Feb 242003

The unsuspecting reader who opens Emily Dickinson for the first time, in the orthodox modern version, confronts something like this:

I started Early — Took my Dog —
And visited the Sea —
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me —

And Frigates — in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands —
Presuming Me to be a Mouse —
Aground — upon the Sands —

But no Man moved Me — till the Tide —
Went past my simple Shoe —
And past my Apron — and my Belt
And past my Bodice — too —

And made as He would eat me up —
As wholly as a Dew
Upon a Dandelion’s Sleeve —
And then — I started — too —

And He — He followed — close behind —
I felt His Silver Heel
Upon my Ankle — Then my Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl —

Until We met the Solid Town —
No One He seemed to know —
And bowing — with a Mighty look —
At me — The Sea withdrew —

So what’s with the dashes and the capitalization? Nothing, basically. Dickinson’s sentence structure is not loose or complex, and the dashes can be replaced by ordinary punctuation in nearly every instance. This labor is left for the reader who wishes to make sense of the poem. Sometimes the dashes are worse than a nuisance. In the second stanza the dashes surrounding “aground” turn a restrictive clause into a non-restrictive one. The dashes surrounding “too” in the third and fourth stanzas, if read as elocution marks, spoil the rhythm of the poem.

The capitalization is similar. In this poem she mostly capitalizes her nouns and adjectives, with a few exceptions. “Me” is lower-case about half the time. “Took,” a verb, is capitalized (stanza 1), while “look,” a noun, is not (stanza 6). The organizing principle is not apparent because the organizing principle is non-existent. A reader who wishes to make sense of the fine poem that is buried underneath this detritus has to translate first, in a sense. The effort would be more profitably spent reading the poem itself. Many readers, I’m sure, are put off enough not to make the effort at all.

This mess is largely Dickinson’s fault. She notoriously failed to prepare her poems for publication, leaving them instead, hand-written, almost illegibly, in little bundles, or “fascicles” (who was it who said that sounds like Mussolini’s favorite dessert?), in many cases with several variations preserved, among which the put-upon editor is forced to choose. Take a look at this manuscript, of one of her best poems, “Safe in their alabaster chambers.”

Safe in their alabaster chambers page 1Safe in their alabaster chambers page 2

Every one of those tiny marks between words is now in the authorized version of this poem as an em-dash, and the man single-handedly responsible for this fact is Thomas W. Johnson, a former Harvard English professor. Johnson did yeoman scholarly service when he published, in 1955, a three-volume edition of Dickinson’s poems, collating all manuscripts, including all variants, and allowing, but also requiring, any sufficiently interested reader to write out the best version of a poem. In 1960, Johnson published a one-volume Complete Poems, containing what he considered to be the “definitive” versions. The dashes have been with us ever since.

Now it should be obvious that a manuscript in this state cannot be published as-is. To begin with, there are three quite different versions of the second stanza. (It might also be a three-stanza poem with two variations on the third stanza; it’s hard to tell.) For Dickinson this is not unusual. More than half of her manuscripts contain multiple versions of at least one word; many of lines, and even stanzas, like this one. There are also multiple manuscripts for quite a few poems, and of course these differ among themselves as well. They need a real editor, not a transcriber.

Johnson usually tries to solve this problem by choosing the last version, based on a dubious analysis of how Dickinson’s handwriting changed as she aged. But she left all of the versions, not just one, and it’s mind-reading to assume, with none of them crossed out, that the last is what she wanted. As Yvor Winters wrote, “The only thing one can do in a situation like this is to choose the best versions; this takes talent, and Johnson lacks talent.” Lacking talent, Johnson attempts to reduce the problem of editing Dickinson to application of mechanical criteria. His criteria always fail to produce the best version and sometimes fail to produce a version at all. This very manuscript of “Safe in their alabaster chambers” defeats him; he ends up offering two versions; he cannot choose.

