Mutlu Konuk Blasing

Mutlu Konuk Blasing: On "An Urban Convalescence"

For Merrill, change and continuity are not polar opposites; continuity is infected with change and change with continuity. For example, situating himself inside quatrains in "Urban Convalescence" allows him to revise himself and question what are presumably his authorizing values. He begins with a diagnosis of planned obsolescence as "the sickness of our time" that requires things be "blasted in their prime." Yet he immediately overturns this judgment:

[Blasing cites lines that begin "There are certain phrases" and end "debases, what I feel"]

The "revision" calls into question his "conservative" rejection of novelty, for his rejection itself joins "progress," or "the great coarsening drift of things." His second thoughts occur, however, in a conventional form that would conserve the past. In this disjunction, his conventional forms divest themselves of authority, for they are dissociated from a conservative ideology that would judge the present by taking refuge in the canonical authority of the past. If originality and novelty are outmoded concepts for Merrill, so is the expectation of a correlation between convention and authority. He employs conventions not because they carry a prescriptive authority but as if they did, at once remembering and transmitting a past and denying it any absolute vitality beyond the fact of its being there – a shared, public past. …

Merrill’s distinction is his ability to register at once the textuality and the historical nature of writing. His polyvalent literalism and his fondness for "accidents" and puns in general foreground the play of the signifier and approach an internalization of history within poetic language. His conventional formalism, however, holds this tendency in check by placing poetic language within a public literary history. Thus he can be grounded in textuality, doing without historical or metaphysical foundation, yet stop this side of an ahistorical, self-reflexive subjectivity, for the textual inside is governed by publicly recognizable, historically coded rules, which transmit a past even if they do not carry any inherent validity.

Mutlu Konuk Blasing: On "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking"

In "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" Whitman is in full possession of this new key—this basic fact and the "delicious word," "the word final, superior to all" (LG, 252)—that unlocks another vast similitude. The shared experience of love and loss links all creation together and empowers the emerging poet to tally birdsong, his own troubling emotions, and the vast background of nature and authorizes him to "translate" them in personifications and narratives. Whitman's new key gives him access to a broader range of rhetorical and literary devices while enabling him to maintain his anagogic conception of poetic language. Without the narrative that frames the "reminiscence" of the poem, the poet could not work back to the key word, the word that unlocked nature and natural similitudes for him. Without possessing the key word that authorizes his language, however, he could not frame his narrative, for the very narrative—its temporal "syntax"—is made possible by the knowledge of loss. The structure of the story and its purport—that all true stories end in death—are mutually empowering forces that make the poem's equilibrium.

Moreover, the key is now also a "clef"—a variant Whitman sometimes uses, as in "On the Beach at Night Alone"—for it sets the key for song. Poetic music, too, superimposes a "struck" identity and an identity at base, the language of the poet-child and the base rhythm of the mother-sea, the "aria" of individual loss and the backdrop of "the undertone, the savage old mother incessantly crying" (LG, 251 ). The poet can join a community of loss and adequately translate the bird's loss into words only if he can also translate his words into nature. For poetic meaning and music are empowered by the very force that would negate them. Whitman's language counterpoints the two isomorphic poetries: the "aria"—ordered, "crafted"—and the "dirge" of the sea, which echoes the base rhythm of Whitman's cadences, the cosmic music of loss inscribed in poetic language. And the "death" of this rhythm eternally counterpoints the "loved" of articulation, whether in communal, narrative, or grammatical "adhesions."

"Death, death, death, death, death" is thus the key line in the poem; it superimposes not only a word and a fact but a meaningful phoneme and a meaningless sound. Its superscription marks the limits of language, for language is reduced to nature here, as when a word repeated too many times loses its meaning and becomes mere sound. Conversely, the line marks the limits of nature, for death is reduced to a mere word repeated in a basic five-stress line of poetry. Here, the epistemological boundary of language and the physical bounds of nature coincide. The irreducible, tautological reality and the impenetrable phoneme are one: "death" is death, sound is meaning, form is content. Against the backdrop of this maternal, synchronic identity play the "struck" identities or "adhesive" forces of similitude and metaphor, love and syntax, memory and narrative, loss and song. "Death," the "word up from the waves" (LG, 253), is the only word nature speaks in the poem, for all other words are presented as tallied. And "death" authorizes the poem's narrative and rhetoric, for it is the word that links language to nature; it is the omphalos of language. The word of transubstantiation, "death" is "sweet" and "delicious"; it plays on the tongue and is the bread and the wine that inspire the breath of poetry.

