Tag Archives: Poetry Analysis

What Makes Walt Whitman Whitmanian?

Throughout my readings I have mentioned Walt Whitman with sweeping, vague references to his eminence and looming spirit. Sweeping because deeming something Whitmanian suffices as analytical synecdoche to say there is a strong sense of metaphysical unity in the poem; and vague because, to be honest, I don’t think I could define it, that is pinpoint it with accuracy. Whitman is a paradoxically elusive poet, burying his visionary power within his superficial simplicity (superficial meaning on the surface, nothing negative). I am no great reader of Whitman. I have glanced at his lesser works and have read “Song of Myself” several times. Strangely, I came to “When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloom’d” with some fervor after I lost my brother. It is his best poem, and that gentle elegy (for Lincoln) will haunt me when I venture to memorialize my brother in verse. The poem is especially significant today for not just myself, but the world, as we collectively mourn the assassination of John F. Kennedy 50 years ago, Friday. The poem remains important not only because of its strength, but also because it is an elegy for every one that has ever passed. Here we see that unity I mentioned (the initial ‘you’ is Lincoln. Also, a quick note that I have noticed confuses some new to poetry. When you see an awkward indent in verse, as we see at ‘and sacred death’, it is not the poet’s intended line break. The line is just too long for the page. In Whitman’s original text there is no break there: ‘For fresh…death’ is all one line):

(Not for you, for one alone,
Blossoms and branches green to coffins all I bring,
For fresh as the morning, thus would I chant a song for you O sane
and sacred death.
All over bouquets of roses,
O death, I cover you over with roses and early lilies,
But mostly and now the lilac that blooms the first,
Copious I break, I break the sprigs from the bushes,
With loaded arms I come, pouring for you,
For you and the coffins all of you O death.)

But where is the vision? And what makes it great? Why, when he writes, ‘I am to see to it I do not lose you’ (‘To a Stranger’) does it bear a heft as great or greater than a poetry well wrought and rife with, well, poetry; there is no ‘My life had stood—a Loaded Gun’, which we get in Dickinson, his withdrawn contemporary of equal eminence. I think his greatness is due to his self-regard, which stands separately from an egotism. He does deem himself ‘august,’ but he knows that any honor he is due is rendered wholly through his unbridled commitment to not only humankind but also the entire earth and cosmos. He is the paradoxical poet of expansion—manifested formally in what is called the operatic line due to its brea(d)th—as this expansion is only found in the psychological death-of-self. His self is selfless. He sings this self (which is not the Me Myself) only because it is the only way to appropriate and sing the entire world. (All italics are mine throughout.)

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

This is how ‘Song of Myself’ opens. Immediately he sees his presence in everything, every body, each gust of wind, and indeed every leaf of grass. I think the word assume here is often misread; Whitman’s stature is too large for him to admit that he is merely making assumptions and not stating universal truths. I read assume to mean take the shape of. So as we read his work we take the shape of the ‘the woman the same as the man.’ The truths are universal in that the truth he sings, the body, the body politic, and the nation’s body, are all literally the stuff of the universe, stardust smattered and strewn from the unifying explosion of our shared origin.

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the
stars,
And the pismire [ant] is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and
the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d’œuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depress’d head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.

I find I incorporate gneiss [rock], coal, long-threaded
moss, fruits, grains, esculent roots,
And am stucco’d with quadrupeds and birds all over…

This ‘assuming’ continues throughout ad nauseam:

‘I am the hounded slave’

‘I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the
wounded person’

‘I am the mash’d fireman’

This is what makes Whitman a great poet and a visionary. At a time when the country was torn apart in ‘fratricidal war’ Whitman volunteered as a nurse and wound dresser in Washington D.C. What little money he received went to buying clothes, pens, and even ice cream for the wounded. He read and wrote letters for the newly blind and amputated. This is why when he states ‘I am to see to it I do not lose you,’ it is so impactful. And this is why he is the great American poet. He cared. He placed himself among the suffering, suffered with them and, as a great lover of America, strove for a unifying vision that would end the madness and create equality for all. He saw, as we see through him, each individual in utter communion with every living and inanimate thing. That is what it means to be Whitmanian. I leave you with an excerpt from Song of Myself:

