Marjorie Perloff

Marjorie Perloff: ON "The Chinese Notebook"

In his manifesto-essay "The New Sentence," Ron Silliman envisions a paragraph that might organize sentences even as a stanza organizes lines: it would function as "a unity of quantity, not logic or argument," the sentences within its "frame" relating to one another not by normal continuity but by a complex system of polysemic and syllogistic relationships (91). In this scheme of things, individual units (at the sentence or phrase level) that seem to make no sense may take on meaning by contiguity And Silliman quotes Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations ("New Sentence" 70):

498. When I say that the orders "Bring me sugar" and "Bring me milk" make sense, but not the combination "Milk me sugar," that does not mean that the utterance of this combination has no effect. And if its effect is that the other person stares at me and gapes, I don't on that account call it the order to stare and gape, even if that was precisely the effect I wanted to produce.

499. To say "This combination of words makes no sense" excludes it from the sphere of language and thereby bounds the domain of language. But when one draws a boundary it may be for various kinds of reasons. If I surround an area with a fence or a line or otherwise, the purpose may be to prevent someone from getting in or out; but it may also be part of a game and the players be supposed, say, to jump over the boundary; or it may shew where the property of one man ends and that of another begins and so on. So if I draw a boundary line that is not yet to say what it is for.

It is not surprising that this passage appeals to Silliman, whose own poetry, whether in verse or prose, has been committed to testing the boundary between the "sense" of "Bring me sugar" and the "nonsense" of "Milk me sugar." "The Chinese Notebook," which appears in The Age of Huts (1986), is a sequence of 223 aphorisms, most of them on questions of language and poetics, that sometimes echo, sometimes gently spoof the Philosophical Investigations. For example:

29. Mallard, drake--if the words change, does the bird remain?

35. What now? What new? All these words turning in on themselves like the concentric layers of an onion.

60. Is it language that creates categories? As if each apple were a proposed definition of a certain term.

94. What makes me think that form exists?

And so on. The poet Alan Davies, who is a friend of Silliman's, recalls that "one morning . . . I received from Ron a lovely chinese notebook. . . . I read the text enthusiastically. I was impressed by the number of interrogatives in the work. My own tendency has often been to suppress questions and, where they did occur, to end them with a period. I knew that I would make my most considered response to the text by answering each of the questions in it" ("?s" 77). Here are Davies's responses, appearing in the text "?s to .s: for Ron Silliman and for The Chinese Notebook," in Signage (1987):

29. Ask the bird.

35. Unpeel the onion a layer at a time; at center, the still point.

60. Categories create categories; language gets used, again, again.

94. Having the thought that form exists, you have the fact that it does.

This operation, seeming to prove itself, supports itself.

The question-answer format (unanticipated by Silliman when he wrote "The Chinese Notebook") generates a witty homage to Wittgenstein, Davies's text depending on Silliman's even as Silliman's is most effective when read against Wittgenstein's.

Marjorie Perloff on: "Hope Atherton's Wanderings"

Flocks roost before dark Coveys nestle and settle

Meditation of a world's vast Memory

Predominance pitched across history Collision or collusion with history

--Howe, Articulations

The two words are identical except for a single letter: according to the OED, collision means "1. The action of colliding or forcibly striking or dashing together; violent encounter of a moving body with another. 2a. The coming together of sounds with harsh effect. 3.fig. Encounter of opposed ideas, interests, etc. clashing, hostile encounter." Whereas collusion means "Secret agreement or understanding for purposes of trickery or fraud; underhand scheming or working with another; deceit, fraud, trickery."

What a difference a phoneme makes! One's collision with history may be accidental, an encounter of opposed ideas neither planned nor anticipated. One's collusion, on the other hand, is by definition premeditated. Attentiveness to such difference (/i/ versus /uw/) has always distinguished Susan Howe's "history poems" from those of her contemporaries. . . .

Perhaps the best place to show how this process works is in Howe's most recent book, Articulation of Sound Forms in Time. On the first and otherwise blank page of this long poem, we read:

from seaweed said nor repossess rest scape esaid

From seaweed said: the story to be told here, if not quite "Spelt from Sybil's Leaves" (Hopkins), evidently consists of fragments shored from the ocean of our American subconscious. Yet one cannot "repossess [the] rest"; or, since what is said from seaweed cannot be repossessed, one must rest one's case. Or just rest. "Scape" may refer either to the seascape or to the landscape or, most plausibly, it may be an abridged version of escape: "there is, no escape, he said," or "let it be said from what the seaweed said" (cf. Eliot's "What the Thunder Said"), no escape, moreover, from the desire to repossess the rest.

Obviously there are many ways of interpreting the eight words in these two lines, which is not to say that they can mean anything we want them to mean. We know from this introduction that an attempt will be made to "repossess" something lost, something primordial. The sound structure of the passage, with its slant rhyme of sea/weed and repossess/rest, its consonance of weed/said/esaid, and its alliteration of s's (nine out of forty-one characters) and assonance of e's ando's, enacts a ritual of repossession we can hear and see. And so small are the individual morphemes--from, said, scape, esaid--that we process them one by one, with difficulty. This "saying" "from seaweed" will evidently not be easy.

