The Little Death of Self.
The large word "I" perhaps a flint shard some toothless person used to scrape his grisly meat.
Now I resemble a sort of god Floating through the air in my soul-shift Pure as a pane of ice. It's a gift.
YOU MAY NOT REMEMBER THE HINDENBURG. Or if you do, you may not remember it blowing up again and again by way of that marvelous television program, The Twentieth Century, hosted by Walter Cronkite every week, his show-through my childhood, at least--in its before-supper Sunday slot, key moments caught in black and white as he ran clips from the Great Depression, the Jazz Era, both World Wars. But it's the Hindenburg that stands out--most eccentric of flying machines, the giant German dirigible lumbering miraculously into view as Herbert Morrison, the self-assured young reporter from Chicago on the scene that day in New Jersey, 1937, narrated for radio this seeming apparition. Because all was not well. Famously, it simply--are these things ever simple?--caught fire in a matter of seconds, filling the screen with flames, coming apart at blurry bright angles, coming down. O, the humanity! the reporter even more famously cries out. You may remember that, the saddest of exclamations flashed urgent and broken in the air and, since then, repeated, parodied even, superimposed on all manner of fevered situations.
But the real scene keeps coming, immediate and intact. One can see this particular disaster over and over on U-Tube now. You can push a button, fiddle with the keyboard to bring it back any time you wish. I suppose--if your DNA carried the right techie gene--you could play it backward even, watch it come together again, its flame receding to nothing-at-all, the faces once more staring serenely out the small windows, down to a world of on-lookers thrilled by the spectacle.
When I was a kid, it was the instant tragedy that kicked in first, the high visuals of it, the thing flaming up, dropping down in shreds. But it's the sound of the commentary that stays with me, that voice-over, the sudden shift from alert, matter-of-fact reporter-guy to disbelief, to horror, to the sputter-unto-silence of the completely overwhelmed, to the purest cry imaginable in that lasting exclamation--O, the humanity! That's the personal take on this brief historical narrative. That remains its drama.
As I watch and listen to it now, it's how the reporter recovers that moves me. He's polite even in his frenzy. Please, please, get out of the way as he jockeys for a better view, or his repeated oh ladies and gentlemen! after his stunned no-way-to-describe-it. There's the riveting moment he must look away--I'm sorry, honestly I can hardly breathe, I'm going to step inside where I cannot see it.... He does vanish then, probably for three or four minutes though the audio we have now awkwardly patches it through for us as if no time has passed before he returns with a different voice, seemingly centered now, rearranged, to give context, reassure, do his job as card-carrying responsible grown-up who must make order out of such drastic disorder: the stats at hand now--how many aboard, how many saved and lost, and so on.
The reporter's whole rich reaction, the altered diction and emphasis start to finish, is a kind of EKG of tonal variation, his shifts fulfilling the second of Wallace Stevens' arch and most angelic requirements for any decent poem: it must change. And if this disaster were a poem, Tony Hoagland would call this its real story, defining that--as he has in an essay--as the emotional movement beneath the surface run of events. Note the Hindenburg's terrible end: dirigible blows up and burns, X number are killed: what happens is clear enough and truly absorbing. Still, it's the personal voice that tracks our fate. We descend into the hell of his witness too, this speaker, this "I" who thus earns our belief. Through the young reporter we see and feel as he does--to the bone, through the human heart. The interior drama is profoundly lyric; it includes us, brings us close even as the actual narrative out there shocks and distances. That this is, in part, a political act--the individual voice to be treasured in our age of insipid mass culture and group-think-alike--probably goes without saying. The point is that there's detail and progression--interior story--in a lyric poem. How we mess with both levels could be called style, I suppose. But the substance is clear: something matters beyond the barebone public facts, and that, too, must be told. Donald Hall's notion of a poem, his "inside person talking to inside person," rings true enough. It's the speaker we trust, however secret and solitary the voice that comes to via each poem's turns of image and idea.
But there's a noticeable shift from this approach, a growing wish in contemporary poetry to discredit or fracture, even rub out forever just such a speaker, a new impatience with genuinely lived experience as the source of poetry. Or it's a need to remain as hidden as possible. Or a desire for deeper play and outright accident, to e-invent, to flarf cleverly collaging bits from the Web to leave behind the tired old real and potentially embarrassing--read: sentimental--self-as-speaker. Whatever the reasons, I hear and overhear this sometimes: I want to kill the "I" in my poem--as if that could move any mountain. And it's earnest, this wish, and somehow seductive though it seems a little like a Mobius strip, doesn't it? Or the serpent eating its own tail since the most convincing element in such an assertion lies at the very start and keeps sticking.
