New Yorker Poetry -- June 6, 2005

To answer dunkeys' questions, when prose is really good it gets called poetic. Many of you have heard the story of a certain Goat who had written a particularly prosey poem and was assailed for having “committed prose.” Kidding aside, I think that the music and the emotional tenor (probably something like diction or the particular word's natural habitat) of the language are vastly more important than subject matter, characters, setting, or situation. That is probably not true for most prose. Also line breaks are units of meaning that prose doesn't use. They are as important as commas or periods.

What makes a poem is tricker, but I don't think what makes a poem has changed since the advent of free verse. A poem is made by setting up expectations (rhythmic, sonic, intellectual, emotional, cultural, etc.) and either confirming or upsetting them in a meaningful way so that we can be made to feel something otherwise ungraspable. Part of the reason why poetry is difficult for many people to read is simply because they are not attuned to the rhythmic and sonic expectations. Kenneth Koch refers to poetry as a foreign language and the metaphor is a good one. If you can't hear the trochee in the third foot, you're missing out on part of the creation of the meaning. Part of the reason sub-par poetry flourishes is because it spends most of its time using emotional and cultural expectations. So, “I didn't expect to see that couple snogging in the cemetery.” I think I'm paraphrasing Richard Hugo: once the poem begins to attract itself more to what it should mean/say rather than how it should sound, it is dying.

I was going to do both poems but got carried away with the Merwin.

blue light
"Just This"
W.S. Merwin

15 lines. 10 syllables apiece. A whole shit load of anapests (syllables lined up unstressed – unstressed – stressed; often an anapest manifests itself in these patterns: preposition, article, noun (in the rain) or -ing, preposition, verb/noun (-ing the wall or -ing to run). Well, here are sounds making meaning at least. Let's investigate further.

Anapests are kind of rhythmic banana peels. You slide through the first two syllables and land hard on the stress. They are part of the reason why this poem jerks around a lot trying to settle itself, but moves into further reaches of its contemplation. And this poem is about thought and the movement of thought -— its fits and starts, its inability to stay still. The line late in the poem, “this reading by lightning” describes the main effect of the poem. The nouns and verbs get a lot of power; they go off like flashes, little explosions that provide meaning —- always partial. In reading poems that are particularly concerned about meter, one always feels that iambic feet (or several in succession) mean stability, safety, or comfort. They are the norm; some think of the beating of the heart -— we heard this pattern once we grew ears in the womb. Unstressed/stressed, unstressed/stressed. The ten-syllable line is to iambic what the color green is to leaves. Usually, other rhythmic patterns are scattered about runs of iambs so that you can feel the aberrations, then return to the calm of the iamb. This poem won't allow many iambs to collect anywhere so the search feels unsettling, chaotic.

First, look at the anapests in the first three lines “of the patience” “in the dark” “it was night.” Then something funny happens. “Light came” is a spondee. Two stresses in a row. Think of how powerful the slogan “Raid Kills Bugs Dead” is. Four stressed syllables in a row. Anyway, the first light we see in the poem is an explosion of stress. Night is something like being in Plato's cave. Then the anapests in the next line “at the speed it was born” before another bombshell, “born to.” So both the light and birth are the agents of power, agents of stress. The anapest “in the world” then another spondee, “fly through.” Also now he's rhyming, which is another agent of stress. So it's the thought/consciousness, it's genesis, and it's flight that are getting us all worked up.

The next line flirts with being iambic; this makes sense given the “not concerned.” The line is kind of the smoke break of the poem. Thought is always happening to us. Only when we really notice it does it begin to alarm or call attention to itself. Then we're back to our pattern “of the first stars.” This anapest followed by a stressed syllable is a kind of iamb on steroids, really unstressed-unstressed-stressed-stressed. The next two lines end trochee (stressed – unstressed), trochee. There are more anapests in there. The sounds are married to the meaning -- a flowery two lines. Ending the lines in the unstressed syllable speeds up the sound, letting you drift into the next line more easily. The hard stress at the end of a line is jagged, jarring. Then two anapests in a row in the next line “and the ages of rain.” Gorgeous. Two more lines in a row that end in trochees to recall the earlier two lines. Yes, we're still meandering around. Our thoughts are the genesis of universes. Still, when I paraphrase it, say what it “means,” it loses much of its meaning. The meaning is very much in the sound. The definitions of the words need to be thought of in the context of their pattern.

