“Pyro” by Dana Levin


The Quickening

by Lillian Baker Kennedy


In all the adult years I lived without poetry, I never lived without a copy of Four Quartets. In “the wave cry, the wind cry,” the “petrel and the porpoise,” I knew the sea of these objects, not as things but as living things (Eliot, “East Coker,” Four Quartets, L 208-09.)1 Eliot's rhythm and abstractions echo for me the experiences of my own life, raised on Ecclesiastes, studying philosophy and always, living near the cadence of the sea. The feeling of Four Quartets was familiar to me. Imagine my reaction when I read Robert Bly complaining about the loss of spirit or inwardness in poetry (“A Wrong Turning”) and identifying, among others, T.S. Eliot as the culprit.2 I have had a long relationship with these poems, long enough to disagree.

After I enrolled in Stonecoast, I began to pay more attention to discussions about poetics. I turned, once again, to my trusted Four Quartets, for guidance, but even after Eliot made an effort to use all his considerable powers, poetry continued to change and develop. I became interested in the debate that seemed to swirl around narrative lyricists and the so-called “L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E” poets, the same that Marjorie Perloff calls “21st Century Modernists”(2lst Century Modernism.) Declaring that early modernism “provided the seeds of the materialist poetic. . .more attuned. . .(to 21st Century Modernist poetics — LBK). .. than to the authenticity model — the 'true voice of feeling',” Perloff cites Eliot with approval for the following: “for my meaning is, that the poet has, not a 'personality' to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium.”(3, 4 and 9). How could I reconcile the Eliot I knew through feeling his poetry and the Eliot accurately quoted for principles of materialism? Is there an irreconcilable dualism in poetry between “the true voice of feeling” and materialism, and what would the implications of this dualism be for an American poet?

In 1932 in the Norton lectures, T. S. Eliot asked, “What is poetry?”(The Use of Poetry 6). In the same series of lectures, Eliot proposed to also ask what is “a good poem?”(6). I once had a philosophy professor who said, “You didn't have the wrong answer. You asked the wrong question!” I respectfully submit the great Eliot asked the wrong question, but I do not accuse him of soulnessness. English simply afforded him no interrogative pronoun. “Who” is reserved for humans. “What” is reserved for objects. This suggests to me the English language has an inbred alienation of the internal from the external world. Alienation is not unknown in the context of (especially American) materialism. I was intrigued to read Robert Hass's notion that kigo or seasonal phrases in haiku are similar to shamanic songs “intended at one time to call forth the living spirits manifested in those natural phenomena”(314-315). It seemed to me that all poets might bear in mind the potentiality of a live relationship between words and objects or things. Eliot did. He expressed that relationship in the phrase “objective correlative, ” (The Sacred Wood 58) a phrase which Dobyns suggests arises out of the context of the properties of “sympathetic magic”(296).

Eliot's initial coinage of the (perhaps unfortunate) phrase “objective correlative” is published in his essay on Hamlet in The Sacred Wood (58). Note the word “sacred.” Eliot was complaining about lack of adequate evidence to justify Hamlet's hatred of Gertrude. Now, scholars may disagree with Eliot about Shakespeare, but his point about “objective correlative” (when properly understood) retains viability.

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an 'objective correlative'; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular (emphasis in original) emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, (emphasis added) are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” (58)

Later, in the same essay, Eliot writes about “exact equivalence,” but this is not a dry mathematical equivalence. The job of the artist is to “intensify the world to his emotions” not to subdue the feeling (59).

Olson (a forbear of the 21st Century modernists) defined “Objectism” as the “getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego, of the 'subject' and his soul.” (Bly “A Wrong Turning” 21). One can see how Eliot's cold term, “objective correlative,” could, at first, be perceived by Bly as the deadening pivot in poetry (18). In my judgment, however, based on my reading of Eliot's poetry as much as his theory, “objectism” as thus defined critically misperceives Eliot's exhortation to “depersonalize.” In “Tradition and the Individual Talent” Eliot says poetry is not

'emotion recollected in tranquillity'. . .For it is neither emotion, nor recollection nor, without distortion of meaning, tranquillity. It is concentration, and a new thing resulting from the concentration. . .which does not happen consciously or of deliberation. . .the bad poet is usually unconscious where he should be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious. (emphasis added, 33)

Ultimately, however, the “significant emotion”(emphasis in original) “has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet. (emphasis added) 33.

Archibald MacLeish, an imagist wrote, in “Ars Poetica,”
A poem should not mean
But be.

