Tag Archives: The Voice that is Great Within Us

Poem: Acon
Poet: H.D.


Bear me to Dictaeus,
and to the steep slopes;
to the river Erymanthus.

I choose spray of dittany,
cyperum, frail of flower,
buds of myrrh,
all-healing herbs,
close pressed in calathes.

For she lies panting,
drawing sharp breath,
broken with harsh sobs,
she, Hyella,
whom no god pities.


haunting the groves,
who dwell in wet caves,
for all the white leaves of olive-branch,
and early roses,
and ivy wreaths, woven gold berries,
which she once brought to your altars,
bear now ripe fruits from Arcadia,
and Assyrian wine
to shatter her fever.

The light of her face falls from its flower,
as a hyacinth,
hidden in a far valley,
perishes upon burnt grass.

bring gifts,
bring your Phoenician stuffs,
and do you, fleet-footed nymphs,
bring offerings,
Illyrian iris,
and a branch of shrub,
and frail-headed poppies.

This poem is powerful because the grief it captures is at once starkly apparent and deeply veiled. That it is apparent hardly needs explication, it comes through so clearly. The third stanza of part I sees to that. So I will talk about the way it is veiled.

The first way in which the narrator’s grief is veiled lies in the poem’s opening stanzas. It does not begin with “Hyella, / whom no god pities.” It begins with the command, “Bear me to Dictaeus,” as if the poet were invoking the muses. And though the next stanza does not involve a request for golden words or a honeyed tongue, as might be expected to follow such an invocation, yet nonetheless it does not clearly break the spell. The poem seems like it is still preparing itself, not yet wholly arrived.

Thus it is a shock to reach the third stanza and to find Hyella “drawing sharp breath, / broken with harsh sobs.” Suddenly the reader realizes that the narrator has been gathering medicine, and that whoever she has invoked (this is still in doubt), it was not the muses. The poem has not been gathering steam, no—it began at the beginning. But this eruption of grief was needed to see it.

And this points to the second and crucial way in which the grief of this poem is veiled. The narrator’s attention hardly turns to Hyella directly: her names appears but the once, and she is the central focus in only two of the poem’s six stanzas (stanzas three and five). The other four stanzas all concern the process of attempting to heal her, the gathering of (and the imploring of various mythological characters to gather) the medicine needed to heal her.

The overwhelming impression is that the narrator is attempting to distract herself from the reality of Hyella’s suffering with this labor. In losing herself in the labor, she can forget, if only for a moment, the harsh truth. And yet the poem reveals that this is only marginally effective. In part I, she can hold it off for two stanzas, but in the third she cannot hold it back, and her mind returns to Hyella gasping in her bed.

In part II, she manages to turn her mind back to her labor, but this only serves to set up the poem’s devastating (I don’t use the word lightly) fifth stanza. Whereas the third stanza offers a brutally direct picture of Hyella suffering, the fifth stanza works through metaphor. All of the plant imagery—to this point quite literal—gathers itself into this one stanza:

The light of her face falls from its flower,
as a hyacinth,
hidden in a far valley,
perishes upon burnt grass.

The attempt to distract herself with the work of healing has not succeeded. It has merely resulted in the physical material of that work, the plants from which the medicine derives, and turned them into a beautiful but terrible reminder of the cause of that work.

Of course, the poem does not end there, for the suffering continues, and so also the search for distraction continues, as the sixth stanza captures. And we are not wrong if we see a hint of Hyella once more in the “frail-headed poppies” with which the poem ends.

Poem: Between Walls
Poet: William Carlos Williams
In: The Voice That is Great Within Us (ed. Hayden Carruth)

Between Walls

the back wings
of the

hospital where

will grow lie

in which shine
the broken

pieces of a green

This is a poem that has rewarded re-reading, and I am pleased that it was chosen to represent Williams in this collection, in place of the comparable but dramatically more famous poem about the red wheelbarrow. (It is not the only Williams selection, to be clear, but it is the only selection in this particular mode.)

At its core the poem is an image: the broken pieces of the green bottle lying amid the cinderblocks of an industrial dead zone. Indeed, this image is very nearly the poem itself. I say “very nearly” because there is one bit of editorializing on the part of the narrator. This is the implied comparison between the description of the setting as one in which “nothing // will grow” and the greenness of the broken glass, which, against that background, clearly suggests that we are to take it as a sort of industrial plant.