After all, who wants with such passion to do in that "I"? I do I do I do....
The fact is: poems aren't written by robots, and even if such a thing were arguable, those robots would be cleverly disguised as human beings. Lived experience does matter. Someone writes these things. Because poetry's long tradition is a full-body-press on that voice to make it personal. Can we ever get away from that? An expectation of intimacy comes through the direct use of I, the first person pronoun, or it's implied through language, quirks of phrasing as revealing as bad penmanship acquired over years of proud effort. What many claim to be the first personal lyric in English, written in the late 1400s by an anonymous poet, goes this way:
O Western wind, when wilt thou blow That the small rain down can rain? Christ, that my love were in my arms, And I in my bed again!
Christ! And you hear that outburst, that change as the piece moves from rather high diction, an invocation really, a plea, and frantic, for a warmer wind. Christ, he says to begin something more private and colloquial, the speaker squarely facing his own isolation. That this transition is preset but held off for a quiet second by the sweet, darkly strange single-stressed "small rain down can rain" might only appear if we x-rayed the poem and developed the film in the evil chemical rinse of our looking so closely. Note in such an x-ray how dramatically this lyric goes inward, how convincingly (exclamation point and all) it moves from that flash of the great world to an ordinary life, from that world's furious natural detail to the experience of loss and serious desire. End of story.
But things never end in poems, particularly in lyrics. Here the deepest need--for love, for home, for things to have a bearable end--continues and rings true, not only through the words chosen but even in sentence structure--exclamation morphing into question, then all's emphatic again. As with the young reporter who freezes and unfreezes while the Hindenburg burns into history, we're allowed in through these changes--the human voice played off this syntax--even its painful pauses coming clear by way of line breaks and punctuation.
It's impossible, I think, to overestimate the importance of such a voice, how it carries authority partly because of its vulnerability, how it rises and falls and thus gets our attention. Because of it things do change, as Stevens advised. Even in the oldest poems, those considered epic--Beowulf, for instance--we're hit from the start with a speaker quite singular, a conduit for a tale already ancient in the telling. So. I mean the word "so." Thus begins Seamus Heaney's translation with this surprisingly informal one word launch.
So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns....
That this large we morphs so effortlessly to singular first person by line 20 of this vast poem is significant: I have never heard before of a ship so well furbished. From then on, that fiercely personal awe is a base line sound, a crucial lyric intervention in the drama allowing us to see vividly some 14 centuries later. Beowulf is, admittedly, full of fabulous exploits not the speaker's, the voice functioning as recaller-in-chief of what's handed down. But however story-bound this epic is for history's sake or simply for bragging rights, the presence of an individual speaker gives the poem an interior tension which stops time as is the lyric's famous inward habit even as the epic's narrative energy is the real engine, forcing the lively, bloody, very public accumulation forward.
When a poetic speaker focuses narrowly on his own experience, a deeper stain enters the mix. Example: a lyric ancestor to "O Western Wind" surely, from roughly the same time as Beowulf, a lament by a scop--a medieval poet--who's been overshadowed by another singer and cruelly thrown out of patronage, undone like so many others, including those destroyed by someone called Eormanric and his "wolfish mind." And "many a warrior sat expecting woe/," he first tells us, spreading the bad news around, "in his soul, it grows dark." But soon this speaker is as direct as Job about his suffering.
This is my self I wish to say-- that for a time I was the gleeman of the Heodenings ... Deor was my name.... I had for many winters a good employment, a gracious lord, until now Heorrenda, a song-skilled man, received the land-rights that to me the protector of earls had give before. As that passed away, so may this.
And what started as a piece that included others shrinks down to one stricken speaker obsessed with his own troubles.
When does the personal become too much? The very first lyrics, we're told, were laments, songs broken and loud above graves or next to funeral pyres before anything was written down or set to memory. But the grief was for someone else. Here, this poor scop's pity is self-pity, to comfort himself that as others' trials have "passed away, so may this." When my friend and Purdue colleague, Mary Niepokuj, an historical linguist, showed me this poem, we agreed half-jokingly that it might well be the first honest-to-god whine in English.