Who speaks these opening lines? The voice is impersonal, part bardic, part comic--a voice akin to Beckett's in Ping or Lessness. But the abrupt opening is immediately juxtaposed to a document, a text taken from the "real" world, namely, an "EXTRACT from a LETTER (dated June 8th, 1781,) of Stephen Williams to President Styles":

[Perloff quotes the Williams letter]

I reproduce this document in its entirety so that we can see what Howe does with her donnée. For Articulation of Sound Forms in Time is by no means a retelling of the Hope Atherton story or the invention of an up-to-date analogue that points to the "relevance" of the Indian Wars to our own time. Still, the story, as gleaned from the letter above and from a number of old chronicles of New England towns, is inscribed everywhere in Howe's poem. It draws, for example, upon the basic paradox that the Reverend Hope Atherton, ostensibly a Man of God, would accompany the Colonial militia on an Indian raid. And further, that having somehow gotten separated "from the company," this "little man with a black coat and without a hat," as one chronicle calls him, would surrender himself to the Indians, only to be rejected by them as suspect, indeed perhaps the "Englishman's God." Suspect as well to his own people, who, upon his return to Hatfield, refused to believe his story. Atherton, in the words of the chronicle, "never recovered from the exposure" and died within the year, an isolated figure, indeed something of a pariah.

Such "untraceable wandering" culminating in the "nimbus of extinction" is, so Howe believes, a ubiquitous fact of early New England history, and its burden continues to haunt our language.

. . . .

In a sermon of 28 May 1670, reproduced in one of Howe's sources for Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, the Reverend Hope Atherton recalls that when, in his forest wanderings, he came face to face with the Indians, "I spake such language as I thought they understood." But evidently "they" did not understand, and this failure-to-understand what the other is saying becomes Howe's point of departure inArticulation. Here is the opening poem of part 1, "Hope Atherton's Wanderings":

Prest try to set after grandmother  revived by and laid down left ly  little distant each other and fro  Saw digression hobbling driftwood  forage two rotted beans & etc.  Redy to faint slaughter story so  Gone and signal through deep water  Mr. Atherton's story  Hope Atherton

We note right away that in this poem Hope Atherton is not a "character," with such and such traits and a definable history. The "Wanderings" of Howe's title (there are sixteen sections in part 1, ranging in length from two to fifteen lines) are presented, not as articulations of time--not, that is to say, as accounts of what happened--but in time, in the time it takes to articulate the "sound forms" themselves. Thus poem #1 is a deceptive square (eight lines of predominantly eight- and nine-syllable lines), which tries to contain, both visually and aurally, the linguistic displacements produced by a faulty memory.

The first word, Prest, may refer to Atherton's condition: he was pressed by the Indians to "try to set after" his own people, perhaps after he was revived by a grandmother and left to lie ("ly") in the forest. But the absence of the subject or object of "Prest" brings other meanings into play: "oppressed," impressed," "presto." We cannot be sure whom "he" (if there is a he here) was "revived by," or whose "grandmother" is involved. As for "left ly," the tiny suffix makes it possible to bring to bear a whole host of -ly words: "left mercilessly," "left unkindly," "left ruthlessly," "left carelessly." The reader is given all these options; he or she can construct any number of scenarios in which two people are lying a "little distant [from] each other" and moving to and "fro." It is only dimly, after all, that we can reconstruct the Colonial/Indian conflict, with the colonists' "hobbling driftwood" and "forag[ing] two rotted beans & etc."--"& etc." suggests that it is what comes after speech ceases that matters--as well as the militia's "Redy to faint slaughter story," a story, "Mr. Atherton's story," now "so gone" that it can only come to us as a "signal through deep water."

Not only does Howe frequently decompose, transpose, and refigure the word (as in ly); she consistently breaks down or, as John Cage would put it, "demilitarizes" the syntax of her verbal units. Reading the poem above, one is never sure what subject pronoun goes with what verb, what object follows a given preposition, which of two nouns a participle is modifying, what phrases a conjunction connects, and so on. An extraordinarily taut sound structure--e.g., "revived by and laid down left ly"--holds in check a syntax that all but breaks down into babble. Indeed, by poem #8 all the connectives that make up "normal" syntax have been abandoned:

rest chrondriacal lunacy velc cello viable toil quench conch uncannunc drumm amonoosuck ythian

Is "rest" a noun or a verb and how does it relate to "chondriacal" (hyperchondriacal?) "lunacy"? In line 2, "velc" may be an abridgment of "velocity," which doesn't help us make sense of the intricately sounded catalog "velc cello viable toil"; in line 3, "uncannunc" contains both "uncanny" and "annunciation" (the prophecy, perhaps of the "conch" shell which cannot "quench" our thirst); in line 4, the Anglo-Saxon ("drumm"), Indian ("amonoosuck"), and Greek ("ythian") come together in a "collusion" that makes us wonder if the "rest" isn't some sort of hyperchondriacal lunacy on Atherton's part. Or, some would say, a "lunacy" on the poet's part as well.

