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Poems and Their Ideas

Posted By Joe Weil On January 19, 2011 @ 8:00 am In Poetry and Poetics,Writing | 3 Comments

Dust of Snow

Robert Frost

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

A student, choosing to write a two page paper on this poem, quoted a critical authority who had managed, by the magic of stupidity, to turn it into a comment on racism. The crow is not described as black, and this apparently, is Frost’s way of saying that such stereotypes are evil. Now how this interpretation could exist is beyond me, but what could the teacher say to the student? The critic is stretching her own agenda beyond all proper bounds? Well, I wasn’t the teacher, so I told him that. I said: “experts can be stupid, too, you know… especially when they are trying to shove everything into their own theory, even if it does not fit.” The kid went on for two pages about racism and Frost’s remarkable foresight given that he had lived in a lilly white section of new England. His essay never quoted the poem.

We can go any number of ways, some of them might even include the actual poem,but what of it? If we know something about the literary tradition pertaining to crows, we can see the crow as a trickster, an intelligent creature who likes to cut the unsuspecting down to size.In a sense, even a sane interpretation of this poem is a distortion of it. Even if we go all Brooks and stick strictly to the poem at hand, as if nothing else by Frost existed, as if historical context and the life of the poet did not matter, we would still offer only a distortion. Interpretation is distortion. Some distortions are useful. They makes sense. They offer a new way of entering the poem, of understanding and enjoying it. Others make us shake our heads in dismay, but all interpretations are digressions and re-writings of the text. It is unavoidable. And this is what a poet should keep in mind: when we have an “idea” for a poem, a desire to do something or express something in a poem, the poem must win over the idea or both will be lost. An idea for a poem is always a competing poem. So, instead of just editing our poems after the first draft, we should do a close reading. And it is sometimes helpful to refer to ourselves as “the poet.” What is the poet trying to do here, and why, and how? What is his agenda? I am going to take a poem I admire by one of my students, Melissa Liebl, and model this method of first revision:

She lifts her
sharp collar bones
in a shrug
the rain so hard
the spaces between
form cups
and fill
I lean toward
the edge of her body
to sip
and one sweet
and turn
defers me to
the air

So what can we say about the poem at first glance? It is short, and thin, never more than five words per line. This might be considered the law peculiar to this poem. The longest line is five words. Given the rules the poem implies, is five too long? I re-write the poem, shortening the five word line just to see what happens.

I look at it visually and decide the poet is justified in having that five word line because, otherwise, the poem is too funnel shaped. So why so short, and so thin? Re-reading it I think: it’s a single action, a brief moment, and it would not make sense to have the poem any longer or fatter than it is. I comb through my thinning memory bank and think of two poems by Williams: “Fine Work with Pitch and Copper” and “The Locust Tree in Flower” (second version). Ok, the single gesture, the sense of a small and intimate moment justifies the choice of line and proportion. Good.

Now, I ask myself: what is the sonic action of the poem? Experience has taught me that a writer often goes wrong in a poem in terms of lineation and sonics before any other failing. So I investigate the sounds. Ah, two sibilants (s) one in initial and the other in terminal position! One has the h added to create the “sh” sound. Only the first vowel sound is pronounced– high e, the highest pitched vowel in the language. So “she” is the star in sonic as well as narrative terms. The i in lifts and the e in her are muted. There’s a labial in the L of lifts. So, in terms of sound, the chief action so far is muted vowels, and sibilants,as well as a labial.This creates softness, euphony, a sense of the delicate– as much as what she says. The meaning is also in the sound! Will this be the case once more in the next couple lines?

Yes! Here’s comes “sharp,” (sh again), here comes L in the medial position (collar), but note: there’s now a hard c, and the ominous arrival of plosives: p in sharp, and b in bones. The vowels have also gone a little violent here with the two “ar” and the one”Oh sounds. There is a subtle form of what I call ghost rhyme going on. At the sonic level, a lot is happening. Let us continue:

Following this trail of sounds we find out that S and sh are the stars, with a brief but memorable cameo appearance of plosives, and the lowest vowel sound in the English language: “Uh.” “In a shrug.” H also figures in all its many guises. The question is why?

