T.E. Hulme, “Romanticism & Classicism”

1911

An early proponent of imagism, in this essay Hulme advocates a poetic turn away from the excesses of Romanticism and back to something more like classicism, which shows restraint and precision. Writers must get “the exact curve of the thing” from the “zest” they have for the object at hand. Its interest in newness of metaphor and defamiliarization, in combination with an imagist reading of the restraint of the classics, trace a continuum from the Russian Formalists through Hulme to Pound’s “make it new.” Some excerpts:

Here is the root of all romanticism: that man, the individual, is an infinite reservoir of possibilities; and if you can so rearrange society by the destruction of oppressive order then these possibilities will have a chance and you will get Progress.

One can define the classical quite clearly as the exact opposite to this. Man is an extraordinarily fixed and limited animal whose nature is absolutely constant. It is only by tradition and organisation that anything decent can be got out of him.

This view was a little shaken at the time of Darwin. You remember his particular hypothesis, that new species came into existence by the cumulative effect of small variations—this seems to admit the possibility of future progress. But at the present day the contrary hypothesis makes headway in the shape of De Vries’s mutation theory, that each new species comes into existence, not gradually by the accumulation of small steps, but suddenly in a jump, a kind of sport, and that once in existence it remains absolutely fixed. This enables me to keep the classical view with an appearance of scientific backing.

Put shortly, these are the two views, then. One, that man is intrinsically good, spoilt by circumstance; and the other that he is intrinsically limited, but disciplined by order and tradition to something fairly decent. To the one party man’s nature is like a well, to the other like a bucket. The view which regards man as a well, a reservoir full of possibilities, I call the romantic; the one which regards him as a very finite and fixed creature, I call the classical.

It is like pouring a pot of treacle over the dinner table. Romanticism then, and this is the best definition I can give of it, is spilt religion.

What I mean by classical in verse, then, is this. That even in the most imaginative flights there is always a holding back, a reservation. The classical poet never forgets this finiteness, this limit of man. He remembers always that he is mixed up with earth. He may jump, but he always returns back; he never flies away into the circumambient gas.

You might say if you wished that the whole of the romantic attitude seems to crystallise in verse round metaphors of flight. Hugo is always flying, flying over abysses, flying up into the eternal gases. The word infinite in every other line. In the classical attitude you never seem to swing right along to the infinite nothing.

When I say that I dislike the romantics, I dissociate two things: the part of them in which they resemble all the great poets, and the part in which they differ and which gives them their character as romantics. It is this minor element which constitutes the particular note of a century, and which, while it excites contemporaries, annoys the next generation.

The thing has got so bad now that a poem which is all dry and hard, a properly classical poem, would not be considered poetry at all. How many people now can lay their hands on their hearts and say they like either Horace or Pope? They feel a kind of chill when they read them.

The dry hardness which you get in the classics is absolutely repugnant to them. Poetry that isn’t damp isn’t poetry at all. They cannot see that accurate description is a legitimate object of verse. Verse to them always means a bringing in of some of the emotions that are grouped round the word infinite.

 I can now get on to a discussion of two words often used in this connection, ‘fresh’ and ‘unexpected’. You praise a thing for being ‘fresh’. I understand what you mean, but the word besides conveying the truth conveys a secondary something which is certainly false. When you say a poem or drawing is fresh, and so good, the impression is somehow conveyed that the essential element of goodness is freshness, that it is good because it is fresh. Now this is certainly wrong, there is nothing particularly desirable about freshness per se. Works of art aren’t eggs.

It isn’t the scale or kind of emotion produced that decides, but this one fact: Is there any real zest in it? Did the poet have an actually realised visual object before him in which he delighted? It doesn’t matter if it were a lady’s shoe or the starry heavens.

Fancy is not mere decoration added on to plain speech. Plain speech is essentially inaccurate. It is only by new metaphors, that is, by fancy, that it can be made precise.

A literature of wonder must have an end as inevitably as a strange land loses its strangeness when one lives in it. Think of the lost ecstasy of the Elizabethans. ‘Oh my America, my new found land,’ (8) think of what it meant to them and of what it means to us. Wonder can only be the attitude of a man passing from one stage to another, it can never be a permanently fixed thing.

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T.S. Eliot, “Tradition & the Individual Talent”

1921

Published in The Sacred Wood, this is probably Eliot’s most famous essay. In it he puts forth the argument for poetic “impersonality,” wherein the poet is the platinum in a refining catalytic reaction – he removes himself from the art he creates (think David Mitchell vs. Vladimir Nabokov?). In essence, though art itself does not get “better”- there is no teleological progression – it is nevertheless alchemical in that its material changes to suit its time. The model of disinterestedness is in the tradition of Kant and Flaubert as picked up in Joyce (the artist paring his fingernails). Some excerpts:

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of æsthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature, will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.

The poet must be very conscious of the main current, which does not at all flow invariably through the most distinguished reputations. He must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same.

Some one said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.” Precisely, and they are that which we know.

What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.

There remains to define this process of depersonalization and its relation to the sense of tradition. It is in this depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science. I shall, therefore, invite you to consider, as a suggestive analogy, the action which takes place when a bit of finely filiated platinum is introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide.

The analogy was that of the catalyst. When the two gases previously mentioned are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nevertheless the newly formed acid contains no trace of platinum, and the platinum itself is apparently unaffected; has remained inert, neutral, and unchanged. The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum. It may partly or exclusively operate upon the experience of the man himself; but, the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.

The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all.

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.

There are many people who appreciate the expression of sincere emotion in verse, and there is a smaller number of people who can appreciate technical excellence. But very few know when there is expression of significant emotion, emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet. The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.