What justifies such extreme verbal and syntactic deconstruction, a decomposition that has become something of a Howe signature? Is the obscurity of Articulation merely pretentious? Confronted by lines like "velc cello viable toil," many readers have closed the book, concluding that the poet is talking only to herself. The charges leveled against "language poetry" in general--obscurity, abstraction, lack of emotion, the absence of lyric selfhood--all these can easily be leveled at Susan Howe. Yet even readers unsympathetic to her work, readers who claim a book like Articulation is too private, that it isn't really "about" anything, will, I submit, find themselves repeating lines like "velc cello viable toil," if for no other apparent value than their complex music, the way e, l, and c in the first word reappear as cel in the second, or the way the v, e, l in velc reappear in the very different sounding word viable, the latter also containing the l of cello and toil.

Is this then jabberwocky, nonsense verse? If Howe wants to talk about Hope Atherton's mission to the Indians or apply the 'themes" implicit in the tale--Colonial greed, Puritan zeal, the fruits of imperialism, the loneliness of exile, the inability to communicate with the Other--to the contemporary situation, why doesn't she just get on with it? Even a prose piece like the Mary Rowlandson essay is, after all, by and large comprehensible.

It would be easy to counter that the breakdown of articulation, which is the poem's subject, is embodied in the actual breakdown of the language, that the fragmentation of the universe is somehow mirrored in the fragmentary nature of the text. But the fact is that in Howe's work, as in Charles Bernstein's or Lyn Hejinian's, demilitarization of syntax may well function in precisely the opposite way--namely, as a response to the all-too-ordered, indeed formulaic, syntax that characterizes the typical "workshop" poem.

Poem #5, for example, articulates a "sound form" that refers to Hope Atherton's journey home:

Two blew bird eggs plat Habitants before dark Little way went mistook awake  abt again Clay Gully  espied bounds to leop over  Selah cithera Opynnc be  5 rails high houselot Cow  Kinsmen I pray you hasten  Furious Nipnet Ninep Ninap  Little Pansett fence with ditch  Clear stumps grubbing ploughing  Clearing the land

"Two blew bird eggs plat": "blew" is a pun on "blue" and "plat" means "flat" as well as the truncated "plate." The image of the "Two blew bird eggs plat" gives a fairy-tale aura to this segment of the journey, as does "Little way went mistook" with its Hansel and Gretel echo. Again, the "bounds to leop over" ["Ieop" is OE for "leap"] are more than "houselot" divisions, for the real crossing of the poem is over the borders into another language where the "babble-babel" is formed from words and sounds taken from Hebrew ("Selah"), Indian ("Nipnet Ninep Ninap"), and English ("Clay Gully"), with the mythological reference to Venus's isle "Cythera" thrown in.

The poems now become increasingly fragmented, gnomic, enigmatic, as if the breakdown depicted is not so much Hope's as that of language itself. Regression sets in, poem #9 going back to Anglo-Saxon origins:

scow aback din flicker skaeg ne barge quagg peat sieve catacomb stint chisel sect

and then in #13 to a kind of aphasia, words, now without any modification or relationship, being laid out on the page as follows:

chaotic  architect  repudiate  line  Q  confine  lie   link  realm circle  a  euclidean  curtail  theme  theme  toll   function  coda severity whey  crayon  so  distant  grain  scalp  gnat   carol omen  Cur  cornice  zed  primitive  shad  sac  stone   fur  bray tub  epoch  too  tall  fum  alter  rude  recess   emblem  sixty  key

Epithets young in a box told as you fly

By this time, Hope's search has become the poet's search. It is the poet who must deal with the "chaotic," must "repudiate" the "line" that "confine[s]," the "euclidean" "circle" too neat in its resolution of "theme theme," and the "severity" of its "coda." But one can also read this poem as dealing with any form of making, of "architect[ure]," the placement of "cornice" and "stone" so as to "alter rude" appearances. And the Indian motif never quite disappears, here found in the reference to "scalp," "gnat," "primitive," and "rude."