6

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands,
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than
he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green
stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and
remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the
vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive
them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out
of their mothers’ laps,
And here you are the mothers’ laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colourless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues,
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and
women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon
out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the
end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

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Hart Crane’s ‘Voyages II’

Lately I have been bogged down in my thesis. I have delighted in my work on the poetry of Wordsworth and Keats but I am also constantly called back to the Modernists. (I use the capital ‘M’ to signify the High Modernists so that I don’t contradict myself, as Wordsworth was one of the most significant originators of modernism, after Dante.) I chose to write my thesis on Romantic poetry so that I might better understand the modes of thinking that led to Modernism. After reading so much of Wordsworth and Keats, it became clear that one of my truest poetic loves, Hart Crane, did not draw as much inspiration from them as he did from Shelley and Blake. In any event, I am not drawn to Crane because of his poetic allegiances but rather because, after traipsing through Wordsworth’s Prelude and Keats’s epic Endymion, the awe of Crane’s compression always makes for a great sabbatical for the analytical mind. And though much of Crane’s poetry is compressed, there is nothing quite like ‘Voyages II’ from his visionary six part poem. I think that it is best to read the poem first, this time.

—And yet this great wink of eternity,
Of rimless floods, unfettered leewardings,
Samite sheeted and processioned where
Her undinal vast belly moonward bends,
Laughing the wrapt inflections of our love;

Take this Sea, whose diapason knells
On scrolls of silver snowy sentences,
The sceptred terror of whose sessions rends
As her demeanors motion well or ill,
All but the pieties of lovers’ hands.

And onward, as bells off San Salvador
Salute the crocus lustres of the stars,
In these poinsettia meadows of her tides,—
Adagios of islands, O my Prodigal,
Complete the dark confessions her veins spell.

Mark how her turning shoulders wind the hours,
And hasten while her penniless rich palms
Pass superscription of bent foam and wave,—
Hasten, while they are true,—sleep, death, desire,
Close round one instant in one floating flower.

Bind us in time, O Seasons clear, and awe.
O minstrel galleons of Carib fire,
Bequeath us to no earthly shore until
Is answered in the vortex of our grave
The seal’s wide spindrift gaze toward paradise.

When offering up a poem, I don’t usually like to piece the poem apart. I prefer to provide doorways into the poetry and for the reader to make of it what they will. But the diction is so tricky here that a close reading through the breakdown of the diction is necessary if we want to ‘understand’ the poem.

Hart Crane

Hart Crane

The dash that opens the poem tells us that it is a continuation of ‘Voyages I’, which ends: ‘The bottom of the sea is cruel.’ The ‘great wink’ then, is the ocean and the personification of the closed eye sets in motion Crane’s repetition of the curved, supple nature of the sea found in the ‘vast belly moonward bends’ and ‘her turning shoulders’. Here, contrary to medieval and romantic representations, the sea does not represent eternity but is itself merely a temporal aspect of it, as the ‘wink’ represents transience. Indeed ‘rimless flood’ sets up a difficult dialectic, as it seems to represent somehow the eternal in the temporal, as floods are a frightening actuality of humankind since Noah and ‘rimless’ would represent an infinite space. Likely, it is a metaphor for the boundless love he shares with Emil Oppfer, whom we meet in line five. (The term boundless is purposefully contraindicative of the poem’s finality.) Now, for one of my favorite parts. Crane calls the sea ‘Samite’, which is a heavy silk fabric still used in religious vestments. Thus, the sea is made holy. (Samite comes to us through the Greek hexamiton which means ‘six threads’ and Voyages is a six part sequence weaving in and out of time back onto itself etc. The analogy is there, do with it what you will.) The wonder of this metaphor is the way in which it obscurely grows. Samite was often interwoven with gold and silver, so when we get to ‘undinal’ there is something we can do with it. An Undine is a sea nymph, the root ‘unda’ is Latin for wave; the nymphs themselves are governed by the moon, so the ‘undinal vast belly moonward bends’. This is all well and good. However, what is more important is that for Paracelsus, a 16th century alchemist, undines were the elements in water necessary for alchemy. Therefore, when we later see that the sea is made of ‘scrolls of silver’ in line seven, the metaphor is complete and the sea is indeed samite, or interwoven with gold and silver. Then the belly of the sea protrudes when laughing with ‘the wrapt inflections of our love”. Crane is doing a lot here with the word ‘wrapt’. The inflections of their love are wrapt by the sea; however the two lovers are also wrapping their hands together because their love is [w]rapturous. That their love is rapturous is a key characteristic and is the reason why the sea is not laughing at them, but rather delighting in their love and also why the final vision is exultant.I have always found these next two lines as a signifier of Crane’s whole poetic ability (though ‘The Broken Tower’ is an epitaph that announces the very fracturing of its power). There is such a wonderful in-folding here that echoes the enfoldings of the close of the previous stanza. A ‘diapason’ is a swell of harmony. Indeed this is what both love and a poem represent, and so for Crane it is no wonder that the knelling swell of harmony crashes into itself (imagine a wave cresting and falling back into its calm surface) forming ‘sentences’, just as when Crane’s consciousness reaches its diapason and the swell emerges in self-reflective poems made of swelling vestiges of that self. (This aligns with the sea as a flower of death later to come, which represents Narcissus’s plight.)