I want to kill the "I" in my poem. Is this in answer, then, to the grand tradition of what we called when I was growing up just feeling sorry for yourself?--a state of mind before which someone, some wiseass friend no doubt, would have plenty to say, that iconic single-stressed bit of advice, for starters: get a grip!
But this particular shadow on the lyric impulse does haunt me, especially when I think of certain readings I've attended, the self-absorbed speaker in the poems too prominent, those evenings on-again, off-again so hard to sit through, flush with detail pointlessly revealing--however accurate the complaint about family or work or sex--moments that give confessional poetry a bad name, one checkpoint--armed or not--away from pure gossip. In that light, it's easy to concede. Kill the I? Okay, so maybe there are reasons. But not to censor entire swatches of subject matter, instead to adjust the lens, widen it to a flash that begins exactly at the point self-involvement fades or at least morphs to something far more mysterious--and interesting.
In any case, the whole idea grows complex, beyond what I first thought largely a next generation's rebellion against that confessional mode, itself a revolt in the 60s and 70s to free poetry from the academic, the heavy-handed, from an indifference to ordinary life. In fact, if you count poor Deor's lament for self and circumstance, these kill-the-I warriors have a much longer paper trail and wordhoard to battle, back to the 8th century at least.
To battle--or absorb. There are ways.
Because there have been ways: shrewd or blundering, serious or comic, ways found by accident or design, predictable ways or ways no-one-in-herright-mind-could-imagine, pretty much impossible ways to enter a poem and keep it going. Isn't that the heart of this anxiety about "killing the I"?--how to find footing as the maker of the poem without seeming to exactly, to let thought and experience rise from real grounding, up the most interior passages of the body until there's a voice--credible, human, as transparent as possible--that might be a conduit. Finding that is the miracle that makes any poem about-to-happen.
About-to-happen. But to manage that, the reverse becomes crucial too--that something stop happening for once, right there at the start of the making. Do we really write poems to find ourselves, as so often is promised? The sweet thing goes deeper: to lose the self, to make room for something else.
First such quiet to call down, a pure selflessness, something else I remember from that long lost television screen too, an emptiness when Walter Cronkite stopped talking and the reporter was yet to speak. It seemed simple enough, the handheld camera steady a moment: a square of afternoon sky there, its vast, grainy nothing-at-all before the doomed Hindenburg drifted into view. And then, the other great quieting--I'm going to step inside where I cannot see it--as the young reporter finds he must look away to see clearly, to see anything at all.
That drift then, not much perhaps, just something to wait through. But the strongest poetry I know keeps company with such an emptiness, no matter how privately disastrous and compelling the subject, the first person position as muted as it is revealing. Evidence: an uncharacteristically short poem by Lucia Perillo, a writer who usually takes on the dramatic lyric full force, with dense, often wry, story-advancing detail. Here in the title poem of her early collection The Body Mutinies, the moment is grave and brief, opened with much grace and tact just as a life fully changes for the worst, though how bad it could be we--seeing as the speaker does--can't know yet. What's clear is how common this exchange must be: the speaker gets very bad news from her doctor. But the stunned silence involved--there's that drift again--is immense. Here are its full 14 lines.
When the doctor runs out of words and still I won't leave, he latches my shoulder and steers me out doors. Where I see his blurred hand, through the milk glass, flapping goodbye like a sail (& me not griefstruck yet but still amazed: how words and names--medicines blunt instruments--undid me. And the seconds, those half seconds it took for him to say those words.) For now, VII just stand in the courtyard, watching bodies struggle in then out of one lean shallow a tall fir lays across the wet flagstones, before the sun clears the valance of gray trees and finds the surgical-supply shop window and makes the dusty bedpans glint like coins.
If a backstory is needed here--Perillo herself hit with multiple sclerosis in her 20s, a fact addressed directly in her work--so be it. But this rides powerfully without that, like a good ekphrastic poem carries on quite well, thank you, without the painting that inspired it directly at hand.
