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Poem: In the Valley of the Arrow
Poet: Geoffrey Hill
Link: Google Books


I

Four major themes emerge from the first section of Hill’s poem. First, the section consists entirely of landscape description, of crocus and gorse. The poem will later expand outward, but it remains rooted by Hill’s descriptions of its setting.

Second, we are confronted with worries about artificiality:

First flowers strike artificial at first sight,
the colours appear concocted, perhaps they are.

This shows itself in the crocus, which “soon looks pretty / much washed out.”

Third, hermeticism presents itself in the gorse, which is “real alchemy” and “hermetic at full display.” This suggests privacy and secretiveness, as well as the possibility of strange, magical transformations.

The fourth and final theme emerges out of the third, as Hill describes the alchemical gorse as a “spicy orator.” This attaches the hermetic theme to the operations of language. This is an apt maneuver in light of Hill’s poetry more generally (we have encountered strange linguistic transformations in other poems), though it remains to be seen how it will work itself out in this particular poem.

II

The second section begins apophatically, as is so common in Hill: “Not Bohemia, not Illyria.” I don’t fully grasp the resonances of these allusions: I suspect they are Shakespearian (Bohemia features in A Winter’s Tale, Illyria in Twelfth Night, neither of which have I read). Regardless, I read them as insisting on a poetry localized to England. Unlike Shakespeare, Hill will remain in his own land. We herein find reference to “rhetoric’s / vernacular flowers,” reinforcing the connection between flora and oration.

The remainder of the section consists of further (gorgeous) description of setting, apparently “for description’s sake.” A bit of motion starts to show itself. The crocus had presented only colors, and the gorse was a “spectator” whose only motion amounted to “bristling.” But here we have a stream with “singing iron footbridges” and “tense weirs / pebble-dashed with small foam.” A time element also enters, “as the year / ploughs on.”

The section ends by lifting us, for the first time, out of the setting: “beata l’alma,” blessed the soul. This will reappear later.

III

The reference to the soul ending the previous section hinted at subjectivity, which now enters the poem fully. Not in the form of a soul, however—rather shadow:

My shadow now resembles my father’s: cloth
cap flat-planted with its jutty neb
that prods the leaf-litter. Ineffectually.

The source of the resemblance between his shadow and his father’s is a shared bit of clothing. In principle it could have been described as a simple resemblance between Hill himself and his father. So why isn’t it? Couching the description at the level of shadows allows Hill to bring in a sense of effeteness: the shadow can appear to affect the world (“prod” is a causal verb), but its actions are “ineffectual.” And through the description this ineffectuality rebounds onto Hill (or the poetic voice more generally, if we do not associate it with Hill himself), though had he tried to prod the leaf-litter he no doubt would have successfully shuffled some leaves. This, by the by, is a form of poetic alchemy.

The only way I can read what follows is Hill having a laugh at his readers:

What do they think of while they think of nothing?
Thinks: check pulse-rate as last animus
jerks home—spit, spat—they of course being them.

I have noted before that Hill enjoys to use pronouns without specifying them (one of the features of his poetry that keeps it private, hermetic, sealed off). Well, here he specifies—with another pronoun. Since I must guess, I am assuming it is the dead who are here referenced, a plurality that, one would presume, by this point includes Hill’s father.

But the actual thought is the thought of one living, though approaching death, for the dead do not have a pulse. And this is inevitable, for the dead do not actually think. As Hill knows. The real question is about death-in-life, the processes of dying that become so apparent as the ageing body slowly disintegrates. About how this affects thought.

Hill summarizes well: “Dying’s no let-up, an atrocious / means of existence.”

IV

Shadows reappear in the form of a “Heart-stab memento giving a side-glimpse / of feared eternity.” This is likened to seeing the “shadow / of your attacker.” The earlier introduction of the poet and his father through shadows is here given further, retroactive justification: the memory of his father is not to be approached directly, but through shadows.

I catch a nod to Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes” in these lines:

The wild geese racket and mute swans proceed
in formal agitation round the lake.

V

The privacy of the poem is brought home in the opening to the poem’s final section: “More than you know…” As a young man still (though on more than one occasion I have been called old), I submit to this gentle chiding. And what is it that I don’t know, or don’t know fully?

More than you know it’s like dead trees that stay
the same, winter and summer—odds
on how he tells it—sheathed in samurai
mail of black ivy.

Here the earlier motion, the landscape that changed “as the year / ploughs on,” is negated, replaced by dead trees that still stand but no longer change. Interestingly, though I don’t yet grasp the significance, “beata l’alma” appears again immediately after this negation—recall that its first appearance came immediately after what is now being negated.

The poem ends with its starkest image, which I present without comment:

Unzipped and found addressing the smeared walls
of an underpass, crying not my
address, no more unnamed accusers,

self-dubbed natural thespian enacts
age, incapacity—judge the witnesses—
brings himself off to video’d provocation.

Pardon my breathing.

Maybe one comment, merely to note my sorrow that this “self-dubbed natural thespian” has no more breaths to pardon.

If reverse causality obtains anywhere in the universe, if the arrow of time ever points, however briefly, upstream, it surely makes its exceptions for letters. Who has not watched as meanings cavort across centuries? They are such acrobats. A reader cannot read without leaving some mark on his material.

Tonight I feel the aftereffects of a passage in Kafka. It seems to reach out and alter the possibilities of reading a poem of Dickinson’s, my favorite poem of hers. Let us begin with the poem:

I breathed enough to take the Trick –
And now, removed from Air –
I simulate the Breath, so well –
That One, to be quite sure –

The Lungs are stirless – must descend
Among the Cunning Cells –
And touch the Pantomime – Himself,
How numb, the Bellows feels!

The poem tells of desperate subterfuge. A person, abandoned by God, “removed from Air,” must coax Him back by pretending still to breath, by the machinal simulation of Breath. So thorough, so convincing is this pretend inspiration, that One (to be quite sure the lungs are stirless) must touch the Bellows himself, and feel its numbness. But He is the Breath: He cannot carry out this procedure without the poet regaining the Air so longed for.

There is one layer of meaning, so far as I can tell the primordial layer. But now I recall the passage of Kafka:

“Well,” he thought, “if I could tell her the whole story, she would cease to be astonished. One works so feverishly at the office that afterwards one is too tired even to enjoy one’s holidays properly. But even all that work does not give one a claim to be treated lovingly by everyone; on the contrary, one is alone, a total stranger and only an object of curiosity. And so long as you say ‘one’ instead of ‘I,’ there’s nothing in it and one can easily tell the story; but as soon as you admit to yourself that it is you, yourself, you feel as though transfixed and are horrified.”

Everything speaks against reading Dickinson in light of Kafka. I hardly need to run through the arguments. But this passage has marked me: only with difficulty can I read “one” otherwise than as a defense mechanism, an attempt to distance oneself from events concerning oneself. Do you not feel it already, in the previous sentence?

What, then, of Dickinson? Clearly, “One” is a name for God, a glorious name that draws attention to His unity, wholeness, His lack of all imperfections. And yet… perhaps it also suggests that the poet is distant from herself, but shudders to confront this fact. Perhaps she seeks distance from the horrible cold that she feels upon encountering herself. God, after all, is more resistant to such pain, and at any rate God’s pain is not our pain. Perhaps “One” is mere externalization, disburdening.

On such a reading, the poem becomes doubly awful, once for its surface, and once for what that surface evades.

First line: “When Night is almost done –”
Author: Emily Dickinson
Poem #: 347 (The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson)


When Night is almost done –
And Sunrise grows so near
That we can touch the Spaces –
It’s time to smooth the Hair –

And get the Dimples ready –
And wonder we could care
For that old – faded Midnight –
That frightened – but an Hour –

An earlier incarnation of myself, writing on another blog, attempted somewhat disastrously to scan this poem. I do not begrudge the youthful error, but nonetheless I want to correct it, for it distracted from what was otherwise an accurate reading of the poem.

My post on Dickinson from a few days ago (here) explored some of the ways that Dickinson was able to create layers of meaning by playing with the rhythm of her poem, all without the use of metrical substitutions. In this poem, she once again avoids metrical substitutions. Each line is perfect iambic trimeter, though lines three, five, and seven all have feminine endings. For the most part, Dickinson does not attempt to subvert the steady rhythm this creates. Only the final two lines are broken in the middle, and in the last line the dash merely adds a brief pause without really altering the stress pattern. Only in line seven does Dickinson create the feel of a stress where there is none. In that line, the adjective ‘old’, which would normally take a stress, is demoted, given the context, to being unstressed. The pause created by the dash, however, allows it to recover some of its lost weight, and thus the line becomes very heavy in the middle.

Mostly, however, the rhythm is left alone, and this is important for the success of the poem. Consider first a surface reading: the night is almost done, the sun is coming, we get ready for the day, and we scoff at the midnight whose power to frighten lasted “but an Hour.” On this reading, the poem is optimistic, even – if one inclines to a darker view of life – complacent. I suggest, however, that beneath this surface there is true apprehension of the awful Night, and that this undercurrent reframes the surface reading of the poem as, not naïve optimism, but rather an attempt to laugh off the Night, an attempt that can never prove wholly successful.

The way that Dickinson does this is to allow the Night and the fright it occasions to envelop the remainder of the poem:

When Night is almost done –
That frightened – but an Hour –

These might have been the first two lines of the poem: they parse well enough together. But instead they are the first and last lines. All the sunlight, the preparation for the day, the scoffing of the night – all this takes place between this sundered description of the Night. If the beginning of the poem marks the dawn, this merely invites to read the end as twilight, and to recognize that the day, too, lasts “but an Hour.”

A number of structural features enhance this sense. A simple glance at the poem reveals that it consists in two stanzas, each of four lines. The first brings the sunrise, the second shows the sunrise banishing the night. Dickinson, however, subverts this visual break. First, within each stanza there is only imperfect rhyme (near/hair; care/hour). Across the stanzas, however, there is a perfect rhyme (hair/care), which ties the internal lines of the poem strongly together and minimizes the genuine “breakage” created by the page’s empty space. Second, enhancing this, there is really no break content-wise: the stanza break somewhat inexplicably intervenes between hair-smoothing and dimple-readying, even though these are two aspects of the same activity. The stanza break thus roughly correlates with the surface reading of the poem, but it comes across as superficial. The unity of the internal six lines of the poem, though hidden, proves more substantial, thus bringing to light the deeper structure of the poem, with its nocturnal bookends.

In this way, the poem achieves economically and deliberately an effect that characterizes – I think accidentally – many of Emerson’s essays. Emerson’s essays frequently end with a burst of unbridled optimism, expressed so fervently that Emerson has for a long time been mistaken as a thoroughly optimistic thinker. Close reading, however, reveals that these endings nearly always follow upon Emerson’s having plumped the depths of an intractable skepticism or nihilism: his optimism then functions as a turning away, but certainly not as a rejoinder. This same need to turn away is masterfully considered by Dickinson in these eight short lines, and is revealed for what it is.

First line: “Perhaps I asked too large –”
Poet: Emily Dickinson
Poem #: 352 (The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson)


 

Perhaps I ask too large –
I take – no less than skies –
For Earths, grow thick as
Berries, in my native town –

My Basket holds – just – Firmaments –
Those – dangle easy – on my arm,
But smaller bundles – Cram.

In my first two posts on this blog I looked at the role of metrical substitutions within an iambic base (the post on Crane) and at the role of metrical shifts within ostensibly “free” verse (the post on Ammons). The poem above, by contrast, is a case study in how to use techniques other than metrical substitutions to create a variegated rhythm. Without a single substitution, Dickinson disrupts the steady iambic pulse of her poem in ways that deepen its meaning.

The organizing point of the entire poem is its final word: “Cram.” I will focus extensively on how Dickinson invests this word with especial significance. The efforts begin in the first stanza, which is very nearly perfect iambic trimeter. However, consider the third and fourth lines:

For˘ Earths/, grow˘ thick/ as˘
Ber/ries˘, in/ my˘ na/tive˘ town/

The word “Berries” contains what should be the final stress of the third line; that stress is thus shifted to the beginning of the fourth line. The iambic pattern is preserved, but the third line technically becomes a dimeter, the fourth line a tetrameter. This shift serves three purposes: first, it creates congestion in the fourth line that echoes the thick clustering of the “Earths”; second, it places a heavy emphasis on the word “Berries”; third, it foreshadows the shift to iambic tetrameter in the first two lines of the next stanza. At the same time, the third line does not feel overly short. Dickinson achieves this with her use of “grow thick.” Taken out of context, both words want a stress. In context, “thick” takes on a slightly heavier stress, but “grow” is still stressed more heavily than “for” or “as.” Thus there is a sort of faint representation of the missing third stress in line three – all without disrupting the perfect iambs of the poem. Dickinson is thus able to enjoy the effects of moving the stress to the next line without having the third line suffer for it.

Moving now to the second stanza, the poem switches, for two lines, to iambic tetrameter. But even in these two lines, Dickinson does not leave the rhythm unaltered. In both lines, her use of dashes to create pauses ends up isolating a word: in line five, “just”; in line six, “those.” Both words are capable of taking a stress, but in the context of the meter do not. Because, however, they are isolated by dashes, they nonetheless take on a stronger stress than they would otherwise. Dickinson thus gives the appearance that these lines are even longer than they are, heightening the effect of switching to iambic tetrameter. The risk of doing so is to create congestion in the line, but the same dashes that create the slight additional stresses also create space, such that the lines still feel expansive. Just as we saw in the case of lines three and four, Dickinson engages in delicate compensation to enjoy the advantages of her techniques without letting them disrupt the poem.

All of the above sets up the last array of techniques Dickinson employs. Remember that the end result is to invest the word “Cram” with tremendous force. The most obvious way this occurs is by the shift in the last line back to iambic trimeter. The last line thus ends abruptly, relative to the two lines before it, creating a sense of cramming that underscores her use of that word. This shift in context results in the trimeter of line seven having an entirely different effect from the trimeter of the first stanza. In both cases, the trimeter has its customary effect of moving the poem along quickly, but where in the first stanza this quickness creates a smooth and pleasing rhythm, in the final line it jolts the poem to an abrupt halt.

That is not all, however. Both line five and line six have a dash after their fifth (unstressed) syllable. The lines thus end with the same three-syllable, stress/unstress/stress pattern (firm/a˘ment/ / on/ my˘ arm/). Line seven also has a dash after its fifth syllable, but what follows is merely the single syllable, “Cram.” Though the whole line is compressed (from tetrameter to trimeter), this technique ensures that the felt effect of this compression is entirely produced upon arriving at the word “Cram.”

The end result of all of these techniques is to take the word ‘cram,’ which in itself has no particular phenomenological force, and contextualize it in such a way that it actually makes the reader feel crammed. And Dickinson does this all with lovely lilting iambs.