Take this Sea, whose diapason knells
On scrolls of silver snowy sentences

Emil Oppfer

Then there is, I think, one of the most pathos-ridden turns in English poetry. As I have said, the lover here is Emil Oppfer, a Danish sailor. ‘Take this Sea’, beyond meaning merely ‘Take this sea, for example’ also becomes the Whitmanian proclamation to take the sea as a lover, an impossible sexual hubris. The poetic beauty of ‘sentences’ then immediately turns from its original meaning of poetry to mean being sentenced by a court, as the ‘sceptered terror’ symbolizes a type of damning aristocratic rule. Here the sea briefly transforms into something much larger, and more frightening: a society that reprimands their sexuality for religious reasons. But the sea (unlike humanity), whose mood (‘demeanors’) change at a moment’s notice cannot reprimand or sentence this love that was deemed true (or divine) when it was recognized as rapturous, and so there love is anointed by the holy samite sea despite what society thinks.

her demeanors motion well or ill,
[on] All but the pieties of lovers hands

There is no need to explicate the symbolism of the flowers in the following lines, though there is much here. It’ll suffice to say they prefigure the ‘floating flower’ in the penultimate stanza. What people have trouble with here is

Adagios of islands, O my Prodigal,
Complete the dark confessions her veins spell.

Regarding ‘Adagios of islands’ Crane states explicitly in an essay called ‘General Aims and Theories’, that ‘the reference is to the motion of a boat through islands clustered thickly, the rhythm of the motion, etc.’ ‘O my Prodigal’ is a call to Oppfer; he is prodigal in that he is very giving of love but also because, in the second sense of the word, he often leaves home to sail. Crane likely feared the potential of Oppfer’s sexual encounters, or ‘dark confessions’, during these trips, which the sea (life) has written onto his body. However, instead of wallowing in what Oppfer may have done, Crane notices that time is slipping away (‘Mark how her turning shoulders wind the hours’), and so he asks that they redouble their love, and make its climax come about quicker—to move from the adagio of love into a prestissimo—as the sea is going to pass a second judgment or ‘superscription’ on them, which is death.

Blake, ‘The Lovers’ Whirlwind’

In the end, the wish is fulfilled; the lovers remain bound in time through boundless love, holding hands, and so they can never truly die. What is most important in the final stanza is the word vortex. It reminds us of the ‘calyx of death’s bounty’ and ‘The portent wound in corridors of shells’ from Crane’s ‘At Melville’s Tomb’. Here the portent is Crane’s suicide. But it is not so portentous or mournful as ‘The Broken Tower’, rather the death is an elation. I’ll leave you with Harold Bloom, who summarizes the conclusion best. ‘The prayer [to the seasons] is suicidal, prophesying Crane’s leap into the Caribbean seven years later, since the bodies of the lovers are not to be washed ashore until the seal’s longing gaze for the lost mother is answered “in the vortex of our grave,” which in the Blakean sense of vortex intimates a resurrection, in which subject and object, spirit and body, unite again. And yet the tonalities of this concluding stanza are not suicidal, because desire is exalted over sleep and death. “Bind us” remains the dominant yearning and the celebration of the erotic completion continues to be ecstatic.’ (The Art of Reading Poetry, 2004).

