Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”: A Reading

Dickinson House (Courtesy: Dickinson Museum)

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.

This poem, widely read, typically exhibits Dickinson’s syntactical subtleties, meriting close, repeated readings.

At its primary level, it counsels the circuitous in communicating with others in difficult circumstances: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” “Slant” connotes the angular, or indirect, anticipating the sun and lightning analogies in the lines that follow.

Just as we cannot view the sun directly, so it is with harsh realities that need filtering, given the “infirmity,” or sensitivity, of humans unable to absorb truth undiluted: “Success in Circuit lies/Too bright for our infirm Delight.” Although the sun isn’t specifically mentioned, “bright” confirms its presence..

Likewise, to disclose the truth directly is analogous to the lightning’s surprise flash, frightening children, whose anxiety is only eased with softened explanation: “The Truth’s superb surprise/As Lightning to the Children eased/With explanation kind.”

The poem’s final lines reiterate the poem’s opening counsel, while warning of the consequence of not doing so: “The Truth must dazzle gradually/
Or every man be blind.” That is, we may otherwise do greater harm.

Ethicists may argue with the seeming absolutism in the all of “Tell all the truth.” Surely we can think of circumstances that demand otherwise. A lot depends on the motives we bring to troublesome situations, whether centered in ourselves or on others. Dickinson unequivocally chooses the latter, with kindness the arbitrator.

Dickinson was hardly naive. As poet Camille Dungy observes, “We can’t truly know comfort unless we know its opposite. Writers who think carefully about how to render the world in a truthful and realistic way have to handle, bare-handed and, thus, ever so carefully, the double-edged sword of comfort versus discomfort” (poetryfoundation.org).

We would be wise to adopt a cultural approach as well. We’re not sure of when Dickinson wrote this poem, but most scholarship suggests between 1858 and 1865. In short, it may have been written in the context of America’s Civil War. The conflict was cataclysmic, with an ultimate casualty toll of 600,000. The majority of leading scholars think she internalized the struggle to reflect her psychological wrestlings.

This isn’t to say she wasn’t mindful of the war’s gruesome realities. We have, for example, her “It Feels Ashamed to be Alive” poem, which opens: “It feels a shame to be Alive—When Men so brave—are dead.” We also have her letters and journal. It’s conceivable Dickinson had in mind families and friends receiving grim news of their loved one’s demise. Amherst was a small, close-knit community.

But the poem can also be read in quite another way as Dickinson’s aesthetic of concealment, or how poetry should be written. Good poetry should show, not tell; hint, but not reveal, a credo consistently realized in her poetry. Sound poetry engages readers in discovery, fashioning a poem’s constituents into pattern, yielding coherence, or like pieces of a puzzle, fitting into place.

Through such methodology, poetry acquires universality, the reader becoming the text. This doesn’t mean readers can impose any meaning. On the contrary, astute readers map a poem’s clues and observe its boundaries. Like a good mystery, the clues are planted, awaiting their discovery.

With this in mind, it’s conceivable we can pursue the poem at a metaphysical level as well. What is this “truth” to be shared cautiously? Has it to do with the mystery of Deity’s doings; His ways beyond our “infirm Delight,” or capability to comprehend, necessitating Divine truth be a fragmentary unfolding?

In both Judaism and Christianity, the Shekinah, or divine immanence, is traditionally associated with light. Light dominates this brief poem: “too bright”; “lightning”; “dazzle.” Did Dickinson have in mind Exodus 33:20?: “And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live” (KJV).

A devotee of the metaphysical poets, Dickinson may have read Henry Vaughan’s “There is in God (some say) a deep, but dazzling darkness” (“The Night”). Did she have this in mind in her summation, “The Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind”?

We know that Dickinson wrestled with traditional Christianity and a Deity allowing suffering and death. She did not attend church. In an earlier poem, “There’s a certain Slant of light,” she writes of a light “That oppresses, like the Heft/Of Cathedral Tunes/Heavenly Hurt, it gives us.”

Less than a dozen poems of 1779 total were published in Dickinson’s lifetime. This poem was published in 1890, four years after her death. It remains one of her most popular poems.

–rj

A Reading of Jennifer Rahim’s Poem, “Wherever I go…”

Thomas Wolfe famously wrote “You can’t go home again.” On the flip side, we never leave. The latter defines the theme of Trinidad poet Jennifer Rahim’s “Wherever I go….”

I have a liking for poetry of surface simplicity, yet iceberg subtlety offering multiple nuance.