In the 19th century editors used to edit, often with unfortunate results. A mid-century edition of the works of George Washington renders a small sum of money, “as but a flea-bite at present” in the original, as “totally inadequate to our demands at this time.” By comparison Emily Dickinson received very gentle treatment from her first editors, Mabel Loomis Todd and Martha Dickinson Bianchi, the poet’s niece. They regularized her spelling and punctuation, showed some flair in negotiating the manuscript variants, and otherwise left her pretty much alone. In a dozen or so cases Todd substitutes words for which there is no textual warrant. (Bianchi, her successor, is clean on this score.) She notoriously changes “what a billow be” to “what a wave must be” in “I never saw a moor”; the poem is hopeless in either version. And she actually improves one of Dickinson’s greatest poems, “There’s a certain slant of light,” by changing “heft” in the first stanza to “weight.”

Later critics have jumped all over Todd for this, apparently preferring Johnson’s consistent approach, which wrecks all of the poems. But Todd and Bianchi do the hard work that Johnson leaves to the reader. This is Bianchi’s version of “I started early”:

I started early, took my dog,
And visited the sea;
The mermaids in the basement
Came out to look at me,

And frigates in the upper floor
Extended hempen hands,
Presuming me to be a mouse
Aground, upon the sands.

But no man moved me till the tide
Went past my simple shoe,
And past my apron and my belt,
And past my bodice too,

And made as he would eat me up
As wholly as a dew
Upon a dandelion’s sleeve —
And then I started too.

And he — he followed close behind;
I felt his silver heel
Upon my ankle, — then my shoes
Would overflow with pearl.

Until we met the solid town,
No man he seemed to know;
And bowing with a mighty look
At me, the sea withdrew.

Which one would you rather read?

(Update: AC Douglas comments.)

Feb 162003

Why is nearly all war poetry anti-war, and not just now, but always? Stanley Kunitz thinks it’s because “[war] is contrary to the humanitarian position that is at the center of the poetic impulse.” Poets oppose war because they care more deeply about humanity than the rest of us. If this satisfies you then stop reading now, by all means.

A poem motivates, through technical means like rhythm, meter and rhyme, the emotion proper to its rational statement. Emotion derives from personal experience. Thus the statement of poetry tends to be personal. This is not to say that poems cannot make complex logical arguments. But these arguments will relate, in the end, to a personal experience.

War is, at the level of the statesmen (and the pundits), where one decides whether to wage it, or even at the level of the generals, where one decides how, as impersonal a subject as one could wish for. To decide rationally to wage war one must put one’s emotions aside, which is the opposite of what poetry asks you to do.

Therefore most poetry about war is written at the level of the soldier, the best of it often by the soldier, and it’s understandably not very favorable to the enterprise. For the soldier war is a bloody, muddy, destructive, terrifying, chaotic smash — hell, as Sherman said. At this disastrously personal level it is impossible to be pro-war: no one enjoys war, for itself, except the morally deranged. This poem by Yvor Winters limns the difficulty:

Night of Battle
Europe: 1944
as regarded from a great distance

Impersonal the aim
Where giant movements tend;
Each man appears the same;
Friend vanishes from friend.

In the long path of lead
That changes place like light
No shape of hand or head
Means anything tonight.

Only the common will
For which explosion spoke;
And stiff on field and hill
The dark blood of the folk.

Winters fiercely supported the Second World War, but this poem is neither pro nor anti. To support a war one must regard it “from a great distance,” while poetry tends, on the contrary, to regard matters up close. As much room as there is for the individual, there is that much room for poetry; when one disappears the other must as well.

This is why pro-war poetry like Kipling’s sounds like tub-thumping. Kipling had little poetic talent: his poetry resembles great poetry as Sousa marches resemble great music. But mostly he chose a medium that does not suit the subject.