So often, any use of the word “thing” or “objective” seems to get us off track in discussions of poetics. It might be helpful to remember that Eliot wrote both his essays and his poetry following the Romantics. In addition, he was close to Ezra Pound, an advocate of Imagist principles, the “natural object” as “adequate symbol” (Perloff, “Pound Ascendant”). The idea is not to re-enact but to create. There is an enormous difference. Williams, another culprit identified by Bly (“A Wrong Turning” 20) is famous for “No ideas but in things,” a phrase taken out of the context of a William Carlos Williams poem.

A Sort of Song

by William Carlos Williams

Let the snake wait under
his weed
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,
—through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
the rocks.

Saxifrage is a beautiful little perennial that grows on the tundra. Williams is the same poet who reported that his first poem came “like a bolt out of the blue.” (Perloff Dance of the Intellect 91). The word he uses between “people” and “stones” is “reconcile.” Williams is a particularly interesting poet to be quoted so often for “things.” He is often cited by proponents of 21st Century Modernist poetry, but I see him as a straddler like myself. He is rightfully cited as a poet who had some sense of the materiality of the text.

As I continued to study and mull over this gap between the narrative lyricists and the 21st Century Modernists, I often wondered what Eliot would think, where he might have taken his poetry if he had these newer ideas, what he might try to leave out and what he would consider essential to retain. Joan Houlihan, a critic/reviewer, had the following to say about three of the so-called L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry books:

In all three books discussed here, the typographical cleverness (one-word lines, word endings fraught with a too-obvious double/triple meaning), the jolting imagery and the self-conscious jokiness fail to compensate for the lack of an authentic attempt to reach for, and connect to, an emotional center, a universal and human matter, and that—emotional revelation in all its complexity—is what's so dreadfully absent in all these collections. This absence is why the reader is not only prevented by lack of craft from proceeding from one line to the next, from one poem to the next, but also why there is no incentive to do so. These poets write as a sky writer does—in startling loop-de-loops of language that disappear before the reader's eyes, leaving only blank sky. Having taken no risk to reach their own depths of feeling, having taken no time to revise and improve their work such that there is a sense of inevitable order, these poets have chosen to disrespect the reader. The reader should return the lack of respect and refuse them his or her precious time and attention. Maybe if we ignore them, they will go away.

Ira Sadoff, in a recent American Poetry Review article, provides a more moderate reflection on 21st Century Modernist poetry. Sadoff notes his feeling, developing over time, that the narrative lyric is “too facile” (49). Specifically citing a well-loved Stafford poem, “Traveling in the Dark,” Sadoff made the argument that such “representational” poems' “strategies” i.e. experience/epiphany, are so predictable, they are, for him, less pleasurable and also, interestingly, perhaps less representational, in fact, of our times. (49-50). After studying craft for two years, I had the same feeling, but I have little interest in poetry as a “thing” except, perhaps, as a “thing-in-itself,” a kind of “Thou.”

Eliot asked, “What is poetry?” My first visualized model of poetry was as plain as a household window screen. I could see the wire grid and the spaces in between. It seemed to me that the “life” of a poem took place in between the wires on that screen, as if the wires were conductors, but the sparks ignited in the spaces. Now, I see that grid as more multi-dimensional like string theory, perhaps.3

The remainder of this essay will examine dimensions where poems quicken — the “objective correlative” in Neruda's “Solo La Muerte,” tone and syntax in Lewis Carroll's “Jabberwocky,” signage and rhythm in William Carlos Williams' “The Attic Which is Desire,” the auditory, pictorial and syntactic dash down Dana Levin's “Pyro.” Finally, Emily Dickinson, who is so wonderfully independent she partakes of natural objects and presages modernistic visuals, throws “a certain slant of light” on the mystery of a major, living poem.

Solo La Muerte

Pablo Neruda's “Solo La Muerte” 4 is like a whirlpool, a kind of expanding spiral that builds up power from layer upon layer of metaphor and simile. Edward Hirsch has already done an honorable job of discussing this poem in the context of “duende.” I have translated it here to use it in the context of “objective correlatives” particularly because “death” is such a risky, abstract word for the writer and yet the concept of death, properly invoked, may well evoke substantial angst in the reader.

Only Death5

This title is difficult to translate because the very essence of the poem is the balance between Death as “nothing” in the sense that it's part of the endless cycle, and Death as the great destroyer. Our English tends to list toward diminishment when “only” is used with a noun out of context. But, if one translates “the one and only, ” the metaphor Neruda gets in the title becomes unbalanced to the other extreme. We can't quite effectively maintain the necessary balance in translation.

There are lone cemeteries, tombs filled with soundless bones,

We are immediately delivered to a cemetery and to “lone,” one, lonely, alone. Neruda begins with the literal and notes absence (as Hirsch noted in his discussion) the “filling” up of the soundless with the filling up of “bones” and with the “soundless”death in the bone which can be both literal (still, incapable of movement) and figurative e.g. “I feel it deep in my bones.”

