Alan Shucard, Fred Moramarco, and William Sullivan

Alan Shucard, Fred Moramarco, and William Sullivan: On "Mantis"

The action of this poem centers on Zukofsky’s discovery of a praying mantis in a New York subway stop. The insect begs to be acknowledged and to be "taken up," to be "saved" from an indifferent urban, capitalistic society. The speaker overcomes his initial. repulsion and permits the mantis to light on his chest. The insect is then envisioned as an emblem of the poor and alienated individual who is either ignored or crushed by society. Even the poor reject the mantis out of shame, fright, or despair. But if the mantis can transform the speaker, it can also bring light to the oppressed, rekindle the spark of revolution, and create the energy to build a new world. Realizing this, the speaker tells the mantis:


Android, loving beggar, dive to the poor


Say, I am old as the globe, the moon, it

Is my old shoe, yours, be free as the leaves.


Fly mantis, on the poor, arise like leaves

The armies of the poor, strength: stone on stone

And build the new world in your eyes, Save it!


If the mantis's task is to save the world, the poet's task is to save this moment, this experience through language and music. The question of process and form become central; what form or structure will save this experience? Surprisingly, Zukofsky has chosen the sestina--a thirty-nine line poem consisting of six six-line stanzas and a three-line envoy; the initial six end words are repeated in differing order throughout the poem. Thus a highly traditional and formal structure is selected to capture a revolutionary experience. Zukofsky, who realizes this paradox and the fact that "Our world will not stand it, / the implications of a too regular form," provides an examination and rationale for his selection of the sestina in " 'Mantis,' An Interpretation," which immediately follows the poem itself. Here he writes that the poem is not merely an experiment in form, what he calls "wicker work," but rather the result of a natural, creative force that drew him to the sestina form. Key to this is the nature of the experience with its diverse, conflicting feelings and thought occurring in a simultaneous fashion: "Thoughts'--two or three or five or / Six thoughts' reflection (pulse's witness) of what was happening / All immediate, not moved by any transition." To Zukofsky, this was "the battle of diverse thoughts--/ The actual twisting / Of many and diverse thoughts." Six twisting thoughts naturally attract the poet to the sestina form, which is marked by its six twisting end words.

Alan Shucard, Fred Moramarco, and William Sullivan: On "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter"

This loss of faith and certainty, conveyed paradoxically in decorous and charming linguistic and poetic forms usually associated with the poetry of chivalry and romance and treated with a wit that verges on black comedy, becomes the model for other Ransom poems. In "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter," he once again dramatizes the enigmatic and shifting nature of existence. The speaker, a neighbor of the Whitesides, is reflecting on the totally unexpected death of John Whiteside's daughter. He remembers how he and others once gazed from their high window at the daughter's battle with the geese below as she "harried unto the pond / The lazy geese, like a snow cloud / Dripping their snow on the green grass." Then "There was such speed in her little body,/And such lightness in her footfall." But now "her brown study" is still. Although she did not hesitate, unlike Hamlet, to take "arms against her shadow," her "brown study" is now "Lying so primly propped." At first the speaker is astonished that death came to such a lively and young creature. The more he reflects, however, the more he is anguished and vexed by her death:

But now go the bells, and we are ready,

In one house we are sternly stopped

To say we are vexed at her brown study,

Lying so primly propped.

The poem reverberates with a number of striking contrasts that capture the paradoxical nature of human existence: life-death, past-present, memory-reality, astonishment-vexation, starkness-artifice (the brown study primly propped). The bells then, as John Donne exclaims, ring not only for Whiteside's daughter but, more important, for the speaker, as well as all others still alive, and the readers who are unable to solve the riddles of human existence. The fact that the "tireless heart" of the daughter has stopped has, in turn, "sternly stopped" either a comfortable or comforting vision of existence. To add to the paradoxical tone, Ransom plays his theme against the basic lightness and even gaiety of the poem's imagery and rhythms. Thus, we are both charmed and, to use Ransom's word, vexed by the poem. This resultant irony perhaps is Ransom's finest achievement. It brilliantly captures the enigmatic nature and complexity of existence; lightness and darkness, comedy and tragedy become one.

Alan Shucard, Fred Moramarco, and William Sullivan: On "Ode to the Confederate Dead"

Tate's greatest achievement in dramatizing our loss of faith in and our passion for heroism is best exemplified in his famous "Ode to the Confederate Dead." Often revised over a ten-year period, it became an emblem of modernist pessimism. Tate's intent in this poem is to dramatize the clash between solipsism, which he defines in "Narcissus as Narcisscus" as "a philosophical doctrine which says that we create the world in the act of perceiving it," and "active faith," a collective faith "not private, romantic illusion" in the nobility of the human spirit as manifested in its chivalrous public deeds. The conflict arises in the mind of a solitary man at the gate of a Confederate graveyard on a late autumn afternoon, and it remains an internal debate between past and present, between objective and subjective realities, between faith and grim resignation and defeat.

Initially the speaker can only envision this late afternoon autumn graveyard scene filled with its whirring, wind-driven leaves as a "casual sacrament" of death, whose music sounds "the rumour of mortality." As Tate states in the Narcissus essay, the speaker is barely able to proclaim the traditional praise for the physical and historical continuance of the Confederate dead and their sacrifices: "these memories grow / From the inexhaustible bodies that are not/ Dead, but feed the grass row after rich row." Caught in his own naturalistic vision of existence, the speaker presents images illustrating the ravages of time, eventually ending the first strophe with his blind crab image of the "Locked-in ego," signifying his inability to move beyond his solipsism and reconnect himself with the objective world: "You shift your sea space blindly / Heaving, turning like the blind crab." Tate in the Narcissus essay explains that the crab has mobility and energy but "no direction and no purposeful world to use it in." Lacking a sense of purpose, the speaker begins the first of his naturalistic refrains that speak to the failure of imagination and human insight: "Dazed by the wind / only the wind / The leaves flying plunge."

The countertheme of active faith is advanced in the next strophe as the speaker momentarily recovers and is able to imagine the blowing leaves as heroic charging soldiers, who

. . . know the unimportant shrift of death

And praise the vision

And praise the arrogant circumstance

Of those who fall

Rank upon rank, hurried beyond decision--

Here by the sagging gate, stopped by the wall.

These heroes of an "immoderate past," however, cannot become a permanent part of the modernist vision or poem. The speaker's awareness of mortality, his naturalistic views, ensure "they will not last" and "that the salt of their blood / Stiffens the saltier oblivion of the sea." Nor can the modernist celebrate the perpetual cycle of existence, a central theme of romantic poets. "We shall say only the leaves / Flying, plunge and expire" for "Night is the beginning and the end." Separated from both society and nature, we can engage only in "mute speculation," abstraction, and narcissism; thus "the jaguar leaps / For his own image." Our knowledge has been "Carried to the heart"; it has destroyed our relationship to life itself, and our most hopeful prospect is that "The ravenous grave" may become our theme, for it is "the grave who counts us all!"

Traditionally an ode publicly celebrates, in stately and exalted lyrical verse, an aspect of human existence; Tate's ode is not celebrative, public, or exalted. It is a pessimistic, solitary, and, given its form and theme, grimly ironic dramatization of the modernist temper. At times its imagery is quite private and its allusions and arguments overly complex; however, it remains one of the most representative and compelling poems of the twentieth-century wasteland.