What's remarkable about the first person voice is how modest it is, just a lens such sights past through in a charged situation, confining itself pretty much to stage directions: "I won't leave ... I see ... I'll just stand in the courtyard ..." so we have a place to witness from both physically and emotionally. The exception is signaled by the secret-making parentheses surrounding more interior news--"& me not griefstruck yet" or "how medicine's blunt instruments--undid me." But a more lasting loss suggests itself as the speaker recounts in slow, beautiful increments a catalog of the small things available in such a moment, the world beyond the speaker changing--still ordinary but now darkly radiant with meaning because all at once we're on the farther side of that thick curtain dividing before from after: first the doctor's "blurred hand" there, behind the milky door, then those outside who "struggle" through the "one lean shadow" cast by a towering fir tree. And most immoveable and heart-chilling of all, that surgical supply store, its window filled with "dusty bedpans" glinting "like coins."
The last five lines carry these images straight. We forget, in the pleasure and pain of Perillo's detail, that it's the speaker of the poem seeing all this in her new state as marked person. We forget because it's no longer only her story. It's been released to us through the clarity and quiet selflessness of the telling. What started in response to the most personal of assaults has ended in wonder. It's passed to a "woe, world-sorrow" as another poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, did call such a thing.
How poets get larger, how they can use the first person more as catapult than simply as an exhaustive limiting zoom lens on their life-so-far--is that part of the issue here? What if there are extremes of mind so interior and unfathomable that they must intrude, taking over every bit of breathing space in the poem?
Hopkins' "world-sorrow" is not exactly where he begins, I think. A writer of great emotional extremes, this late 19th-century British poet seems someone--and I've worried this thought before--who when he sat down to write, must have jacked himself up or down to extraordinary levels of mind and heart not usually found between breakfast and supper in a normal life. His poems, after all, track a flood of realization so over-brimming, either in ecstasy or cast to the darkest depths. Could anyone live full time like that and stay sane?
All poets have favored psychic spots, places of comfort and tension enough to dare the work on. We develop habits to insure such states of being, not all of them so healthy. But finding a recognizable private speaker must have been a tricky business for Hopkins, locked as he was in a kind of professional offing of the self through his vocation as a Jesuit priest, thus his pledge of allegiance not to personal expression (and certainly not fame). Poems--if they be written at all--had to honor divine glory. So it can't be surprising that when the "I" appears in Hopkins' poems, it often suggests the generic one-who-prays, more a small votive candle burning somewhere in the corner of a church rather than a personal presence, all the messy paraphernalia of a lived life in tow. In addition, there's this: reading his poems often means waiting for some telltale mention of the godhead, some otherworldly shoe to drop hard.
It's staggering, given the Jesuit's gag order, how flushed through with personal verve Hopkins' poems are anyway. Who else but this particular poet could buckle down to prayer by nailing his gratitude for the curious "dappled" beauty of summer, for its "skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow" or
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings; Landscape plotted and pieced--fold, fallow, and plough; And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim. All things counter, original, spare, strange; Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim ....
So goes a large part of his well-known "Pied Beauty" with its riot of image and adjective, the natural world caught by one very alert, specific-heat-seeking speaker. In a letter to his friend Robert Bridges, Hopkins' ideal for a poem--or any work of art--was telling. Its beauty, he claimed, depended on the artist bringing out "all the complex individuality of the subject" which, in effect, brings out "the individuality of the artist." Meaning: what is said defines who's saying it, or loosely put in a borrowed way: I see by my outfit. So even without a speaker owning up through a first person pronoun, it's obvious who's talking, singing, or completely beside himself. That ideal weighed on Hopkins, pointing back always to the solitary one-who-writes. "Every poet," he wrote to Bridges in 1878, "must be original and originality the condition of poetic genius; so that each poet is like a species in nature and cannot recur."
Such a high expectation gets Hopkinsin trouble though. Even Bridges took him to task for his "oddness," his "affectation," his "obscurity." Meanwhile, in our own last century, the cranky, most insightful critic Paul Fussell, for one, impatiently dismissed this poet from the "history of English versification," relegating him instead to the "history of personal British eccentricity"--high praise in my book, but apparently not in Fussell's, though he got the "eccentric" part right. Hopkins' voice stands thoroughly soaked in image and turns of diction so surprising, so downright quirky that we know instantly, with deep joy (fulfilling, by the way, Stevens third rule for poetry: it must give pleasure), that we're in the presence of a mind and method powerful and unique. In his so-called "dark sonnets" too, where a seemingly personal 'T' does take charge, it's what Fussell deems so wrong--an emotionally charged, overstressed natural speech--that brilliantly sticks. "I wake," the poet begins #44, the well-loved, most despondent of these pieces, "and feel the fall of dark, not day." From there it only grows bleaker, to fill out what that terrible "selfyeast" feels like.