“Cemeteries” is reinforced by “tombs” the specific site, but also a wider sign, pointing even, perhaps, to Biblical “tombs” such as the ones Lazarus and Christ reportedly left.

the heart passes through a tunnel

Tunnel here is ambiguous and evocative of a confined, dark space, a “passage” and also signals the verb “tunneling”, a focusing in of vision, which is entirely consistent with fear and grief (closing in).

dark, dark, dark,

I am fascinated by the fact that both Eliot and Neruda use exactly the same expression (given reasonable translation). “O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,” (“East Coker” L 101).

Eliot was known to advocate stealing (Eliot, “Philip Massinger,” The Sacred Wood 72), but I respectfully submit such stealing is not thievery. It's more like active listening, like the echo of empathy where the poet permits his poem to say to other poems, “I've heard you.” And if the identical or nearly identical should arise in poems from two different hemispheres or eras, who's to say that such synchronicity is not a natural effect of a living language?

(See Jung, “I am assuming that the work of art we propose to analyse, as well as being symbolic, has its source not in the personal unconscious of the poet, but in a sphere of unconscious mythology whose primordial images are. . .the collective unconscious.”(emphasis in original, 80). See also, generally, Pinker.

like a shipwreck sinks deep in our dying,

classic simile— concrete/abstraction

like drowning in the heart,

feeling and corporeal

like we go on falling in from the skin into the soul.

physical and feeling/physical/abstract

Think also how graves collapse, the collapse of grief, the decomposition of flesh to the soil. . .literally

There are corpses,

and here they are if you haven't already thought of them

there are feet of cool, cloying stone,

like headstones, like the clammy feeling of anxiety/dread

there is death in the bones

abstraction/literal but again, a common metaphor — “I feel it in my bones.”

like a pure sound,

completely untethered, the sound without meaning, primal— the absence of any relationship with object in the external world.

like a bark without a dog,

This is not simply absence. Who has not heard of dogs howling at death? Neruda gets maximum association from his correlatives. They are often multidirectional.

rising from certain bells, certain tombs,

What's rising? The dead? We hear it in the ringing bell announcing the funeral? For whom the bell tolls? The grammatical referent is “pure sound” — menacing because it is completely disconnected.

swelling in the humidity like a lament or like the rain.

And it's getting bigger, but note the shift in metaphor, here.
Now, we have
death            and           humidity
like a lament

death after it swells up from the humidity)

like the rain

I see, alone, at times,
coffins under sail

What was dead and buried is now aloft. Note the “I” is alone as the cemetery was alone, but as soon as this “I” enters the poem, the material starts to defy the laws of matter, rising, the direct opposite direction of rain.

lifting anchor with the pale dead, with women in their dead braids,

This particular image is one of my favorites for itself, but also because it seems to me to partake heavily in very basic symbolism. Those braids/anchor/chain connections often come to me as associations with other subjects e.g. the double helix of DNA. The “vision” of a poet like Neruda, with the courage to write it down, has the potential to participate in very basic structures.

with bakers white as angels,

not “angels” which would flatten the poem, still tethered to ground through “as” and this wonderful combination of the essential element (flour) of the bread of life with those who are already passed on i.e. angels.

with pensive girls married to notaries,

and does this poem not call out to Eliot's?

“The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,”

(“East Coker,” L 103-06.)

coffins ascending the vertical river of the dead,

What was horizontal is now vertical. River is a standard symbol, well used in myth. It partakes of many associations, Lethe, spirit, transformation. The poet is using “river” both with its myth and its roots in the natural world. He also uses the logic of dreams.

the violet-colored river, headed upward, sails swollen with the sound of death,

the very absence, the thing feared, the disconnected sound transfigured to breath, the energy that moves the boats. . .and it is this willingness to work with the logic of dreams that assists in the transfiguration while the object, i.e. “sails” continues to ground the poem

swollen with the sound of the silence of death.

Death is drawn to sound

not just what but why. . .this is the stanza that begins the taming of the beast because it changes perspective from what is it, what does it want, to why. . .and this is a second turn in the poem. . .from simile, loaded associative words, metaphor through a transitional dream state , rebuilding again on the simile/metaphor. . .

like a shoe without a foot, like a suit without a man (emphasis in all lines added)

thing/thing/thing/ but all associated with human

led to knock with a ring without stone, without finger,

knock (human act) thing/thing thing-human and repetition “without”, lacking. . .now we ask who? Death is lacking.

led to shout without mouth, without tongue, without throat.

shout (human act) thing/thing/thing/(but human body parts) repetition from above and an escalation from material to human part almost like a Frankenstein reconstruction but without the horror. This comparison evokes empathy for death.

Nevertheless, its passing can be heard

human (death) heard by human

and its dress rustles softly like a tree.

thing/sound/nature — ground

I don't know, I understand so little, I can hardly see

Now, when you look at all the power in the craft, the transitions, the breadth of this poem, I ask, “what or who is this voice?” The entire poem to this point, with one line exception “I see, alone, at times” was written in the third person. Maybe Neruda was manipulating the reader, posturing what this manufactured “I” confesses. I will grant the possibility, but I prefer to read this line as what I call the “break in the veil”. If a poem is, as I believe, a joint venture, the poet and the living language, this is the poet confessing his limitations. This line reminds me very much of Bishop's “Write it!” in “One Art.” It is an interruption, a disclosure of the very act of the relationship of writing.

but I believe that its song holds the color of damp violets,

And one might argue that again Neruda manipulates us to join him by using “I,” but I choose to believe he believes.

of violets accustomed to the earth,
because the face of death is green,
and the gaze of death is green,
with the penetrating dampness of a violet leaf
and its grave color of exasperated winter.

This stanza takes us from song to color to plant to plant's relationship with earth to the look of death and its kinship with the color of what lives in the penetrating damp in the feeling of penetrating damp, that “cloying cool” has blossomed back to “grave” and “exasperated winter.” Notice how swiftly the poet moves in these lines from the green violet through the dampness to winter. He flies through the seasons as he brings death, which he humanized, down to the grave through the plant metaphor.

But death also goes round the earth dressed as a broom,

use of the object “broom” completely domesticates and not intellectually but emotionally— as natural as whatever else we might find in the kitchen, safe, nurtured in the heart and hearth of the home.

licking the ground looking for corpses,
death is in the broom,
it's the tongue of death searching for the dead,
it's the needle of death searching for the thread.
Death is in the cots:
in the slow mattresses, in the black blankets

and just when we get down to “sleeping” (almost a cliché of death but unstated. Neruda has the knack of using even these well-known unstated metaphors by association)

living lying down and suddenly blown:

it is blown back up, partaking of the boats that went before in the dream state.

suddenly a dark sound swells the sheets, then there are beds sailing to a port

Neruda's work is like a whirlpool or a cyclone. It circles and picks up objects and speed, gathering energy and expanding

and there it is, Death, waiting, dressed like an admiral.

(“en donde está esperando” All this discussion is inadequate to Neruda's use of sound. I feel it most clearly in this grand flourish “en donde está”. The King's high English cannot do it justice.)

See the Captain saluting the Admiral. Death, if only for a moment, loses its “sting” not because it's neutralized. It's naturalized.

A metaphor effectively creates a new instantaneous image of likeness from difference, a new name for that relation and yet, the name of the effective metaphor feels familiar. Bly, citing Barfield, suggests this naming is recollection of “forgotten relations” (“What the Image Can Do” 42). Eliot might cite appropriate use of the “objective correlative.” I see this “objective correlative” process as a kind of exchange in motion. One might liken it to calories or currency except that it is not a zero sum exchange. The end result, when effective, is “a new thing,” the “life” of “significant emotion” “in the poem” (emphasis added, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” 33).


One of my favorite poems is “Jabberwocky.” This poem is often described as a “nonsense” poem, a kind of child-like wordplay. Certainly, part of the great pleasure of the poem is the tension between the structure, i.e. the syntactical narrative skeleton, and the semantically nonsensical. The poem does its job by tracking tone. I don't necessarily need to know content if I know tone. As Alice said, "Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas — only I don't exactly know what they are!" (Carroll 138).

Tone is often more telling than content. Oliver Sacks in his essay “The President's Speech” (80-86) wonders why his patients are laughing at the President's speech. One group has the kind of brain damage that interferes with their understanding of words, but they have a heightened sense of tone. Another patient has no ear for tone, but she has a keen ear for the appropriateness of a given word's relationship to syntax. Both groups were laughing. What is tone but feeling? The stroke victim may have both expressive and receptive disabilities, but tone may well be preserved both receptively and expressively. Children, who have limited vocabularies, have a sense of tone. Jabberwocky captures tone through sound.

At the same time, I think of “Jabberwocky” sometimes in relation to Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. Both narratives participate in hero mythology though the father/son roles are reversed and the son, in “Jabberwocky,” is apparently successful on his first trip out. One might argue that tone is an inadequate descriptor, that this mythological structure is also necessary to the “sense” of the poem. Perhaps. But myth interpreted literally does not do its true job. Myth, arguably, takes its lifeblood from and retains its vitality in emotional experience. “Come to my arms, my beamish boy!/ O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"

Where Neruda's death swims in and out of braids, floury faces, brooms, blankets, sheets, sails, feet, bells, etc., Carroll's “Jabberwocky” swims through toves, borogoves, momes, and frumious bandersnatches and at the same time holds its own as a poem. How? “Jabberwocky” demonstrates the capacity to achieve “quickening” within a syntactically correct skeleton in the absence of external objects when tone (perhaps participating in a mythological framework) is an adequate correlative.

The Attic Which is Desire

Marjorie Perloff so often cites William Carlos Williams that one would think he is the father of 21st Century Modernists. William Carlos Williams is a poet who recognized the concrete visual aspect of the medium of the written word. Consider a simple example from WCW, “The Attic Which is Desire” cited in Perloff's, The Dance of the Intellect.

The Attic Which is Desire


from the street


ringed with
running lights

the darkened

down the center

is transfixed.

Whatever one might say about the importance of poetry as an aural event, it is clear that Williams' “SODA,” as written surrounded by asterisks is not, intact, an aural event. How would one read aloud those asterisks? Buzzing like old fluorescents? That sign is visual. And vertical. The poem's lines, however, are horizontal, of uneven length and if read line-by-line, completely irregular metrically. There is no discernible rhythmic pattern stanza compared to stanza. What then was Williams up to?

from the street
soda ringed with running lights the darkened pane exactly down the center
is transfixed

From at least the “sign” to the “center,” the rhythm is regular but not by line. If it is “only” cadence, it is cadence with the point of a plumb line. The aural event is “exactly center,” a leader to plumb the depths. One “sees” in this poem a kind of cross-hatching (like a Kandinsky) of visual lines against the aural (the rhythmic) vertical. A running contrapuntal. Not fixed. “Transfixed.”


All poems make some use of the visual— particularly those with line breaks. Levertov is so commonly quoted on line breaks' “half-comma” or “rest,” one would think that a half-breath is the only function of line breaks. Not so. Line breaks can be visual without that half-breath. They are also markers for cognitive breaks. They can affect pitch. They might hold the narrative up, but they can also be propulsive (e.g. “Not/yet!”) They can be ambivalent, teetering meaning on the edge— maybe/not. They can help to signpost meter (i.e. read from the end of the line backwards to determine the meter). What a line break “means” in a poem is like asking what a dash “means” as if it has one fixed function.

Consider Dana Levin's “Pyro.” A simple exercise might clarify the situation. Read “Pyro”, silently. Read “Pyro” aloud. Now, go back and look at the dashes. The first— is what? One thing is clear. Whatever it is, it is visual, not aural. But, silently read, it becomes an oral event. Here's what I hear— match, strike on the book of matches, strike on the book of matches, all the way through. Next (or actually simultaneously) I hear fire alarm. I actually get the visual of one of those red wall alarms where the small hammer hits the bell. Alarm ringing, alarm ringing, alarm ringing. Next, (and simultaneous) I get obsessive intent, the intent of a pyromaniac. At the same time, I get the alarmed “what!” of the victim and “the quick! jump into boots! slide down the ladder!” reactions of the firemen. Now, read the poem aloud. Has the visual crept into your voice— as tone generated by feeling— through a dash? When I read this poem without the dash, I read it at best as an engine running on four cylinders when it could have six. Is it better than WCW's? I think so in this sense—the dash is a legitimate mark of punctuation. It stands there by itself and evokes (potentially) all those responses— as well as being a more “traditional” separator. Imagine if the poet, instead of dashes, had used numbers. Many do— conventionally.

You might argue that you don't read all that into the dash. Perfectly reasonable. A poem is a relationship. The reader enters into that relationship and brings his or her own life, education, experience and relationship to poetry and other poems. I respectfully submit my reading is within the bounds of the reasonable.

There's a certain slant of light.

Who can think of dashes without thinking Dickinson? When I read Dickinson, I sometimes feel, even through the darkness of her subject matter, that it's like playing a game of Chutes and Ladders. Usually the object of such a board game is to roll the dice, proceed sequentially and get to the end as fast as possible. But Dickinson will trip you right down the chute. Your feet hit the dust, and you're running around to climb the ladder back up for the thrill of the slide. Or— sometimes I see her dashes as authoritative “strike outs,” edits of what she was “supposed” to say and, thankfully, didn't. That wonderful blank space banished by Dickinson's dash. The poem, of course, is not only a dash. If Levin's poem were merely the dashes, it might give us a sense of “something” but not enough. In Dickinson's poem commonly recalled as “a certain slant of light,” only one stanza uses a dash.

'Tis the seal, despair,—

This dash is the famous Dickinson stamp, her bull's-eye arrow. Dickinson's poems tend to be very tight, condensed. Her dashes are connectors and also silences. This Dickinson poem has so many craft elements, it seems to be worth discussing in its entirety.

Emily Dickinson is a poet more than engaged. One might call the spinster happily married and communicating the way the happily married do—in a kind of shorthand:

There's a certain slant of light,

Line one, “There's a certain slant of light” is not a complete metaphor. It reflects the power of astute attention by a poet who happened to be an amateur botanist.6 Dickinson's lines are like stars collapsing into themselves. She gets the reader with the first bow out of her quiver. She lived in Massachusetts where that light in winter is very well known. She reports it like a scientist finding the “object that correlates,” but she is, first and foremost, a Poetess. As the poem moves forward, she makes express the concrete time and place (“on winter afternoons”), but she also (for those who need a little help) makes explicit the feeling (“oppresses”). In the same line she uses the multi-variant word “weight” (a scientific measurement) of a tangible and a feeling. She is all the way to the fourth line before she completes her metaphor.

There's a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.

What is a “cathedral” but the “thing made” by men? The use of the word “tunes” serves a function as a rhyme, but its connotation is diminution, a stark contrast with the intended glory and grandeur of a cathedral. “Cathedral” itself is “a loaded gun.” In its sights, see architecture, soaring skyward. The actual bricks, mortar, stone can be touched, touching. The stained glass is dark on the inside but brilliantly colored with outside light. It all streams through. And yet, the “tunes” are inhibited, limited by the ceiling no matter how high. One can envision the parishioner in the pew, offering the voice up to God and the sermon and echo falling. Deadening. In the second stanza, Dickinson makes explicit “oppressive” feeling by reversing the feeling and the object.

Heavenly hurt it gives us;

She is also using in this line an adjective/noun combination “heavenly hurt” that posits a standard metaphoric inherently illogical juxtaposition. “Heavenly” is usually used to describe a joyous or ecstatic experience. Here, beatific is plunged into “hurt.” And she's not done yet. One might wonder if this is not only a hurt from heaven but also the hurt of heaven. The adjective/noun combination is ambiguous. When she uses the word “gives,” she is right on top of “gift,” another oxymoron but still within the parameter of the meaning of “give.” As she slows the reader down with her line breaks, which mimic that kind of “still” attention to the “real” world, she is beginning to revolve us with the contradictory connotations of her words, bounded by syntax.

We can find no scar,

Here is the physician, searching, the flesh looking— but not finding on the flesh.

But internal difference

“The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art.”

(“East Coker” L 147-50)

Dickinson marks the location, makes the diagnosis, but she maintains tension because the injury may still be physical even if “internal.”

Where the meanings are.

“Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.”

(“East Coker” L 151)

With the authority of completion of the sentence of the stanza after four lines, we know the place that matters. The flesh makes its way through cognition leading to a vast conclusion. “No ideas but in things.” Whatever Williams may have meant by that phrase (and I sometimes wonder if it was as misunderstood as the “objective correlative”), we need only read this one poem of Dickinson to see “the flesh made whole.”

I want to pause here for a moment to address the complexity of great poetry. A poem that achieves true organicity, blood, bones, sinews, must have a pulse. The pulse must be appropriate to the heart within which it beats. Dickinson's rhythm has already been discussed by experts in form.7 The cadence here helps slow the pace of the poem, tracking the light.

While we are taking this break from Emily's “meanings,” the images her words and punctuation disclose, we should also look at sound. The reader is slid into the poem through alliteration “certain slant”. But the “l” of “slant” is hooked to the “l” of “light” at the same time the alliteration is disrupted from soft vowels “certain” “slant” to long “light”. The sea of sound in poetry is fathomless.8 I am not suggesting that a poet should take up his pen trying to hold all this cognitively in mind. Rather, sensitivity to the developing swells is helpful while the poet waits (as Stafford, in his National Book Award speech suggests) to be found. To return to Dickinson:

None may teach it anything,

This “it” is wild, unteachable, ungovernable, unreachable. Don't bother with sermons. Dickinson is moving much faster in this stanza. The syntactical reference of “it” is “heavenly hurt”. She also, by this introduction, prepares us for the loss of hope made explicit in the next line.

'Tis the seal, despair,—

First, Dickinson makes great use of the word “seal” with its whole lake of connotations. Sealed— physical, an envelope. Sealed— finished. Sealed— no light. Sealed—the tomb. Sealed—lips. Consider all the tumbling associations evoked by the use of one word. Hear the rumbling of “scar,” “seal” of seared flesh. She has now drawn the lightning to ground. Her metaphors transform exterior experience into interior experience and back again. “Hurt” is charged up to “despair” immediately coupled with a very concrete use of the dash (as concrete as that used by any modern poet) “—“ the seal of despair. Even better, the absolute silence of the dash = the absolute silence of despair. This mark is the scar that speaks on the page of a poem made flesh by a poet of flesh and blood. If this is not “incarnation,” I don't care. Whatever it is, it is far more created than manufactured.

An imperial affliction

Our Poetess is again playing with the ambiguity of connotation. Is the hurt that of an afflicted God? She raises the question without losing the stronghold she has on the speaker's own hurt.

Sent us of the air.

Unlike the cathedral, here is the open air, the poem abiding with that slant of light, internally/externally in all its wonderful impossibilities of logic and holding it— right there, “not fixed, transfixed”.


The air is sparking, possibly even “scented” and delivered on the wing, “sent” through the messenger. One wonders what angel this might be. Grammatically jumbled, object becomes subject. In the “which”of syntax flies “us of the air.” This “imperial affliction” is not elitism. That “certain slant of light” spreads itself freely. The price of admission was paid at the House of Mortals.

When it comes, the landscape listens

This line broadens the reach of the reader to a union with earth, itself. Dickinson personifies the landscape. It “listens.” All the world is imbued with this listening, the attentiveness of the poem. One also has to wonder, given the poem's ending, if that landscape is listening for whether or not it will be bodily joined.

Shadows hold their breath;

Again, Dickinson personifies the shadows, making them multiple breathing shades where the “hurt” are one with the dead, holding their breath. So close. So close. This use of the line break and semi-colon (“close, but not finished”) both instructs and persuades.

When it goes, 'tis like the distance

And then, the release “when it goes” and the exact measurement of the naturalist, of the mortal writing the poem for the mortal reading the poem, the exact distance between “still breathing” and “not” —inspiration and expiration. Think of all the space that follows that line break, the distance to the next breath, the next thought, maybe the answer. This is the kind of courage, the lack of which, despite her quest and the astuteness of the breaks of her line, that, as Duncan so correctly (and heartbreakingly for them both) said, Levertov turned away from. (Duncan, and Levertov, 663-669). For on each line a poet sails out to that sea of break where lie the “hidden salvages,”9 the reefs. And s/he must be fearless of shipwreck.

On the look of death.

This stunning last line delivers that Look backwards and forwards— Death looking on the reader and the reader looking back at Death, the narrow escape. In the crevice of that light, Dickinson is no Lot's wife. She is our Hero defying the myth of love-death by drowning. In the dead of winter—the quickening. A poem, alive and kicking, delivered by an American foremother, Emily Dickinson.

What, exactly is that distance between despair and “when it goes” to a “'t”? For a poet like Dickinson, the distance is immortality.

There's a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.

Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.

None may teach it anything,
'Tis the seal, despair,—
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air.

When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes,
'tis like the distance
On the look of death.

What is left?

We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.

(“Little Gidding” L 228-31)

We have an obligation to get to know the poetry of our forbears, but we are here and now. Where are we going? It may be that part of the intensity of the debate or the alarm raised about some of this 21st Century Modernist poetry is a fear that we might lose something important on the way to the next poetry place. I imagine that's possible. We might leap right into free fall. We live in a time of fits and starts and yips and yelps. I'm not sure we're telling the truth as artists if we try to wrap that up too neatly, delivering small epiphanies for breakfast. I often wonder what Akhmatova would be writing if another peasant asked her, “Can you describe this?” (Akhmatova, “Requiem.”) Would she so quickly say “yes” today? And what would that poem look like? Would it be a long narrative? Might it have fragments? Might its content be inconclusive but still beautiful? I don't know. Joan Houlihan argued that if the 21st Century Modernists were going to do it, you would think someone would have done it by now. Maybe not. I refuse to surrender my options.

The reader of a poem, the solitary figure, calls and listens to, at best, an echo until, perhaps after a pause, a different call rejoins. But this “response” is not only the experience of the reader, it also happens to the writer. The process of a poem taking life is strongly this call, which the poet hears dimly, “can hardly see.” My first workshop leader said, “Write what matters.” What matters? Is to answer that question the ego's imperialism? What is the point of a poetry of disinterest? What poet, who chooses the word, the break, the place on the page, the sound, escapes his or her choices?

The poet's relationship to the poem is only the first of many relationships. A poem is an organic whole, a complex system, not a contradiction resolved. The poem both answers and asks. A better metaphor might be a birdcall, a whistle back to other poems and to all else that “is.” But even the whistle fails to contain the future “becoming.” Birds are known to learn new songs. A poem is the known and unknown at the same time, and it is this tension of resolution and irresolution, this be-coming lack of stasis that is— what else but living?

