
And when we seek to move around, wondering what our position is now, what the
arm of the chair. (‘The Skaters’)

This is a poetics of the mind; a poetics that is finding difficulty in what to choose to write about in a world brimming with things; a poetics that captures the vacillating nature of the thoughts and actions of the men and women of recent centuries. It is also, however, bereft of a soul because it lacks the soul’s ‘room, [which is] our moment of attention’ (Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror). It is also bereft of both revelation and a transcendental signified, it just merely is. And so there is nowhere to turn to but back to the poem itself, back to the surface, for ‘The surface is what’s there / And nothing can exist except what’s there’ (Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror). What is there is a poem building its poetry on the process of building poetry; this is our second affirmation: the meaning is the process.

Though John Ashbery’s poetry oftentimes seems nonsensical, it is truly a poetry that captures the world in which we live, both externally and internally. Not only does it touch upon the interiority of humankind but it also deals with how we locate our interiority outside of ourselves. While abstract expressionism has had a great impact on Ashbery, he is also deeply attuned to theories of semiotics and neurology. In this way, he can capture more than he appears to because social-cultural constructs are built on language and our understanding of it. While Ashbery’s lines can seem incongruous and even illogical, they are perpetually aiming at something larger than the page can maintain, just as all great art does. Ashbery is able to cleverly manipulate poetry through his use of linguistic technique into something of a theoretical rant that uses disparate language, observations, and even voices to force meaning into something seemingly superfluous. Wallace Stevens greatly inspired Ashbery, and it seems that many of Ashbery’s poems do what Stevens’s ars poetica ‘An Ordinary Evening in New Haven’ does:

This endlessly elaborating poem
Displays the theory of poetry,
As the life of poetry. A more severe,

More harassing master would extemporize
Subtler, more urgent proof that the theory
Of poetry is the theory of life….

Here’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (if you get through the whole thing you get a gold star). Here’s a link to ‘The Skaters’.

Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises. A few leaded panes, old beams,
Fur, pleated muslin, a coral ring run together
In a movement supporting the face, which swims
Toward and away like the hand
Except that it is in repose. It is what is
Sequestered. Vasari says, “Francesco one day set himself
To take his own portrait, looking at himself from that purpose
In a convex mirror, such as is used by barbers . . .
He accordingly caused a ball of wood to be made
By a turner, and having divided it in half and
Brought it to the size of the mirror, he set himself
With great art to copy all that he saw in the glass,”
Chiefly his reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection once removed.
The glass chose to reflect only what he saw
Which was enough for his purpose: his image
Glazed, embalmed, projected at a 180-degree angle.
The time of day or the density of the light
Adhering to the face keeps it
Lively and intact in a recurring wave
Of arrival. The soul establishes itself.
But how far can it swim out through the eyes
And still return safely to its nest? The surface
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point
That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept
In suspension, unable to advance much farther
Than your look as it intercepts the picture.
Pope Clement and his court were “stupefied”
By it, according to Vasari, and promised a commission
That never materialized. The soul has to stay where it is,
Even though restless, hearing raindrops at the pane,
The sighing of autumn leaves thrashed by the wind,
Longing to be free, outside, but it must stay
Posing in this place. It must move
As little as possible. This is what the portrait says.
But there is in that gaze a combination
Of tenderness, amusement and regret, so powerful
In its restraint that one cannot look for long.
The secret is too plain. The pity of it smarts,
Makes hot tears spurt: that the soul is not a soul,
Has no secret, is small, and it fits
Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment of attention.
That is the tune but there are no words.
The words are only speculation
(From the Latin speculum, mirror):
They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music.
We see only postures of the dream,
Riders of the motion that swings the face
Into view under evening skies, with no
False disarray as proof of authenticity.
But it is life englobed.
One would like to stick one’s hand
Out of the globe, but its dimension,
What carries it, will not allow it.
No doubt it is this, not the reflex
To hide something, which makes the hand loom large
As it retreats slightly. There is no way
To build it flat like a section of wall:
It must join the segment of a circle,
Roving back to the body of which it seems
So unlikely a part, to fence in and shore up the face
On which the effort of this condition reads
Like a pinpoint of a smile, a spark
Or star one is not sure of having seen
As darkness resumes. A perverse light whose
Imperative of subtlety dooms in advance its
Conceit to light up: unimportant but meant.
Francesco, your hand is big enough
To wreck the sphere, and too big,
One would think, to weave delicate meshes
That only argue its further detention.
(Big, but not coarse, merely on another scale,
Like a dozing whale on the sea bottom
In relation to the tiny, self-important ship
On the surface.) But your eyes proclaim
That everything is surface. The surface is what’s there
And nothing can exist except what’s there.
There are no recesses in the room, only alcoves,
And the window doesn’t matter much, or that
Sliver of window or mirror on the right, even
As a gauge of the weather, which in French is
Le temps, the word for time, and which
Follows a course wherein changes are merely
Features of the whole. The whole is stable within
Instability, a globe like ours, resting
On a pedestal of vacuum, a ping-pong ball
Secure on its jet of water.
And just as there are no words for the surface, that is,
No words to say what it really is, that it is not
Superficial but a visible core, then there is
No way out of the problem of pathos vs. experience.
You will stay on, restive, serene in
Your gesture which is neither embrace nor warning
But which holds something of both in pure
Affirmation that doesn’t affirm anything.