A good poem is when everything functions: structure, rhythm, diction, imagery, etc. In this sense, all worthy poetry is ecological, each element an integral contributor to the welfare of the whole.

Good poems suggest, lending them universality.

When done well, their texts rewrite themselves, speaking to us continually in varied ways beyond spatial and temporal boundaries.

In all these aspects, Rahim’s poem does not disappoint.

Wherever I go…

there will be an island,
and an ocean will be
what rings me.

We are to the very end
a naming not our own,
though we leave to find

what is left behind
and that holds us,
more than we know,

like a small beach
has the ear of the great sea

and a trillion ebbs
are never without returns.

This flow is the staying,
though we depart.

An oyster takes a single grain
and stores it in her heart’s muscle

like a lover’s memento;
she never lets us go …

I like the unusual way Rahim integrates the title, an adverbial clause, flowing like the poem’s ocean ambience, into the lines that follow, setting up the poem’s structural elements.

That this clause ends in ellipsis, is significant, suggesting still more to be said. Reflection lies at its core.

While not specified, this is a poem about leaving home and its consequences.
That Rahim is from Trinidad may lead readers to impose boundaries on its meaning, i.e., the diaspora. Yes, emigration has been a norm for Trinidadians, 400,000 of them living in the USA; another 80,000 in Canada and 23,000 in the UK. Trinidad’s most renowned writer, the late V.S. Naipaul, resided in the UK.

Two notable novels of our time depicting the immigrant mood superbly are Nigeria’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Americanah and India’s Amit Chaudhuri’s Odysseus Abroad.

But the poem transcends restriction to migrants in its nuance.  A well made poem coalesces its formal elements into meaning.  It is its own text.

Read this way,  “Wherever I go…”  becomes universal, topophilia, or love of place, its theme.  As Alastair Bonnett comments in his Unruly Places, “Place is a protean and fundamental aspect of what it is to be human. We are a place-making and place-loving species.”

The poem’s structural elements are binary in their conception,
three introductory tercets, followed by couplets offering amplification through simile and metaphor. In both sections, sea referents prevail, unifying the poem.

Irony pervades the structural prelude: “we leave to find”

what is left behind
and that holds us,
more than we know.

“Ring” in l. 3 suggests encirclement or entrapment. We cannot elude our origins that birthed our identity.

The amplifying examples defining this sense of dislocation are embedded in specific sea imagery in the subsequent couplets, suggesting the tidal flow of remembrance: “This flow is the staying,/though we depart.”

The small beach and echoing of sea landscape hint at constancy and safety.

Then comes the poem’s magnificent concluding oyster analogy defining the enduring strength of remembrance:

An oyster takes a single grain
and stores it in her heart’s muscle
like a lover’s memento;
she never lets us go …

Intriguingly, ellipsis concludes the poem, mirroring the ellipsis of the opening and its thematic, “Wherever I go…”

A unified poem in all its informants, we now understand more fully the persona’s opening musing:

Wherever I go…
there will be an island,
and an ocean will be
what rings me.

Archetype abounds.  Islands often represent sanctuary; the sea, the timeless and maternal. Rahim’s poem is from her new poetry collection, Sanctuaries of Invention.

The oyster has a maternal aspect, pregnant as it were with a grain (seed) becoming a pearl.

The pearl referent, however, is double-edged. In mythology, looking back imperils. Memory can embellish, recalling Proust’s sober observation, “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”

And yet as Homer underscores in his epic saga of the archetypal migrant, each of us requires his Ithaca.

–rj

Of Paradise Lost: W. S. Merwin’s “After the Dragonflies”


“After the Dragonflies” by W. S. Merwin

Dragonflies were as common as sunlight
hovering in their own days
backward forward and sideways
as though they were memory
now there are grown-ups hurrying
who never saw one
and do not know what they
are not seeing
the veins in a dragonfly’s wings
were made of light
the veins in the leaves knew them
and the flowing rivers
the dragonflies came out of the color of water
knowing their own way
when we appeared in their eyes
we were strangers
they took their light with them when they went
there will be no one to remember us

When I lived in Kentucky and kept up a flower garden, I’d hear every now and then a whizzing sound above my head, look up, and see a dragonfly moving swiftly to snag its mid-air prey between its long legs. I never thought much about them as such. They were simply there.

I regret that now and am unlearning my indifference. Dragonflies, like many other insects, are disappearing, a reality Merwin hints at in this melancholic poem, treating mutability and, with it, loss; a nature tapestry vanishing before our very eyes.

