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Robert Frost

When I was 4 or 5, my grandmother loved to ask me where I was from: “Pittsfield, Massachewits” I’d say. Like a sneeze. She took a special delight in my inability to grasp and order all the necessary phonemes. We moved from Massachusetts before I turned 10, before I really appreciated the important literary contributions that state had made to American literature. I do remember visiting Herman Melville’s estate and finding, appropriately enough, an arrowhead half-buried in the ground. Presumably another child lost it after buying it from the gift shop, but that object must’ve buried itself deeply in my psyche because I’ve felt compelled to recover my heritage. There’s Frost and Dickinson, of course; Moby-Dick is becoming a psychic and artistic anchor for me. And more recently, I am growing into deeper relationship with the “small triumphs” of Robert Francis.

It’s part of this Massachusetts ressourcement, I suppose, that I have discovered Anne Bradstreet for myself–a poet with few advocates these days. In my cursory and rather sloppy overview of critical opinion about her, I discovered that she’s read by different critics as proto-Romantic yet also derivative bibliophile, as subversive proto-feminist yet also conformist American Puritan. The contradictory interpretations are to be expected since Bradstreet is an outlier of most received literary groupings. I suspect this is also a reason why–perhaps Berryman aside–she has few advocates. I’m sure all these debates are important in their own ways. But there is one literary grouping–a personal one–of which Bradstreet is definitely a member: she’s a Massachusetts poet.

There’s an ‘essentialist’ definition we can use: the presence of themes and qualities that she shares with other notable Massachusetts writers. Consider the opening stanza of her long poem “Contemplations,” which most critics consider her finest work:

Some time now past in the autumnal tide
When Phoebus wanted but one hour to bed
The trees all richly clad, yet void of pride,
Were gilded o’er by his rich golden head.
Their leaves and fruits seemed painted, but was true,
Of green, of red, of yellow, mixed hue;
Rapt were my senses at this delectable view.

Yes, she loves and writes nature in a Romantic manner parallel to Wordsworth, but she also demonstrates a penchant for naturalistic observation more akin to Francis or Frost: meditating on nature as an emblem of the mystery of being. Nature is not romanticized as a means of insight; rather, in the moment of perception, nature is caught up, as it were, in the larger schema of what is. The human eye becomes the means of transfiguration. Bradstreet fuses this tendency with the extended metaphysical conceits–similar to Donne, of course, but also similar those Dickinson was so fond of using. For example,

Silent alone, where none or saw, or heard,
In pathless paths I led my wand’ring feet,
My humble eyes to lofty skies I reared
To sing some song, my mazed Muse thought meet.

Like Dickinson’s, Bradstreet’s psyche becomes a space in which the author roams and encounters thinking as a series of events along the journey.

There’s also a less essentialist definition to this term: “Massachusetts poet” can loosely gesture toward the in-betweenness of Bradstreet, in the same way that Massachusetts was at the intersection of two empires. Bradstreet was steeped in classical education, yet she lived on the frontier–almost beyond the reaches of the civilization that shaped classical sensibility. In this space, readers can recognize that Bradstreet works with themes and images that come to fruition in later American literature.

In this series of posts, I want to do a reading of Bradstreet’s poem “Contemplations” and trace these two aspects of Bradstreet’s “Massachusetts”-ness in order to achieve a few broad goals:

1. Interpret Bradstreet as an intersection point between a more classical and modern poetics, between old and new world. Doing this may help modern readers appreciate where we are in contemporary poetics as well as where we’ve been.
2. Help readers appreciate how Bradstreet foresaw many future American literary impulses.

THE FORM & ITS FUNCTION

I think one hurdle for modern readers is that Bradstreet’s thematic interests and method of exploring those interests has more in common with pre-modern sensibilities. This is a really broad statement, but it’s mostly accurate if you squint your eyes right. The way we moderns conceive of the self is entirely different. Read Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self if you’re interested in more of this. I’m more interested in how this understanding of self affects contemporary poetics. Here’s how I see these shifts affecting contemporary readers: modern readers prefer speakers with highly individualized voices, because moderns have a more privatized sense of inner life, of the irreproducability of individual experience; we associate highly individualized voices with “genuine” feeling. 

Not so much for the pre-moderns. I’d argue that this sensibility is still evident in folk music. The speaker could easily be you or me; the singer may inhabit a voice and the performance makes it individualized, but a different performance is a different individual. The words and themes are a bit like generalized grooves into which singers pour the real individualized feeling. This isn’t to say that Bradstreet’s poem is “pre-modern” in the sense I describe above, only that it shares some of those sensibilities. One area where this understanding is important is when exploring the form of Bradstreet’s “Contemplations” because it helps readers see the poem on its own expectations.

“Contemplations” is composed of 33 individually numbered seven-line stanzas, each a sort of self-contained half-sonnet or modified rime royal. The stanza is composed of a quatrain of alternating rhyme pattern (ABAB) followed by a fully-rhymed tercet (CCC). Generally, the quatrain seems to pose an emblematic idea or image to ponder, and the tercet, with its triadic finality, deepens one’s perception of the image by drawing some conclusion or responding to it. In this pattern the form is indeed similar to the sonnet, yet this stanza simply does not have the room to sustain the intellectual acrobatics (read: the stamp of individualism) of traditional sonnets. Moreover, the sense of conclusion is more final and mysterious than, say, the standard Shakespearean couplet, which often feels provisional at best (that’s a feature, not a weakness). Also notable is that while the first six lines are iambic pentameter, the 7th line is alexandrine.

The lines are incredibly well-wrought in places, her voice working within but also freely moving across her form. The language is so formally satisfying at times that one can float right by the wonderful strangeness of some lines: “All mortals here the feeling knowledge hath.” That line, in addition to its strong intimations of Dickinson, suggests perhaps that Bradstreet’s feelings have yet to dissociate from sensibility, a rupture that Eliot pins on Milton, an almost contemporary of Bradstreet. There are, indeed, moments when Bradstreet, like the metaphysical poets, feels her thinking.

But unlike the Metaphysicals, Bradstreet’s “feeling knowledge” is not focused on the almost sensual pleasures of thought–and it is here here we must temper our modern expectations. I would argue that the goal of this form is geared less toward solving problems and more toward contemplation (surprise!): of an emblem, an icon, a mystery. That is to say, each individual poem-stanza does not achieve resolution, does not try to rectify infinite paradoxes within the vanishing point of the individual. The form extends beyond the insight-inducing koan, but is less focused on the act of thought than a sonnet: thus a critic could rightly call this form “contemplation.” I’ll use this name for it, since I haven’t been able to find any name for the form itself. If Bradstreet did not coin this form, its name seems obscured by time. The only other use of this exact form I’ve been able to locate (and only then after consulting some of the most knowledgeable poets I know on Facebook) is “The Purple Island” by Phineas Fletcher (an obscure find if there ever was one, Joe Weil!). I suppose there is a chance Bradstreet would have known this poem, since she was deeply read and seems to share Fletcher’s affection for didactic poetry. Moreover, the two poems are also works of natural theology, both attempting to come to understanding of the divine through nature and life experience.

The mention of theology brings us to another hurdle for modern appreciation of Bradstreet, but it gives us a chance to see how understanding the form helps overcome this hurdle. Despite her fondness for the natural world, Bradstreet seems to privilege divine revelation. Because of this privileging, critics accuse Bradstreet of a restrictive piety: that her religious convictions bind her to fall back on and rehash the establishment line when the paradoxes of the world become fraught. But I suspect such critics fail to appreciate, on some level, the sense of devotion that Bradstreet was likely to possess. Here an appreciation of the classical influences helps. In this sense, dogma is not merely a code for following, but itself an object worth contemplating, something to be entered into, to have written on one’s heart. If my read on the form of the poem is correct, then we should not approach these as similar to Milton’s attempts to “justify the ways of God to men.” Instead, the end of each stanza is a lot more like the “selah” of the Psalms, a pause inviting reflection rather than demanding an intellectual choice.

Let’s take a specific example and see how this works out. In stanza 31 Bradstreet describes how a sailor that fancies himself himself lord of the seas is forced by a sudden storm to tuck tail between legs and make for port. It’s an image of the sudden and ugly turn of nature. To most readers today, the stanza that follows lands with a pious thud, a theocratic spike in the end zone:

So he that saileth in this world of pleasure,
Feeding on sweets, that never bit of th’ sour,
That’s full of friends, of honour, and of treasure,
Fond fool, he takes this earth ev’n for heav’n’s bower.
But sad affliction comes and makes him see
Here’s neither honour, wealth, nor safety;
Only above is found all with security.

It would be easier to forgive Bradstreet that last bit if were the result of an lyrically compelling passage in which mere force of will somehow wrestled this insight from the nihilistic abyss (as Herbert does in “The Collar,” for example). This preference is a modern bias because of our latent preference for the logical (or at least lyrical) virtuosity of individuals. I think this desire is related to the importance of (what Charles Taylor terms)  ‘moral sentiments’ for modern individuals. In short, an account of reality (in this case a poetic one) must appeal to and satisfy our sense of, say, inner religious longing.

This is not to say that pre-moderns didn’t feel inner longing in the sense that we term it today (in fact, this sensibility is probably found in embryonic form in Augustine, that first modern). But they understood it differently. The source of those sentiments arose from a direct ontological connection. For moderns, this connection is impossible, so the source of sentiments is completely subjective. This is a crucial point because it should change even our subjective expectations of what is poetically ‘satisfying’ in a sympathetic reading of poetry.

Given the icon-like nature of Bradstreet’s poem, it seems then that she should not be judged by how well she navigates these images or marshals them toward a conclusion that satisfies our moral sentiments.  Now we may realize that this stanza is an invocation of a well-tread theme, one she does not try to overcome or even lyrically transcend: it’s about the opposition of the law of nature, with its chthonic demands of ritual sacrifice, to the law of grace and its ability to bestow a peace that passes understanding. We must also note that this poem is not a rejection of life’s pleasures. These pleasures receive a powerful treatment in the poem. We know without a doubt that Bradstreet loved to feast on the “sweet” of life as much as the next poet–if not more (“Rapt were my senses at this delectable view”). If we moderns insist on a glimpse into the world of the writer, we can imagine how bittersweet the final statement is for Bradstreet to affirm: indeed, readers must imagine because that is what the form asks of us: contemplation of that mystery. The force of truth does not come from within but exists in an objective order. One does not believe in that order; one can only recognize it.

In this series, each “contemplation” gathers, one on top of another, like a pile of inscrutable stones. Bradstreet, of course, threads themes and stories across the contemplations; once or twice she even puts the stanzas into direct conversation with one another. But moving through “Contemplations” is more akin to strolling through an ancient church that is full of mosaics or gazing upon an iconostasis. This is the classical bent manifesting itself in Bradstreet. This is not to say the stanza-poem remains in stasis. In fact, the movement of a narrative does emerge: it is the story of the soul’s ascesis (ascent to the divine) through the deepening perception of each stanza.

Poor Robert Creeley. In the 60s and 70s he was right up there with Robert Bly (though their styles are utterly different, their names are similar). The Robert he should have been paired with is Robert Francis, a great minor poet (minor in the best sense), who lived in the cool ominous, hawk’s wing shadow of Robert Frost.

But poor Robert Creeley is dead. I published him once, in Black Swan Review‘s Language poetry issue (Circa 1990). I met him once, at a reading celebrating urban poetry in Paterson–right near the falls. He was reading from William Carlos Williams’ Paterson. My job at the time was to serve the “immortals” sandwiches at the box lunch–me and five or six of my poetry friends. Me being me, I bitched and moaned about kissing these asshole’s asses all the way through. Joe Salerno being Joe Salerno, he was far more reflective and humble about the experience, even after Ginsberg insulted his loving parody of Howl which appeared in that particular issue of Black Swan.