Emily Dickinson’s Neuroaesthetics

English: Daguerreotype of the poet Emily Dicki...The process of reading as well as the effect it has on us as individuals is only just beginning to be understood. Recent instruments of brain imaging such as positron emission tomography (PET) scans and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have unleashed a bevy of information on our own neurology, bringing us closer and closer to understanding that slipping locus: mind. Floating within the liminal space between the empiric and the transcendent is art; at one point it seemed both fields grew parallel to one another, then they seemed to approach infinity asymptotically, now, in the field of neuroaesthetics, their paths will meet.

Emily Dickinson thrusts the entangled nature of art and science and the phenomenological experience of reading into our consciousness by disrupting or displacing it so that we consider our relation to not only what is being read but also our psychological self and our culture as a whole. Like many modern poets, Dickinson uses neologistic linguistic devices to corrupt language, so that we reassess our relation to it and the socio-cultural context in which it is placed. But her primary technique is elision, a method that demands we do not take her 
Basquiatlanguage for granted and slip into negligent forms of reading or contentment with the world of her poetry. Jean-Michel Basquiat once said, ‘I cross out words so you will see them more: the fact they are obscured makes you want to read more.’ Through linguistic obfuscation or total elision, Dickinson accomplish the same thing, reflecting and elucidating the functions of reading language for the reader.

Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention (2009) offers a relatively simple definition of the neurological complexities in the process of reading. Dehaene writes, ‘Written word processing starts in our eyes. Only the center of the retina, called the fovea, has a fine enough resolution to allow for the recognition of small print. Our gaze must therefore move around the page constantly. Whenever our eyes stop, we recognize one or two words. Each of them is then split up into myriad fragments by retinal neurons and must be put back together before it can be recognized. Our visual system progressively extracts graphemes, syllables, prefixes, suffixes, and root words. Two major parallel processing routes eventually come into play: the phonological route, which converts letters into speech sound, and the lexical route, which gives access to a mental dictionary of word meaning’ (9 [italics mine]).

The act of reading involves the process of encoding, retrieval, and decoding. Overtime our neurons become trained, internalizing graphic signs in constituent parts, i.e. phonemes and graphemes. Each time we look at a word, synapses fire in order for the brain to retrieve information from within memory banks and subsequently sift through their potential meanings. This process occurs within approximately a tenth to a half a second. The eye shifts back and forth intermittently, pausing at moments when the brain decodes small chains of language or when the eye must respond to changes in light or other external shifts in the surrounding environment. These movements of the eye are called saccades. Saccadic movement allows the fovea to scan lines of text, as the fovea is only wide enough to see six to seven characters at a time. The encoded graphic representations of language are then sent (primarily) to an area located in the occipital region of the brain where encoded language is decoded through a process Dehaene calls ‘neuronal recycling,’ allowing the brain to recall patterns and become attuned to the subtleties of language, such as homonym. All of this takes an incredible amount of neurological activity and thus energy and heightens the significance of language in the development of not only culture but also who we are as individuals.

In 1862 Dickinson experienced her greatest moment of personal and mental turmoil, however it was also her most prolific period in which she wrote 366 poems. Capitalizing on the somewhat vague understanding of Dickinson’s condition, psychoanalysts often studied this period of Dickinson’s work to show the significant fragmentation in the processes of thought during psychotic breakdowns. Perhaps her agoraphobia allowed her to regress into her interiority due to little contact with the outside world or maybe her anxiety was sublimated into art (likely both); whatever the cause of her creative energy, it is during this time that her poetry seems to focus most heavily on the manner in which body and brain receive information.

As we have seen in the brief introduction to the neurology of reading, the brain receives graphemes (and most information) in fragmented units and subsequently interprets coherent wholes out of them, oftentimes intercalating the missing pieces. Given that the mind only registers one or two words at each pause, Dickinson’s dash takes on great importance in regard to the way we read and understand her work. In implementing the dash, Dickinson is asking the mind to pause in order for it to register unconsciously what it has just encoded, allowing the decoding process to initiate before the movement to the next graphic chain, thereby providing a neurologic immediacy to the process of reading her work. This is an important aspect of Dickinson’s poetry as her elision often renders syntactical meaning perplexing. Through fragmentation, the brain slows and processes what it is reading, interpolates the elided information, and focuses on the language present. This seems counterintuitive to what the dashes and the abstraction of Dickinson’s work seem to be accomplishing (or not accomplishing) superficially. The dash does sometimes speed up the reader consciously but by placing this meaningless (meaningless in that it has no lexical meaning) graphic, the brain processes the information better. It is this type of poetic trickery or obfuscation that makes her poetry so immediate, so physical. Consider how important each chain becomes in ‘Departed – to the judgment –’(1862):