The balloon pops, the attention
Turns dully away. Clouds
In the puddle stir up into sawtoothed fragments.
I think of the friends
Who came to see me, of what yesterday
Was like. A peculiar slant
Of memory that intrudes on the dreaming model
In the silence of the studio as he considers
Lifting the pencil to the self-portrait.
How many people came and stayed a certain time,
Uttered light or dark speech that became part of you
Like light behind windblown fog and sand,
Filtered and influenced by it, until no part
Remains that is surely you. Those voices in the dusk
Have told you all and still the tale goes on
In the form of memories deposited in irregular
Clumps of crystals. Whose curved hand controls,
Francesco, the turning seasons and the thoughts
That peel off and fly away at breathless speeds
Like the last stubborn leaves ripped
From wet branches? I see in this only the chaos
Of your round mirror which organizes everything
Around the polestar of your eyes which are empty,
Know nothing, dream but reveal nothing.
I feel the carousel starting slowly
And going faster and faster: desk, papers, books,
Photographs of friends, the window and the trees
Merging in one neutral band that surrounds
Me on all sides, everywhere I look.
And I cannot explain the action of leveling,
Why it should all boil down to one
Uniform substance, a magma of interiors.
My guide in these matters is your self,
Firm, oblique, accepting everything with the same
Wraith of a smile, and as time speeds up so that it is soon
Much later, I can know only the straight way out,
The distance between us. Long ago
The strewn evidence meant something,
The small accidents and pleasures
Of the day as it moved gracelessly on,
A housewife doing chores. Impossible now
To restore those properties in the silver blur that is
The record of what you accomplished by sitting down
“With great art to copy all that you saw in the glass”
So as to perfect and rule out the extraneous
Forever. In the circle of your intentions certain spars
Remain that perpetuate the enchantment of self with self:
Eyebeams, muslin, coral. It doesn’t matter
Because these are things as they are today
Before one’s shadow ever grew
Out of the field into thoughts of tomorrow.