I am gall, I am heartburn. God's most deep decree Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me.
Bones built in me, fleshed filled, blood brimmed the course....
Are the speaker's self-railings here all that removed from Deor's private rants? Or from a bad night of confessional poetry last month or last year?
Yes! Because beyond his rich language and image, his finely tuned ear, the great difference lies in Hopkins' coming straight off his vows: these late and haunted sonnets, like his ecstatic work, are cast as prayer. They're wired up to go someplace else, to escape beyond complaint and self-scrutiny through whatever small window of hope for forgiveness Hopkins gives them, however locked the poems are in their anguish-ridden weight and counterweight. Finally they're directed outward, in a very long reach.
I say that as a good lapsed Catholic now, as an agnostic who, as a child, was right there at Mass, in whole-hearted belief. A few years ago though, driving the three hours home from Chicago, my husband and I tuned in NPR and heard the composer John Corigliano interviewed, holding forth on the historical shift in music over the last two centuries. Before Wagner and After Wagner, is how he set that line. What he meant, he said, was simple: Before--composers were writing to God. After--they've been writing as God.
So did lightning strike our SONY speaker in that car? Was the radio itself forever after a charred, smoking tangle of wires and circuits?
Absolutely. Cross my heart.
It's an idea almost too dangerous to consider although to be fair, Corigliano's concern was largely with composers blithely forsaking melody which must be the musical equivalent to a clear narrative line. He worried about the audience left behind in the fast approaching atonal chaos, post-Wagner. But regarding poetic voice, what does speaking "as God" really mean? Speaking to God implies a human being let loose on the page, after all--flawed, vulnerable. We recognize that common lyric stance; we identify with it, even as non-believers. But to speak as God? The nerve involved, the high-flying oxygen deprivation .... Of course, fiction writers who practice full-fledged omniscience in their narration might not feel this an amazing turn at all. Is it simply, then, a matter of shifting to third person and calling it quits?
"I heard a fly buzz when I died," Emily Dickinson begins what must be the most stellar of her greatest hits. But tweak that to a more all-knowing stance: "She felt a fly buzz when she died." The line goes flat on the heart screen. Or consider Robert Frost, Dickinson's compatriot decades later in the same New England, his very personal speaker so fully exhausted after days of apple picking one fall, how heightened moments in that poem gain or lose by our ditching his well-known "I keep hearing from the cellar bin / the rumbling sound of load on load of apples / coming in" for third person's more distant god-like perspective.
And one keeps hearing from the cellar bin the rumbling sound of load on load of apples coming in. For one can have too much of apple picking. One gets overtired of the great harvest one oneself desires.
Gone: intensity. Gone: every edgy thing you might have loved about this poem. The new distance in the voice would be comic if it weren't so decidedly ho-hum. The temperature just dropped about 50 degrees.
This substitution is cheap, I know, if not actively really, really stupid. If Frost had written as God, who knows what treasure he might have unearthed here? Because he does manage a thirdperson lock down and its deliberate weight, sometimes in pieces fully narrative--his "Out, Out" for instance--or in briefer ones, near-aphorisms as "Design" or "Fire and Ice," though in such pieces he often narrowly keeps that god-like stance out of it, startling us with a sudden entry of an 'T' who sadly agrees or wryly turns the subject inside-out. In "After Apple-Picking," if fully buying into this trade of first person for third, surely he would have lost the sense of human failure, and that humility, a not-knowing much at all finally--how things work or never work--in short, the lyric poignancy you just can't shake. In the poem he left us, Frost examines such exhaustion--physical, spiritual--without melodrama, ending in the lowest key:
Were he not gone, the woodchuck would say whether it's like his long sleep, as I describe its coming on, or just some human sleep.
"As I describe its coming on." The speaker owning up again is crucial, taking us back in a swift half second over the whole dire business, giving reason--or release--for and to something immeasurably darker waiting past the poem's end, a slow awful ticking there. And--this is the worst thing--eventually we'll all hear it.
