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One Flesh

Lying apart now, each in a separate bed,
He with a book, keeping the light on late,
She like a girl dreaming of childhood,
All men elsewhere–it is as if they wait
Some new event: the book he holds unread,
Her eyes fixed on the shadows overhead.

Tossed up like flotsam from a former passion,
How cool they lie. They hardly ever touch,
Or if they do it is like a confession
Of having little feeling–or too much.
Chastity faces them, a destination
For which their whole lives were a preparation.

Strangely apart, yet strangely close together,
Silence between them like a thread to hold
And not wind in. And time itself’s a feather
Touching them gently. Do they know they’re old,
These two who are my father and my mother
Whose fire from which I came, has now grown cold?

Elizabeth Jennings, 1966

COMMENTARY: When Elizabeth Jennings published her first book of poems in 1953, the critic Robert Conquest lumped her in with a group of British poets that he called “The Movement.” Made up of Jennings, Phillip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, and Thom Gunn, “The Movement” poets rejected the freewheeling style and obscure themes of modernism in favor of a poetry that used rhyme and meter, simple language, and everyday subject matter. Though certain critics accused the The Movement of superficiality, they were capable of a clarity and emotional distillation that made up for any lack of complexity.

In this regard, though the ending of “One Flesh” is naive, the poem makes up for it by the technical ease of the music and the intelligence of the metaphors. “Flotsam from a former passion” and “Silence between them like a thread to hold/ And not wind in” are striking and memorable comparisons for the separation-in-togetherness that defines the old couple’s boring and apathetic partnership. I also like “Chastity faces them, a destination/ For which their whole lives were a preparation” and “They hardly ever touch/ Or if they do it is like a confession/ Of having little feeling–or too much”–a sharp lamentation for the disappointment and diminishment that often seems on the opposite horizon of so much romantic hope.

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Mowing

There was never a sound beside the wood but one,
And that was my long scythe whispering to the ground.
What was it it whispered? I knew not well myself;
Perhaps it was something about the heat of the sun,
Something, perhaps, about the lack of sound–
And that was why it whispered and did not speak.
It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows,
Not without feeble-pointed spikes of flowers
(Pale orchises), and scared a bright green snake.
The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.
My long scythe whispered and left the hay to make.

Robert Frost, 1913

COMMENTARY: Robert Frost aimed at understatement. On the surface, his poems (like those of William Blake) sometimes seem simple, offhand, unplanned and casual–the singsong meter, the folksy characters, the quaint farm images, and the colloquial diction. But just as an understatement conceals, by omission, the truth that rests above the register of expression, Frost’s simple vignettes often hide layers upon layers of paradoxical meanings.

This poem (which Frost, in an interview, once said was his favorite poem from his first book) is no exception. The anecdote the poem describes–a scythe whisking and whispering over the grass–provokes, by the subtlest suggestions, a variety of questions and interpretations. For instance, if we take “whispering” to be an act of speech, then it seems reasonable to interpret the poem as a parable about making poems with the “rows” in the meadow as lines of verse, the whispering of the scythe as the subtle insinuations of the muse, and the paradoxical line “anything more than truth would have seemed too weak” a proclamation of the aim of the poem: truth telling. In this reading, poems are not “dreams of idle ours” or “easy gold at the hand of fay or elf” (that is, freebies given by the romantic soul) but rather the product of sweet, solitary labor.

But is such a reading justified? The poem never makes the connection between mowing and writing explicitly. The reader has to make that jump on his own, and, is such an interpretation, the “more than truth” that Frost says is “too weak?” Are other readings equally justified? For instance, “mowing,” at the time when Frost wrote this poem, was slang for sexual union. Given the physical suggestions of a masculine tool whisking along the ground and the well-known etymology of the word “orchid,” could the entire poem be read as an erotic parable? Like the green snake hidden under the grass, these suggestions whisper invisibly under the explicit meaning of the lines. The lines leave behind them, paradoxically, not a tidy conclusion but wild, disordered hay to try to pitchfork into squares.

From “Soonest Mended”

The summer’s energy wanes quickly,
A moment and it is gone. And no longer
May we make the necessary arrangements, simple as they are.
Our star was brighter perhaps when it had water in it.
Now there is no question even of that, but only
Of holding on to the hard earth so as not to get thrown off
With an occasional dream, a vision: a robin flies across
The upper corner of the window, you brush your hair away
And cannot quite see, or a wound will flash
Against the sweet faces of the others, something like
This is what you wanted to hear, so why
Did you think of listening to something else? We are all talkers,
It is true, but underneath the talk lies
The moving and not wanting to be moved, the loose
Meaning, untidy and simple like a threshing floor.