The journal Biological Conservation informs us that 40% of insect species, and that’s in the millions, are in serious decline. “If we don’t stop it, entire ecosystems will collapse due to starvation,” says University of Sydney researcher Francisco Sánchez-Bayo.  Our fate will be to perish with them.

Lamentably, dragonflies, these bejeweled aerial acrobats, are among those insects suffering decline. Fundamental inhabitants of freshwater ecosystems, their loss would have immeasurable consequence.  Along with climate change, habitat encroachment and degradation have contributed to their falling numbers.

Folklore has it that dragonflies are emissaries of good fortune. And so it seemed for some 300 million years. Members of the phylum Arthropoda, they comprise some 5,000 species in varied sizes and hues.

Merwin’s poem, abjuring punctuation to simulate conversational flow, employs a temporal schema of past, present, and future to depict the incipient fate of dragonflies and, by implication, of other fated creatures, once of prodigious number, now facing not only decline, but future extinction. Contrast looms large in the poem’s time’s sequences.

The poem opens with the persona’s conjecturing past aeons before Man, when dragonflies “were as common as sunlight,”the double use of “were” in the opening lines contrasting their present decline. The simile associating their once prodigious numbers to the sun’s plentitude dazzles in its originality.

Employing kinetic imagery, the persona visualizes a former halcyon indulgence of lingering dragonflies amid time’s seeming suspension: “hovering in their own days/backward forward and sideways.”

Or like the varied probings of memory: “as though they were memory.” And, I might add, like the poem in its past, present and future interweave.

The jarring “now” in its emphatic positioning at the beginning of the fourth line transitions readers fully into the present with its glaring contrast.

Despite the miraculous artistry wrought by evolutionary mechanisms over vast stretches of time, there exist “grown-ups” who, suffering a disconnect with nature and “hurrying” to other pursuits, have never seen a dragonfly

That “they do not know what they/ are not seeing,” harbors the poem’s concluding warning. Not only does the present suffer a nature deficit, but future generations may never know dragonflies existed.

Exiled in the present, humans lack cognizance of that primordial garden, if not Edenic paradise, of teeming dragonflies, diaphanous creatures born of water, instinctual, spontaneous, integral eco entities not knowing Man:

the veins in a dragonfly’s wings
were made of light
the veins in the leaves knew them
and the flowing rivers
the dragonflies came out of the color of water
knowing their own way

The alienation motif follows with Man’s trespass. In time’s vast unfolding, the dragonflies had not known us: “when we appeared in their eyes/we were strangers.”

Unable to live in a human world, it’s as though they took flight, with consequential, if not incalculable loss for mankind. This is our future and the penultimate line stuns: “they took their light with them when they went.”

Creatures of a once thriving abundance, the dragonflies are extinct! We have come full circle, the sun’s plentitude of the opening line gone dark.

On a scientific note, dragonflies are often depicted as translucent creatures associated with the sun. Merwin, a mindful observer of nature and diligent keeper of a garden, was aware of this: “the veins in a dragonfly’s wings/were made of light.”

Biologically, we know they possess a variety of opsin genes that encode light sensors  (science.com

The poem’s last line serves as warning: “there will be no one to remember us,” signifying our own ultimate demise, both as individuals and as species, as our survival cannot be severed from nature’s fate. 

It also returns us to the “After” of the title, perhaps initially problematic. Now we know its why. In the immediate of a world devoid of dragonflies, we will have suffered a grievous loss beyond boundary. Merwin’s gift lies in making us feel that loss.

If nature’s eclipse emerges as seemingly ineluctable in this eco-poem, its melancholy consequence lies with Man as its implied source.

Merwin wrote this poem in 2016 when in his late eighties, going  blind, and just three years before his death.  If you look at the poem’s dictional element closely, you’ll notice its many verbal seeing and light allusions, beginning with the sun simile of the poem’s opening. The poem’s imagery is consistently visual.

Dragonflies are often described in biology depictions as translucent, their heads virtually a gigantic eye.  

–rj

Morning Respite: W. S. Merlin’s “To Paula in Late Spring”



I’m tired of politics and, as I often do, when requiring exit, resort to poetry, finding sanctuary beneath its canopy.

This morning, I came upon this love poem by poet W. S. Merlin to his wife, Paula, and imbibed its garden calm.

Merlin, whose poetry is invested in nature, bought 19 acres of deforested land on Maui and with Paula restored its Hawaiian habitat.  He had described its ruined state as the work of “industrial imperialism.”  Lovingly preserved by the Merlin Conservancy, the home and garden are open to visitors.