That imagined sound--so much like the tick tick tick of Dickinson's infamous and unholy fly. To reconsider that poem in Corigliano's light is to see she's the one neck and neck with Richard Wagner, pretty much his contemporary anyway. But the notion of Dickinson--talking as God? She was, in fact, deep in that celestial upgrade and fast approaching the zone where divine lightning might strike after all. That fly in her poem, then--check. The deathbed room itself-check. The "Stillness" there--check. Those "Eyes around" ... "And Breaths" as the dying speaker fades and her "Keepsakes" willed away--"What portion of me be/Assignable" she tells us in a sudden wry aside before recalling once more, no,
... it was There interposed a Fly-- With Blue--uncertain stumbling Buzz-Between the light--and me-- And then the Windows failed--and then I could not see to see--
Can you hear how impossibly modern that sounds? That "Blue--uncertain stumbling Buzz"? Modern and yes, god-like, I have to say.
Because her use of that first person is most curious.
Though still seemingly personal in the lyric's great tradition, Dickinson is, in fact, throwing her voice. Far more than one life is ending. And really, who is saying this?
Plain fact: among her many admittedly bad poems that take on the classic sentimentality of 19th-century magazine verse (which this poet read avidly), Dickinson's best pieces have this peculiar genius about them, set some place beyond mortal time, seen dry-eyed in an eerie state of almost non-being. "I heard a Fly buzz--when I died--" she says. Past tense. We are so afterlife here-aren't we?--though perhaps that wasn't as odd as it might seem given her century's anxiety about burying people too soon, deathbed medical observation being what it was or wasn't, so many documented cases where the apparent dead came alive in the casket, even under the sod. (So many, actually, that some insisted on a so-called "premature burial device," most commonly a rope attached to their wrists when the time came, its length snaking up above ground to a bell which could ring out if they did come to after the mourners went home.) In any case, Dickinson's cool, near-magical eye in the poem looks down or vastly across by way of its immediate narrative detail--those windows, that buzz. Of course, there's the superb phrase: "and then/I could not see to see--" How that's said nails a personal vision meticulously disembodied, already shifting god-like. Her distant unself--concorn nevertheless feels quite close. Which is to say this could be our end of life, our death signaled in that fly's dark stutter between eye and window.
Brigit Kelly and I have for years talked about what we call "the big voice," a cast of mind that assumes power without hesitation, the omniscient ring it has, how much pure nerve it takes to hold forth like that, an approach largely male in the past but now increasingly an equal-opportunity fix in American poetry. However trademark small and quiet her poems, set in opposition and equal to Whitman's loud expanse, Dickinson can carry off this "big voice" and, in that, she foreshadows, decades in advance, Wallace Stevens' first rule for poems--it must be abstract--even given the private, unsettling way such a voice comes across, first person or not. "Abstract" here, I'm taking to mean, suggests a turn bigger than self, than the self's concerns. We're beyond a lived life with this particular "I" of Dickinson's since--duh!-the speaker didn't die but instead--surprise--has written this poem! Its "I" participates in both worlds, as real as it is deeply imagined. And so is scary. Is steely. Is elastic. Is thrilling. Is huge.
And maybe it's viral. Maybe you can catch it, this not quite killing the "I," instead letting it morph, go strange--half hard-lived experience behind it, half dream--as you hover in those vacant pre-Hindenburg disaster moments where a poem's about-to-happen. And then it does, unfolding itself as various drafts come and go. Here's the word from John Keats on this: his well-known theory of "negative capability" where a poet must be "capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." Which is to say: it's not yours to finish.
But viruses travel by touch, by air, by blood. Or the literary kind by such sure and gradual osmosis of affection that it seems a sudden afterthought that they've burrowed into us, poems written long before we were even a spot of DNA to be thus marked--or tainted--forever. That there's a straight line from Dickinson to Sylvia Plath must be tattooed on someone's right arm by now, someone about to earn tenure for it and a small jump in pay. Both poets are drawn to large assertions, making claims right and left; both share a fevered interiority that starves the poem on one hand, and fills it to brimming on the other. So it's tempting to say that Plath, like Dickinson, is also "post-Wagnerian"--talking as God--with her fierce overview, her distant sound, lines like:
The womb Rattles its pod, the moon Discharges itself from the tree with nowhere to go. or Love is a shadow. How you lie and cry after it. or This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.