But beyond that, the poem tells us nothing about how we should feel about the image. And indeed, the justification for the implied comparison between the absent plant life and the present bottle is that it gives shape to the uncertainty of what to make of the scene described.

What, exactly, are we to make of this image? One might read it as a celebration of what is not often celebrated: a dead, ugly looking place—but wait, for there is life here, too, the broken bottle is the vegetation appropriate to such a place, and furthermore, is evidence that humans live here, that there is life even here. It is the task of the poet to find signs of life even where others see only ugliness and decay, and that is the virtue of this poem.

One might equally see in the comparison of the bottle to a plant a statement on just how different they are, how pale an imitation of true life the bottle is. The similarity then serves only to draw our attention to just how dissimilar the two really are. And what sort of life is evidenced by this bottle: a drunk, skulking about hidden places—no life at all. Such a reader might also note a feature of the setting I have thus far left unremarked: that this occurs around a hospital building. The whole setting is one of death and disease.

Well, there are two readings. Does the poem tell between them? Not in the slightest. Both are the impositions of the reader. In the end, there is only the broken bottle amid the cinder blocks. Make of it what you will.

Wallace Stevens’ “Evening Without Angels” begins with an ambiguous question, ambiguous not in meaning but in tone:

Why seraphim like lutanists arranged
Above the trees? And why the poet as
Eternal chef d’orchestre?

Our poet might here be asking, innocently, what is the cause or reason for this task with which he finds himself presented, to conduct these angels, to evoke beauty out of them. But he equally might, more nefariously, be suggesting that there is something wrong with this picture.

This latter suggestion immediately seems to be borne out:

…………………………………..Air is air,
Its vacancy glitters round us everywhere.
Its sounds are not angelic syllables
But our unfashioned spirits realized
More sharply in more furious selves.

The air, the wind, does not speak with the voice of angels but in a human voice, as yet “unfashioned” and “more furious,” not yet tamed by the forms of words and syntax. And even light, that trickster who presents us to us seraphic illusions, is shown up for what it is:

Sad men made angels of the sun, and of
The moon they made their own attendant ghosts,
Which led them back to angels, after death.

The angels are our own concoction (as are the ghosts of night, to which we shall return).

So angels are unreal. The second reading of the opening question is confirmed. What remains is to present the alternative. Here, complications arise. We are:

Men that repeat antiquest sounds of air
In an accord of repetitions. Yet,
If we repeat, it is because the wind
Encircling us, speaks always with our speech.

In the wind we hear ourselves, and in echoing its sounds we echo ourselves, find our own speech. This act of repetition, for me, becomes indistinguishable from the creation of angels. Once we realize that, speaking now in the voice of the hard-nosed scientist, the idea that the wind presents our primordial speech, and we merely repeat it, lacks sufficient sense even to be false—once we realize that, what difference is there between finding our speech in the wind and finding angels in the wind? Both, at least, are acts of imaginative creation.

This becomes more apparent in the following stanza.

Light, too, encrusts us making visible
The motions of the mind and giving form
To moodiest nothings…

Light is insubstantial in itself. What it does is merely make visible what precedes it, “the motions of the mind,” those “moodiest nothings.” The mind is primordial. The material takes on form only under the mind’s provocation.

We have remained, thus far, within the realm of the day, with only a hint of night, and even then the night served merely to lead us back to angels, those tricks of light. And for good reason, for “we are men of sun / And men of day and never of pointed night.” Yet—if I have correctly parsed the penultimate stanza—“desire for rest” is as much a moody nothing as “desire for day,” and will be given its due.

The poem ends with a vision of evening, “when the measure skips a beat / and then another” (note here the metrical trick, the stanza-opening headless iamb that, though it skips somewhat less than a full beat, still works to underscore the sense). Once evening arises, our earlier insistence on the day ceases. Now, “Bare night is best. Bare earth is best.” We huddle low in our houses,

Where the voice that is in us makes a true response,
Where the voice that is great within us rises up,
As we stand gazing at the rounded moon.

In this gazing at the moon, this rising of our great voice, have we really escaped the creation of ghosts? And just as night gives way to day, will not these ghosts lead us “back to angels, after death”?

This post continues a project I began last August, in which I will read The Voice that is Great Within Us, a collection of 20th century American poetry curated by Hayden Carruth, and write my reflections on each poet contained therein. This post concerns Vachel Lindsay, the third poet in the collection.

Lindsay is a bit didactic for my tastes, as is immediately apparent in the first poem included, “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight.” We see the specter of Lincoln haunting our courthouse, our yards, our markets, haunting us because we are haunting him with our violence, our unjust and unpeaceful world. “And who will bring white peace / That he may sleep upon his hill again,” the poem ends. The issue I have is that the choice of Lincoln is unmotivated within the poem itself. The longing for peace is too general. Lincoln merely serves as a figurehead. I do not believe that Lincoln himself is disturbed. The poem bears the epigraph, “In Springfield, Illinois,” and I believe it was written there, because that happenstance of the author’s physical location is the only reason for choosing Lincoln that I can see.

A similar issue arises with “The Spider and the Ghost of the Fly” – once again a key element seems unmotivated. The basic premise of the poem is simple: a fly loves a spider, the spider eats the fly, the ghost of the fly comes back to haunt the spider. It’s a pleasant enough bit of iambic trimeter, but is it any more than that? The key, such as it is, lies in the final four lines:

To educate young spiders
She took me all apart.
My ghost came back to haunt her.
I saw her eat my heart.

I find the intrusion of the young spiders a bit jarring. Up until now, the encounter has been solely between the spider and the fly, as one would expect of a predator-prey relationship. The sudden addition of other agents is curious, and makes me suspect (what I already suspected somewhat) that the poem is an allegory – something, after all, must justify this rather un-spiderlike education. But I don’t know what it might be an allegory for, so that fails to help me understand the choice.

Moving to the last two lines, they present an intriguing scenario: the fly comes back as a ghost to haunt the spider, but it is the ghost of the fly that ends up haunted by the sight of its own heart being eaten, while the spider, we presume, is unfazed. It is a potentially powerful image, but in a way this only serves to heighten the weakness of the poem for me, because this twist ending does not work backwards. The rest of the poem does not take on new significance in light of it (indeed, to my eyes it only makes the young spiders seem even more out of place). It all just seems an excuse to reach this climax.

About the other two poems included, “At Mass” and “The Flower-Fed Buffaloes,” I have little specific to say. Both have an apparently simple purpose, straightforwardly achieved, with little that opens itself up to me on a second or third reading. The overall impression I get is that the language is a vehicle for the point, sweetened with poetic technique to make the point more inviting, but still supposed, in the end, to leave us only with the point. It does little for me.

Title: Mowing
Author: Robert Frost

I thought I would say a bit more about the ways in which Robert Frost turns the sonnet form to his advantage in “Mowing”. I neglected to mention, in my initial thoughts, an intriguing way in which Frost plays off reader’s expectations in the final two lines. This feature of the poem is worthy of discussion.

The Shakespearian sonnet ends with a heroic couplet, which, properly executed, makes for a pithy, punchy finale. It invites the poet to condense the first twelve lines into a moral, often of a satirical nature. The couplet is ripe for generalizing but, even if particular, it still has the feeling of a punchline, as in these lines from Shakespeare’s first sonnet:

Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

“Mowing” simultaneously has and lacks a couplet. The rhyme scheme of the final two lines is FG, so it is not a true heroic couplet. Nonetheless, the first twelve lines consist of two sentences of six lines apiece, while each of the final two lines is a sentence of its own. There is thus the trace of the couplet structure. Moreover, line thirteen has the feel of a Shakespearian couplet: “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.” Here is the moral to be drawn from all that came above, and we await its completion in the following line.

This expectation is frustrated, however, for the next line drops us back into the scene of mowing as it draws to a close. The scythe finishes its whisper and leaves the hay to make. The lack of rhyme (within the couplet, I mean) only enhances this disconnect. This is the masterstroke that makes the poem, for Frost with this move takes us out of the general and back to the particular, back to the fact just praised. The poem does not reward us with intellectual contentment of an empty sort (now I have grasped the point; I may be done here). It forces us to embody its moral if we are to enjoy it. At the same time, the narrator is further effaced, for the generality of line thirteen is a contribution of the narrator and not of the scythe, and in that regard is something extraneous.