Then a rhetorical shift. The question is “how.” Appropriate for this poem as the how is much more important than the why. We're watching the dance not the dancer. Line ends, spondee – iamb. Lot of pressure, release, a little pressure “this little time.” Then the next line begins anapest (stress on time again) spondee (“this read-”). Another anapest (“-ing by light”) and a final unstressed syllable “-ing.”

There are 9 -ings which also keep the poem rhyming throughout. Vines to swing on though they come not regularly, which is a way to stay in constant motion, but haphazardly -— catch them if you can.

In the last line, the poles switch. The final six syllables are stress-stress-unstressed, stress-stress-unstressed. The ying to the anapest's yang. I had to look it up to see if it had a name, but it seems not to. It feels so emphatic but it has also moved from those early spondees to allowing this little release valve at the termination of the line. A move from the power of assertion, power of thought, to the acceptance and bliss of the inescapable imperfection of thought? The preference of this faulty bliss over the bliss of non-existence/total consciousness (after all, “patience” in the first line seems good)?

I don't know, but I can feel the mind moving behind the language. The mind is trying to find somewhere safe to land and cannot really light anywhere. I don't know. On the first few reads I was rather dissatisfied with the ending —- it felt pat to me. After beating it up a little though I can hear it singing and find it extremely accomplished and ultimately beguiling. By the end, the speaker is asserting, but it is emptiness that is found. Paradox, but one we're used to. Heaven is so loaded and I love “reading by lighting” more. I think it is a completely satisfying poem until the last word. It feels like it couldn't resist the urge to mean, to pronounce. Ultimately, the flip flop of the anapest signals the change in feeling, so I guess saying “heaven” makes it redundant. What if the last word was “cosmos?”


Vampiro said...

Whoa. I think I learned more about poetry from this post than I learned in all 5 years of pursuing an undergrad degree in English. Now, if I just read the actual poem...

Nice job chad.

the plunge said...

I second that emotion. Fascinating analysis, chadley.

Nate said...

Chad, an impressive articulation of what might be a poem if a poem were a thing that would be. Something I can never do satisfactorily. But I want to chime in on one point: You say that in a poem "the music and the emotional tenor... are vastly more important than subject matter, characters, setting, or situation." Two years ago I would have agreed with this unequivocally, but lately I’ve been more inclined to question the absolute privileging of form of content. They simply don’t make sense without each other, which is why so much experimental yaya is just plain boring. I think a good poem (one might say any work of art, but in poetry this process is so exposed) makes these two poles inseparable. You have to say it with that particular musical edge otherwise the content is not the same content. But we’re dealing with a verbal art, not jazz, concert piano or abstract painting. We all know semantic content will not disappear; instead, it seems one of the poet’s tasks to make our experience of the content improbably hinged on its container. We understand water in a new way because it sits in a glass.

Nate said...

p.s. btw, superb reading of the Merwin poem. Keep it up. Why can't we post the poems?

I was curious about the stress-stress-unstressed pattern. Paul Fussel's _Poetic Meter and Poetic Form_ lists several similarly odd Greek feet. Here are just a few of my favorite (let the dash equal an unsstressed syllable):

amphibrach -'-
antispast -''-
bacchic -''
ionic a majore ''--

Strangely, there is no mention of stressed-stressed-unstressed. The bacchic seems the inverse of that foot, and the ionic a majore is basically it w/ one extra unstressed syllable. I wonder if one wouldn't just scan the two feet as three, thus spondee, iamb, trochee -- which kind of makes it seem like a finale going through all the previous licks. But I haven't actually read it!

SER said...

I love reading your poetry analyses, Chad - please keep it up. I'm learning! Learning is fun!

Nate said...

Thanks for sending me the poem. I really dig it. One breathless surge. I love that rhetoric. I can't say I syntactically understand the end so well--it seems to be missing a verb: "how did this haste" what?

But anyhow, while I understand your problem with heaven as the last word, I think it stems from an unfortunate antisentimentalist reaction. But for me your suggestion of "cosmos" helps illuminate why "heaven" in fact works. "Cosmos" is far too latinate, too abstract, cerebral--everything's pretty thick anglo after "cell"* in the fourth to last line, and in a way, all those heavy, crisp, Germanic sounds bring us to precisely where or what this notion of "haste" is forever part of: an earthly, human situation, including heaven, and by heaven I think we have to read it as the human invention. I dunno. Just a stab.

*Interestingly (I just looked this up) "haste" seems to have roots in both Old French and West German. The OED says "the word was taken back into Middle Dutch, and thence into other Teut. langs." and continues to give examples of modern Dutch and German usuage. Seems to have been tossed around quite a bit!

chad said...

Another good poem by Merwin on Poetry Daily: