Poetry and Experience

A wheel that can be turned though nothing else moves with it, is not a part of the mechanism.  Ludwig Wittgenstein

William Carlos Williams called a poem “a machine made out of words,” and there is a great deal of comfort for the young student of poetics to find in such a proclamation. Machines can be dismantled, examined, reproduced, rebuilt. Machines are teleological, can be understood in terms of their ends. A person who has never encountered a bicycle before may nevertheless quickly grasp both the purposes it can be set to and its manner of operation. Of course, some devices are more accessible than others. A cursory glance will be insufficient to understand either the purpose of a particle accelerator or the way it goes about fulfilling that purpose. But there are, presumably, some finite number of steps involved in learning those things, and once one has learned them, one has understood in a comprehensive way what the particle accelerator is.

Poetics seems to offer students of poetry inroads into the workings of the subject that is analogous to how they might go about understanding a machine. The notion of close reading is deeply tied to this way of conceptualizing how poetry works. Students may be asked to look at different locations in the poem-where and what the rhyme words are, or find the beats in a line. The ability to engage sensibly in inquiries of this kind suggests that the poem has a kind physicality to it, parts that operate in concert with one another by dint of the way they relate in the poem. It may not be obvious what they intend to achieve, but presumably a careful examination of the workings of the poem will yield to the educated reader some end that is analogous to the function a machine might have.

We can submit one of the smaller poems discussed in class to this sort of scrutiny. This was offered up in the meter section, but there is obviously more going on of note for poetic analysis:

The way a crow
Shook down on me
A 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.

Robert Frost’s poem is a little strange, and partly I’ve chosen it for the chance to excavate what I find strange about it. A superficial reading of the text gives us a kind of relatable situation-a person, beset by some troubles, or perhaps just the winter blues, has an encounter with nature that shocks him into a better mood. We don’t even need to know anything specific about poetry to understand this part.

But no educated reader can avoid the fairly straightforward symbolism bound up with the use of the crow and the hemlock tree, and this complicates the poem, may even be what makes it poetry rather than just a fancifully rhymed diary entry. These items are symbols for death, and the encounter the speaker has is, symbolically, a brush with death. This does not occur in the sense of the speaker’s life being put at risk, however. The bird hangs over the scene, and the event comes to us in the guise of an omen. What are we to make of a person who, encountering in nature a sign of his own mortality, is cheered up by it?

If I were Cleanth Brooks I might say this is where the tension is, the point of ironic juxtaposition that justifies the poem, and it’s one we might not get to if we weren’t prepared in advance with some familiarity with poetic devices. Of course, one might not need that familiarity, but it surely doesn’t hurt. This is the sort of thing, at least, that poetics studies seem to promise the interested pupil-insight that they might not gain in a straight reading of a poem. The difference between our first reading and our second is significant enough to justify the practice.

With that said, some complications arise when we put some of the conceits of the method of analysis to the test. For instance, one might ask a question about the symbolic status of snow or winter. It’s not as straightforwardly connotative of death, but one can see it fitting in quite well here. But once we’ve asked this question, we run into a little bit of a difficulty, since we can’t totally be sure what it would mean if our answer was wrong. If I say to a reader, “No, snow is just snow,” or some such thing, would we really say that denying the claim changes something essential about what the poem is doing? What is guiding our decision?

I think the temptation will be to simply adopt the choice that best supports the standing interpretation of the text. But this cuts a bit against the notion of a poem as a machine composed of discrete objects. We shouldn’t have to know what the poem is doing first before we know how to talk about its parts. We should also be able to make coherent claims regarding how much of a poem’s work hangs on some term or trope or device. If I say that snow is connotative of death, but that if I didn’t catch that it wouldn’t matter, then it seems like I’ve engaged myself in some kind of vacuous analysis. Here we might have a poetic trope that we can identify but which doesn’t seem to do any work, or if it does work, we don’t really know how to assign the value of that work.

A similar question can be asked about the metrical arrangement of the poem. Meter is generally regarded as a basic feature of poetry, one of its most material, mechanical features. One might say of this poem (and thus it has been said) that the anapestic substitutions can be understood to do work in relation to the iambic dimeter lines, that they accentuate this sense of being stimulated out of an emotional torpor. But this method of understanding the work of meter is somewhat technical. It is not clear, for instance, that a reader unindoctrinated in the principles of scansion would even notice the effect. I also do not have a very good way of explaining why the play of stresses should have any impact on the poem in the first place. I do not mean that explanations cannot be furnished. But there is a gap between, say, talk of counterpoint technique, and the basic interpretation of the poem we’ve committed to. Why should we say the anapestic feet are “speeding up” the line, or imagine that this temporal effect does something for the poem?

Partly this reduces to a verification problem. Whether I argue that the metrical arrangement is important or not important to the sense of the poem, it seems I lack the ability to demonstrate how the poem would change or remain unchanged by altering that structure. I could try to rewrite the poem in some way that conserves the sense of the text, the way one might retool a machine, but I can’t do that without significantly altering the text in other ways. For instance, if I wanted to challenge the notion that differences in meter between the lines is relevant to the sense of the poem, I could try to rewrite the work in perfect iambic. But then I would need a name for a tree that is one syllable long and connotatively identical to hemlock. Compressing “of a day I had rued” into four syllables is grammatically difficult (“of day I rued” isn’t going to get us there). We would just butcher the poem in our attempt to isolate variables. Even if there were a comparable translation that stuck to the iambic, we would always be rightly suspicious of the legitimacy of this kind of analysis. We can always argue that two different representations of the same line are incomparable precisely because they are different. It seems that we must treat “A Dust of Snow,” and probably all poems, like unique word objects, not modular devices that can be tweaked and modified to achieve different effects.

That poetic analysis may not be subject to the same degree of rigor as engineering shouldn’t surprise anyone. One might even argue that it is one of the merits of the arts, that they do not get their meaning just sitting there, but that an active imagination is required. A poem in a shelved book really isn’t doing anything. One needs a reader to activate a text, and a reader is an agent, a free being that may bend a poem to whatever purposes suit him best. I am certainly sympathetic to this notion that the proper ontological realm of the poem is the human imagination. But there are, at the very least, limits to how far one can take this notion of the free reader, and it has some implications for what poems are. Our example here, as in the presentation, is one of Wordsworth’s Lucy poems:

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love:

A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye!
Fair as a star, when only one
Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!

There has been some ink spilled on this poem, but we will not delve too deeply here. The poem is in some ways very typical romantic fare, with a male speaker idolizing the purity of a dead woman. What’s unique in this case is the way Lucy almost appears to have sprung out of the ether fully formed. She is a maid living, apparently alone, somehow, in some English countryside, doing maidenly sorts of things. The speaker speaks partly out of nostalgia, but also from a voyeur’s perspective, as it seems quite clear that whatever interactions may have taken place between himself and Lucy were minimal. This much we can glean without reference to anything particular about the structure of the poem.

If I were to make an argument about the structure of the poem, here I would suggest that the poem imitates something of the form of the ode, with each stanza fulfilling its role in order (strophe, antistrophe, epode). The first stanza concerns itself with Lucy’s isolation, the second, her natural beauty, and the third brings these elements together while revealing her fate. This suggests that the final stanza should be doing the most poetic work. Rather than argue about which of the descriptions of Lucy in the middle passage is most central to the poem (which, amazingly, has happened), I would say that the tension in the poem lies in the speaker himself, and the unusual role that he plays as the sole witness to the existence of Lucy. The ambiguity we find here is in being deeply uncertain about the way the speaker really relates to his monopoly of knowledge regarding the existence of his dream girl. While he may truly regret that Lucy has moved on, he also seems to prize his unique possession of her memory, to be able to wholly claim a woman in death who seemed to elude him in life.

Or something like that. When I first read this poem it occurred to me that it might be a less straightforward elegy than it appears to be at first glance. In particular, there is the deep weirdness of the picture the speaker is painting. Attractive women have been a highly controlled commodity since well before modern times. There is something a little ludicrous about this tale of a beautiful girl that no one appears to care about (save the speaker). Of course, Romantic poets say things like this all the time, and a man who might imagine himself “dancing with the daffodils” in a city hotel room might not be too concerned with verisimilitude in his poetry. Still, it opens room to reinterpret the poem. The first stanza, after all, says nothing in particular about whether Lucy is really beautiful or not, merely that she is neglected for some reason.

We might imagine then that the poem offers us an account of why she is an unloved maiden other than that she lives in isolation. If we examine the second stanza, it would seem to allow a different gloss on those two descriptions. How beautiful could a violet “half-hidden from the eye” really be? And a star that’s shining alone in the sky doesn’t really have much in the way of competition, does it? It’s not a stretch to suggest they’re really ironic descriptions of an unattractive girl. Armed with this new view of the second stanza, we can read this poem, I think even charitably, as offering a subtle twist to the conventional romantic elegy. Read this way, the poem is actually funny, and it changes the sense of the poem from a story about a dead beauty to one about a plain looking girl whose passing was noted by no one save the speaker, whose reasons for mourning her passing are left unstated.

I actually think that, to the extent this second interpretation is viable (you may not be so convinced), it is superior to the conventional understanding of the poem, at least in the sense that it makes a better poem. But it’s ultimately a dead reading of the text, and this bears on the formulation of a poem as an artifact that is created out of some combination of a poem’s form and its reader’s imagination. The simple way to dismiss the second interpretation is by putting this poem in context with the other Lucy poems, and with the Wordsworth canon more generally. Wordsworth writes many poems that unselfconsciously valorize the beautiful, probably none that rely on a reader’s recognition of double meanings to achieve an insight about the consciousness of the narrator. It may be that Wordsworth engaged in such forms of humor, but if he did, I have failed to notice it in any of the poems I have read.

There are other plausible ways of explaining why we are committed to some version of the first interpretation, but they all point beyond the text, not just to Wordsworth’s other works, but to an apparatus of consensus that involves practices that are not, I think, fundamentally about poetics at all. What we are allowed to say about Wordsworth, what directs our efforts when we formulate interpretations of his poems, already includes a conventional picture of the kind of poet Wordsworth is widely understood to be. That picture cannot be challenged in an ad hoc way, and a substantial attempt at revision would involve more than the reinterpretation of a single poem. This sort of fixing stabilizes the text, in this case nearly freezing it into a single position. This may also be why we end up with disputes between critics about which of the two descriptions in the second stanza is the most important to the poem-it is hard to imagine that much hangs on ascertaining such a thing, if the question is even meaningful in the first place, but if the basic sense of the poem is already fossilized in amber, then the only disputes that can be had are trivial.


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