The problem of war resembles the problem of “what is seen and what is not seen,” as Bastiat put it, in economics. Unsound economic policies like tariffs win support because the benefits are seen, while the costs are invisible, being good things that never happen. (Not coincidentally, very little poetry has been written on economics.) War is the opposite. The costs are seen, while the benefits are invisible, being bad things that never happen. All art, and poetry especially, deals best with what is seen. So poems about war will tend to be against, or ambivalent, but always myopic. Anyone looking for geopolitical wisdom from poetry should look elsewhere. And when faced with a subject that’s out of their ken, poets, like actors, should just shut up.

(Update: Jim Ryan comments.)

Another: Andrea Harris notes this pro-war poetry site. The poems are not very good, but they’re better than the anti-war stuff.)

Feb 082003

Sam Hamill was right. He had no business at “Laura Bush’s tea party” — not because of his fatuous politics, but because of his fatuous poetry.

State of the Union, 2003

I have not been to Jerusalem,
but Shirley talks about the bombs.
I have no god, but have seen the children praying
for it to stop. They pray to different gods.
The news is all old news again, repeated
like a bad habit, cheap tobacco, the social lie.

The children have seen so much death
that death means nothing to them now.
They wait in line for bread.
They wait in line for water.
Their eyes are black moons reflecting emptiness.
We’ve seen them a thousand times.

Soon, the President will speak.
He will have something to say about bombs
and freedom and our way of life.
I will turn the tv off. I always do.
Because I can’t bear to look
at the monuments in his eyes.

I’m not sure how you repeat cheap tobacco, I’m quite sure I don’t want to investigate the question, and I’m 100% sure that’s not what Hamill’s repeating here. This is actually worse than Andrew Motion, worse even than Harold Pinter: those were still possible to parody. Give me the actors against the war. Some of them can actually act.

(Update: Emperor Misha and Cinderella comment. Frederick Glaysher protests to The New York Times, which predictably sided with the poets, and maintains a useful list of links on the whole sorry affair.)

Feb 052003

Part I: Statement in Poetry
Part II: External Evidence
Part III: Scansion
(This article should probably be first, not fourth, which is what happens when you embark on a series without any idea where you’re going.)

There are, fundamentally, two ways to read a poem: privately or publicly. A popular but bad poem best illustrates the difference. Since I have an especially persistent correspondent defending it, W.E. Henley’s “Invictus” will serve:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Let’s look at this poem closely. In the first stanza, why would night, a normal enough event, inspire the poet to give thanks for his unconquerable soul? The night may be metaphoric — one hopes so, since literal night is never black from pole to pole unless you’re sleeping in a tent — but still, one wonders, what is the trouble exactly?

In the second stanza we have the cliché “fell clutch.” “Winced nor” is both unnecessary and impossible to pronounce. Chance, not usually very thuggish, more a burglar than an armed robber, appears in the next line to do some bludgeoning, of all things. The last line is deservedly famous and is by far the best line in the poem.

The third stanza confronts us with “place of wrath and tears” as if the contemporaneous “vale of tears” weren’t bad enough. “[T]he Horror of the shade” or a phrase very like it appears in every third poem of the period.

The last stanza introduces the customary Heavenly machinery of gate, punishment and scroll. The poet, who is agnostic (“whatever gods may be”), imagines the afterlife as a possibility, and then asserts, curiously, in the famous close, that he is the master of his fate and captain of his soul regardless. Yet this surely depends on whether this imagined afterlife is real. I don’t think so, but the poet, on the evidence, isn’t sure.

“Invictus” is a bad poem, bad in detail and bad in execution, with one excellent and two other memorable lines. It is bad chiefly because motive is ill-adjusted to emotion. The poet is considerably wrought up about his unconquerable soul and defiant attitude, but he never provides a motive for this emotion, beyond some vague allusions to night, circumstance, chance, and the fact of his mortality. I am unconvinced by the phrase “the place of wrath and tears” that this world is so awful to inhabit. The reader who enjoys this poem supplies his own motive. Many readers are willing to do so, and the pleasure that they take in this poem is genuine. Popular poems are frequently on the “Invictus” model: they contain a couple of famous lines and a lot of unspecified motive for the reader to fill in. Yeats’s “The Second Coming”, Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” and MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica” are all of this type.