In #13, words are spread out insistently on the white ground of the page; in #15, by contrast, words run together:

MoheganToForceImmanenceShotStepSeeShowerFiftyTree UpConcatenationLessonLittleAKantianEmpiricalMaoris HumTemporal-spatioLostAreLifeAbstractSoRemotePossess ReddenBorderViewHaloPastApparition0penMostNotion is

The "collusion" that forces words into this particular "collision" is oddly painful: the text is, so to speak, wounded, as if to say that the nightmare war with the Savage Other has come back to haunt Hope/Howe with its "AKantian Empirical" "Force" or "Immanence" of "Mohegan" or "Maori" presence, its reference to "Shot," "Shower," "Fifty Tree," "ReddenBorderView." This particular lyric concludes with a refrain already articulated in #14, a couplet producing a verbal mirror image:

blue glare(essence)cow bed leg extinct draw scribe     sideup even blue(A)ash-tree fleece comfort (B)draw scribe    upside

"Sideup"/"upside" is a breaking point; after this particular collision, the sequence suddenly shifts to the formal and coherent monologue (#17) of Hope Atherton himself:

Loving Friends and Kindred: - When I look back So short in charity and good works  We are a small remnant Of signal escapes wonderful in themselves  We march from our camp a little  and come home Lost the beaten track and so River section dark all this time We must not worry how few we are and fall from each other More than language can express Hope for the artist in America & etc This is my birthday These are the old home trees

On a first reading, this lyric coda seems excessively sentimental as well as unwarranted. Having wandered with great difficulty through the forest of the preceding lyrics, one is, of course, relieved to come into this clearing, to hear the sermonlike address to "Loving Friends and Kindred." But the resolution here provided--"We must not worry / how few we are and fall from each other / More than language can express / Hope for the artist in America & etc"--is a shade too easy, given the intractability of the material that has been put before us. How and why, after all, does Hope become Howe? How and why is there "Hope for the artist in America"? And finally, what do we do once we reach the birthday when we settle down under "the old home trees"?

. . . [T]he voicing of desire in Articulation, as in Howe's other poems, avoids the personal "I" so pervasive in contemporary lyric. Ostensibly absent and calling no attention to the problems and desires of the "real" Susan Howe, the poet's self is nevertheless inscribed in the linguistic interstices of her poetic text. Howe has been called impersonal, but one could argue that the "muffled discourse from distance," the "collusion with history" in her poetry, is everywhere charged with her presence. She is not, after all, a chronicler, telling us some Indian story from the New England past, but a poet trying to come to terms with her New England past, her sense of herself vis-à-vis the Colonial settlers' actions, her re-creation of the Hope Atherton story in relation to Norse myth as well as to contemporary feminist theory.

Most contemporary feminist poetry takes as emblematic its author's own experience of power relations, her personal struggle with patriarchy, her sense of marginalization, her view of social justice. There are Howe's subjects as well, but in substituting "impersonal" narratives--a narrative made of collage fragments realigned and recharged--for the more usual lyric "I," Howe is suggesting that the personal is always already political, specifically, that the contemporary Irish-American New England woman who is Susan Howe cannot be understood apart from her history. But history also teaches the poet that, however marginalized women have been in American culture and however much men have been the purveyors of power, those who have suffered the loss of the Word are by no means only women. Indeed, what Howe calls the "Occult ferocity of origin" is an obstacle that only a persistent "edging and dodging" will displace if we are serious about "Taking the Forest."

From Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric. Copyright © 1990 by Marjorie Perloff.

Marjorie Perloff on Sunset Debris

"Sunset Debris" [is] a thirty-page text made up entirely of questions. In a 1985 interview with Tom Beckett, Silliman explains:

My idea with Sunset Debris was to explore the social contract between writer and reader. As sender and receiver do not exist in vacuums, any communication involves a relationship, an important dimension of which is always power. In writing as elsewhere, this relationship is asymmetrical--the author gets to do the talking. The reader can shut the book, or consciously reject its thesis, but an actual response is not normally available. As advertisers have known for decades, the process of consuming information is an act of submission. To have read these words is to have had these thoughts, which were not your own.

... It was this aspect of intersubjectivity which caused me to introduce so much explicitly sexual language....Every sentence is supposed to remind the reader of her or his inability to respond.

Every poem is, of course, a "social contract between writer and reader," but what makes "Sunset Debris" distinctive is that, in Wittgensteinian terms, the "psychological I" is replaced by the "metaphysical subject, the limit--not a part of the world" (T #5.641), the limits of the poet's language becoming the limits of his constructed world. In Wittgenstein's words, "solipsism strictly carried out coincides with pure realism" (T #5.64). Consider the prose poem's first forty-four questions:

Can you feel it? Does it hurt? Is this too soft? Do you like it? Is this how you like it? Is it airight? Is he there? Is he breathing? Is it him? Is it near? Is it hard? Is it cold? Does it weigh much? Is it heavy? Do you have to carry it far? Are those hills? Is this where we get off? Which one are you? Are we there yet? Do we need to bring sweaters? Where is the border between blue and green? Has the mail come? Have you come yet? Is it perfect bound? Do you prefer ballpoints? Do you know which insect you most resemble? Is it the red one? Is that your hand? Want to go out? What about dinner? What does it cost? Do you speak English? Has he found his voice yet? Is this anise or is it fennel? Are you high yet? Is your throat sore? Can't you tell dill weed when you see it? Do you smell something burning? Do you hear a ringing sound? Do you hear something whimpering, mewing, crying? Do we get there from here? (AH 11)

"In the language of everyday life," says Wittgenstein in the Tractatus, "it very often happens that the same word signifies in two different ways ... or that two words, which signify in different ways, are apparently applied in the same way in the proposition" (T #3.373). "Sunset Debris" seems to carry this process to its furthest possible limit. The first question--"Can you feel it?"--normally refers to a sensation: can you feel the cold? the pain? the touch of something? The second question, "Does it hurt?" would seem to support that view. But we have no way of knowing what "it" is or whom the poet is addressing as "you," and so, when "it" changes to "this" and we have the sequence:

Do you like it? Do you like this? Is this how you like it?

the simple shift from "what" to "how" and the predication relating "this" to "it' produces an erotically charged sexual reference, reinforced by "Is it airight?"

