Year Two: Poems!
I’ve been using my blog to chronicle, in an episodic way, a learning journey I have been on at Stanford. The adventure continues!
The second year of my MLA program ended with a bang in the form of a course on poems (scroll down to MLA 365 to see what the course was about).
I’ve had very superficial exposure to poetry. As an adolescent, I read things like The Charge of the Light Brigade; as an adult, there has been very little poetry in my literary diet (and that too typically in the epigraphs to books, which I’d enjoy and think to myself that I really should read more poetry).
It was therefore transformational to study a selection of poems in an academic setting. We read dozens of poems during the ten weeks of the academic quarter, and each week responded to one designated poem at some length.
Certainly part of the learning was the technique and technicalities of poetry — as a trivial example, I didn’t know what an enjambment was before this course! But the real learning came from a close reading of the poems.
The ambiguity of poetry, especially modern poetry, makes it like no other art form. Here I thought it’d be interesting to lay out an abridged version of my response to Blue Swallows by Howard Nemerov.
This is the poem, followed by my response:
Across the millstream below the bridge
Seven blue swallows divide the air
In shapes invisible and evanescent,
Kaleidoscopic beyond the mind’s
Or memory’s power to keep them there.
“History is where tensions were,”
“Form is the diagram of forces.”
Thus, helplessly, there on the bridge,
While gazing down upon those birds—
How strange, to be above the birds!—
Thus helplessly the mind in its brain
Weaves up relation’s spindrift web,
Seeing the swallows’ tails as nibs
Dipped in invisible ink, writing…
Poor mind, what would you have them write?
Some cabalistic history
Whose authorship you might ascribe
To God? to Nature? Ah, poor ghost,
You’ve capitalized your Self enough.
That villainous William of Occam
Cut out the feet from under that dream
Some seven centuries ago.
It’s taken that long for the mind
To waken, yawn and stretch, to see
With opened eyes emptied of speech
The real world where the spelling mind
Imposes with its grammar book
Unreal relations on the blue
Swallows. Perhaps when you will have
Fully awakened, I shall show you
A new thing: even the water
Flowing away beneath those birds
Will fail to reflect their flying forms,
And the eyes that see become as stones
Whence never tears shall fall again.
O swallows, swallows, poems are not
The point. Finding again the world,
That is the point, where loveliness
Adorns intelligible things
Because the mind’s eye lit the sun.
(I’ve left line numbers in; and apologies for the stiffness of the prose — I’d do it a bit differently if I were writing for The New Yorker!)
“Blue Swallows” may lack the bite of a satire and the hilarity of a lampoon, but there is wit and compassion aplenty as it critiques the human propensity to find ways to impose order on our world. This inclination to explain is relentless as the mind is “helplessly” (8, 11) unable to do otherwise. Explanations are situated in either science or theology, ascribed “to Nature” (18) or “to God” (18). The speaker undermines and rejects these ideas during the poem, and the first two stanzas serve to build the scaffolding for the argument.
The poem poses riddles throughout that have ambiguous solutions. Nevertheless, we are given enough to form a plausible impression of the speaker’s character. The speaker is pessimistic. The quotes in the first two lines of the second stanza are knowingly ironic and set the reader up for the rueful third stanza, which expresses regret for how mankind has sought to order its circumstances with all sorts of theories. The speaker is also a skeptic as can be seen most clearly in the rejection of “cabalistic history” (16). That phrase has the flavor of the mystical occult but is really a questioning of all ordering, scientific or theological.
I would argue that leavened with the pessimism is a paradoxical hopefulness. The speaker offers a qualified promise to show “a new thing” (31) after suggesting that the mind, now woken with a “yawn and stretch” (24), is ready to see the speaker’s version of reality. The final stanza is also an indirect expression of hope, for the apostrophic hailing of the swallows — via Eliot and Tennyson — is a precursor to giving us “the point” (37, 38), which is to go about “finding again the world” (36).
The setting in “Blue Swallows” is pivotal. Most notably, the speaker is on the bridge — a nuance revealed in line 8. This admittedly presumes that the speaker and “the mind” (4) are physically congruent. The bridge offers an unusual vantage point from which to observe the swallows — from above. Unless one is in the habit of loitering on bridges, birds are almost never seen from above. The speaker thus appears elevated above that which is being described, and this unusual, almost God-like position, infuses the words with gravitas.
The other key element is the “millstream” (1). This immediately reveals more to us about the nature of this specific bridge. Mills are not found in dense urban settings; this implies a rural landscape, yet one that is not entirely pastoral for somewhere nearby there must in fact be a mill, emblematic even in ancient times of human power over the environment. It could be argued that the speaker has chosen this setting in part to suggest that this power we have in “the real world” (26) is misleading. For the speaker, the order we impose on the world — in this instance the physical mill and all that goes with it — is in fact “unreal” (28).
The reference to “William of Occam” (20) is Delphic. Occam is best known in our time for his “Razor” which argues for ontological parsimony. I contend that it may be Occam’s broader nominalism that the speaker is referencing here. An individual swallow is an individual swallow for a nominalist, with not much more to be said generally about all swallows. This stance is the antithesis of that adopted by a doctrinaire theologian or evolutionary biologist in setting forth the categories that we are now accustomed to using in ordering our world.
So, with the word “villainous”, the speaker is casting an ironic pox on the houses of both science and religion. These two groups impose with their “grammar book” (27) a set of “unreal relations” (28) on the world, and Occam is held out as the brigand whose philosophy overturns these classifications, cutting “out the feet from under that dream” (21).
And an editorial remark to wrap up: I have a whole new appreciation for poetry, and not just modern free verse. I was also incredibly struck by the craft and skill required to write verse within the constraints of classical meter. Try writing a Petrarchan sonnet. Just one.