Merlin was a prolific poet and translator, writing thirty-six volumes of verse as well as essays. Winner of two Pulitzers, the National Book Award, and poetry’s esteemed Bollingen, Merlin ranks among America’s most accomplished modern poets.

Merlin was a poet continually innovating.  Like Yeats, his technique varies, depending on when he wrote. This late poem  exemplifies his abandonment of punctuation, which he thought belonged to prose.  He wanted his poems to exhibit a conversational flow.

I admire the gentle ambience here, the unity of a quiet love honed by togetherness across the years and of shared values, a communion transcending time and mortality:

To Paula in Late Spring”

Let me imagine that we will come again
when we want to and it will be spring
we will be no older than we ever were
the worn griefs will have eased like the early cloud
through which the morning slowly comes to itself
and the ancient defenses against the dead
will be done with and left to the dead at last
the light will be as it is now in the garden
that we have made here these years together
of our long evenings and astonishment

Emily Brontë’s Faith Poem: “No Coward Soul is Mine”

I’ve always admired Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights as a supreme literary achievement. In teaching it over the years, its structural complexity, thematic depth, and passionate intensity never failed to astound me. Putting it another way, Wuthering Heights has haunted me, much like Catherine’s ghost at Heathcliff’s window.

Years ago, I had the good fortune to visit the parsonage where she lived out her brief life in Hayworth, Yorkshire. (Her father was a clergyman with Methodist leanings.) A cramped, but lovingly preserved house, eerily next door to the church cemetery, you could easily surmise the Brontë children were temporarily out and be back shortly and we could settle down to robust conversation over a pot of tea.

While we remember Brontë for her novel, she also wrote poetry, 200 poems in fact. Sadly, her sister Charlotte, renowned for Jane Eyre, subsequently revised many of them, adding whole lines, rewording others, attempting to widen their public appeal. Scholars, trying to recover Emily’s probable texts, have found her cramped script difficult to decipher.

Of her poems, “No Coward Soul Is Mine” is well-known and my favorite. Brontë wrote it in the context of her fateful illness from tuberculosis. I’m so fond of this poem that I’ve been tempted to memorize it. I could almost think I was reading Emily Dickinson with its dismissal of religious orthodoxy and affinity for nature. That same fierce voice element of Wuthering Heights, perhaps a Wesleyan revivalism influence, you’ll find here, carried out by its heavy trochees as in the poem’s initial two lines or lines one and three of stanza five with their opening trochee feet.

You can be a non-believer and still appreciate the poem, for good poetry offers reading variance, or to borrow from medicine, “referral” nuance through well-crafted interweave of image, structure and diction. Our mortality spells change, not ending; a return to Nature’s genesis, or to what was, and is, and will always be.

No Coward Soul of Mine

No coward soul is mine
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere
I see Heaven’s glories shine
And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear

O God within my breast
Almighty ever-present Deity
Life, that in me hast rest,
As I Undying Life, have power in Thee

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity,
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of immortality.

With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears

Though earth and moon were gone
And suns and universes ceased to be
And Thou wert left alone
Every Existence would exist in thee

There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.

The poem’s imagery, drawn from nature, supports the poem’s theme of Deity’s abiding presence. Composed of seven quatrains, reminiscent of Methodist hymnody, in alternating tetrameter/pentameter meter, rime occurs consistently throughout, lines one with three, and two with four, including the fourth stanza with its near rime, suggesting a purposive, or teleological, cosmos.

Brontë effectively softens “the world’s wind-troubled sphere” in line two of the initial stanza with alliteration, suggesting tranquility in context of storm.

Each sentence is declarative, resonating conviction. Unlike Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” there is absence of tension, no struggle with doubt in the persona’s resolute faith, “So surely anchored on/The steadfast rock of immortality” ( Stz. 4).

Emily’s God isn’t Dickinson’s transcendent, mysterious, removed deity or Blake’s “No bods’ daddy.” Refulgent in his creation, He lives in our hearts, canceling any fear we might otherwise have, given the “world’s storm-troubled sphere” (Stz. 2). A poem of faith, it finds its affirmation not through anthropomorphic rendering, but in a pantheistic vision of Deity’s universal immanence.

Stanzas 3 and 4 logically follow in their rejection of creedal orthodoxies that are but worthless speculations, promoting anxiety, not peace. The repeated use of “vain” proves double entendre, human speculations fruitless and conceited, or of no more significance than the “idlest foam” of an infinite ocean:

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity,
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of immortality.

The stanzas that conclude the poem reiterate the persona’s vibrant faith in a deity who transcends the temporal, “Thy spirit animates eternal years,” and for all the volatile elements of impermanence, remains its arbiter, Who maternally “sustains, dissolves, creates and rears.”

Were the very cosmos to disappear, He would remain, for He is creation’s essence. The plural “universes” of the penultimate stanza intrigues. Did Emily believe in the modern concept of multiple universes? Whatever, God is infinite, boundless, present always:

Though earth and moon were gone
And suns and universes ceased to be
And Thou wert left alone
Every Existence would exist in thee.

How then can there be any cowering at death’s door? A deity synonymous with Nature, He is what has been, is now, and will be, the effulgence of it all:

There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.

Brontë dated her poems and wrote “No Coward Soul of Mine” on January 2, 1846. It would be her last poem (she passed two years later at age 30). At the time of the poem’s composition, she’d been completing Wuthering Heights. Emily Dickinson came upon this poem and loved it. She asked it be read at her funeral, her wish fulfilled by her friend and later editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, at the funeral’s conclusion.

As for Brontë, following several labored days, she slipped into eternity on December 19, 1848, unafraid, and deeply mourned by her sisters, Anne and Charlotte, and canine friend, Keeper. As with Keats, a young talent struck down early by the same illness, her posthumous fame has restored her to us, though not without conjecture of future talent lost.

As I said at the outset, the poem endures as a favorite of mine, one I’d take gladly to a desert isle, or read repeatedly when my last day summons. It accompanies me, too, when I engage Nature in the present, the sense of a hovering spirituality, that everything is linked, and means, and infinitely bigger and grander than ourselves.

–rj

Rupi Kaur: Pop Poetry Phenom

Just read New Republic’s glowing assessment of Canadian Instapoet Rupi Kaur, reflected in its swollen title, “Rupi Kaur is the Writer of the Decade.” (New Republic) Not even thirty, she’s published two poetry volumes, Milk and Honey (2015) and The Sun and Her Flowers (2017). Poet luminary of Instagram, she’s gathered 3.8 million followers. Milk and Honey, translated into 25 languages, has sold 1.4 million copies and made the NYT best seller list for 77 weeks. Her public readings are sold out. Exotic in appearance, along with a mesmerizing delivery, she just maybe has rescued poetry from slipping into oblivion in our STEM era.

But is it really poetry?

I think not.

That said, I always suspicion poetry, or a great many other things for that matter, that suddenly takes off. Popularity isn’t a criterion of excellence, given the brevity of social clamor.

I suspect three elements behind her popularity:

Accessibility:

Her “verse,” a term I prefer to use in gauging her work, is easy to understand, unlike so much of modern poetry that leaves readers stranded in a context void.

Brevity:

Social Media, that Internet darling, thrives on brevity. Say it quickly and get out. More than five lines, look out! Add a photo or two, you’re in. It’s Life magazine gone digital.

Relevance:

Give her credit. Her plaintive verse centers, like country music, in everyday happening—life’s tears, jerks and twists. It fingers loneliness, embraces assertion for the many lacking self-esteem, reaches past gender, creed and race. As a Punjabi Sikh immigrant, she speaks poignantly to the vulnerable and marginalized and that includes women. What’s more compelling than

if you were born with the weakness to fall you were born with the strength to rise (Milk and Honey).

or

how you love yourself is
how you teach others
to love you (Milk and Honey)

You’ve got sentiment, but it doesn’t make for poetry. It’s simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s good.

Poetry centers in artifice—form, metaphor and even in a time of free verse, a latent rhythm. It probes deeply. Sensory, it shows, not tells, or like a good recipe, is the sum of all its ingredients that artists call “unity.”

Poetry exhibits pattern.

It has a grammar.

To paraphrase Frost, Kaur’s miniscule verse is like playing tennis with the nets down.

She’s been accused of plagiarism by Nayyirah Waheed, another popular Instapoet, who pointed out similarities in Kaur’s verse, only to have Kaur ignore her messages.

Whatever the story here, there’s a plethora of poets who write like Kaur in what’s taken-on a fast food likeness for success. Take Warsan Shire, for example, another exemplar of the new idiom and quite possibly the better artist in her sophistication.

Kaur’s supporters are quick to invoke the identity politics fallback in countering critics. She’s a feminist of color who dares to speak out in an artisan world dominated by white men. She’s also hugely popular, makes a lot of money, and circuits the world. Artist rivalry kindled by jealousy is legendary.

But that’s not where the argument lies. We must judge Kaur by her work, not our politics. I find it cliche, platitude riddled, and banal:

i do not like the kind of love
that is draining
i want someone who energizes me.

Putting it out front, her verse resembles scribblings in book margins, succinct, but little more. The labored craft which Dylan Thomas rendered so movingly in “In My Craft Or Sullen Art” is sorely lacking,

Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms.

The New Republic suggesting her verse heralds an artistic revival akin to the New Harlem Renaissance or Bloomsbury Group that includes Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster requires a considerable stretch.

Kaur writes verse fitted to the Instagram. It fits well on your cell phone. But it’s prose, cleverly packaged for commercial success in line breaks to suggest profundity, often accompanied by line-drawings to augment the effect. (Sorry, she’s no e. e. cummings.)

At best, it’s aphorism. At worst, it’s exploitive prose.

It’s not poetry.

–rj

William Carlos Williams’ “Willow Poem”: Defying Temporality

“Willow Poem”

It is a willow when summer is over,
a willow by the river
from which no leaf has fallen nor
bitten by the sun
turned orange or crimson.
The leaves cling and grow paler,
swing and grow paler
over the swirling waters of the river
as if loath to let go,
they are so cool, so drunk with
the swirl of the wind and of the river—
oblivious to winter,
the last to let go and fall
into the water and on the ground.

ANALYSIS

Here is a poem for our fall season by one of my favorite poets. For me, it speaks ultimately of that tenacious defiance in the context of mortality, “oblivious to winter, “ which should define the way we live our lives up to the very end.

Less robust in tone than Dylan Thomas’ more famous “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night,” it nonetheless succeeds in its implied imperative and proves no less skilled in its artifice. Intriguingly, the persona exhibits empathy for the willow—and why not?—for the tree is like ourselves, fated for that long sleep (note repeated “grow paler”), yet resilient.

Williams had a penchant for writing poems in vernacular language, unlike his fellow modernists such as Eliot and Stevens, rendering his poetry highly accessible by the public. A physician tending to progressive, if not socialist, beliefs, this simple language represented a linguistic practicum of his credo.

Having said this, I would contend Williams remains a sophisticated poet in his subtlety of technique, careful observation of the natural world, and ability to extract human relevance—all of this true of “The Willow Poem.”

Take, for example, its fourteen line construction, usually suggesting the traditional sonnet mode, except it doesn’t conform to the iambic pentameter meter, closed couplet, or sestet formulae. I take this as deliberately mirroring the poem’s theme of resistance, if not rebellion, a tree transcending autumnal demise, or at least holding out amid nature’s seasonal rhythms.

In abandoning typical sonnet protocol, Williams nevertheless manages to maintain unity, implementing language and even occasional meter in an otherwise free verse poem.

Notice the many dictional occurrences of of words ending in er: “over,” “river,” “paler” and “winter. “

Note the heavy spondee element in the poem’s frequent preference for monosyllabic diction: “The leaves cling and grow paler,/swing and grow paler” (ll. 6-7). Not least, there is the word repetition throughout.

Absent of human intrusion, the poem’s sole subject is the tree. And yet human application is suggested in its personification. An imagist poet proclaiming ‘no ideas but in things,” Williams is faithful to his creed. The tree remains a tree, yet emerging from the persona’s non-intrusive observations are potential analogies to the human quest to indulge and survive amid Nature’s ceaseless flow and inevitable sovereignty.

The willow’s river location hints at passage. A “swirling” river, it suggests Nature’s dynamism. The summer has gone. Fall, season of decline, suggests ending. Yet the tree appears impervious to Nature’s laws. Its leaves, “nor/bitten by the sun/turned orange and crimson, “ appear transcendent over temporality.

Continuing personification amplifies an ambience of resistance, its leaves “as loath to let go,” even as incipient change, and the mortality it confers, coalesce here in the increasing pallor of the leaves.

Archetypal elements, e.g., “summer,” “river,” winter,” nuancing generation, decline and death, further foreground the poem’s resonating Nature’s cyclic rhythms, without nullifying what Schopenhauer termed Wille zum Leben, or what I prefer to call “life force, “ or self-preservation instinct present in all Nature.

Simple, yet sublime, the poem validates William’s artistic acumen and esteemed standing among modern American poets.

— rjoly

An Upstart Poet I Like a Lot

I’ve had this love affair with poetry since my earliest days, relishing metaphors that translate life from prose to camera, the sheer musicality of it, the crossword deliberation it compels, the tension of its paradoxes capturing life’s myriad, inherent subtleties; above all, its ability to mine deep, probing shafts of sub-subterranean memory and feeling I had thought beyond retrieve.

It follows then that I’m always on the lookout for good poets to swell the hosts of poets like Larkin, Wilbur, Pinsky, Levine and others that provide me good company in the winters as well as summers of life.

Just the other day I made a new acquaintance in pursuing my just in-the-mailbox New Yorker and immediately I knew I’d found a friend I wanted to keep.

Maybe you know him already, Gary J. Whitehead, though for me he’s a new artist in town and one I predict will swim into renown among aficionados of good poetry.

Whitehead, a Princeton grad and Teacher of the Year recipient, teaches English and Creative Writing at Tenafly high School in New Jersey and has received numerous awards for his verse.

How lucky can high students get to share class-time with the likes of a gifted artist like Whitehead! He’s published three collections of his poetry thus far with a fourth, Strange What Rises, about to be published.

You’ll find his poetry absent of the metaphysical, yet never banal in its quotidian pursuits captured in poems such as “Making Love In the Kitchen” and “Lot’s Wife,” which are uncanny for infusing metaphor into the prosaic small deeds and events of ordinary life, granting new ways of viewing their ritual component in our lives. In this, he reminds me a lot of the late Richard Wilbur.

I especially like his passion, which is nice to come upon in an often circumscribed aesthetic aloofness among poets. I think passion frequently makes for good teaching as well. Perhaps it’s this passion that churns my emotions into butter whenever I read Gerard Manley Hopkins, just maybe my favorite old-time poet who passed so terribly young and unrecognized.

Let me try this early Whitehead poem (2002) on you and see if it fits. I think you’ll see what I‘ve been saying:

First Year Teacher to His Students

Go now into summer, into the backs of cars,
into the black maws of your own changing,
onto the boardwalks of a thousand splinters,
onto the beaches of a hundred fond memories
in wait, where the sea in all its indefatigability
stammers at the invitation. Go to your vacation,

to the late morning cool of your basement rooms,
the honeysuckle evening of the first kiss, the first
dip and pivot, swivel and twist. Go to where
the clipper ships sail far upriver, where the salmon
swim in the clean, cool pools just to spawn.
Wake to what the spider unspools into a silver

dawn dripping with light. Sleep in sleeping bags,
sleep in sand, sleep at someone else's house
in a land you've never been, where the dreamers
dream in a language you only half understand.
Slip beneath the sheets, slide toward the plate,
swing beneath the bandstand where the secret

things await. Be glad, or be sad if you want,
but be, and be a part of all that marches past
like a parade, and wade through it or swim in it
or dive in it with your eyes open and your mind
open to wind, rain, long days of sun and longer
nights of city lights mixing on wet streets like paint.

Stay up so late that you forget day-of-the-week,
week-of-the-month, month-of-the-year of what
might be the best summer, the summer
best remembered by the scar, or by the taste
you'll never now forget of someone's lips,
and the trips you took—there, there, there,

where snow still slept atop some alpine peak,
or where the moon rose so low you could see
its tranquil seas...and all your life it'll be like
some familiar body that stayed with you one night,
one summer, one year, when you were young,
and how everywhere you walked, it followed.
"First Year Teacher to His Students" by Gary J. Whitehead, from Measuring Cubits While the Thunder Claps. © David Robert Brooks, 2008.

–rj

The Plight of Native Americans in a White America

The White Man’s misdeeds in America towards its indigenous peoples are incalculable in number and cruelty. I was reminded of this last week when Karen and I visited the Grand Canyon and learned from the Visitor Center that Yavapai and Apaches once lived adjacent to the Canyon. That is, until 1874, when the government closed the Camp Verde Reservation and forced its residents to trek 180 miles to the San Carlos Apache Reservation. More than 100 Native Americans perished.

Nearly two years ago we witnessed the subjugation of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in North Dakota that had commenced in 2016. Primarily affecting Sioux residents of America’s fifth largest Indian reservation, encompassing 2 million acres, the pipeline traverses sites sacred to the tribe and perhaps compromises the Reservation’s water purity.

Initially, it appeared the tribe had won when President Obama shelved the plan in late 2016, pending an environmental review, which would take years to complete.

Alas, there came the surprise of Trump’s election win and the inauguration of an administration strident in anti-environmental bias. In January 2017, came Trump’s executive order approving both the Keystone (Alaska) and Dakota pipelines.