One of the central subjects of the Tractatus is the question of identity, the verb "to be" being endlessly ambiguous. "The word 'is,'" writes Wittgenstein, "appears as the copula, as the sign of equality, and as the sign of existence" (T #3.323). And in the later writings, Wittgenstein poses again and again the question of how it is we know that the "is" in "The rose is red" is different from the "is" in "twice two is four" (see PI #558-561). This conundrum is expressed in the opening passage of "Sunset Debris," in the triad

Is he there? Is he breathing? Is it him?

where the seemingly similar constructions signify quite differently: the first demands simple information, the second requires judgment on someone's part, while the third is one of identification--who is "he"?

Throughout the passage, indeed throughout the poem, such syntactic indeterminacy plays with the reader's expectations and forces him/her into submission. Consider the pairs "Has the mail come? Have you come yet?" or "Do you prefer ballpoints? Do you know which insect you most resemble?," where a neutral question suddenly gives way to a very personal and, in the second case, nasty one. Or again, the triad

Do you smell something burning? Do you hear a ringing sound? Do you hear something whimpering, mewing, crying?

where the questions are deceptively parallel: the first doesn't necessarily implicate the "you" at all, the second implies that there's something wrong with "you" (i.e., "you hear things!"), and the third implies that someone--you?--is failing to show concern for a lost cat, or a cat in distress.

So far as I can tell, not one of the approximately three thousand questions of "Sunset Debris" is repeated, except for the penultimate one "Can you feel it?"--which takes us back to the beginning. Silliman's prose poem is an extraordinary tour de force: it takes ordinary language and everyday events--eating, working, talking, making love--and, by means of the seemingly simple rhetorical device of turning statement into question, creates a verbal vortex that becomes increasingly explosive as the reader becomes increasingly disoriented:

Is it time to think time? Do the words time? How many times? Is it locatable? Has it a space? Does it have a secret? When will you tell it? Are you anxious? Are you ready? Is it simply because you do it? (AH 38)

Since the questions remain entirely uncontextualized, the "you" continually shifting from self to lover to friend to reader--a reader who cannot know what language game is being played. "How is it," asks the poet on the last page, "[that) with all this language there is still this thing so vast that we have no name for it, even if we sense it as a thing we have seen?" (AH 40). And neither he nor the reader can formulate an answer. There are, it seems, no more romantic sunsets, only "sunset debris." As for the poem's readers, "Is not communication an act of violence? Is not writing an act of privacy?" (AH 34).

By Marjorie Perloff. from Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary. Chicago: University of Chicago press, 1996. Copyright © 1996 by the University of Chicago Press.

Marjorie Perloff: On "For The Anniversary of My Death"

What distinguishes a poem like "For the Anniversary of My Death" from the "undecidable" texts of a Beckett on the one hand, as from its modernist predecessors on the other, is the marked authorial control that runs counter to the lipservice paid to "bowing not knowing to what." Far from being a poem of dis-covery, a text whose "echo repeats no sound," "For the Anniversary of My Death" is characterized by a strong sense of closure.

Consider, for example, the stanzaic division. The first stanza (five lines) describes what happens "Every year"; the second (eight lines) refers to "Then" (when I will be dead). The first concentrates on the silence of eternity, beyond "the last fires," the eternity symbolized by the beam of the lightless star. The second recalls, even as does the final stanza of Yeats's "The Stolen Child," what will be lost when death ends the inexorable forward movement of time, when the "strange garment" of life is shed: namely, the love of one woman, the shamelessness of men, the singing of the wren, the falling of rain, and, yes, the "bowing not knowing to what," which is to say, "bowing" to the premonition of death one has in moments of transition, as when a three-day rain comes to an end.

