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Monthly Archives: May 2018

Supposing you were interested in hearing me read a few poems of mine, you could do so here (I’m Aaron Novick). The poems read are:

  1. (sonnet variant)
  2. Glint
  3. “So priketh hem nature in hir corages”
  4. Dialogue
  5. Ephemera
  6. Poem for John Ashbery
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There is no satisfaction in poetry greater than the immaculate final line that brings a poem to its inevitable conclusion. Illustration: May Swenson’s “Ocean, Whale-Shaped”:

Ocean, whale-shaped, rocking between the dunes,
in the gateway of their great naked knees,
horizon chafing a tame sky,

your vast back purple, your shoreward side
wallowing blue, fretted with racing foam,
green, then diamond your fin flashes on sand.

Glazed monuments of the wind, the dunes,
their sprawling limbs Olympian lift and fall
to slopes and platforms seeming hard as bone,

but footsteps scar their flanks like snow;
their white bodies shift,
are shunted by you, blue-black, boisterous whale—

and whittled, are rewhittled by the wind
unsatisfied with any shape or perpetuity.
The land, the sand we tread is not the steady

element our feet believe.
Indelible ocean, humped beside the sky,
you unsubstantial we can’t grasp or walk on,

you pry at these gates and break them when you will—
overwhelming whale of water, mover and shaper,
over and over carving your cradle here.

Take a moment, first, simply to linger over the sounds of this last line. It is a masterpiece of subtle transformations. It begins with outright repetition (“over and over”), but this soon shifts to the consonance of “carving”, which picks up both the “v” and the “r” sounds. This is transformed in turn when we reach “cradle”, which rearranges the “car” of “carving”, echoing it with modification. The short “a” grows long, leading us directly into the culminating word, “here”. This brings us back to the start, to “over and over”, but, once again, the initially short “e” re-appears as long: “-er” to “-ere”. Underlying this play of sounds and holding it all in place is the falling rhythm, which alternates dactyls and trochees until it at last lands on the final stress: / – – / – / – – / – /. The line thus parcels out into three neat units:

over and over / carving your cradle / here

The line resembles a Pindaric ode in miniature: strophe, antistrophe, epode. It is a perfect whole, worth savoring entirely independently of its meaning. But let us look at it in the context of the full poem.

I read the poem as a love story, of sorts: as a polyamorous love story between ocean, wind, sky, land, and people. It shuttles between multiple scales and perspectives. There are the humans who walk on the dunes, and who instinctively (in their feet), believe them to be a “steady // element”. But they are not. They are reworked on all sides: by these very same feet (“footsteps scar their flanks like snow”), by the wind (“are whittled, are rewhittled by the wind”), and by the ocean (“overwhelming whale of water, mover and shaper”).

That brief phrase—“overwhelming whale of water”—deserves careful attention. By this point, in the penultimate line of the poem, we seem to have reached the culmination. While there are multiple agents and perspectives in the poem, people and wind and dunes and sky, the ocean dominates it. The poem opens with the “ocean, whale-shaped”, and as we near the end this is re-affirmed as the ocean is described as “overwhelming”. It overwhelms the poem just as it overwhelms the dunes.

We have, however, not reached the culmination in seeing the ocean as overwhelming. The very next word gives us yet another transformation: the ocean is an overwhelming whale. We are, very suddenly, brought back to the poem’s smallest scale, the animal. A whale is, to be sure, a very large animal, but it is an animal nonetheless. Over the course of the poem, the ocean has transformed from something merely “whale-shaped”, something like but not quite a whale, into a whale, without qualification. The simile has become a metaphor. Why?

In making the ocean an animal, Swenson gives it needs, desires. And it is here that the last line comes in: “over and over carving your cradle here.” The sea, great “mover and shaper”, is carving out its home, is making a world into which it fits. (To use the phrase du jour, it is constructing its niche.) This great, overwhelming presence, so vast and unlike us, suddenly comes to seem vulnerable—comes to seem like us.

Some highlights from my April reading:

May Swenson. A while back, I bought May Swenson’s collected poems (Library of America), entirely on the strength of her poem “Bleeding”. I’ve finally started making my way through the rest of her oeuvre. Thus far I’ve read her first two books, Another Animal and A Cage of Spines. Already in these early works she mixes a playful use of sounds with careful attention to how the poem appears on the page, not always successfully, but often. (See, for instance, “Stony Beach”, which I wrote about here.) At times the language-play gets in the way of the poem, but at her best—“Stony Beach”, “The Garden at St. John’s”, “Another Animal”, “Secure”, “Sunset”, “The Cloud-Mobile”, “Seven Natural Songs”, “Ornamental Sketch with Verbs”, “The Day Moon”—she makes a claim to be one of the great American poets. I look forward to seeing where she went from here.

John Keats. More than anyone, Keats shows that it only takes a handful of great poems to make a reputation. In reading his Selected Poems (Oxford World Classics), the vast majority of what I encountered left no impression on me. But then the famous poems—“On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, etc.—come along, and the source of his reputation is immediately apparent. I also discovered a number of poems previously unknown to me, such as this surprisingly disturbing one:

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d—see here it is
I hold it towards you—

Arthur Schopenhauer. I picked up Schopenhauer’s Essays and Aphorisms in my local used bookstore for $3.75. It was one of my better finds there. I’ve previously read The World as Will and Representation, but the scope of that work can make it difficult to really see the broad overview of his thought. Essays and Aphorisms rectified that—I wish I had read it before The World as Will and Representation (which I may now want to revisit). The core of Schopenhauer’s philosophy is his pessimism, the view that (a) existence has no intrinsic value, (b) the suffering on earth outweighs the pleasure, and (c) pain is the substantive state, and pleasure the negative state (in the sense that it is the mere absence of pain). The upshot of Schopenhauer’s pessimism was that we ought to be nicer to one another, more forgiving. I found this short selection of Schopenhauer’s thought extremely useful for placing myself in relation to his work, for seeing exactly where my disagreements lie.

And, lastly, this month, I read an interesting pair of books about the philosophy of Thomas Kuhn: Bojana Mladenović’s new book, Kuhn’s Legacy, and an older book by Paul Hoyningen-Huene, Reconstructing Scientific Revolutions. They work well together. Mladenović’s book stresses Kuhn’s epistemology, tying it to the American pragmatists. She makes a strong case that he still has much to say for contemporary philosophy of science, and that the initial uptake of his ideas was substantially misguided (in particular, the common tendency to take him as an irrationalist). Some aspects of the Kuhn she presents I find unpersuasive (especially the notion of scientific progress she attributes to Kuhn), but on the whole it’s effective. Hoyningen-Huene’s book complemented hers nicely, as he focused in great detail on Kuhn’s metaphysics. With admirable clarity, he excavated the commitments behind Kuhn’s enigmatic comments on world change during scientific revolutions, helping me to see where I do and do not find Kuhn’s views plausible.