The result, several hundred thousand barrels of oil now flow beneath the once pristine landscape.

This wasn’t a first happening for the tribe. In the 1960s, the Army Corps of Engineers built the Oahe Dam near Pierre, SD, flooding 56,000 acres of the Reservation’s farms and woodlands. Elderly residents recall their homes being burned prior to the flooding.

Ironically, the Standing Rock Reservation is the birthplace and final residence of Sitting Bull, who fiercely resisted white infringement on Indian land. It was his refusal to submit to the government’s order to remove the Sioux to a reservation that led to the famous Battle of the Little Big Horn, in which the Sioux defeated federal troops led by Custer’s 7th Cavalry in 1876.

In 1890, he was shot to death at Standing Rock Reservation by Indian agents attempting his arrest. Several weeks later, the army massacred 150 Sioux, perhaps more, at Wounded Knee Creek. Some historians suggest it was an act of vengeance, carried out by the 7th cavalry.

A wise, observant chief, it was Sitting Bull who asserted, “Hear me people: we now have to deal with another race—small and feeble when our fathers first met them, but now great and overbearing. Strangely enough they have a mind to till the soil and the love of possession is a disease with them. These people have made many rules that the rich may break but the poor may not. They take their tithes from the poor and weak to support the rich and those who rule.”

Prescient and explicit, Sitting Bull’s comment lends context to the historical narrative of White infringement on the rights of its native peoples that continues even now.

–rj

Amy Lowell’s “A Fixed Idea”: An Exploration in Paradox

A Fixed Idea

What torture lurks within a single thought
When grown too constant; and however kind,
However welcome still, the weary mind
Aches with its presence. Dull remembrance taught
Remembers on unceasingly; unsought
The old delight is with us but to find
That all recurring joy is pain refined,
Become a habit, and we struggle, caught.
You lie upon my heart as on a nest,
Folded in peace, for you can never know
How crushed I am with having you at rest
Heavy upon my life. I love you so
You bind my freedom from its rightful quest.
In mercy lift your drooping wings and go.

Amy Lowell

I read the above poem by Amy Lowell (1874-1925) and wanted to share my thinking about it with you.

Lowell wrote some 650 poems, though uneven in quality. She is largely known to us as an early modernist and for “imagism” in particular, inspired by Hilda Doolittle (HD) and Ezra Pound. “A Fixed Idea” appeared in Atlantic Monthly in 1910.

I like the poem and think you will too. We’ve all been there. We’ve had a crush on someone in earlier days or found a rare happiness in the coalescence of experience that we look back upon with nostalgia.

This poem, however, centers in paradox. When we can’t let go, reminiscence can give way to pain and even remorse as equally traumatic as remembered suffering.

All of this is very Keatsian, Keats along with Wordsworth an exponent of nostalgic remembrance. No surprise then that in her final years she wrote a definitive biography of Keats.

Many readers infer that “A Fixed Idea” deals with a past romantic love, though the poem can imply more than that as “you” grammatically applies to its antecedent, the fixed idea of the poem (l.1, single thought”), and title. In turn, this lends the poem a universality that augments its appeal.

What isn’t ambiguous is the poem’s pervasive theme of obsessiveness that embellishes the past with a burdensome present. To have known past joy no longer palpable is time’s inexorable consequence. We transcend by letting go:

The old delight is with us but to find
That all recurring joy is pain refined.

Nostalgia is always a constant of the human psyche, abounding in the archetypal admonition to avoid the fate of those who perished in their folly of a backward glance.

Fundamental to human identity is our ability to reckon our losses, extricate ourselves from the past, and live in the present, asserting ourselves in the cauldron of life’s new challenges that serve to enlarge rather than diminish ourselves. Identity finds itself in “quest” (l. 13), not stasis.

Our poem, written in fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, exhibiting two rhetorical sections, octave and sestet, one general, the other amplifying, is an Italian sonnet. In the former, we have recall of past happiness “once kind” (l. 1) and “welcome still” (l. 2).

The sestet, however, transitions into antithesis with its extended metaphor, or image, of the persona’s fixation as a nesting bird that weighs upon her heart, impeding her life:

…you cannot know
How crushed I am with having you at rest
Heavy upon my life. I love you so
You bind my freedom from its rightful quest.

Like all good poetry, “A Fixed Idea” is more than what it seems. In short, it’s precisely our clinging that lies at the crux of human unhappiness, our attempting to possess what, given life’s Protean flux, was never ours to own.

–rj

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