Gwendolyn Brooks: Poems

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) is a late inheritor of the Harlem Renaissance vein of poetry. She is known for the versatility of her experimental styles and themes.

A STREET IN BRONZEVILLE, 1945

“KITCHENETTE BUILDING”

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” mate, a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent”, “feeding a wife”, “satisfying a man”.

But could a dream sent up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms,

Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?

We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

Think of “Harlem,” by Langston Hughes in connection with the imagery of the dream here.

“THE MOTHER”

Abortions will not let you forget.
You remember the children you got that you did not get,
The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,
The singers and workers that never handled the air.
You will never neglect or beat
Them, or silence or buy with a sweet.
You will never wind up the sucking-thumb
Or scuttle off ghosts that come.
You will never leave them, controlling your luscious sigh,
Return for a snack of them, with gobbling mother-eye.
I have heard in the voices of the wind the voices of my dim killed children.
I have contracted. I have eased
My dim dears at the breasts they could never suck.
I have said, Sweets, if I sinned, if I seized
Your luck
And your lives from your unfinished reach,
If I stole your births and your names,
Your straight baby tears and your games,
Your stilted or lovely loves, your tumults, your marriages, aches, and your deaths,
If I poisoned the beginnings of your breaths,
Believe that even in my deliberateness I was not deliberate.
Though why should I whine,
Whine that the crime was other than mine?—
Since anyhow you are dead.
Or rather, or instead,
You were never made.
But that too, I am afraid,
Is faulty: oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said?
You were born, you had body, you died.
It is just that you never giggled or planned or cried.
Believe me, I loved you all.
Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you
All.
Remarkable for its early, candid treatment of abortion, if somewhat maudlin.

“A SONG IN THE FRONT YARD”

I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.
I want to go in the back yard now
And maybe down the alley,
To where the charity children play.
I want a good time today.
They do some wonderful things.
They have some wonderful fun.
My mother sneers, but I say it’s fine
How they don’t have to go in at quarter to nine.
My mother, she tells me that Johnnie Mae
Will grow up to be a bad woman.
That George’ll be taken to Jail soon or late
(On account of last winter he sold our back gate).
But I say it’s fine. Honest, I do.
And I’d like to be a bad woman, too,
And wear the brave stockings of night-black lace
And strut down the streets with paint on my face

“GAY CHAPS AT THE BAR”

…and guys I knew in the States, young
officers, return from the front crying and
trembling.  Gay chaps at the bar in Los
Angeles, Chicago, New York…
–Lt. William Couch
in the South Pacific

We knew how to order.  Just the dash
Necessary.  The length of gaiety in good taste.
Whether the raillery should be slightly iced
And given green, or served up hot and lush.
And we knew beautifully how to give to women
The summer spread, the tropics of our love.
When to persist, or hold a hunger off.
Knew white speech.  How to make a look an omen.
But nothing ever taught us to be islands.
And smart, athletic language for this hour
Was not in the curriculum.  No stout
Lesson showed how to chat with death.  We brought
No brass fortissimo, among our talents,

“WE REAL COOL, ” 1960

The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

The poem invites a syncopated reading – you can almost hear a snap in the pauses at the end of each enjambed line. It would be interesting to compare this to the lineation of a William Carlos Williams poem.

Langston Hughes: Poems

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was the most famous and popular of the Harlem Renaissance poets. He was born in Missouri, moved to New York to attend Columbia, and dropped out after a year. Like McKay, he was a leftist who drew his ideas from the tradition of DuBois, rather than Booker T. Washington. He traveled to the Soviet Union and believed in what we saw there for many years, though he eventually became more disillusioned by it.

“THE NEGRO SPEAKS OF RIVERS,” 1921

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Hughes applies the voice of primitivism to himself here – whether it is ironic or not is unclear.

“I, TOO,” 1925

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed–

I, too, am America.

Following in the Whitmanian tradition of “I Hear America Singing,” the speaker here actively sings, rather than just listening – he is of the body of America, rather than one who listens to its many voices.

“THE WEARY BLUES,” 1925

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
      I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
      He did a lazy sway. . . .
      He did a lazy sway. . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
      O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
      Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man’s soul.
      O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
      “Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
      Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
      I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
      And put ma troubles on the shelf.”
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
      “I got the Weary Blues
      And I can’t be satisfied.
      Got the Weary Blues
      And can’t be satisfied—
      I ain’t happy no mo’
      And I wish that I had died.”
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.
This is one of the first examples of poetry to fully embrace the black vernacular and to translate the blues into poetic form.

“SONG FOR A DARK GIRL,” 1927

Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
They hung my black young lover
To a cross roads tree.

Way Down South in Dixie
(Bruised body high in air)
I asked the white Lord Jesus
What was the use of prayer.

Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
Love is a naked shadow
On a gnarled and naked tree.

The form of the poem as song draws ironic attention (like McKay’s sonnet “Lynching”) to the horror of the content.

“HARLEM,” 1927

What happens to a dream deferred?
      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?
      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.
      Or does it explode?
This poem, often read as a lament, can also be read as a threat – the mixed images of consumption and injury end with an inevitable bang as the wound explodes.

“CUBES,” 1934

In the days of the broken cubes of Picasso
And in the days of the broken songs of the young men
A little too drunk to sing
And the young women
A little too unsure of love to love——
I met on the boulevards of Paris
An African from Senegal

God
Knows why the French
Amuse themselves bringing to Paris
Negroes from Senegal.