Robert Bly uses the metaphor of Thor and the lightning rod (all the power of heaven, grounded) in support of his case for soulful poetry (“What the Image Can Do” 48). I agree with Bly that poetry should be fully charged. In my dreams, at the peak of powers, the poet does not take her hand off that lightning rod. The knowledge of craft is so readily available that the poet sees more fully the potentiality in the line break, the image, sound, rhythm, syntax, and semantics. They stride out as channels before the flood, shaping the muscles and sinew, the skeleton, the beating heart, the arteries, the oxygenated blood of that poem. To see that groundswell coming to ring the bell10 is a poet's vision as if to see Beatrice while the soles of her feet are burning. For those who understand poetry in this manner, the poet does not own the poem's intent. “To see what there is to be seen”11 is to see the Subject arising unto itself. We might be swept along on the sound to a word that no Reason would reflect,12 and that one word would be right, exact. We need to get out of our own way to make art.13

While we live in the “lifetime burning in every moment,” (“East Coker” L 194) each moment holds the promise and the challenge of transformation and continuity—just like a poem—with its history of poem ancestry, moving and transfiguring itself, its objects, its writer and readers. Why should we waste breath on debate about forms when we all know that any form can be a dead form? Bly confessed he made his mistake about Eliot's objective correlative when he was “trying to hit14 someone and think at the same time.” He says, “Not a good plan.” I agree with my elder. I propose we think of relations instead of standards. We have poems with whom we are willing to having relationships and those with whom we'd rather not. What is “half-heard. In the stillness/Between two waves of the sea”? (“Little Gidding” L 250-51.) Perhaps a poem, quickening.


1. All Eliot quotes in this essay are in italics.

2. Before the final draft of this paper, I sent Mr. Bly a note with a copy of my comments on his essay in Claims for Poetry. Since that essay was published so long ago, I wanted to give him the opportunity to say whether he has changed his mind— particularly about Eliot. He wrote me a charming note beginning, “Some idiot must have written that stuff about the objective correlative and TS Eliot. I don't agree with it at all!. . .” Mr. Bly has changed his mind about Eliot's use of the objective correlative, but I think it's fair to say that Mr. Bly, as others, has continuing concerns that spirit not be lost to American poetry.

3. For a visual model of string theory, see http://members.wri.com/jeffb/visualization/stringtheory.shtml.

4. All poems in the body of the text are in bold to make them easier to read. None of the poems have bold in the original.

5. The translation of Neruda is my own with a nod to both Bly (see Hirsch) and Nathaniel Tarn's in Pablo Neruda's Selected Poems, 88-91.

6. McDowell 22-26.

7. Finch 13-30/

8. Pinsky.

9. Eliot “The Dry Salvages,” Four Quartets.

10. “ And the ground swell, that is and was from the beginning,/ Clangs/ The Bell.” “The Dry Salvages” L46-48

11. To fail to do so, in law, is negligence.

12. And this sweeping is a 21st century modernist's notion (See Perloff. 21st Century Modernism, 8, citing Rosemarie Waldrop.) Although this poet denies “epiphany”, she acknowledges this “ vague nucleus of energy,” but one might consider Blake and wonder about vision and varieties of experience.

13. Stafford, “ We may remember mostly the long, stupid look at the material before us.”

14. The handwriting is a bit unclear on the word “hit.” (Private note from Robert Bly to author)

*The author wishes to thank Theodore Deppe for his thoughtful comments on drafts of this essay.

Works Cited

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Bly, Robert. “A Wrong Turning in American Poetry, 1963”. Claims for Poetry Ed. Donald Hall. Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 1982. 17-37.

Bly, Robert. “What the Image Can Do, 1981”. Claims for Poetry, Ed. Donald Hall. Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 1982. 38-49.

Bryant, Jeff. Visualization of string theory. http://members.wri.com/jeffb/visualization/stringtheory.shtml

Carroll, Lewis. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Signet Classic published by New American Library, New York: Penguin, 2000. 136-138.

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Eliot, T.S. “Philip Massinger”. The Sacred Wood and Major Early Essays. Mineola, New York: Dover, 1998. 72.

Eliot, T.S. The Use of Poetry & The Use of Criticism. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 1933. 6.

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Hass, Robert (Editor). The Essential Haiku, Versions of Basho, Buson & Issa. Hopewell, New Jersey: Ecco, 1994. 314-315.

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Hirsch, Edward. How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love With Poetry. New York: Harcourt, 1999.36-44; or DoubleTake 6 “Hirsch essay”. http://www.mrbauld.com/hirschrd.html.

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Jung, C. G. The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature. RFC Hull, Trans. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1966. 65-83.

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Perloff, Marjorie. The Dance of the Intellect, Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern UP (copyright 1985 by Cambridge UP). 90-114.

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Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct, How the Mind Creates Language. New York, NY: HarperPerennial edition (William Morrow and Company, Inc.) 1994.

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