The reader who enjoys this sort of poetry indulges in a private reading. He is interested in his own feelings, not what is written on the page. Those feelings may be profound, but they have nothing to do with the poem. Suppose the first time you kissed a girl was at a junior high school dance and the band was playing “Desperado.” Now “Desperado” is your favorite song, God help you, for reasons that have nothing to do with any actual merits it may possess. Same thing here.

When you insist on a public reading, on restricting yourself to what’s on the page, you sacrifice a certain amount of immediate warmth and sympathy, a visceral appreciation for poems like “Invictus,” for the ability to enter completely into greater minds than your own, operating at their peak. You sacrifice heat for cold. It’s worth it.

Feb 022003

Over at Tightly Wound, in a post appealingly titled, “Note to Poets Everywhere — Basically, You Suck,” Big Arm Woman nominates William Carlos Williams as the all-time poetry villain. It’s a curious choice. I’d have to go with Milton myself, for throwing over the logical structure of the Renaissance, nearly single-handedly, in favor of sentimental associationism. Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” was a syllogism; less than fifty years later Milton is getting away with “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso,” collections of details loosely related to joy and melancholy, respectively. Milton also wrote a bizarre cognate of English, mixed with Latin, and, as Donald Sutherland says in Animal House, his jokes are terrible.

Williams, it is true, is usually a bore, though never as resounding a bore as Milton, and his slogan, “No ideas but in things,” indicates Williams’ distant acquaintance with the intellect. Nonetheless his talent was real, and his poems only superficially resemble the slack stuff that you find in the poetry journals nowadays. His best poem, I am sure, is “To a Dead Journalist”:

Behind that white brow
now the mind simply sleeps —
the eyes, closed, the
lips, the mouth,

the chin, no longer useful,
the prow of the nose.
But rumors of the news,

cling still among those
silent, butted features, a
sort of wonder at
this scoop

come now, too late:
beneath the lucid ripples
to have found so monstrous
an obscurity.

Any mildly attentive reader can hear that the rhythms are of verse, not prose. The metaphor for the experience of recognizing death is better than anything outside of Emily Dickinson. The three near-spondees, ending with “too late,” cleave life and death absolutely.

Even the notorious red wheelbarrow:

So much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

The first line is unforgivable, and the poem is tiny, but the miraculous “glazed” stamps the image in my mind indelibly. Nothing so well-executed is to be despised.

Big Arm Woman may object more to Williams’ influence than to Williams himself. There are writers — Wyndham Lewis calls them “literary barrens” — who are great themselves but disastrous as influences; Joyce is the best example. Except Williams wasn’t one of them. He was the opposite of an innovator: he adopted uncritically a literary movement (Imagism, the brainchild of Pound and H.D.) popular in his youth, never strayed, and brought it to its highest polish.

She mysteriously proceeds to plump for Whitman, who, um, sucks. He doesn’t even scan. Maybe it’s because he’s patriotic. He sounds patriotic, anyway, but Whitman is a transcendentalist. Remember Mikey in the Life cereal commercials, the kid who hates everything? Transcendentalists love everything, America included. It’s all part of the universal current:

One thought ever at the fore —
That in the Divine Ship, the World, breasting Time and Space,
All Peoples of the globe together sail, sail the same voyage, are bound to the same destination.

Bad as the verse is, the thought is worse, and both are characteristic.

Big Arm Woman points out that Whitman served as a nurse in the Civil War, which is supposed to make his war poetry, which she discreetly refrains from quoting, “haunting and moving in ways that Adrienne Rich should weep over.” Unfortunately his service failed to endow with him talent. The most haunting and moving novel I know about war is The Red Badge of Courage, written by a man who had never seen a shot fired. I have no use for Adrienne Rich either, but if any of Whitman’s war poetry is half as good as the Williams poem I’ve cited, I’ve yet to encounter it.

Jan 272003

Part I: Statement in Poetry
Part II: External Evidence
Part IV: Public and Private Reading
Part V: Tenor and Vehicle
Part VI: Practice

Consider the following two lines of verse. The first is from John Dowland’s songbook and was written in the late 16th century. The second is from Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” and was written in the early 20th.

Fine knacks for ladies — cheap, choice, brave and new!

The world is like wide water, without sound.

In rhythm they could hardly be less alike. The first is choppy: it sounds like the spiel of a carnival barker. The second is as calm as the water it describes. However, they are metrically identical. They are both perfectly regular lines of iambic pentameter.

They sound so different because rhythm is not meter. Meter is the arithmetic norm, the background. It’s like a time signature in music. One of the odd things about poetry is that it is a simple, easily recognizable meter that makes possible complex rhythmic effects. Syllable length, strength of accent, placement of caesura all make individual lines of poetry move differently, yet no meaningful variation is possible without underlying regularity.

In scansion, whether a syllable is accented depends not merely on the amount of emphasis it receives but on its place in the line and the line’s place in the poem. In this famous line from Ben Jonson

Drink to me only with thine eyes

the last four syllables are accented progressively more heavily; yet in the context of the line, and the poem, which is iambic tetrameter, “with” is accented and “thine” unaccented. Long syllables are also often unaccented. In the above line the longest syllables in the line are the first and the seventh, and neither is accented.

The major difference between the lines from Stevens and Dowland is in the strength of the accents. Stevens’ line sounds calm and regular because all of the accented syllables are longer, and receive more emphasis, than all of the unaccented ones. In Dowland, neither is true, and the effect is radically different.

Nearly all pentameter lines have a caesura, or a natural pause, because most humans cannot speak ten syllables without drawing breath. In the Dowland line the caesura is at the dash, after “ladies”; it’s a long pause that absolutely cleaves the line. In the Stevens line there are actually two short caesuras, one after “world” and the other after “water.” Its continuity, its wateriness, is emphasized.

One can also vary the meter itself; not every iambic pentameter line must contain five perfect iambs. But most rhythmic variation is achieved by other means, and poets who complain that a rigid meter like iambic pentameter is too confining have probably not seriously investigated its possibilities. Even poets who employ traditional meters sometimes make the same mistake. When Michael Snider, who advocates traditional meters, says, “using traditional meters means I don’t have to teach my readers how to hear the rhythms of my poems,” he confuses meter with rhythm and gets the case exactly backwards. The simpler and more obvious the meter, the subtler the rhythmic effects that are possible against it — the more your readers have to learn.

Here are the caesuras in our Hardy poem, longer pauses marked with a double slash:

My spirit / will not haunt the mound
Above my breast, //
But travel, // memory-possessed,/
To where my tremulous being found
Life largest, // best.

My phantom-footed shape will go, //
When nightfall grays, /
Hither and thither / along the ways
I and another / used to know
In / backward days.

And there you’ll find me, / if a jot
You still should care
For me, / and for my curious air; //
If otherwise, then I shall not, //
For you, // be there.

Each stanza ends with a four-syllable line, with a caesura in each: first after the third syllable, next after the first, and last in the middle, resolving the other two the way a note resolves a chord.

The metrical scheme is perfectly iambic, with three exceptions, all worth noting. Each of the poet’s two self-descriptions, “tremulous being” at line 4 and “curious air” at line 13, contains an extra unaccented syllable, which ties them together. The back-and-forth of “hither and thither” is beautifully conveyed by the inversion of the first foot in the line. It’s easy to overanalyze this sort of thing, but Hardy is one of the finest metrists in English, and I am certain that he heard these effects, even if he didn’t stoop to analyze how he produced them.

All of these effects can be traced back to meter, the one thing that distinguishes poetry from prose. Even free verse has meter, which is to say it’s not really “free” at all. The scansion of free verse is a large subject that I will save for another day, but here’s a heuristic: the one thing that free verse cannot be is iambic, because that’s what ordinary speech is. Loosely iambic free verse inevitably tightens up into blank verse, or devolves into prose. Almost all bad free verse contains large undigested chunks of iambs, like lumps in the mashed potatoes. If you find them, you’re not reading poetry. You’re reading prose broken up at odd places on the page.

Jan 192003

(Read Part I. Promised tomorrow, three days ago. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Those who prefer the gossip without the theory should skip to the bottom.)

The “New Critics,” now very old or dead critics, having had their heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, were a diverse group united, sort of, in the belief that the poem was “autotelic,” in the contemporary jargon. The poem was self-contained and to be read as such. Biography in particular was rigorously excluded: to introduce it was to commit what W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley called “the intentional fallacy,” which held the author’s intention to be irrelevant to the meaning of a poem. “Critical inquiries,” they intoned, “are not settled by consulting the oracle.”

Now that the Age of Psychology is in full flower, and the work serves mostly as grist for invidious speculation about the life, Wimsatt and Beardsley seem quaint. At least critics back then were still trying to interpret the poem. (It goes especially hard these days with authors whose lives were uneventful, like Emily Dickinson. A quiet life is easy to fill with speculation, and her feminist critics, especially, have not hesitated. Anyone inclined to psychoanalysis could have a field day with the critics of “My life had stood a loaded gun.”)

Yet poems do not float in the ether: some context is relevant. The date of composition matters, surely. Words change meanings. Critics who wish to find in a modern poet the secondary meaning of “come to orgasm” in the word “die” will embarrass themselves, since it disappeared by the 18th century. Words go in and out of favor. Our Hardy poem was written in the 1890s, when “hither and thither” were not archaic as they are now. Grammar changes: the dangling participle, considered illiterate now, is a common construction among learned Elizabethans. (See Greville’s “Down in the depths” for instance.)

If we take the “intentional fallacy” at its word, however, it is just as valid to find a pun on “die” in Wallace Stevens as it is in John Donne, and as valid to criticize Greville for a dangling participle as Wordsworth. Wimsatt and Beardsley are right to prefer public evidence, what is found in the poem, to private evidence, what is found elsewhere; but surely one cannot read private evidence out of the record altogether. (Borges’ little fable about Pierre Menard, who rewrote Don Quixote word for word, but 300 years later, making it a different work entirely, is an excellent joke on Wimsatt and Beardsley, or maybe on me, I’m not sure which.)

Nor are dates a mere matter of grammar and etymology. A Christian poem written in the 16th century is a good deal different from one written in the 20th. Without a substantial grounding in medieval theology and philosophy Dante’s Inferno is impossible to understand. Poems are not composed “autotelically”; how can they be read that way?

Even biographical information has its uses. Hardy was a widower who cherished his late wife and addressed many poems to her. One does not need this information to read “My spirit will not haunt the mound” — to which we will keep returning in this series, I promise — but one’s understanding of a line like “I and another used to know/ In backward days” is surely enriched by the fact.

(And now some New Critic gossip from the fine poet Tim Murphy, who had Robert Penn Warren (did anyone really call him “Red”?) and Cleanth Brooks at Yale: “The first time I met Professor Brooks was when the Warrens took me to his home for Thanksgiving dinner. The house was an 18th century Vermont farmhouse, post and beam, lovingly reassembled in the woods north of New Haven. The beams were about five feet eight off the ground, which was fine for Cleanth and his wife but a headache for anyone else. One guest was the great prosodic theorist, William Wimsatt. At six feet seven, he stooped with chin atop one of the beams, peering down at the proceedings like a bemused owl.

“The last time I saw Cleanth Brooks he chaired my oral examination as Scholar of the House in poetry. Like the other eleven SoH’s, I’d been given my senior year off; and I spent it reading all of Shakespeare twice, writing verse, learning Greek, adding to the twenty-five thousand lines Warren had had me memorize, chasing boys, and doing drugs. Having forgotten all about the oral, I’d dropped acid around 4:00 in the morning. At 8:30 the Dean’s office called: “Where are you?” Tripping my brains out, I ran the four blocks to Strathcona Hall. There sat Brooks, flanked by two assistant profs who hated my guts. For the next two hours I recited Homer, Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Timmy, leaving little time for questions. When I left, fearing disgrace, I’m told that Brooks urged that Murphy be given Honors for a year productively spent. Mine enemies dared not demur. The end result of this performance was that a terrible student was lifted from the ranks of the unlettered and granted a cum laude degree. Once more, I had escaped.”)

Jan 182003

The Rabbit wants to know, or pretends to want to know, what “Jamaicas of Remembrance” are in the following bit from Emily Dickinson:

And so encountering a Fly
This January day
Jamaicas of Remembrance stir
That send me reeling in.

I will answer the question as if it were serious though this will no doubt lead to my being made fun of. Humiliation favors the bold.

Emily Dickinson spent a lot of effort in her poetry on being odd, although she was pretty odd without trying. She would pick the proximate word very often, not the obvious one but the next one over. Most of her really weird locutions can be traced to this habit. Sometimes it would work, more often not. There’s an instance of each in “There’s a certain slant of light”:

There’s a certain slant of light,
Winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the heft
Of cathedral tunes.

Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.

None may teach it any,
‘Tis the seal, despair,–
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air.

When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes, ’tis like the distance
On the look of Death.

In the first stanza “heft” for “weight” is such an obvious failure, in apposition to “oppresses,” that her first editor, Mabel Todd, used “weight” anyway, even though it has no textual warrant. On the other hand, in the last stanza, “look of Death” for “face of Death” is completely successful. You win a few, you lose a few.

“Jamaicas of Remembrance” is like that. “Jamaica” is an exotic and uncharted region, or was in 1884, and that’s all she means. It sounds like it should be more but it isn’t. (The preceding analysis was partly lifted from the late and great J.V. Cunningham.)

Jan 152003

Part II: External Evidence
Part III: Scansion
Part IV: Public and Private Reading
Part V: Tenor and Vehicle
Part VI: Practice

“Poetry should be at least as well-written as prose.” –Ezra Pound

It should also be at least as well read. Poems are in words, words have denotations, and strings of words have, or ought to have, a logical meaning. The reader’s first obligation is to figure out what that meaning is. This is as true in poetry as in prose. The critic Cleanth Brooks devoted a famous book, The Well-Wrought Urn, to debunking what he called “the heresy of paraphrase,” by which he meant that the meaning of a poem is not identical with its paraphrase. Of course this is true — there would be no reason to write the poem if it weren’t; but I think even Brooks would concede that if we can’t approximate the poem in prose then we aren’t likely to get very far. Consider this poem from Thomas Hardy:

My spirit will not haunt the mound
Above my breast
But travel, memory-possessed,
To where my tremulous being found
Life largest, best.

My phantom-footed shape will go,
When nightfall grays,
Hither and thither along the ways
I and another used to know
In backward days.

And there you’ll find me, if a jot
You still should care
For me, and for my curious air;
If otherwise, then I shall not,
For you, be there.

Forget about the rhyme and the meter for the moment. Just lay it out in prose and ask yourself, what is Hardy talking about? The narrator refers to “his spirit” his “tremulous being,” and his “phantom-footed shape.” The narrator is imagining himself posthumously, as a ghost; once you realize this the other details fall into place. The “mound above my breast” is the dirt on his grave; he will come out “when nightfall grays” because that is when ghosts appear.

A prose paraphrase would go something like this: I will live, after I die, in the places that I loved and in the memories of the people whom I loved and who loved me. Only they, the living, can bring me, the dead, to life again.

Perhaps this seems obvious. Yet two highly intelligent and literate people to whom I have shown this poem have been utterly unable to make it out, and I know they would have easily deciphered a prose passage of equal difficulty.

Tomorrow I will talk about some of the things that are left out of the paraphrase.