Tomorrow is easy, but today is uncharted,
Desolate, reluctant as any landscape
To yield what are laws of perspective
After all only to the painter’s deep
Mistrust, a weak instrument though
Necessary. Of course some things
Are possible, it knows, but it doesn’t know
Which ones. Some day we will try
To do as many things as are possible
And perhaps we shall succeed at a handful
Of them, but this will not have anything
To do with what is promised today, our
Landscape sweeping out from us to disappear
On the horizon. Today enough of a cover burnishes
To keep the supposition of promises together
In one piece of surface, letting one ramble
Back home from them so that these
Even stronger possibilities can remain
Whole without being tested. Actually
The skin of the bubble-chamber’s as tough as
Reptile eggs; everything gets “programmed” there
In due course: more keeps getting included
Without adding to the sum, and just as one
Gets accustomed to a noise that
Kept one awake but now no longer does,
So the room contains this flow like an hourglass
Without varying in climate or quality
(Except perhaps to brighten bleakly and almost
Invisibly, in a focus sharpening toward death–more
Of this later). What should be the vacuum of a dream
Becomes continually replete as the source of dreams
Is being tapped so that this one dream
May wax, flourish like a cabbage rose,
Defying sumptuary laws, leaving us
To awake and try to begin living in what
Has now become a slum. Sydney Freedberg in his
Parmigianino says of it: “Realism in this portrait
No longer produces and objective truth, but a bizarria . . . .
However its distortion does not create
A feeling of disharmony . . . . The forms retain
A strong measure of ideal beauty,” because
Fed by our dreams, so inconsequential until one day
We notice the hole they left. Now their importance
If not their meaning is plain. They were to nourish
A dream which includes them all, as they are
Finally reversed in the accumulating mirror.
They seemed strange because we couldn’t actually see them.
And we realize this only at a point where they lapse
Like a wave breaking on a rock, giving up
Its shape in a gesture which expresses that shape.
The forms retain a strong measure of ideal beauty
As they forage in secret on our idea of distortion.
Why be unhappy with this arrangement, since
Dreams prolong us as they are absorbed?
Something like living occurs, a movement
Out of the dream into its codification.

As I start to forget it
It presents its stereotype again
But it is an unfamiliar stereotype, the face
Riding at anchor, issued from hazards, soon
To accost others, “rather angel than man” (Vasari).
Perhaps an angel looks like everything
We have forgotten, I mean forgotten
Things that don’t seem familiar when
We meet them again, lost beyond telling,
Which were ours once. This would be the point
Of invading the privacy of this man who
“Dabbled in alchemy, but whose wish
Here was not to examine the subtleties of art
In a detached, scientific spirit: he wished through them
To impart the sense of novelty and amazement to the spectator”
(Freedberg). Later portraits such as the Uffizi
“Gentleman,” the Borghese “Young Prelate” and
The Naples “Antea” issue from Mannerist
Tensions, but here, as Freedberg points out,
The surprise, the tension are in the concept
Rather than its realization.
The consonance of the High Renaissance
Is present, though distorted by the mirror.
What is novel is the extreme care in rendering
The velleities of the rounded reflecting surface
(It is the first mirror portrait),
So that you could be fooled for a moment
Before you realize the reflection
Isn’t yours. You feel then like one of those
Hoffmann characters who have been deprived
Of a reflection, except that the whole of me
Is seen to be supplanted by the strict
Otherness of the painter in his
Other room. We have surprised him
At work, but no, he has surprised us
As he works. The picture is almost finished,
The surprise almost over, as when one looks out,
Startled by a snowfall which even now is
Ending in specks and sparkles of snow.
It happened while you were inside, asleep,
And there is no reason why you should have
Been awake for it, except that the day
Is ending and it will be hard for you
To get to sleep tonight, at least until late.

The shadow of the city injects its own
Urgency: Rome where Francesco
Was at work during the Sack: his inventions
Amazed the soldiers who burst in on him;
They decided to spare his life, but he left soon after;
Vienna where the painting is today, where
I saw it with Pierre in the summer of 1959; New York
Where I am now, which is a logarithm
Of other cities. Our landscape
Is alive with filiations, shuttlings;
Business is carried on by look, gesture,
Hearsay. It is another life to the city,
The backing of the looking glass of the
Unidentified but precisely sketched studio. It wants
To siphon off the life of the studio, deflate
Its mapped space to enactments, island it.
That operation has been temporarily stalled
But something new is on the way, a new preciosity
In the wind. Can you stand it,
Francesco? Are you strong enough for it?
This wind brings what it knows not, is
Self–propelled, blind, has no notion
Of itself. It is inertia that once
Acknowledged saps all activity, secret or public:
Whispers of the word that can’t be understood
But can be felt, a chill, a blight
Moving outward along the capes and peninsulas
Of your nervures and so to the archipelagoes
And to the bathed, aired secrecy of the open sea.
This is its negative side. Its positive side is
Making you notice life and the stresses
That only seemed to go away, but now,
As this new mode questions, are seen to be
Hastening out of style. If they are to become classics
They must decide which side they are on.
Their reticence has undermined
The urban scenery, made its ambiguities
Look willful and tired, the games of an old man.
What we need now is this unlikely
Challenger pounding on the gates of an amazed
Castle. Your argument, Francesco,
Had begun to grow stale as no answer
Or answers were forthcoming. If it dissolves now
Into dust, that only means its time had come
Some time ago, but look now, and listen:
It may be that another life is stocked there
In recesses no one knew of; that it,
Not we, are the change; that we are in fact it
If we could get back to it, relive some of the way
It looked, turn our faces to the globe as it sets
And still be coming out all right:
Nerves normal, breath normal. Since it is a metaphor
Made to include us, we are a part of it and
Can live in it as in fact we have done,
Only leaving our minds bare for questioning
We now see will not take place at random
But in an orderly way that means to menace
Nobody–the normal way things are done,
Like the concentric growing up of days
Around a life: correctly, if you think about it.