Departed – to the judgment –
A Mighty Afternoon –
Great Clouds – like Ushers – leaning –
Creation – looking on –
The flesh – Surrendered – Cancelled –
The Bodiless – begun –
Two Worlds – like Audiences – disperse –
And leave the Soul – alone –

She seems aware of the saccadic movement of the eye and the importance it has in reading and is therefore asking us to slow down, to encode/decode the unit before moving on to the next chain or line; she wants our attention to remain for some time on the segments delineated by the dash before continuing and she does not want to fill the space with conjunctions, prepositions or useless language.

The abstraction present in this poem is typical of Dickinson and furthers our desires to pay particular attention to the language. The poem seems to be about the soul’s state after death under that public eye of nature; it is a dying into nature whereby the body is surrendered and cancelled. The setting of the death is a storm. In a letter discussing her growing dependence upon her sister and her fear of being alone, Dickinson writes, ‘Vinnie has been all, so long, I feel the oddest fright at parting with her for an hour, lest a storm arise, and I go unsheltered’ (Letter 200). Storms become an important symbol and metaphor of psychological torment; read this way, the poem is enacting the psychological state of a panic attack. Anxiety is the term for a fear without a specific focus and patients describe them ‘as a simulation of death’ (McDermott). (Dickinson’s panic attacks were probably the reason for her obsession with death and the persistent placement of the speaker in the very act of dying or beyond the grave.) In the poem, ‘Two Worlds’ are leaving the ‘Soul – alone’, one is explicitly the body and so the second (because it cannot be the Soul which leaves the Soul alone) is likely the mind; thus the speaker is experiencing being both without body and without mind. During panic attacks, patients describe the feelings of being disconnected from their body and that they are ‘going insane.’ In this poem Dickinson is relaying through form the psychological distress of death or impending doom whose locus is indeterminate or abstract, hence the poem’s enigmatic nature. The form and content represent that ‘snarl in the brain’ present during her greatest moments of psychological torment.

The cryptic nature of Dickinson’s poetry is also due to the fact that she is often skeptical of religion, afterlife, and morality as well as the manner in which humans are able to receive and subsequently record external phenomena. In her poetry, this skepticism is often the result of the tender and quite capricious nature of the brain’s neurological makeup, which, according to Joseph LeDoux, is what makes the self: he calls this notion the synaptic self. It is clear that synapses allow us to be; the unconscious processes of synaptic firings allow us to breathe, sit, walk, think, speak, read etc. However, LeDoux argues that synapses are as important as nature (genetics) and nurture (or religion, culture etc.). An important aspect of this theory is that because we are consistently changing physiologically, our mindset changes as well. We are, by the very nature of our somewhat whimsical synapses, protean. Helen Vendler writes that Dickinson creates ‘structures that mimic the structure of life at any moment she conceives it’ and ‘[b]y those structures…channels our reactions, adjusts our pace to her and molds our thinking after her own’ (34).  Dickinson discusses the manner in which our brains often run counter to ourselves (a theme taken up in my post on Frost’s ‘Spring Pools’) despite our desires to think differently in ‘I felt a Cleaving in my Mind’ (1864).

I felt a Cleaving in my Mind—
As if my Brain had split—
I tried to match it—Seam by Seam—
But could not make it fit.

The thought behind, I strove to join
Unto the thought before—
But Sequence ravelled out of Sound
Like Balls—upon a Floor.

For Dickinson, the fissure in the mind feels like it is a direct result of the brain’s being split: she initiates with the Whitmanian thesis: ‘[w]e do not have a body, we are a body’ (Lehrer). While this poem discusses cognitive disjunction known to everyone, the language chosen as well as the form into which it is placed heightens the problem of the poem by making that very problem latent in the diction and syntax.

lobessssIn the process of reading, the visual recognition of word triggers myriad neurological circuits that have been conditioned and fortified through our environment, learning, and reading behaviors. With the recognition of a graphic form as a potential grapheme or word, we begin the process of decoding the smallest groupings of letters into potential words while simultaneously seeking in lexical and auditory memory banks, memories that we can apply to what is seen. The brain does not do this immediately, and so it must sequence patterns of recognition to seek out banks of possible auditory and lexical meaning. Overtime, through the process of reading and ‘neuron recycling,’ the brain becomes aware of homonyms and understands it must differentiate these twinned lexical graphics using contextual signs. However, this is not always immediately possible, and so meanings slide and we fall victim to innocent parapraxis while reading or speaking. In ‘I felt a Cleaving in my Mind’ the difficulty of the poem is substantiated by homonymic difficulties, echoing in the reader’s mind the struggle which Dickinson is discussing.