Does the language "mock the poet with its absences"? Not really, or at least its mockery seems to take place only on the surface. The first line quickly gives the game away: since there is obviously no way to know on what day of the year one will die, the phrase "without knowing it" strikes a rather self-important note. This is the language, not of dream or of mysterious Otherness, but of calculation: the setting up of a hypothetical situation that brings the time/eternity paradox into sharp relief. Again, the reference to "death" as the moment when "the last fires will wave to me" seems to me the very opposite of "spare" (a word regularly applied to Merwin's poetry by his admirers); it is a gestural, a decorative metaphor reminiscent of Dylan Thomas rather than René Char. Indeed, lines 2-5, with their heavy alliteration and assonance, their repetition and slow, stately movement, have the authentic Thomas ring:

When the last fires will wave to me And the silence will set out Tireless traveller Like the beam of a lightless star

The language of the second stanza is increasingly abstract, conceptual, formulaic, recalling, as Bloom points out, the conservative rhetoric of poets like Longfellow or MacLeish. To call life "a strange garment," to define one's humanity in terms of "the love of one woman" and the need to wrestle with "the shamelessness of men"--such locutions have the accent of the Sunday sermon rather than the surrealist lyric. Given this context, the "bowing not knowing to what" in the unpunctuated last line is a predictable closural device: it points us back to the title with its recognition that one of the days now lived through will, one year, be the day of the poet's death.

The poem's closure is reflected in its formal verse structure. Merwin's heavily endstopped lines, each followed by a brief rest or hush, are lightly stressed, anapests predominating as in

Like the beam of a lightless star

or

And bowing not knowing to what

but in many lines the pattern is complicated by an initial trochee:

Every year without knowing it Tireless traveller Hearing the wren sing.

Syntactic parallelism--"And the silence will set out," "And the love of one woman," "And,the shamelessness of men"--provides a further ordering principle. And although the stress count ranges between two and five (and syllable count between five and thirteen), the lines are organized tightly by qualitative sound repetition: Merwin's patterning is extremely intricate, as in the alliteration of t's, r's, and l's in "Tireless traveller," the assonance and consonance in "Find myself in life," and the internal eye rhyme in "And bowing not knowing to what."

"For the Anniversary of My Death" is thus a very elegant, wellmade poem; it has a finish that would be the envy of any number of poets, and its theme is certainly universal--just mysterious enough to arrest the reader's attention, yet just natural enough (this is the way we all feel about death sometimes) to have broad appeal.

By Marjorie Perloff. From W.S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson and Ed Folsom. Copyright © 1987 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Marjorie Perloff: On "The Asians Dying"

It is, I think, this blend of strangeness and a clear-sighted literalness that makes a poem like "The Asians Dying" memorable. Consider the lines

Rain falls into the open eyes of the dead Again again with its pointless sound When the moon finds them they are the color of everything

We don't usually think of rain falling precisely into open eyes, let alone "the open eyes of the dead." The image is an odd one and yet the third line has a kind of photographic accuracy: in the moonlight, the dead bodies, clothed in khaki, would indeed blend with the colors of the forest ground, and so theirs is "the color of everything." Add to this the irony--a rather heavy-handed irony, I think--of Merwin's implication that, in our world, the color of death has become "everything" and you have an intricate enough layering of meanings, which is not to say that Merwin's construction is in any way radical or subversive. Indeed, I submit that nothing in "The Asians Dying" has the startling modernity of

I was neither at the hot gates Nor fought in the warm rain Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass, Bitten by flies, fought.

Cary Nelson has rightly noted Merwin's debt to Eliot, but it is a good question whether "Gerontion" doesn't capture what Lieberman calls "the peculiar spiritual agony of our time" at least as well as do poems like "The Asians Dying."

By Marjorie Perloff. From W.S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson and Ed Folsome. Copyright 1987 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Marjorie Perloff: On "Memories of West Street and Lepke"

 

 [T]he phrasal style of "Memories of West Street" . . . resolves the image of the dramatis personae, including the "I" of the poet himself, into a series of attributes, qualities, actions, and objects. The syntax of the poem is thus the perfect vehicle for the realist-confessional mode . . . . In the third stanza, for example, the "I" who is ambiguously "given a year," rapidly becomes part of his surroundings: the roof of the West Street Jail, whose size, shape, and outlook is described in the next five lines. Similarly, in the next sentence, the "I" appears "Strolling" on the roof, only to fade behind the image of his companion, Abramowitz, the "jaundice-yellow" pacifist, who is, in turn, rapidly supplanted by Bioff and Brown, the Hollywood gangsters. The seemingly gratuitous adjectival phrases characterizing these two underworld types -- "Hairy, muscular, suburban / wearing chocolate double-breasted suits" -- objectify the poet's own anxiety and neurotic fracture. Similarly, the catalogue of items in Lepke's cell: a "portable radio," a "dresser," "two toy American / flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm" metonymically stand for the debasement of the Catholic version of the American dream with its uneasy amalgam of Palm Sunday and the Fourth of July.

The syntactic structures of "Memories of West Street" thus imply that only by viewing the self in terms of its surroundings, companions, and habitual actions can the poet come to grips with the world he inhabits: the piling up of participial phrases and adjective strings guarantees the authenticity of the poet's vision. Indeed, the one passage in the poem that seems relatively flat -- the sequence in lines 14-19 with its histrionic reference to the Negro boy with "curlicues / of marijuana in his hair" -- has a looser, paratactic syntax that is closer to everyday speech than is the rest of the poem: "I was . . . and made . . . and then sat waiting . . . ," followed by four prepositional phrases. Compared to the passage immediately following ("Given a year . . ."), this account of "waiting sentence in the bull pen" seems rather diffuse.