That this poet delivers from such heights, most commonly abstracting her legendary pain and discontent through this mix of image and statement, is something Dickinson managed a century earlier but Plath takes it farther, following Aristotle's #1 requirement for poetic intelligence: a rage not for order or beauty but for metaphor. Plath defines even the self largely by metaphor, the more unnerving and accurate the better. She builds her poems with it, asking, as William Carlos Williams did: what thing is shaped as this thing is shaped? Poets mean through such unlikely welding, and even Keats weighed in on the subject, dismissing first what he called "the Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime" for something weirder, more slippery, having to do with poetic voice and its absolute dependence on metaphor. A poet, he wrote to a friend,
is the most unpoetical of anything in existence; because he has no Identity--continually... filling some other body--the Sun, the sea, the Sea, and Men and Women who have about them an unchangeable attribute....
Continually ... filling some other body. To define through images beyond the self makes an urgent metaphorical link between worlds: don't we imagine it's god-like to do that? "Only connect," Forster passionately advised. To x-ray everything so those ghostly points of similarity startle and shine in the most shadowy moment.
Practically any poem of Plath's would show off this dazzling addiction to metaphor. One of the smaller pieces in Ariel, her "Poppies in October," is an odd choice, I suppose, since certain elements seem cast in the before Wagner mold, talking to God--the flawed speaker undone by her realizations, their awful weight pressing down to trigger the final inward-breaking outburst that mirrors the despair in our oldest true lyric, "O Western Wind," its speaker's Christ in exclamation, then on to his sad oh-would-that-everything-were-different. But Plath clearly starts in medias res, by way of comparison and argument--"Even the sun-clouds this morning cannot..."--so right off, it's the terrible middle of something and this stately claiming voice, its perfect right to hold forth. What follows is her "Poppies in October," all 12 lines of it done up in their stripped-down tercets, most unstable of stanza forms.
Even the sun-clouds this morning cannot manage such skirts. Nor the woman in the ambulance Whose red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly-- A gift, a love gift Utterly unasked for By a sky Palely and flamily Igniting its carbon monoxides, by eyes Dulled to a halt under bowlers. Oh my God, what am I That these late mouths should cry open In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers.
A poem made of three sentences--the first endstopped so early and seemingly partial that it appears to be an announcement, a dramatic flourish to signal a most emphatic start. As she goes on, Plath reasons by analogy, as is her habit, and by color here, honoring a full canvas and connecting what bloody dots she can. Her moves start high-those "sun-clouds"--drop to the ground-level poppies by way of straight-out metaphor ("such skirts"), through the grief-rimmed red shock of a medical emergency, slipping coolly into commentary ("a gift, a love gift...")--love-red, it's clear--up again to sky, its poisons particular now, dangerous ("carbon monoxides" which are pale and could easily ignite--flame-red--and do), back to earth then, to well-dressed automatons right out of Eliot's Waste Land who seem to be walking, who definitely wear bowler hats, whose "eyes" are "dulled to a halt" under them. Nothing and no one can witness or "manage" or bear these poppies as the speaker can, or is forced to.
One might get dizzy, given a flow chart like this. The poet's all over the place. But it's Plath's smart line breaks that slow the gyrations, deliver them with distilled, quiet deliberation--not hesitation, such pauses, the speaker too sure of herself, too god-like for that. Of course, it's that ambulance that takes us so deeply" inside pure horror, past steel doors no doubt just slammed shut, into the body itself where the "red heart blooms" out "so astoundingly" that the most ordinary coat fills up; it's bloody, as red as the poppies which incited this poem, that initial stanza breaking off into the next by the urgent dash that Dickinson loved first and obsessively.
Four simple tercets maybe, but spookily sonnet-like if by sonnet one means a major turn in the poem's most serious business, a shift in voice at its end. News flash: so far nothing is carried forward by a first person speaker; no 'T' has directly owned up to seeing or imagining the ambulance, the sky, the poppies that clearly hypnotize and are the source of everything here. These images float on the page, apparently by divine right and reportage: they are they are they are for us to notice, simple riveting facts served up all-knowingly from a god-like height.