It's the old game of the boss and the bossed,
       boss and the bossed,
            amused
              and
            amusing,
       worked and working,
Behind the cubes of black and white,
           black and white,
    black and white

But since it is the old game,
For fun
They give him the three old prostitutes of
	France——
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity——
And all three of 'em sick
In spite of the tax to the government
And the legal houses
And the doctors
And the Marseillaise.

Of course, the young African from Senegal
Carries back from Paris
A little more disease
To spread among the black girls in the palm huts.
He brings them as a gift
    disease——
From light to darkness
        disease——
From the boss to the bossed
	     disease——
From the game of black and white
    disease
From the city of the broken cubes of Picaso
   d
     i
   s
 e
   a 
     s
   e

This later poem takes stock of Hughes’ realization that imperialism is the parent of Cubism. The poem ends with the curving “S” of disease – syphilis – spreading in the colonies thanks to European infection.

Countee Cullen: Poems

Countee Cullen (1903-1946) was a Harlem Renaissance poet adopted and educated in New York. While progressive, Cullen valued the traditional forms of the English & American literary forms and did less to openly subvert them than Claude McKay. His less radical politics and poetics put him more in the tempered line of Booker T. Washington (in “The Negro Artist & the Racial Mountain,” Langston Hughes criticizes him for wanting to be “a poet” and not “a Negro poet”). He was first published in Alain Locke’s 1925 The New Negro, alongside Hughes, McKay, Hurston, and Toomer. He helped publish much of Hughes’ work after Locke’s anthology in his own anthology a few years later.

COLOR, 1925

“YET I DO MARVEL”

I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!
An English sonnet with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. It is traditional in a number of ways: the first 8 lines are a catalogue of the situation at hand, a meditation on it, and a variety of metaphors for the inscrutability of God. At the volta, the speaker reasserts his unknowingness. Finally, in the last couplet, he reveals the true topic of the poem – the pain of being a black poet in America, bidden to sing.

“INCIDENT”

Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, ‘Nigger.’

I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.

A vivid childhood recollection of the manner in which hate speech erases other memories and creates lasting trauma. An injunction to the reader to erase the word, even as the poem shows it in print (where it is and always was more impactful).

“HERITAGE”

What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?
So I lie, who all day long
Want no sound except the song
Sung by wild barbaric birds
Goading massive jungle herds,
Juggernauts of flesh that pass
Trampling tall defiant grass
Where young forest lovers lie,
Plighting troth beneath the sky.
So I lie, who always hear,
Though I cram against my ear
Both my thumbs, and keep them there,
Great drums throbbing through the air.
So I lie, whose fount of pride,
Dear distress, and joy allied,
Is my somber flesh and skin,
With the dark blood dammed within
Like great pulsing tides of wine
That, I fear, must burst the fine
Channels of the chafing net
Where they surge and foam and fret.
Africa? A book one thumbs
Listlessly, till slumber comes.
Unremembered are her bats
Circling through the night, her cats
Crouching in the river reeds,
Stalking gentle flesh that feeds
By the river brink; no more
Does the bugle-throated roar
Cry that monarch claws have leapt
From the scabbards where they slept.
Silver snakes that once a year
Doff the lovely coats you wear,
Seek no covert in your fear
Lest a mortal eye should see;
What’s your nakedness to me?
Here no leprous flowers rear
Fierce corollas in the air;
Here no bodies sleek and wet,
Dripping mingled rain and sweat,
Tread the savage measures of
Jungle boys and girls in love.
What is last year’s snow to me,
Last year’s anything? The tree
Budding yearly must forget
How its past arose or set—
Bough and blossom, flower, fruit,
Even what shy bird with mute
Wonder at her travail there,
Meekly labored in its hair.
One three centuries removed   
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spice grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?
So I lie, who find no peace
Night or day, no slight release
From the unremittant beat
Made by cruel padded feet
Walking through my body’s street.
Up and down they go, and back,
Treading out a jungle track.
So I lie, who never quite
Safely sleep from rain at night—
I can never rest at all
When the rain begins to fall;
Like a soul gone mad with pain
I must match its weird refrain;
Ever must I twist and squirm,
Writhing like a baited worm,
While its primal measures drip
Through my body, crying, “Strip!
Doff this new exuberance.
Come and dance the Lover’s Dance!”
In an old remembered way
Rain works on me night and day.
Quaint, outlandish heathen gods
Black men fashion out of rods,
Clay, and brittle bits of stone,
In a likeness like their own,
My conversion came high-priced;
I belong to Jesus Christ,
Preacher of humility;
Heathen gods are naught to me.
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
So I make an idle boast;
Jesus of the twice-turned cheek,
Lamb of God, although I speak
With my mouth thus, in my heart
Do I play a double part.
Ever at Thy glowing altar
Must my heart grow sick and falter,
Wishing He I served were black,
Thinking then it would not lack
Precedent of pain to guide it,
Let who would or might deride it;
Surely then this flesh would know
Yours had borne a kindred woe.
Lord, I fashion dark gods, too,
Daring even to give You
Dark despairing features where,
Crowned with dark rebellious hair,
Patience wavers just so much as
Mortal grief compels, while touches
Quick and hot, of anger, rise
To smitten cheek and weary eyes.
Lord, forgive me if my need
Sometimes shapes a human creed.
All day long and all night through,   
One thing only must I do:
Quench my pride and cool my blood,
Lest I perish in the flood.
Lest a hidden ember set
Timber that I thought was wet
Burning like the dryest flax,
Melting like the merest wax,
Lest the grave restore its dead.
Not yet has my heart or head
In the least way realized
They and I are civilized.
The poem is written in rhyming couples of iambic tetrameter that devolves as the poem continues. As the speaker disavows a connection to Africa, claiming instead an English poetic tradition in content, the form of the poem becomes more jagged, more interrupted, as if it were difficult for him to continue his claim.

Claude McKay: Poems

Claude McKay, perhaps most known for his novel Banjo, was also a poet of the Harlem Renaissance. Jamaican by birth, he settled in America, where he became a citizen in 1940. He saw capitalism and racism as inextricably linked, and devoted much of his work to overturning conventional belief via conventional forms (the sonnet, the novel, etc.). He was a devout believer in the potential of the Soviet Union, but did not seem to experience the disillusionment that Hughes and others did.

“THE HARLEM DANCER,” 1917/1922

Applauding youths laughed with young prostitutes
And watched her perfect, half-clothed body sway;
Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes
Blown by black players upon a picnic day.
She sang and danced on gracefully and calm,
The light gauze hanging loose about her form;
To me she seemed a proudly-swaying palm
Grown lovelier for passing through a storm.
Upon her swarthy neck black shiny curls
Luxuriant fell; and tossing coins in praise,
The wine-flushed, bold-eyed boys, and even the girls,
Devoured her shape with eager, passionate gaze;
But looking at her falsely-smiling face,
I knew her self was not in that strange place.

An English sonnet with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. Interesting to compare the dancer's dislocation from physical space with the stripper in Ellison's Invisible Man and with the dancers in Hughes' poetry.

“HARLEM SHADOWS,” 1918

I hear the halting footsteps of a lass
      In Negro Harlem when the night lets fall
Its veil. I see the shapes of girls who pass
      To bend and barter at desire’s call.
Ah, little dark girls who in slippered feet
Go prowling through the night from street to street!
Through the long night until the silver break
      Of day the little gray feet know no rest;
Through the lone night until the last snow-flake
      Has dropped from heaven upon the earth’s white breast,
The dusky, half-clad girls of tired feet
Are trudging, thinly shod, from street to street.
Ah, stern harsh world, that in the wretched way
      Of poverty, dishonor and disgrace,
Has pushed the timid little feet of clay,
      The sacred brown feet of my fallen race!
Ah, heart of me, the weary, weary feet
In Harlem wandering from street to street.
A poem about the senses and the exhaustion of the urban flaneur in three stanzas of six lines with the rhyme scheme ababcc dedecc efefcc.

“THE LYNCHING,” 1919

His Spirit in smoke ascended to high heaven.
His father, by the cruelest way of pain,
Had bidden him to his bosom once again;
The awful sin remained still unforgiven.
All night a bright and solitary star
(Perchance the one that ever guided him,
Yet gave him up at last to Fate’s wild whim)
Hung pitifully o’er the swinging char.
Day dawned, and soon the mixed crowds came to view
The ghastly body swaying in the sun
The women thronged to look, but never a one
Showed sorrow in her eyes of steely blue;
And little lads, lynchers that were to be,
Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.

An English sonnet with the rhyme scheme abba cddc effe gg. The horror of the subject in the rather prosaic form of the sonnet is striking here. The speaker shifts from the family of the victim to the body itself, ending on the women and children – “lynchers that were to be” thronging around the “thing” made of the victim’s body.

“IF WE MUST DIE,” 1919

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

An English sonnet with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. The first 8 lines are in a subjunctive tone of prevention, while the last 6 represent a turn that is a rallying cry to leftist political action.

“AMERICA,” 1921

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate.
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

An English sonnet with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. The poem is remarkable for enacting in its form (an English sonnet by a Jamaican-born black immigrant in America) the conflict of its content (a man torn between violent political resistance and cultural infatuation).

“MOSCOW,” 1953

Another sonnet, but in a Petrarchan octet/sestet structure (with the unusual rhyme scheme abcd bcda / efg fge). The octet describes Moscow as McKay saw it; after the volta, the sestet turns to how the memory preserves him and gives him hope (almost like Wordsworth’s daffodils). The poem transforms Moscow into Byzantium, perhaps a comment on a Yeatsian ideal of aesthetic and political union, as in “Sailing to Byzantium.”

John Ashbery: Poems

John Ashbery, a poet in the New York School, is often thought of as having inherited the poetic tradition of Wallace Stevens (phenomenological) vs. Pound and Creeley (historical).

“SOME TREES,” 1956

These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance

To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.

And glad not to have invented
Such comeliness, we are surrounded:
A silence already filled with noises,
A canvas on which emerges

A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.
Placed in a puzzling light, and moving,
Our days put on such reticence
These accents seem their own defense.

The poem expresses and renews the joys of nature by pointing out that the beauty the speaker finds is in the fact of being “glad not to have invented such comeliness.” The trees, as in Mrs. Dalloway, represent some form of both rootedness and connectivity. The attention to speech performance is also interesting in a poem about trees because Saussure’s original sign, made of signifier/signified, was of the tree/arbor.

“SELF-PORTRAIT IN A CONVEX MIRROR,” 1975

Examining the convex portrait of Parmigianino, the speaker considers it from all perspectives with a sort of “peripheral vision.” He says to the artist, “your eyes proclaim/ That everything is surface. The surface is what’s there/ And nothing can exist except what’s there…. 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.” I am very interested in this idea, as well as how the mirror plays with the idea of “reflection.” The doubt of sight enters: “the supposition of promises together/ In one piece of surface… more keeps getting included/ Without adding to the sum.”  “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.” He concludes with an image resembling faceting: “We have seen the city; it is the gibbous/ Mirrored eye of an insect.” The poem is an extremely complex literary encounter with visual art, in the tradition of poets like Auden (“Musee Des Beaux Arts”), William Carlos Williams (poems on Brueghel), and others.