In the Oxford English Dictionary, the verb cleave has two separate meanings. The first is (1) ‘To part or divide by a cutting blow; to hew asunder; to split’. The second meaning is its exact opposite: (2) ‘To attach to.’ (Because the line break is accentuated by the dash, the brain may register this latter meaning first). At the close of the second line—with that hard split—the meaning becomes clear and the cleaving is a splitting. What makes this homonymic moment more impressive is the fact that Dickinson is lamenting the loss of the second meaning, she in fact wishes her mind would cleave (2) and not cleave (1). This would lack importance if it were an insolated incident within the poem, however Dickinson repeats the lexical trickery with the word ravel. Here ravel in fact has three meanings. (1) ‘To entangle; to confuse, perplex; to render incoherent or muddled;’ (2) ‘of a skein of yarn, a spool or reel of thread, etc.: to become unwound;’ and (3) ‘to knit or bring together.’ The superficial meaning is the first meaning (1): Dickinson cannot connect one thought to the next and is therefore confused. It is the last two meanings that perform the deception. Taking ‘Seam by Seam’ to be a knitting metaphor, ravel initially means that her thoughts are unwound; however, the secondary definition means that in its becoming unwound it is knit together, just as one must unravel a spool of thread to ravel (knit) an article of clothing. The sequence (patterning) ravels out of caterwauling auditory input (‘Balls – upon a floor’) and Dickinson is consciously unable to align her thinking patterns to that sequence; though subconsciously, on a neurological level, the brain is making meaning: on a superficial level the disparate meaning of lexical input is consciously rendered cryptic and yet meaning arises out of the mind’s ability to pattern properly, however unlikely it seems.

In her use of dichotomous language, Dickinson is lamenting not the fact that she cannot think properly but rather that this is in fact the process of thought, especially in times of psychological distress. The cleaving of the mind as a result of the brain’s splitting continues the theme of being disconnected from her body, and in that disconnect her thoughts become subject to the seemingly arbitrary will of synaptic energies, however it is those very energies that create the poem. Two years prior to the composition of this poem, and during a tumultuous time, Dickinson wrote on the notion of the brain’s arbitrary connections in ‘The Brain, within its Groove’ (1862):

The Brain, within its Groove
Runs evenly—and true—
But let a Splinter swerve—
‘Twere easier for You—
To put a Current back—
When Floods have slit the Hills—
And scooped a Turnpike for Themselves—
And trodden out the Mills—

This poem is attuned to LeDoux’s notion of the synaptic self whereby the self, as much at is informed by culture, religion, etc. is really dependent upon patterns of synapse. The brain is plastic and is changing constantly through synapses as we continue to change day to day. This plasticity not only literally reshapes our minds but also our personality, our thoughts and even our beliefs. Dickinson is stating, as countless neurologists have stated (and recidivists proven), it is easier to learn than it is to unlearn.

***

Works Cited:

Dehaene, Stanislas. Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention. New York: Penguin Books, 2009.

Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Eds. Thomas H. Johnson & Theodora Ward, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Johnson, Thomas H. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960.

LeDoux, Joseph. Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

Lehrer, Jonah. Proust was a Neuroscientist. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007.

McDermott, John F. ‘Emily Dickinson’s “Nervous Prostration” and its Possible Relation to Her Work .’Emily Dickinson Journal. 9.1 (2008): 71-86.

Vendler, Helen. ‘Emily Dickinson Thinking.’ Parnassus 26.1 (2001): 34-56.