A breeze like the turning of a page
Brings back your face: the moment
Takes such a big bite out of the haze
Of pleasant intuition it comes after.
The locking into place is “death itself,”
As Berg said of a phrase in Mahler’s Ninth;
Or, to quote Imogen in Cymbeline, “There cannot
Be a pinch in death more sharp than this,” for,
Though only exercise or tactic, it carries
The momentum of a conviction that had been building.
Mere forgetfulness cannot remove it
Nor wishing bring it back, as long as it remains
The white precipitate of its dream
In the climate of sighs flung across our world,
A cloth over a birdcage. But it is certain that
What is beautiful seems so only in relation to a specific
Life, experienced or not, channeled into some form
Steeped in the nostalgia of a collective past.
The light sinks today with an enthusiasm
I have known elsewhere, and known why
It seemed meaningful, that others felt this way
Years ago. I go on consulting
This mirror that is no longer mine
For as much brisk vacancy as is to be
My portion this time. And the vase is always full
Because there is only just so much room
And it accommodates everything. The sample
One sees is not to be taken as
Merely that, but as everything as it
May be imagined outside time–not as a gesture
But as all, in the refined, assimilable state.
But what is this universe the porch of
As it veers in and out, back and forth,
Refusing to surround us and still the only
Thing we can see? Love once
Tipped the scales but now is shadowed, invisible,
Though mysteriously present, around somewhere.
But we know it cannot be sandwiched
Between two adjacent moments, that its windings
Lead nowhere except to further tributaries
And that these empty themselves into a vague
Sense of something that can never be known
Even though it seems likely that each of us
Knows what it is and is capable of
Communicating it to the other. But the look
Some wear as a sign makes one want to
Push forward ignoring the apparent
NaÏveté of the attempt, not caring
That no one is listening, since the light
Has been lit once and for all in their eyes
And is present, unimpaired, a permanent anomaly,
Awake and silent. On the surface of it
There seems no special reason why that light
Should be focused by love, or why
The city falling with its beautiful suburbs
Into space always less clear, less defined,
Should read as the support of its progress,
The easel upon which the drama unfolded
To its own satisfaction and to the end
Of our dreaming, as we had never imagined
It would end, in worn daylight with the painted
Promise showing through as a gage, a bond.
This nondescript, never-to-be defined daytime is
The secret of where it takes place
And we can no longer return to the various
Conflicting statements gathered, lapses of memory
Of the principal witnesses. All we know
Is that we are a little early, that
Today has that special, lapidary
Todayness that the sunlight reproduces
Faithfully in casting twig-shadows on blithe
Sidewalks. No previous day would have been like this.
I used to think they were all alike,
That the present always looked the same to everybody
But this confusion drains away as one
Is always cresting into one’s present.
Yet the “poetic,” straw-colored space
Of the long corridor that leads back to the painting,
Its darkening opposite–is this
Some figment of “art,” not to be imagined
As real, let alone special? Hasn’t it too its lair
In the present we are always escaping from
And falling back into, as the waterwheel of days
Pursues its uneventful, even serene course?
I think it is trying to say it is today
And we must get out of it even as the public
Is pushing through the museum now so as to
Be out by closing time. You can’t live there.
The gray glaze of the past attacks all know-how:
Secrets of wash and finish that took a lifetime
To learn and are reduced to the status of
Black-and-white illustrations in a book where colorplates
Are rare. That is, all time
Reduces to no special time. No one
Alludes to the change; to do so might
Involve calling attention to oneself
Which would augment the dread of not getting out
Before having seen the whole collection
(Except for the sculptures in the basement:
They are where they belong).
Our time gets to be veiled, compromised
By the portrait’s will to endure. It hints at
Our own, which we were hoping to keep hidden.
We don’t need paintings or
Doggerel written by mature poets when
The explosion is so precise, so fine.
Is there any point even in acknowledging
The existence of all that? Does it
Exist? Certainly the leisure to
Indulge stately pastimes doesn’t,
Any more. Today has no margins, the event arrives
Flush with its edges, is of the same substance,
Indistinguishable. “Play” is something else;
It exists, in a society specifically
Organized as a demonstration of itself.
There is no other way, and those assholes
Who would confuse everything with their mirror games
Which seem to multiply stakes and possibilities, or
At least confuse issues by means of an investing
Aura that would corrode the architecture
Of the whole in a haze of suppressed mockery,
Are beside the point. They are out of the game,
Which doesn’t exist until they are out of it.
It seems like a very hostile universe
But as the principle of each individual thing is
Hostile to, exists at the expense of all the others
As philosophers have often pointed out, at least
This thing, the mute, undivided present,
Has the justification of logic, which
In this instance isn’t a bad thing
Or wouldn’t be, if the way of telling
Didn’t somehow intrude, twisting the end result
Into a caricature of itself. This always
Happens, as in the game where
A whispered phrase passed around the room
Ends up as something completely different.
It is the principle that makes works of art so unlike
What the artist intended. Often he finds
He has omitted the thing he started out to say
In the first place. Seduced by flowers,
Explicit pleasures, he blames himself (though
Secretly satisfied with the result), imagining
He had a say in the matter and exercised
An option of which he was hardly conscious,
Unaware that necessity circumvents such resolutions.
So as to create something new
For itself, that there is no other way,
That the history of creation proceeds according to
Stringent laws, and that things
Do get done in this way, but never the things
We set out to accomplish and wanted so desperately
To see come into being. Parmigianino
Must have realized this as he worked at his
Life-obstructing task. One is forced to read
The perfectly plausible accomplishment of a purpose
Into the smooth, perhaps even bland (but so
Enigmatic) finish. Is there anything
To be serious about beyond this otherness
That gets included in the most ordinary
Forms of daily activity, changing everything
Slightly and profoundly, and tearing the matter
Of creation, any creation, not just artistic creation
Out of our hands, to install it on some monstrous, near
Peak, too close to ignore, too far
For one to intervene? This otherness, this
“Not-being-us” is all there is to look at
In the mirror, though no one can say
How it came to be this way. A ship
Flying unknown colors has entered the harbor.
You are allowing extraneous matters
To break up your day, cloud the focus
Of the crystal ball. Its scene drifts away
Like vapor scattered on the wind. The fertile
Thought-associations that until now came
So easily, appear no more, or rarely. Their
Colorings are less intense, washed out
By autumn rains and winds, spoiled, muddied,
Given back to you because they are worthless.
Yet we are such creatures of habit that their
Implications are still around en permanence, confusing
Issues. To be serious only about sex
Is perhaps one way, but the sands are hissing
As they approach the beginning of the big slide
Into what happened. This past
Is now here: the painter’s
Reflected face, in which we linger, receiving
Dreams and inspirations on an unassigned
Frequency, but the hues have turned metallic,
The curves and edges are not so rich. Each person
Has one big theory to explain the universe
But it doesn’t tell the whole story
And in the end it is what is outside him
That matters, to him and especially to us
Who have been given no help whatever
In decoding our own man-size quotient and must rely
On second-hand knowledge. Yet I know
That no one else’s taste is going to be
Any help, and might as well be ignored.
Once it seemed so perfect–gloss on the fine
Freckled skin, lips moistened as though about to part
Releasing speech, and the familiar look
Of clothes and furniture that one forgets.
This could have been our paradise: exotic
Refuge within an exhausted world, but that wasn’t
In the cards, because it couldn’t have been
The point. Aping naturalness may be the first step
Toward achieving an inner calm
But it is the first step only, and often
Remains a frozen gesture of welcome etched
On the air materializing behind it,
A convention. And we have really
No time for these, except to use them
For kindling. The sooner they are burnt up
The better for the roles we have to play.
Therefore I beseech you, withdraw that hand,
Offer it no longer as shield or greeting,
The shield of a greeting, Francesco:
There is room for one bullet in the chamber:
Our looking through the wrong end
Of the telescope as you fall back at a speed
Faster than that of light to flatten ultimately
Among the features of the room, an invitation
Never mailed, the “it was all a dream”
Syndrome, though the “all” tells tersely
Enough how it wasn’t. Its existence
Was real, though troubled, and the ache
Of this waking dream can never drown out
The diagram still sketched on the wind,
Chosen, meant for me and materialized
In the disguising radiance of my room.
We have seen the city; it is the gibbous
Mirrored eye of an insect. All things happen
On its balcony and are resumed within,
But the action is the cold, syrupy flow
Of a pageant. One feels too confined,
Sifting the April sunlight for clues,
In the mere stillness of the ease of its
Parameter. The hand holds no chalk
And each part of the whole falls off
And cannot know it knew, except
Here and there, in cold pockets
Of remembrance, whispers out of time.

W.B. Yeats: The Fascination of What’s Difficult

William Butler Yeats, Irish poet

William Butler Yeats, Irish poet

I want to continue with the idea of modern difficulty but first, a digression. In my previous post I mentioned the irony inherent in W.H. Auden’s elegy to William Butler Yeats, ‘poetry makes nothing happen.’  (Link to Auden reading the first part of poem below.) The primary irony I was referring to was using a line of poetry to dismiss poetry. The second regarded the significance of the elegy. Yeats was an Irish Nationalist, however his active involvement in the cause varied through time. Despite this, he was a catalyst for the Irish Literary Revival and wrote some of the most significant elegies for the Irish political plight, immortalizing in verse the moment in time and those involved. This of course is not ‘nothing.’  In the poem, Auden questions the social viability of art but the irony is that he does it through poetry, or what he calls the mouth, perhaps the most viable option for change. The question to ask is how can poetry ‘make nothing happen’ while simultaneously being ‘a way of happening’? This is from part II of Auden’s elegy:

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

That’s the end of the digression. Some food for thought. Now let’s move on to Yeats’s poetics.

‘Modern Poetry’ anthologies often begin with Yeats because he straddled the line between Romanticism and what we call Modernism. Yeats struggled with his position both temporally and artistically. In terms of the latter, he often vacillated (poetically and politically, Yeats was clearly indecisive). In any event, in his poem ‘Coole and Ballyhee, 1931’ he wrote, ‘we are the last romantics.’ (Most poets after Yeats will have you believe they had severed all allegiances to Romanticism—don’t believe them. Eliot himself was a covert Romantic.)

Yeats’s poem ‘The Fascination of What’s Difficult’ (1912) is an interesting poem regarding his liminal position between romanticism and modernism. He begins by stating that the admiration for ‘what’s difficult’ has left him empty of spontaneous poetic power (Yeats was interested in the occult, especially Hermeticism and automatic writing); he is both ‘rent’ (without) of ‘natural content’ meaning poetic power and material and ‘content’ meaning happiness. He is complaining about the movement toward modernism and how the pedantry necessary for it will take the joy out of writing. However, the poem is also about freeing the Pegasus, the colt that symbolizes poetry. There is a natural strain in Yeats’s poem; at once a freeing and a containing: the bounding colt now seems as though it ‘drag[s] road metal’ and is stabled.

en: Portrait of William Butler Yeats by John S...

During the poem’s composition, Yeats was running the Abbey Theatre (consider the theme of the stage in the last post on Stevens). Here it seems it is the ‘Theatre business, management of men’ that pulled him from romantic Irish mysticism to the world of modernity. This poem, through form and content, so cleverly portrays the inherent struggle with desiring to move forward while longing for the past. It is a nostalgia recollected at the moment of significant, positive personal change. Yeats sees and understands the fascination of what’s difficult. In pulling out the bolt he frees the Pegasus, allowing him to write however he wants. He refuses to give in to the pedantry of modernism, to ‘shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt’, and so should readers of modern poetry. Yeats was a modern poet but he never lost sight of the Pegasus. So take from all poetry what you see and capitalize on change but never compromise yourself.