Sylvia Plath: Poems

I’m reading a number of Plath poems, but rather than explicate them, I’ll reproduce a paper I wrote about Plath in 2010 alongside a list of the poems I’m reviewing.

“ODE FOR TED,” 1956; “WREATH FOR A BRIDAL,” 1956; “VIRGIN IN A TREE,” 1958; “METAPHORS,” 1959; “LOVE LETTER,” 1960

ARIEL, 1965

“MORNING SONG,” “THE RABBIT CATCHER,” “THE OTHER,” “YOU’RE,” “DADDY,” “ARIEL,” “NICK & THE CANDLESTICK,” “LADY LAZARUS”

‘Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.’[1]

– Robert Frost, 1939

Nature plays a seemingly paradoxical role in the poetry of Sylvia Plath, as the locus of both the static, alienating landscape and the magnetic, transformative life cycle. The frustrating, ongoing mental estrangement from Nature that characterizes much of Plath’s work is punctuated by transcendent moments of union, in which the female body becomes a creative vessel for the mutative processes of sexuality, (re)birth, and death. In a journal entry from 1958, Plath writes, ‘The surface texture of life can be dead’, but there remain moments when ‘we burn clear of our shackles and stand, burning and speaking like gods’.[2] Like Frost’s ‘piece of ice on a hot stove’, Plath’s poetry channels the dynamism of such experience into language, so that its latent heat may be felt even after the momentary ecstasy of the experience itself has melted away.

For Plath, Nature’s life cycle that can engage both mind and body with the world beyond ‘surface texture’, leading to physical and poetic (re)generation.  Through the kinaesthesia of the life cycle and the transient unity of the female body with Nature that it provides, Plath locates a connection with the genesis of creative writing as well.

Tracing the arc of such epiphanic moments through Plath’s work reveals a distillatory poetics, in which the lingering representation is capable of transcending the fugitive nature of the moment it describes.

When Plath encounters Nature solely through the mind, her detachment from the space renders it two-dimensional, a threatening spectacle from which she is alienated. In ‘A Winter Landscape with Rooks’, the speaker sees the sun gives a ‘scorning’ glance at the ‘landscape of chagrin’, ‘all engraved in ice’.[3] Plath herself termed the poem a ‘psychic landscape’, representative of her projection of feeling onto the natural world.[4] In The Dialectics of Art and Life, Sylvia Lehrer observes that in exploring detachment from Nature, many of Plath’s early landscapes are in fact ‘mindscapes’, inextricably ‘linked with mind rather than body’.[5] Indeed, in poems such as ‘Southern Sunrise’, Plath paints Nature as papery, unsubstantiated scenery; it is composed of ‘storybook villas’ like a ‘leaf-and-flower pen-sketch’.[6] In ‘Spiders’, the speaker watches the performance of ants being ushered

Off-stage and infamously wrapped

Up by a spry black deus

Ex machina.[7]

The intellectualization of nature as a spectacle separate from the self leaves Plath dissociated from natural cycles. In ‘November Graveyard’, the ‘scene stands stubborn’, the trees ‘Hoard last year’s leaves, won’t mourn’, and the poet can only ‘stare, stare’ at the ‘hard-hearted emerald’ of the ‘essential landscape’.[8]

Physically unengaged with Nature, the female body becomes, in Jacqueline Rose’s words, ‘rigidly, tragically circumscribed.’[9] In ‘Virgin in a Tree’, Plath rewrites the arboreal metamorphosis of classical virgins, envisioning it as an act of violence, rather than protection. In this ‘tart fable’, the punningly ‘chased girls’ who run from their own sexuality remain mere characters on the stage of Nature’s static landscape, and are therefore condemned to its threatening subjection. This metamorphosis is anything but dynamic; it permanently rigidifies the female form and wastes its fecundity, as, ‘Untongued, all beauty’s bright juice sours’.[10] Plath ironically employs the language of the very rape the girls attempt to avoid to show how the virgin body is subsumed, rather than regenerated, by a Nature that ‘constricts | White bodies in a wooden girdle’ and ‘sheathe[s] the virgin shape | In a scabbard of wood’.[11]

Plath, however, figures masculinity as sovereign over Nature, and it is through physical unity with man that she initially accesses Nature’s transfiguring powers. In ‘Ode for Ted’, the speaker posits herself as ‘adam’s woman’, and stands amazed at ‘[her] man’s’ effect upon the land:

For his least look, scant acres yield:                                                                         each finger-furrowed field                                                                                                heaves forth stalk, leaf…

[…]

at his hand’s staunch hest, birds build.[12]

Nature enters the female body through unity with maleness, and the poem’s sexual overtones highlight the potential of the fertile womb to engage with Nature as ‘field’ and ‘nest’. Rose points out that ‘if there is a body of [Plath’s] writing’ there is also, ‘no less crucially, a body in her writing’.[13] These physical and poetic bodies run parallel because ‘For Plath, words plunge into the body, and writing is a sexual act’.[14] The transformative moment of congress with Nature that intercourse permits is even clearer in ‘Wreath for a Bridal,’ where earth and sky appear to ‘laud these mated ones’ in the ‘stark act’ of lovemaking, which

…set[s] the land

Sprouting fruit, flowers, children…

[…]

Let flesh be knit…[15]

This exhilaration, however, melts away when male and female are in discord. ‘The Snowman on the Moor’ actually reverses man’s propitious effect on the land, as

…at his tread

Ambushed birds by

Dozens dropped dead in the hedges: o she felt

No love in his eye…[16]

In ‘Rabbit Catcher’, too, the speaker sees the recalcitrant landscape as ‘a place of force’, and she struggles against the ‘wind gagging me with my own blown hair, | Tearing off my voice’.[17] The female body returns to its place as stranger again in ‘Wuthering Heights’, a ‘tilted and disparate’ space where the sky itself ‘leans’ on her.[18] Though Plath chooses to invite Nature into her body, she cannot control it, and must instead be content to ride the brief course of its exhilaration.  

Plath entwines the transformation of physical intimacy with her desire for another natural metamorphosis: pregnancy. In a journal entry from 1959, Plath states that her failed attempts to become pregnant have ‘utterly thwarted’ her marital need ‘to express our love, us, through my body, the doors of my body’.[19] Whereas pregnancy would be life-giving, infertility, she writes, would leave her ‘Dead to [her] woman’s body’.[20] Judith Kroll, in Chapters in a Mythology, holds that in the ordering system of Plath’s poetic expression, ‘biological fertility is the province of the heroine.’[21] ‘Barren Woman’ is one of several poems that describe Plath’s fixation with infertility; in it, the sterile woman’s womb ‘Echo[es] to the least footfall’, and its only flowers are ‘Marble lilies’.[22] This imagery mirrors the poet’s earlier ‘mindscapes’, where the woman remains divorced from Nature.

Such corporeal stasis lies in sharp contrast to the visceral and kinetic transformations that pregnancy eventually brings. In ‘Metaphors’, the speaker is both thrilled and terrified by the temporary new shape of her body. While she embodies the life cycle in being ‘A melon’, ‘a red fruit’, and a ‘cow in calf’, the persona also loses control; in the ‘psychic landscape’ of her own body, she is herself ‘a means, a stage’, for she has ‘Boarded the train there’s no getting off’.[23] The simultaneous fear and thrill of carrying unborn life mirrors the experience of writing as well. In ‘Stillborn’, Plath elaborates on this connection, looking over her failed poems and giving the ‘sad diagnosis’ that, though ‘it wasn’t for any lack of mother-love […] still the lungs won’t fill and the heart won’t start’.[24] Pregnancy, like writing, carries with it both enormous potential and a terrible dread of failure.

A successful delivery, however, is utterly regenerative. As Plath writes in ‘Love Letter’, the female body blooms in pregnancy as it ‘start[s] to bud like a March twig’, and the speaker tells her child that it is ‘Not easy to state the change you made.| If I’m alive now, then I was dead’.[25] If pregnancy links her to creation, it also makes her a Creator in her own right: ‘Now I resemble a sort of god | Floating through the air in my soul-shift’.[26] Linking this (pro)creative power to writing, Plath states elsewhere: ‘writing makes me a small god: I re-create the flux and smash of the world’.[27] The image of herself as deity, however, also sets her ‘floating through’ an otherworldly space, likening her own rebirth through childbirth to a resurrection after death.

Religious imagery appears again in ‘Nick and the Candlestick’, where the speaker becomes a Madonna, mother to a newborn child who is ‘the baby in the barn’.[28] This spiritual feeling, however, begins to fade once the baby has left her body and she is returned to her ordinary shape. In ‘Nick’, the speaker gazes lovingly on the child and recalls the cleansing effect of his growth within her:

O embryo

Remembering, even in sleep,

Your crossed position.

The blood blooms clean

In you, ruby.[29]

In contrast, the speaker now feels the emptiness of her womb, where ‘Waxy stalactites’ and ‘Icicles’ constantly reduce themselves, melting ‘Into the terrible well’.[30] Like the formations in the empty cave of her womb, the shape of pregnancy melts away, leaving the speaker a mere woman again. ‘Love Letter’, too, ends with the image of the mother’s body, ‘Pure as a pane of ice’, suggesting both the intense purgation of the experience and its fugitive quality.[31]

In ‘Morning Song’, Plath observes the separation of infant from mother after birth, seeing that ‘Love set you going like a fat gold watch’ and ‘your bald cry | Took its place among the elements’.[32] Gazing at the infant, the persona makes a statement of both profound awe and separation:

I’m no more your mother

Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow

Effacement…[33]

The image of distillation links birth to writing once again, for the recording of a brief, powerful experience celebrates it even as the moment itself is effaced by time. Plath’s journal also reveals her feeling during the moment of labour that the world itself begins to spin:

I had my eyes squeezed shut and felt this black force blotting out my brain and utterly possessing me… I felt I must be ripped and bloody from all that power breaking out of me…a 10 day misery of my milk waiting a week…ended the grim parenthesis. Chairs and tables took their places, served once more.[34]

As the moment of parturient transcendence melts and her body resumes its shape, objects, too, resume their places, and stasis replaces motion.

Yet the memory of the female body as vessel remains an important source of power for Plath. In ‘The Other’, the speaker addresses a barren woman who has experienced sexual epiphany with her husband: ‘The stolen horses, the fornications | circle a womb of marble’.[35] To compensate for the theft of intimacy, the persona lords her own fertility over her rival; only she has experienced the transformative exhilaration of birth:  Navel cords, blue-red and lucent, |Shriek from my belly like arrows, and these I ride’.[36] Whereas the speaker engages in the movement of the life cycle, the barren woman is locked in stasis and imagined in utterly inorganic terms. She is ‘old plastic’ or ‘cold glass’, and her menstrual blood is merely ‘an effect, a cosmetic’ within her fruitless body.[37]

Like sex and pregnancy, which both empower and threaten the body, Plath figures the kinetic brush with death as equally regenerative. ‘A Birthday Present’ explores the fantasy of death as purification and rebirth. ‘If it were death,’ she holds,

…there would be a birthday.

And the knife not carve, but enter

Pure and clean as the cry of a baby,

And the universe slide from my side.[38]

In several poems, the revivifying brush with death is closely associated with speed and motility. The poem ‘Stopped Dead’ describes the near-death experience of a car accident in both sexual and procreative terminology: the persona hears the ‘passionate hot metals’ of the automobile ‘writhing and sighing’ and the ‘squeal of brakes’ and wonders, ‘is it a birth cry?’[39] Plath reiterates this sensation in ‘Years’. Instead of ‘great Stasis’, it is wild, reckless, unshackling motion she desires:

What I love is

The piston in motion –

My soul dies before it.

And the hooves of the horses,

Their merciless churn.[40]

The powerful motion of hooves in the near-death experience of ‘Years’ recalls the two equine symbols in ‘The Other’ – the sexual metaphor of the speaker’s ‘stolen horses’ and the ‘naval cords’ that she rides, thus linking sex, birth, and death through related imagery.

The title poem of Plath’s final collection, ‘Ariel’, describes a horseback ride that synthesizes the imagery of the entire life cycle in a single, exhilarating kinaesthesia. The poem begins with ‘Stasis in darkness’, but as the horse gallops forward, the speaker becomes one with the animal, instantly freed into ‘the substanceless blue’ by the ‘Pour of tor and distances’.[41] The poem then races through the realm of the sexual through the yonic imagery of the ‘furrow’ that ‘splits and passes’, the sensation of the speaker’s own ‘Thighs [and] hair’ in motion, and the ‘Black sweet blood mouthfuls’ of exploding berries from the surrounding bushes.[42] As the obligations that bind her to quotidian drudgery disappear, ‘The child’s cry | Melts in the wall’ and this lady ‘Godiva’ experiences an unshackling from the ‘Dead hands, dead stringencies’ of ordinary life.[43] Finally, the speed and recklessness of the ride thrust her towards death, allowing a euphoric sense of rebirth at the poem’s conclusion:

…I

am the arrow,

The dew that flies

Suicidal, at one with the drive

Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning.[44]

In hurtling linguistically towards an imagined regeneration, ‘Ariel’ offers an amalgam of the transcendent experiences of  Nature’s cycle that Plath explores throughout her poetic oeuvre.

Though seemingly an act of passivity, in allowing Nature to enter the female body, Plath locates a powerful creativity through the processes of sex, birth, and death. At the end of ‘The Figure a Poem Makes’, Frost adds that poetry’s ‘most precious quality will remain its having run itself and carried away the poet with it.’[45] In wedding the kinesis of the life cycle to a celebration of its very transience, Plath achieves a remarkable poetic dynamism. Though the price of each metamorphosis is the nullification of the former shape, Plath’s poetry embraces the very brevity of transformative experience, the dynamism of liminal space, and the ride upon the back of the melting moment.

WORKS CITED:

Kroll, Judith, Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath (New York, NY:            Harper & Row Publishers, 1976)

Lehrer, Sylvia, The Dialectics of Art and Life: A Portrait of Sylvia Plath as Woman and            Poet (Salzburg: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg,            1985)

Oates, Joyce Carol (ed.), The Best American Essays of the Century (New York, NY:            Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000)

Plath, Sylvia, Collected Poems, ed. Ted Hughes (London: Faber & Faber, 1988)

The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962, ed. Karen V. Kukil (London: Faber and            Faber, 2000)

Rose, Jacqueline, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (London: Virago Press, 1991)

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Bassnet, Susan, Sylvia Plath (London: Macmillan, 1987)

Gill, Jo, The Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath (Cambridge: Cambridge University            Press, 2006)

Hayman, Ronald, The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath (Gloucestershire: Sutton            Publishing Limited, 2003)

Holbrook, David, Sylvia Plath: Poetry and Existence (London: The Athlone Press, 1988)

Lindberg-Seyersted, Brita, ‘Sylvia Plath’s Psychic Landscapes’, English Studies, vol.            71, No. 6 (December 1990): 509-22

Plath, Sylvia, Letters Home, 8th edn., ed. Aurelia Schober Plath (London: Faber and            Faber, 1999)

Stevenson, Anne, Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath (Boston: Houghton Mifflin            Company, 1989)

Wagner-Martin, Linda (ed.), Sylvia Plath: The Critical Heritage, 2nd edn. (London:            Routledge, 1997)

 


[1] Robert Frost, ‘The Figure a Poem Makes’, in Joyce Carol Oates (ed.), The Best American Essays of the Century (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), p.178

[2] Sylvia Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962, ed. Karen V. Kukil (London: Faber and Faber, 2000), p.306 (abbr. Journals)

[3] Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems, ed. Ted Hughes (London: Faber & Faber, 1988), ll.7-8,11 (abbr. CP)

[4] Plath, Journals, p.205

[5] Sylvia Lehrer, The Dialectics of Art and Life: A Portrait of Sylvia Plath as Woman and Poet (Salzburg: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg,1985), p.185

[6] Plath, CP, ll.2,7

[7] Ibid., ll.33-5

[8] Ibid., ll.1-2

[9] Jacqueline Rose, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (London: Virago Press, 1991) p.116.