Stanley Kunitz: The Testing-Tree

Magic LanternI haven’t dreamed in months. My brain is numb with thinking, burned-out, gutted. I wake each morning to only the hoary, fragmented recollection of the pages I was reading before I fell into sleep, adrift in the glow of the kitchen light. I know that dreams had flickered and doused like lights in an electric storm, but they are impossibly distant (magic) lanterns and the mind’s nights are uneventful. So I have turned again to my dreamer, Stanley Kunitz.


Kunitz makes it into every important anthology and yet I’ve never heard his name murmured by graduates of verse in any 
New York City dive. Kunitz died in 2006 at the age of 100 and he racked up every important literary award and position along Kunitz1the way. His honors include the National Book Award, the Bollingen Prize, a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, the State Poet of New York, the Pulitzer Prize, and the United States Poet Laureate. But no one seems to be writing or talking about this contemporary of Eliot, Pound, Frost, Stevens etc. whose wide-reaching influence includes Theodore Roethke, W.H. Auden, Robert Lowell, and so forth and so on until the early 21st century.

Kunitz’s ‘The Testing-Tree’ is one of his most visionary poems. In it, he progresses from a reflection on his childhood to, as he states, a recurring dream. In future, I will likely provide some entryways into the poem . But for now, I think it should only be read and read again. All I will say is listen to the voice. This is a voice that has lived. A voice that has loved and hurt, hurt and plunged, plunged and risen. It is an authoritative and chilling voice; a human voice whose heart ‘breaks and breaks / and lives by breaking.’ His is a voice that has dreamed and dreamed and dreamed.

Here’s the poem:

The Testing-Tree

1

On my way home from school
   up tribal Providence Hill
      past the Academy ballpark
where I could never hope to play
   I scuffed in the drainage ditch
      among the sodden seethe of leaves
hunting for perfect stones
   rolled out of glacial time
      into my pitcher's hand;
then sprinted lickety-
   split on my magic Keds
      from a crouching start,
scarcely touching the ground
   with my flying skin
      as I poured it on
for the prize of the mastery
   over that stretch of road,
      with no one no where to deny
when I flung myself down
   that on the given course
      I was the world's fastest human.


2

Around the bend
   that tried to loop me home
      dawdling came natural
across a nettled field
   riddled with rabbit-life
      where the bees sank sugar-wells
in the trunks of the maples
   and a stringy old lilac
      more than two stories tall
blazing with mildew
   remembered a door in the 
      long teeth of the woods.
All of it happened slow:
   brushing the stickseed off,
      wading through jewelweed
strangled by angel's hair,
   spotting the print of the deer
      and the red fox's scats.
Once I owned the key
   to an umbrageous trail
      thickened with mosses
where flickering presences
   gave me right of passage
      as I followed in the steps
of straight-backed Massassoit
   soundlessly heel-and-toe
      practicing my Indian walk.


3

Past the abandoned quarry
   where the pale sun bobbed
      in the sump of the granite,
past copperhead ledge,
   where the ferns gave foothold,
      I walked, deliberate,
on to the clearing,
   with the stones in my pocket
      changing to oracles
and my coiled ear tuned
   to the slightest leaf-stir.
      I had kept my appointment.
There I stood in the shadow,
   at fifty measured paces,
      of the inexhaustible oak,
tyrant and target,
   Jehovah of acorns,
      watchtower of the thunders,
that locked King Philip's War
   in its annulated core
      under the cut of my name.
Father wherever you are
    I have only three throws
       bless my good right arm.
In the haze of afternoon,
   while the air flowed saffron,
      I played my game for keeps--
for love, for poetry,
   and for eternal life--
      after the trials of summer.

4

In the recurring dream
   my mother stands
      in her bridal gown
under the burning lilac,
   with Bernard Shaw and Bertie
      Russell kissing her hands;
the house behind her is in ruins;
   she is wearing an owl's face
      and makes barking noises.
Her minatory finger points.
   I pass through the cardboard doorway
      askew in the field
and peer down a well
   where an albino walrus huffs.
      He has the gentlest eyes.
If the dirt keeps sifting in,
   staining the water yellow,
      why should I be blamed?
Never try to explain.
   That single Model A
      sputtering up the grade
unfurled a highway behind
   where the tanks maneuver,
      revolving their turrets.
In a murderous time
   the heart breaks and breaks
      and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go
   through dark and deeper dark
      and not to turn.
I am looking for the trail.
   Where is my testing-tree?
      Give me back my stones!

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
shadows
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.

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.