I didn’t mind serving the “immortals” so much as having to endure their far less than famous hangers-on who treated me far worse than did the asses that were getting kissed. A local poet who I knew and who had managed to ingratiate himself with Ginsberg and Algarin, made me take back a soda twice. On the third trip I told him: “Listen mother fucker… I’m not getting paid for this job. I’m a volunteer. I know where you live. You keep this shit up, you act high and mighty with me just one more time, and I’ll shove this can up your ass, cut a coin slot in your fucking heart, and call you a Coke machine.” He shut up.

At any rate, Creeley was the most gracious person there. I was sick of famous poets (I have been sick of famous poets all my life) and did not approach him for fear that he would act, like, well, you know, famous. I never say anything intelligent to famous poets, and, to be honest, they don’t say anything terribly intelligent to me. I was already pissed off that Ginsberg had been less than nice to my friend Joe, and I still wanted to join the Khmer Rouge and execute everyone in the room who had ever published in a magazine with a circulation of more than three thousand. I was not happy. We had been told we would have a free box lunch with the poets (Robert Creeley, Algarin, C.K. Williams, Ginsberg, Baraka, Baca, and so on and so on). We were not told we would be serving lunch to the poets while those who didn’t volunteer for shit (our fellow New Jersey sycophants) would be sitting with them ordering us around as if we were incompetent waiters and they were CEOs. In retrospect, I have only myself to blame. If I had volunteered in a spirit of altruism, I’d have enjoyed watching Gerald Stern talk with tuna in his mouth, but alas, my motives had been elbow rubbing and I deserved any humiliation that ensued.

But back to Creeley! At my lowest point–when I was ready to give up poetry forever and thus deprive everyone of another nobody–Creeley, tall, lanky, and with an endearing comb over approached the table I was brooding at. He said, “Someone told me you’re Joe Weil.” I said, “Yes. I am him of whom you speak.” He said, “I just wanted to thank you for publishing one of my poems.” He extended his hand. We shook. I said, “Do you like the section in Paterson where there’s a drought and the river is dry and they have all these giant sturgeon?” He smiled and said, “Yes… I greatly enjoy the prose excerpts, especially in book One.” I said, “Me, too.” He said, Thanks again.” I said, “No problem.” He floated back to his immortality. I almost got Ginsberg to eat a corn chip when I drove him home from a reading in which I was the co-feature. I had a nice conversation with Louise Gluck about Robert Schuman. Jamie Santiago Baca wanted me to take him to a go go bar. Such is rubbing elbows. It’s really kind of sad and stupid, and it’s better never to meet anyone whose poetry you like.

Ah but poor Robert Creeley. Now that he’s dead, everyone says they don’t like his work. He’s known as the Black Mountain guy who wrote “skinny” poems. Poets over sixty still revere him. If I could make up a character, it would be an 80 year old professor with a long beard in a nursing home banging his cane briskly against the hardwood floor and shouting, “What this country needs is a good dose of Robert Creeley!”

Why don’t people like Creeley? First, he doesn’t tell a story. Second, he’s a white Harvard dude from New England. Third, he isn’t a language poet, but he ain’t a confessionalist, either. He’s a speculative writer. Unlike Stephen Dunn, he doesn’t offer wry wisdom in a masterly yet conversational tone. Many of his poems sound like bits of thought cut off at the stem. His skinny line was so imitated that it became a cliche. All his friends are dead or dying, and young American poets have a frame of reference no where near as good as what is on their iPods. In terms of poetry, their memory doesn’t surpass the life expectancy of a fruitfly.

I call Creeley a speculative poet because his playing around with the structure and syntax of a sentence, his devotion to the inarticulate, the almost said, or not quite said, is exactly that: provisional, based on what ifs. He is most definite and certain in his love poems, which are as good as the best love poems by Williams, Swenson, ee. Cummings, or, for that matter, Kenneth Patchen.

I bring him up because he was continuing the work of Williams–not in terms of the anti-poetic, but of the provisional, the poem as fragment, as “almost said/then not,” the defective, the bits of halted speech, a sort of mystical reticence which, to tin ears, seems non-existent, but is the gobbled and cobbled and ruined talk of the American male–the one who cannot speak, except too loudly and stupidly, if at all, and too little, too late if, like many “educated” American males, he hides in his office, drinking–removed from the very love in which he would partake.