Here’s a nice conjecture: if there is a turn in the poem, I bet the s and sh sounds go away, and if there is a return or climax, I bet they show up again. One more thing about the plosives: this is hard rain. it no doubt “pelts.” Now, let’s see if the s sounds disappear:

Voila! They, indeed, do. In the middle section of the poem, for three and a half lines, there are no further s sounds until the word sip. Fricatives appear in form and find. Also, dentals show up in the t and d sounds.: Sip, sweet, sigh, and then for the very last lines, our hero, the s sound is gone forever, replaced by the rise of the dentals in sweet, turns, defers, and to. If we reduced the poem to only its s sounds in initials position we’d get:She sharp shrug spaces sip sweet sigh.

Turn that into two sentences: “She sharply shrugs. Spaces sip sweet sighs”. The s sounds alone almost carry the tale. So I say: this writer, however unconsciously, was moving through the sonic as well as the narrative fairy tale of her poem. The ghost rhymes, and effects are so subtle, no one but a nut job like me might notice them, but this is the pleasure of poetry when you stop paying attention to only what the poem means.

Now, onto the grammar: the poem has no punctuation. To me punctuation controls the speed at which beauty moves through the room. If there is no punctuation, two questions must be asked: are the lines well enough constructed, and lucid enough using only the white space to justify no punctuation? Question two: if there is a grammatical ambiguity created by the lack of punctuation, does that ambiguity lend a greater possible meaning to the poem, and is it justified by the law of greater complexity (rather than mere confusion)? Is the writer conscious of the effect (ok. That is a third question)? So I put punctuation in: She lifts her sharp collar bones in a shrug, the rain so hard the spaces between form cups and fill.” A nun would kill me for that sentence because, if read in terms of grammar, the spaces could refer to the rain or the collar bones. How would you “fix” that? She lifts her sharp collar bones in a shrug, the rain so hard, the spaces between her collar bones form cups and fill.” Too wordy.

Definitely, this is not prose, and, in spite of the ambiguity, I’d let it stand as is. This is a complex sentence with the greater part of its length given to the dependent clause. The lineation, and white space, by breaking the parts up, actually helps rather than hinders, and so it is justified. Now the next sentence is compound: “I lean toward her body to sip, and one sweet sigh and turn defers me to the air.” The “and” is a beautiful pivot here. Because, in the poem, there is no punctuation, I initially thought the speaker of the poem was turning and sighing, which, in emotional terms, she is, but it is the object of her attempted sip who turns and sighs. This is nice. This is using uncertainty to best advantage. Ok. Finally, possible objections to the poem:

There are vulgar readers who will ignore all these virtues and say: so what? What’s the ontology of the poem? The ontology is rejection, but a rejection so soft and nuanced that it is also an unforgettable gesture. The speakers action is also an impulse, a reflex of the moment The use of the verb “defer” gives both the hint of rejection and the sense of a course diverted, not a final rejection. Wonderful! If she had written “leaves,”instead of “defers” I, too, might be tempted to say: “Nice poem, but so what?” Delicacy, if it be truly there, defeats philosophy, and thwarts despair. We do not ask the ontology of a swallow swooping at dusk. So, I give this student an A. And now some assignments:

1. Go over one of your poems the way I just went over this. See what you might discover that you didn’t realize.
2. Decide that a certain number of sounds will be threaded through your poem. Let their appearance and disappearance mimic a turn or change of meaning.
3. Read “Fine Work With Pitch and Copper,” and “The Locust Tree in Flower.” Try to render a single moment, bereft of punctuation, but in such a way that the white space, and the mabiguity will increase the possible meanings.
4. Go and read some favorite poems, and forget the meaning for a moment. Enter them through sound, through detail. Then return to meaning and meditate on how closely sound shadows sense. Good luck.

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