[10] Plath, CP, ll.43

[11] Ibid., ll.21-2,7-8

[12] Ibid., ll.1,13-15,18

[13] Rose, p.29

[14] Rose, p.29

[15] Plath, CP, ll.5-6,21-24

[16] Ibid., ll.33-6

[17] Ibid., ll.1-2

[18] Ibid., ll.2,37

[19] Plath, Journals, p.500

[20] Ibid., p.500

[21] Judith Kroll, Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath (New York, NY:Harper & Row Publishers, 1976), p.11

[22] Plath, CP, ll.1,5

[23] Ibid., ll.7,9

[24] Ibid., ll.5,10

[25] Plath, CP, ll.31,1-2

[26] Ibid., ll.34-5

[27] Plath, Journals, p.232

[28] Plath, CP, l.42

[29] Ibid., CP, ll.

[30] Ibid., ll.2,11,39

[31] Plath, CP, l.36

[32] Ibid., ll.1-3

[33] Ibid., CP, ll.7-9

[34] Plath, Journals, 646-8

[35] Plath, CP, ll.21-2

[36] Ibid.,ll.18-19

[37] Ibid., l.8

[38] Ibid.,ll.57,61-4

[39] Ibid., ll.8-9,1-2

[40] Plath, CP,  ll.11-15

[41] Ibid., ll.1,3,5

[42]Ibid., ll.6,7,13,18

[43] Ibid., ll.24-5,20-21

[44] Ibid., ll.27-31

[45] Frost in Oates, p.178.

Adrienne Rich: Poems

“DIVING INTO THE WRECK,” 1973

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.

Otherwise
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

Rich calls attention to the ridiculousness of the enterprise of knowledge, its oddity, as well as how alone she is. Many critics have suggested that the descent is meant to be into an investigation of the old world of patriarchy and its rules. Perhaps the ladder is taking one down only to be able to look up at the “glass ceiling” of the surface? Her self-presentation as Tiresias compares her underwater journey with that of the drowned sailor in Eliot, having a liberating knowledge of both sides of the world. The ship, if it is a vestige of common culture, is most damaged at its heart, but still holds treasures which fascinate “mermaid and merman” alike. I also love the idea of the quest as something so deep and time-consuming one forgets why one has come. Compare this with Bishop, Moore, and Murdoch, as well as Woolf on the sea and fish.

“POWER,” 1978

Living in the earth-deposits of our history

Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old
cure for fever or melancholy a tonic
for living on this earth in the winters of this climate.

Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil

She died a famous woman denying
her wounds
denying
her wounds came from the same source as her power.

Rich’s repetition here makes double the denial of wounds (physical, literal and also metaphorical, yonic). It emphasizes the sacrifice necessary for Curie to continue her work, which killed her.

Amiri Baraka: Poems

“IN MEMORY OF RADIO,” 1961
Who has ever stopped to think of the divinity of Lamont Cranston?
(Only jack Kerouac, that I know of: & me.
The rest of you probably had on WCBS and Kate Smith,
Or something equally unattractive.)

What can I say?
It is better to haved loved and lost
Than to put linoleum in your living rooms?

Am I a sage or something?
Mandrake’s hypnotic gesture of the week?
(Remember, I do not have the healing powers of Oral Roberts…
I cannot, like F. J. Sheen, tell you how to get saved & rich!
I cannot even order you to the gaschamber satori like Hitler or Goddy Knight)

& love is an evil word.
Turn it backwards/see, see what I mean?
An evol word. & besides
who understands it?
I certainly wouldn’t like to go out on that kind of limb.

Saturday mornings we listened to the Red Lantern & his undersea folk.
At 11, Let’s Pretend
& we did
& I, the poet, still do. Thank God!

What was it he used to say (after the transformation when he was safe
& invisible & the unbelievers couldn’t throw stones?) “Heh, heh, heh.
Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.”

O, yes he does
O, yes he does
An evil word it is,
This Love.

It would be interesting to compare the imagined childhood world of this poem to “Robert Frost’s “Birches” or Dylan Thomas’ “Fern Hill.” The speaker does not have real knowledge or power – “only words to play with,” as Humbert would say. He also plays with love as “going out on a limb” by reversing it, turning it over, extending its meaning. Though he only has language, the poet demonstrates that it is enough.

“THE NEW WORLD,” 1969

The sun is folding, cars stall and rise
beyond the window. The workmen leave
the street to the bums and painters’ wives
pushing their babies home. Those who realize
how fitful and indecent consciousness is
stare solemnly out on the emptying street.
The mourners and soft singers. The liars,
and seekers after ridiculous righteousness. All
my doubles, and friends, whose mistakes cannot
be duplicated by machines, and this is all of our
arrogance. Being broke or broken, dribbling
at the eyes. Wasted lyricists, and men
who have seen their dreams come true, only seconds
after they knew those dreams to be horrible conceits
and plastic fantasies of gesture and extension,
shoulders, hair and tongues distributing misinformation
about the nature of understanding. No one is that simple
or priggish, to be alone out of spite and grown strong
in its practice, mystics in two-pants suits. Our style,
and discipline, controlling the method of knowledge.
Beatniks, like Bohemians, go calmly out of style. And boys
are dying in Mexico, who did not get the word.
The lateness of their fabrication: mark their holes
with filthy needles. The lust of the world. This will not
be news. The simple damning lust,
                                       float flat magic in low changing
                                       evenings. Shiver your hands
                                       in dance. Empty all of me for
                                       knowing, and will the danger
                                       of identification,
                           Let me sit and go blind in my dreaming
                           and be that dream in purpose and device.
                           A fantasy of defeat, a strong strong man
                           older, but no wiser than the defect of love.
There is a stark break between the denotatitve opening lines and the assertion of “how fitful and indecent consciousness is” – almost humorous in its shift. In this American wasteland, the speaker calls for a new reality of experience – not the plastic dreams, but something greater and more intangible, less faddish.