Creeley was truly gracious. I’ve read his poetry, but not much on his life. Apparently, he fooled around with Rexroth’s wife, thus causing Rexroth to declare war on the beats (Kerouac was guilty by association). Other than that, I am sure he was a functional, highly intelligent, highly cultured drunk. He is our Celan. He is out of fashion right now because he is not super sized in any way. His is an intimate music. I would read him with a Thelonious Monk piano solo and a really good chicken salad sandwich. Stay away from the booze.

Canarium Books, 2012

We lie in every word.
Did I say word? Oh dear. I meant mode.
We lie in every mode.

Darcie Dennigan, “The Ninth Annual Meeting of the Fraternal Disorder of Historic Linguists or The Error of My Maze”

Darcie Dennigan announces in Madame X, her second collection of poetry, that we have been “wis-hearing” syllables “since the Tower of Babel’s ceiling fan stirred M and W into topsiturvitude.” In “Some Antics” we find the speaker “at Macy’s searching for an honest clause.”  We are told: “When the honest word eludes, try to substitute.” Finally, at the end of the book, Dennigan acknowledges her readers: “If anything emerges from this book’s mistakes, it is thanks to [their] generous readings.”

Mistakes run rampant through Madame X. As large-scale disasters they are droughts and hurricanes, nuclear holocaust and water contamination.  But mistakes also arise as verbal collisions, as a misunderstanding or misspeaking.  Dennigan favors dramatic monologues in a prose style that is rich with ellipses to signal interruptions, erasures, verbal tics or a trailing off. The ellipses allow the prose poems to escape their box bodies (yes, these are prose poems with line breaks) by separating words with lapses or pauses, often highlighting language’s slipperiness. In “The Atoll” Dennigan describes the native Atlanteans, driven out of their island homes by the negative effects of fisson testing: “We escorted them … to a very nice … resort-like … laboratory”…“They were nodding and bowing … maybe politeness … maybe vomiting.”

These poems inhabit a site that is almost recognizable. An abandoned Los Angeles. A dreamscape with vivid flourishes.  A sense of normalcy, for instance, in the surreal preparation of a fancy dinner – thirty duck hearts – against the backdrop of a simultaneous hurricane, blizzard, and 4th of July. The recipe keeps changing, depending upon who hears about it, always with some new ingredient to add, some preparation method to tweak. “That’s not the way it goes … anymore,” the chorus of dinner guests reprimands. “Each heart should be served raw … and drowning … in a sacred diamond-flavored fountain” is an impossibility in a poem entitled “The Drought”, where the riverbed is dry.

Symbolism, for these characters, is often undermined.  The hostess in “The Drought,” frustrated by her guests’ servitude to ritual, finally blurts out: “But these guests! … Honestly … They were just … They were as hungry as I was.”  Divorced from symbol, objects become purely functional again.  Baptismal water and communion wafers are consumed for sustenance. St. Augustine’s book flips open to a revelatory passage, not through mysticism, but since “the freaking book probably always falls open to that page because … who’s always reading it … creasing it … who owns that book in the first place.” As Dennigan puts it bluntly, “Even if I believed the Word became flesh, well –/ I’d probably just want to have sex with it.”  Dennigan’s poems often return to the body, the desires and perceived failings her speakers constantly try to transcend.  “This is me typing – Darcie. I am a human. / At least, when I am not a monster, with boobs, and mouth and fingers.”

“Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice” famously wrote Robert Frost.  “I whispered precipice” Dennigan answers, “[…] because precipice contains ice (practically twice).”  If the end is near, as Dennigan proposes, at least the language is hearty.  The crux of the book seems to hinge on our ability to dismantle words to make meaning, to misspeak to create new understandings. True loneliness, Dennigan says, is a place distanced from the disaster zone or, as above, removed from verbal topsiturtivitude. “When the baby is calm you cannot know its mind, and you must / hold in your arms a strange thing.”

idea
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
sigh
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.

Episode 7 of Poetry Fix: Robert Frosts’s “Once by the Pacific.”