–John Ashberry, 1970

COMMENTARY: John Ashberry, who passed away this week at the age of 90, made a career out of poems “loose….and untidy.” Though his ricocheting surrealism, abruptly switching tracks in meaning, tone, and rhythm, made many readers feel that his poems were inhospitably disjointed, he was capable of unique and surprising effects. As the editor of Art News in New York during the 1970’s, he was interested in the abstract, ‘splotchy’ style of non-traditional art that was in vogue during that time and tried to transfer its aesthetic aims from the canvas to the page. While this resulted in a number of poems that bordered on the unreadable, the effort was important in expanding the scope and range of what was considered poetry and spawned many imitators who drew on his style and influence.

The above excerpt from a much longer poem illustrates that Ashberry could be insightful and moving when writing in his “easier” style. The opening lines evoke the planetary and elemental–the summer season, the fire-and-water star, the rotating earth. These lofty and distant images then transition, in the space of a few lines, to three juxtaposed gestures (robin-in-flight, hair-brush, grimace). Though there is much in the poem that isn’t exactly clear (what “necessary arrangement?” Who’s talking to who?), the contrast between the planetary and the personal leads powerfully to the contrast of the closing lines in which language is “Moving and not wanting to be moved, the loose/ meaning, untidy and simple like a threshing floor.” The idea that words are both meaningful movement and an untidy scattering of chaff nicely sums up the aesthetic approach of a poet who aimed to make use of all the wild totality of the English language, from the vineyard to the dregs.

Serepta Mason (from Spoon River Anthology)

My life’s blossom might have bloomed on all sides
Save for a bitter wind which stunted my petals
On the side of me which you in the village could see.
From the dust I lift a voice of protest:
My flowering side you never saw.
Living ones, ye are fools indeed
Who do not know the ways of the wind
And the unseen forces
That govern the processes of life.

–Edgar Lee Masters, 1915

COMMENTARY: Edgar Lee Masters was a lawyer by by profession, a defense attorney, who (however often he may have defended the innocent) certainly defended the guilty enough to understand the psychology of guilt–the mental maneuvers (denial, self-justification, blame-shifting) by which those who feel ashamed often put a veil between internal humiliation and external judgement. The best poems in Spoon River Anthology, a collection of short poems pretended to be written on the tombstones of a fictitious town (though there is debate as to how fictitious ‘Spoon River’ is and which of the poems are based on real people) read like alibis from the defense box, capturing, with some sympathy, the knotty unease that comes from the effort of trying to hide self from conscience and conscience from society.

Master’s psychological insight is one possible explanation why Spoon River Anthology has become as big a best-seller as poetry every becomes–going through dozens of editions and adaptations–despite the fact that the poems are often clunky and unpolished. Rhymeless, meterless, often awkwardly combining the loftily elevated (“From the dust I lift a voice in protest”) with the stiffly prosaic (“the unseen forces that govern the processes of life), Masters poems are worth reading as monologues that seem all the more honest the more the speakers try to lie. When Serepta Mason says, “My flowering side you never saw,” (a nice line) “Ye living ones, ye are fools indeed/ who do not know the ways of the wind,” is it an honest lament of the way a person’s inner being is hidden by all sorts of masks and prejudices–remaining, for many people, the invisible and unsharable beauty of themselves–or is she simply making excuses for her failures and blaming others? Or both? The psychological questions that poems like this provoke explain why Spoon River Anthology is often used as a standard text in theater training, providing skilled actors with many opportunities to explore nuances of tone, and allowing for the kind of thought-provoking ambiguity which is at the center of memorable dramatic characters.

From Henry V (Act 1, Scene 2)

Canterbury:

So work the honey-bees,
Creatures that by a rule in nature teach
The act of order to a peopled kingdom.
They have a king and officers of sorts;
Where some, like magistrates, correct at home,
Others, like merchants, venture trade abroad,
Others, like soldiers, armed in their stings,
Make boot upon the summer’s velvet buds,
Which pillage they with merry march bring home
To the tent-royal of their emperor;
Who, busied in his majesty, surveys
The singing masons building roofs of gold,
The civil citizens kneading up the honey,
The poor mechanic porters crowding in
Their heavy burdens at his narrow gate,
The sad-eyed justice, with his surly hum,
Delivering o’er to executors pale
The lazy yawning drone.