From The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1973), 108-109.

Stephen Yenser

Marjorie Perloff: "Still Time for Surprises"

For the past decade, John Ashbery has been producing a new book of poems almost every year—a situation that, for just about any other poet, would signify excess. Can the lyric poet, one wonders, continue to produce at this rate? Has Ashbery’s vision changed dramatically, his experience taken a new turn? Has there been a noticeable stylistic shift? Have the poet’s advancing years (Ashbery is now over seventy) brought the wisdom Yeats claimed as the compensation for what he called ‘bodily decrepitude’?

Marjorie Perloff: On "About the Bee Poems"

The first of these, "The Bee Meeting," is a dream sequence in which the poet finds herself a victim, unprotected in her "sleeveless summery dress" from the "gloved," "covered," and veiled presences of the villagers. In the initiation ritual that now takes place, there are two dreaded male figures: the "man in black" (cf. the "fat black heart" in "Daddy") and the "surgeon my neighbors are waiting for, / This apparition in a green helmet. / Shining gloves and white suit." Neither the black man nor his white counterpart are named: indeed, the poet asks: "Is it the butcher, the grocer, the postman, someone I know?" She cannot, in any case, run away:

I could not run without having to run forever.

The white hive is snug as a virgin,

Sealing off her brood cells, her honey, and quietly humming.

The virginal white hive now becomes the source of new life for the poet, identifying, as she does, with the queen bee: "Is she hiding, is she eating honey? She is very clever. / She is old, old, old, she must live another year, and she knows it." "Exhausted," she can finally contemplate the "long white box in the grove" which is both coffin and hive. She is "the magician's girl who does not flinch."

In the next poem, "The Arrival of the Bee Box," the "dangerous" box of bees becomes a challenge that is desired: "I have to live with it overnight / And I can't keep away from it." The poet is now tapping her own subconscious powers; at the end of "Stings" we read:

They thought death was worth it, but I

Have a self to recover, a queen.

Is she dead, is she sleeping?

Where has she been,

With her lion-red body, her wings of glass?

 

Now she is flying

More terrible than she ever was, red 

Scar in the sky, red comet

Over the engine that killed her—

The mausoleum, the wax house.

"I have a self to recover, a queen": here is the lioness of "Purdah," the avenging goddess, triumphing "Over the engine that killed her," just as the "swarm" in the next poem must evade "The smile of a man of business, intensely practical," a man "with grey hands" that would have killed me." In the final poem, "Wintering," this male figure is no longer present. "Daddy," the man in black, the rector, the surgeon--all have disappeared:

The bees are all women,

Maids and the long royal lady.

They have got rid of the men,

 

The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors.

Winter is for women--

The woman, still at her knitting, 

At the cradle of Spanish walnut,

Her body a bulb in the cold and too dumb to think.

 

Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas

Succeed in banking their fires

To enter another year?

What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?

The bees are flying. They taste the spring.

With this parable of hibernation, a hibernation that makes way for rebirth and continuity ("The bees are flying"), Ariel was to have inevitability of death is everywhere foregrounded. No longer does the poet look forward to the "Years"; her thoughts turn on "greenness, darkness so pure / They freeze and are." In "Paralytic," "all / Wants, desire [are] Falling from me like rings / Hugging their lights"; in "Contusion," "The heart shuts, / The sea slides back, / The mirrors are sheeted." Finally, in "Edge" (dated 5 February 1963, six days before her suicide), Plath imagines herself in death:

The woman is perfected.

Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment, 

The illusion of a Greek necessity

 

Flows in the scrolls of her toga, 

Her bare

 

Feet seem to be saying;

We have come so far, it is over.

And the final poem, "Words" (1 February, 1963), is despairing in its sense that the poet's "words" become "dry and riderless," that they are no longer connected to the poet who gave them birth. The connection between self and language has been severed: there is only fate in the form of the "fixed stars" that "From the bottom of the pool ... Govern a life."

One can argue, of course, that Hughes is simply completing Plath's own story, carrying it to its final conclusion, where "Each dead child coiled, a white serpent" has been folded back into the woman's body, where the "Words" are entirely cut off from the poet who created them. But it is also possible that, in taking advantage of a brief spell of depression and despair, when death seemed the only solution, Hughes makes the motif of inevitability larger than it really is. "The woman is perfected" in more ways than one.

[. . . .]

In any collection of poems, ordering is significant, but surely Ariel presents us with an especially problematic case. For two decades we have been reading it as a text in which, as Charles Newman puts it, "expression and extinction [are] indivisible." A text that culminates in the almost peaceful resignation of' "Years" or "Edge." The poems of Ariel culminate in a sense of finality, all passion spent.

Ariel 1 establishes quite different perimeters. Plath's arrangement emphasizes, not death, but struggle and revenge, the outrage that follows the recognition that the beloved is also the betrayer, that the shrine at which one worships is also the tomb. Indeed, one could argue that the very poems Hughes dismissed as being too "personally aggressive" are, in an odd way, more "mainstream," that is to say more broadly based, than such "headline" poems as "The Munich Mannequins" or "Totem," with its "butcher's guillotine that whispers: 'How's this, how's this?'" For, as long as the poet can struggle, as long as she still tries to defy her fate, as she does in "The Jailer" or "The Other" or "Purdah," the reader identifies with her situation: the "Cut thumb" is not only Plath's but ours.

Perhaps Sylvia Plath's publishers will eventually give us the original Ariel. But it is not likely, given the publication of the Collected Poems, which now becomes our definitive text. How ironic, in any case, that the publication of Plath's poems has depended, and continues to depend, on the very man who is, in one guise or another, their subject. In a poem not included in Ariel called "Burning the Letters," the poet decides to do away with the hated love letters, with "the eyes and times of the postmarks":

here is an end to the writing,

The spry hooks that bend and cringe, and the 

    smiles. 

And at least it will be a good place now, the attic.

 

But the attic was soon invaded, the dangerous notebooks were destroyed, and the poems that were permitted to enter the literary world had to get past the Censor. The words of the dead woman, to paraphrase W. H. Auden, were modified in the guts of the living. Only now, some twenty-five years after her death, can we begin to assess her oeuvre. But then, as Plath herself put it in a poem written during the last week of her life:

The blood jet is poetry,

There is no stopping it.

From Poetic License: Essay on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric. Copyright © 1990 by Marjorie Perloff. Reprinted by the permission of the author.

Marjorie Perloff: On "Daddy"

As in the case of "The Applicant," Sylvia Plath's explanation of "Daddy" in her BBC script is purposely evasive. "The poem," she says, "is spoken by a girl with anElectra complex. Her father died while she thought he was God. Her case is complicated by the fact that her father was also a Nazi and her mother very possibly part Jewish. In the daughter the two strains marry and paralyze each other--she has to act out the awful little allegory once before she is free of it." As such,"Dadddy" has been extravagantly praised for its ability "to elevate private facts into public myth," for dramatizing the "schizophrenic situation that gives the poem its terrifying but balanced polarity"-polarity, that is to say, between the hatred and the love the "I" feels for the image of the father/lover.

But after what we might call its initial "Guernica effect" had worn off somewhat, "Daddy" was also subjected to some hard questions as critics began to wonder whether its satanic imagery is meaningful, whether, for example, lines like "With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo" or "Not God but a swastika / So black no sky could squeak through" are more than fairly cheap shots, demanding a stock response from the reader. Indeed, both the Nazi allegory and the Freudian drama of trying to die so as to "get back, back, back to you" can now be seen as devices designed to camouflage the real thrust of the poem, which is, like "Purdah," a call for revenge against the deceiving husband. For the real enemy is less Daddy ("I was ten when they buried you")--a Daddy who, in real life, had not the slightest Nazi connection--than the model made by the poet herself in her father's image:

I made a model of you,

A man in black with a Meinkampf look

 

And a love of the rack and the screw.

And I said I do, I do.

So daddy, I'm finally through.

The black telephone's off at the root,

The voices just can't worm through.

The image of the telephone is one that Plath's early admirers like George Steiner or Stephen Spender simply ignored, but with the hindsight a reading of theCollected Poems gives us, we recognize it, of course, as the dreaded "many-holed earpiece," the "muck funnel" of "Words heard, by accident. over the phone." And indeed, the next stanza refers to the "vampire" who "drank my blood for a year, / Seven years if you want to know." This is a precise reference to the length of time Sylvia Plath had known Ted Hughes when she wrote "Daddy"--precise as opposed to the imaginary references to Plath's father as "panzer-man" and "Fascist."

A curiously autobiographical poem, then, whose topical trappings ("Luftwaffe," "swastika," "Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen") have distracted the attention of a generation of readers from the poem's real theme. Ironically, "Daddy" is a "safe" poem--and hence Hughes publishes it--because no one can chide Plath for her Electra complex, her longing to get back to the father who died so prematurely, whereas the hatred of Hughes ("There's a stake in your fat black heart") is much more problematic. The Age Demanded a universal theme--the rejection not only of the "real" father but also of the Nazi Father Of Us All--hence the label "the Guernicaof modern poetry" applied to "Daddy" by George Steiner. But the image of a black telephone that must be torn from the wall--this, so the critics of the sixties would have held, is not a sufficient objective correlative for the poet's despairing vision. The planting of the stake in the "fat black heart" is, in any case, a final farewell to the ceremony of marriage ("And I said I do, I do"). What follows is "Fever 103"' and the metamorphosis of self that occurs in the Bee poems.

From Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric. Copyright © 1990 by Majorie Perloff.

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