Here’s the poem.

The Fascination of What’s Difficult

The fascination of what’s difficult
Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent
Spontaneous joy and natural content
Out of my heart. There’s something ails our colt
That must, as if it had not holy blood,
Nor on an Olympus leaped from cloud to cloud,
Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt
As though it dragged road metal. My curse on plays
That have to be set up in fifty ways,
On the day’s war with every knave and dolt,
Theatre business, management of men.
I swear before the dawn comes around again
I’ll find the stable and pull out the bolt.

Robert Frost: Spring Pools

Robert Frost, American poet

Not uncommon to the northeast, our weather has been rather erratic this year. A week or so ago I walked through the park in a long-sleeve and today I’ve become something of a frigophobic. In any event, sustained warmth is approaching; and because of this there is a widespread air of relief among those that are out-of-doors, a latent optimism ready to spring. This type of optimism is not such a positive thing. It is, rather unfortunately, a form of the modern American condition: in winter, we whimper for warmth, come spring and summer, we grumble under the sun. Doubtless, we lack presence; or perhaps we’re a lot of malcontents. The former is more poetic. As I thought about this, Robert Frost’s ironic and incongruent nature struck me, particularly in his poem ‘Spring Pools’ (1928).

‘Spring Pools’ is the first poem in Frost’s 1928 collection titled West-Running Brook. The male speaker in the title poem ‘West-Running Brook,’ comes to take on a rather pragmatic reading of the brook and nature in general. It is difficult to isolate a single excerpt from the poem without desiring to quote the poem’s entirety but here is the ‘gist’ of the poem:

‘Speaking of contraries, see how the brook
In that white wave runs counter to itself
It is from that water we were from
Long, long before we were from any creature.
Here we, in our impatience of the steps,
Get back to the beginning of beginnings,
The stream of everything that runs away.
Some say existence like a Pirouot
And Pirouette, forever in one place,
Stands still and dances, but it runs away;
It seriously, sadly, runs away
To fill the abyss’s void with emptiness.
It flows beside us in the water brook,
But it flows over us. It flows between us
To separate us for a panic moment.
Our life runs down in sending up the clock.
The brook runs down in sending up our life.
The sun runs down in sending up the brook.
And there is something sending up the sun.
It is this backward motion toward the source,
Against the stream, that most we see ourselves in,
The tribute of the current of the source.
It is from this in nature we are from.
It is most us.’                                  
                                -Lines 38-73

Reflection_2Emerson, a very important philosopher for Frost, writes in his essay ‘Nature’ (1836), ‘Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour and is not reminded of the flux of all things?’ Both ‘West-Running Brook’ and ‘Spring Pools’ are about the Emersonian flux, but they are dealt with entirely differently. More important than this common motif, is the Emersonian desire for presence. In ‘The Over-Soul’ (1841) (an essay that also discusses the omniscient flow of nature, as in the excerpt above) Emerson writes, ‘Do not require a description of the countries towards which you sail. The description does not describe them to you, and to-morrow you arrive there, and know them by inhabiting them.’ He means don’t strive to look into the future because we ‘will learn that there is no profane history; that all history is sacred; that the universe is represented in an atom, in a moment of time. He will weave no longer a spotted life of shreds and patches, but he will live with a divine unity. He will cease from what is base and frivolous in his life, and be content with all places…’ ‘West-Running Brook’ is about (among other things) accepting Time and Nature. ‘Spring Pools’, again the first poem of the collection, wishes to deny the course with (what I think is a sad) hubris.

The difference between the flow of the brook in ‘West-Running Brook’ and the trees in ‘Spring Pools’ is one of power dynamics. For Frost, the trees are tyrants, siphoning water and beauty from the smaller plants and the reflective pools through their xylem in order to secure their own splendor. The trees’ foliage garnered through this violent extraction would then ‘blot out’ the forest floor from the sun, killing more plants. Frost deems the trees malevolent (‘pent-up buds’ is, I think, a sinister language) and disregards the pragmatism in ‘West-Running Brook’—that Nature and Time ‘seriously, sadly, runs away’— preferring that the moment be sustained. He desires a presence akin to Emerson’s but without the consequence of death. He asserts this desire with phlegmatic hubris: ‘Let them think twice before they use their powers / To blot out and drink up and sweep away / These flowery waters and these watery flowers’ but the final line is stated with such a downhearted tone (note the word ‘only’) that we feel for the hubristic old man striving to stop the currents of time as we might feel for Milton’s Satan: ‘From snow that melted only yesterday.’

Throughout West-Running Brook nature becomes ‘dark,’ a sinister but necessary thing. In ‘Spring Pools,’ I believe Frost is cynically portraying a reversal of the American mind that will become corrected throughout the collection, reaching its culmination in ‘West-Running Brook,’ which asserts an understanding of flux. We must accept the way things are despite our own stubborn desires for something different. We must be the wave we are and learn to ‘run counter’ to ourselves. It will be winter for some time, but spring is soon to come.

Here’s the poem. Listen to the poem (read by Ted Hughes) by clicking the link below.

Spring Pools

These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.

The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods—
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.

Ted Hughes reading ‘Spring Pools’

A Mind of Winter: Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Snow Man’

snowA blizzard has begun. Their predictions were right but my vexation at having to reschedule a flight to Vermont subsided with that first sight of accumulation on the streets of Manhattan. I had hoped to experience the storm from some place of sylvan solitude; in lieu of drooping conifers and ivory fields, I turned to Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Snow Man’ (1921) and angled an IKEA chair toward the northeast window.

Since yesterday afternoon I have been mulling over how on earth I might follow the ‘The Broken Tower.’ Now it seems the obvious choice is Stevens. Crane and Stevens are both great 20th century American mystic poets. Both struggled intensely with the ideologies of a Judeo-Christian God and seemed to have favored in the end a form of Gnosticism, or what Stevens called ‘The Presence of an External Master of Knowledge.’ Put simply (something Stevens—and for that matter Crane—would not favor) it is a Oneness, a Oneness with nature, consciousness, all that mystic, Whitmanian jazz.

‘The Snow Man’ presents this sense of the unified whole brilliantly through the complete cohesion between form and content. Usually I would avoid this trope, however it is so well done in this poem that noted linguist Jay Keyser says it is the best short poem in the English language for this very reason. Personally, I feel that’s a stretch but it does accomplish that particular characteristic of great poetry better than any I can think of.

Wallace Stevens

The poem is a single sentence divided into syntactical units by semi-colons. As the poem is read and we arrive at the end of each unit, the mind renders the unit a completion. However each persistent ‘and’ necessitates the reassessment (the re-view) of what was read before and so through the apprehension of the unit, we try to reach the whole. In this way, reading ‘The Snow Man’ is in fact like watching a snowstorm: the eyes follow a portion of flakes down until they reach their supposed journey’s end, the eye then lifts, gathering another segment in its gaze and repeats in an attempt to witness the power of the storm. It is a wonderful analogy for the process of reading and re-reading—a necessary part of loving poetry.

More than this, the poem is the invitation to view things as they appear to you. This poem is more pertinent than ever in a world in which we take in information ceaselessly, clicking the shiny hyperlinks and formulating our opinions based not on the content of the page but the ads that flicker beside them or the inane comments that sit beneath. In the mystic tradition, the ‘nothing that is not there and the nothing that is’ is the void, the presence of absence denoted by the snow that seems to blot out the world by creating one anew. It is the everything out of nothing. The Snow Man sees things as they are because he is constantly reevaluating his position in relation to what is observed. He is aware that he is literally made up of the world that surrounds him—he truly has ‘a mind of winter,’ being a snowman, and knows that his presence in the world is directly affected by that which is outside of him and vice versa. The form and the content of the poem are entreating the reader to stop, pay attention to what they are reading, truly understand every aspect through reanalysis, see what is there and what is not and what is there because it is not there. It is asking you to understand your personal relation to the world and formulate your own opinions accordingly.

Here’s the poem.

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.