–William Shakespeare, 1599

COMMENTARY: Shakespeare sometimes gives his most poetic speeches to minor characters. Here, the Bishop of Cantebury, one of the most insignificant characters in Henry V, makes a nice Homeric simile comparing a kingdom to a hive of bees. I like the careful almost panoptic thoroughness of the lines, the way each little character in the bee kingdom is celebrated. I like “armed in their stings/ Make boot upon the summers velvet buds” and “singing masons building roofs of gold” and “kneading up the honey.” Of course, the speech is really “about” Henry’s kingdom and how social harmony derives from cooperation, but, reading it, I lose the meaning and get caught up in the bees.

Sure Lord, there is enough in thee to dry

Sure Lord, there is enough in thee to dry
Ocean of Ink; for, as the Deluge did
Cover the earth, so doth thy Majesty:
Each Cloud distills thy praise, and doth forbid
Poets to turn it to another use.
Roses and Lilies speak thee; and to make
A pair of cheeks of them is thy abuse.
Why should I Women’s eyes for Crystal take?
Such poor invention burns in their low mind
Whose fire is wild, and doth not upward go
To praise, and on thee Lord, some ink bestow.
Open the bones, and you shall nothing find
In the best face but filth, when Lord, in thee
The beauty lies, in the discovery.

–George Herbert 1633

COMMENTARY: Though born into a wealthy family and educated at Cambridge, George Herbert was to spend much of his adult life as a rural priest at Fugglestone St. Peter (what a name!) in a small farming community south of London. In his only prose work, The County Parson, he argues that rural preachers should use examples drawn from ordinary life–plowing, baking bread, dancing–which (despite their commonness) could be “lights even of Heavenly Truths.” His conception of Christianity as the worship of a God incarnate–the lowering of God to the realm of the commonplace–found its compliment in the idea of the exaltation of the commonplace to the status of the divine. As he says at the end of this sonnet, beauty lies in the discovery of the ultimate nature of what, in and of itself, is bones, filth, plants, stone, and ink.

The sonnet makes this point through a critique of the mundane cliches of what Herbert saw as “merely” the love poetry of the Petrarchan tradition. The poem is similar to Shakespeare’s “My Lady’s eyes are nothing like the sun,” though while Shakespeare criticizes the style and diction of Petrarchan sonnets, Herbert finds fault with the subject matter. It isn’t that it’s predictable to use lilies and crystals and clouds in a poem, it’s that it’s a misuse of those lilies and crystals and clouds to make them about a woman when, really, they are the little hiding places of God.

From Song of the Open Road

No husband, no wife, no friend, trusted to hear the confession,
Another self, a duplicate of every one, skulking and hiding it goes,
Formless and wordless through the streets of the cities, polite and bland in the parlors,
In the cars of railroads, in steamboats, in the public assembly,
Home to the houses of men and women, at the table, in the bedroom, everywhere,
Smartly attired, countenance smiling, form upright, death under the breast-bones, hell under the skull-bones,
Under the broadcloth and gloves, under the ribbons and artificial flowers,
Keeping fair with the customs, speaking not a syllable of itself,
Speaking of any thing else but never of itself.

–Walt Whitman 1856

COMMENTARY: When Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, he claimed that he intended it to be small enough to fit in a pocket “to be read in the open air.” The compact size of the book likely had more to do with his shyness than any forethought he may have given to its portability. He had only a 200 copies published by a small press, and though he included a rather rugged-looking photograph of himself on the title page, he did not name himself as the author. It was only the following year, after he sent a copy to Ralph Waldo Emerson on a whim and after Emerson responded with high praise, that Whitman decided to publish a much expanded version. This second printing featured Emerson’s letter in prominent gold leaf after the table of contents as well as dozens of additional poems.

Thematically, “Song of the Open Road” picks up where “Song of Myself” leaves off: an expansive celebration of a freedom that is sometimes spiritual and sometimes sensual. Beginning many stanzas with allons! (let’s go!), the poem is an invitation to a vagabond’s frolic. Though the prevailing tone is one of romantic optimism and transcendence, there are certain lines, such as the excerpt above, contrasting Whitman’s ideal with the claustrophobic life of false strictures. The lines “Another self, a duplicate of every one….smartly attired, countenance smiling, form upright, death under the breast bones, hell under the skull bones” curses the psychological anguish that results from the social facade. The extent to which this anguish describes the Whitman’s uncertainty of himself in the days before Emerson is of course only speculation. Nonetheless, the lines are remarkable for their acidic renunciation of the “artificial flowers” of civilized life. In this way, they prefigure the alienation of modernity and foreshadow something of J. Alfred Prufrock.