But the speaker, of course, stains and skews such facts in the telling. A personal juice is nevertheless here in how things are described. What else but a voice set in motion by Plath could come up with blood that nevertheless blooms thrillingly through a coat, or with toxic threatening air to breathe that seems for a moment almost festive. Still, in the final three lines, an honest, full-blown 'T' breaks through to shatter the brief silence of the stanza break, to rear up under the tonnage of all that comes before and full, even darker charge:
Oh my God, what am I That these late mouths should cry open ....
We hear that, half question, half exclamation about self and world so pure and terrible, so tied to actual image--who am I, alone condemned to see such things?--the poppies now simplified horribly to "mouths" and such amplified red anguish that only one witness can hear and see, then dare put down these words.
One witness. Get that? One. That's the lyric, the great convincing single heartbeat in poems. And, as such, our conduit too. We see through those eyes. That speaker gives us a place to be in the poem. Stevens, agreeing with Keats, wrote this: Poetry is not personal. But he also insisted, almost like Keats, that "a poet confers his identity on the reader." He called it "a transference." Then he added this in his notebook: "Poets acquire humanity." Acquire. As if that's viral too, a good virus, a slow welling up, that humanity. It takes a long time.
In the first poem of his first book, Frost wrote simply: you come too, a wish that seems an afterthought except that he said it again in that poem so we could almost call it a refrain. Which is to say, a human voice and a phrase that includes the sorry likes of us most emphatically, still, these years and years later.
One last thought about this, or maybe just an image.
Not too long ago, I was unaccountably privileged, allowed to descend into the underworld 12 hours each week, attending the so-called cadaver lab in Indiana University's medical school on my campus at Purdue, suiting up in blue scrubs and rubber gloves each Monday, Wednesday and Friday with 16 first-year medical students, each armed with scalpel, forceps, hemostat and whatever raw, rare courage they could muster.
Over those months we cut and peered into the most private regions of the body--four bodies, two men, two women, all over 70, the press of years upon them--down to the most hidden spinal cord and kidney, cervix and prostate, furious cross-hatching of arteries and nerves, dizzy swirl of colon, the mismatched unidentical lungs we held in our hands to feel the air, still inside. And their hands, the etching in the thick-skinned palms we traced, then peeled back to bone and muscle so multiple, in its strings and layers. But always the heads were secret, kept hidden from us. Shrouded in thick soaked towels for most of the term, they sank back on the tables as we probed and stripped tissue and fat and bone from clavicle to the most distant provinces of the lower limb. But who were these people? Finally, late November, all was dissected--except the head. Then, we unwrapped them. For the first time, after weeks and weeks, we were eye to eye.
Those heads, so beautiful I could hardly breathe. Such heart-stopping particularity, charcoal line of cheekbone and lip, bridge of nose, forehead, intricate spiral of ear. Before, all had been private enough, places we had no right to--groin and hand, abdomen and breast. But how little that meant now, before such faces looming up: exactly who they were and no one else. Only now were they human, each fully different than the others, individuals with specific lives, childhoods somewhere back there frozen in the brain, memories of afternoons, years of sleep and dream in those faces, hard work, sorrow, deceit, remorse, joy, pride, indifference, rage. But something else too: they were finally the dead; they were everyone who had ever lived.
Oh the humanity, that young reporter cried out and keeps crying, stepping away to blank it all out for a moment, to quiet himself to continue, the film cataloged for history, played on a computer now by anyone, anytime. Those cadavers: I can't pretend they stared at us; three of them seemed to be sleeping. The fourth, the oldest, looked out of her watery blue eyes at nothing, and no one.
It's puzzling; it contradicts. Maybe the individual face is the most public part of the body, the way it mirrors back whatever it sees, as Keats says the poet must absorb, and thus lose himself to open at all. Still, each face is what it is, private, unique as any turn of voice in a poem must be, because that is the poem, in whatever edgy way it takes shape. Do you believe such a voice? Can you hear it? All meaning comes through that.
The most recent of MARIANNE BORUCH'S seven books of poetry are Grace, Fallen from (Wesleyan, 2008), Poems: New and Selected (Oberlin, 2004), and The Book of Hours, due out this fall from Copper Canyon. Her prose includes two essay collections on poetry--In the Blue Pharmacy (Trinity, 2005) and Poetry's Old Air (Michigan, 1993)--and a memoir, The Glimpse Traveler (Indiana, 2011). She teaches in the MFA program at Purdue University and in the low-residency Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.
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|Publication:||The American Poetry Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||May 1, 2011|
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