Mutlu Konuk Blasing: On "The Idea of Order at Key West"

Only when Stevens can harmonize the philosopher's exoteric voice with the esoteric voice of the poet can he remain philosophically rigorous yet sound the "watery syllable" of the "saltier well." We hear this language of meditation again in "The Idea of Order at Key West," where he replaces linguistic and metaphysical dichotomies with a triangular arrangement and places the meditating mind at the apex. The poem returns to the discovery of "Sunday Morning" and to its dramatic form but casts the philosopher, the Emersonian essayist, as its central speaker. While it may revert stylistically to the "magnificent measure" that the post-romantic—with his eccentric truth—must learn to relinquish, "Key West" points to Stevens's way out of the impasse of poems like the "Comedian" and "Sea Surface Full of Clouds." It enables us to understand his subsequent insistence that poetry is the proper subject of poetry to be not a solipsistic withdrawal but an adequate response to just that danger.

The sea that "never formed to mind or voice" is, in "Key West," both the "inhuman," "veritable ocean" and an inner "nature" of Eros and death. And Stevens counterpoints the "grinding water and the gasping wind" of nature with the "song" of the "artificer" in such a way that neither subject nor object speaks through the other:

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.

The song and water were not medleyed sound

Even if what she sang was what she heard,

Since what she sang was uttered word by word. [CP, 128]

Both the pathetic fallacy and realism are rejected. The "plungings of water and the wind" are "meaningless" indeed, and we do not hear them, any more than we ever hear nature in poems. And the woman's song does not copy nature; it is "the voice that is great" (CP, 138) within her—her human "spirit" (stanza 3) or "breath"—rising in response to the sea's body and the "gasping wind." Yet we never hear the words of her lyric, either. The sea is an external nature with its meaningless, "constant cry"; its image and counterpart is the "she" who sings "word by word." Her measures and meters utter her song's law, just as the sea's cry sounds nature's law.

Stevens distances the lyric voice to the same extent that nature's echolalia is distanced. Instead, he centers on the speaker, the "connoisseur of chaos," and the "idea of order" he entertains. This meditating and mediating speaker is not a singer but a rhetorician, something of a critic even, and in his words, letters, and internal rhymes "relation appears" (CP, 215") between the "she" and "sea." Here Stevens goes beyond "Sea Surface" by explicitly affirming a relation between the sea and song—but only as the subject and predicate of a metaphor about the relationship of life and art. The Emersonian precedent for this poem is "The Snow-Storm," which also centers on the metaphor-making imagination, and invites us to "come see" a process "unseen"—a process not visible to the eye. In "Key West" such "seeing" becomes the link between "sea " and "she."

In this deconstruction of a romantic fusion of nature and subject, Stevens constructs a central rhetoric. In the words of the poem's speaker, the alien depths of a nature at once external and internal meet in the surfaces of a poetic language that glosses

The maker's rage to order words of the sea,

Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,

And of ourselves and of our origins,

In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds. [CP, 130]

The song has a transforming significance only for its hearer, who hears a new, "amassing harmony" as much beyond the song as beyond the sea. For the critic, the singer's voice makes "the sky acutest at its vanishing" and measures "to the hour its solitude." Her measures open intercourse between nature and "ourselves," mastering and portioning out the darkness of inner and outer seas—but only in the "meta-phoric" speech of the critic who "inter-prets" and outlines the connection between artifice and sea, form and nature, music and death. He occupies the center, which is a portal or passageway—spatially and temporally "measured" by the singer—from a dark sea outside us to a darker sea inside, "dimly-starred" either way.

This metaphoric passage is, appropriately, a "fragrant" portal: the synesthesia makes the image a proper vehicle for its tenor, the earthly and earthy truth of figurative language. Measuring a space and time, the singer opens a door that delivers us into yet "separates us from the wind and sea" (CP, 87). The metaphoric/temporal passage is guarded by the "fragrant mother" of "Fictive Music," who belongs to the same "sisterhood of the living dead" (CP, 87), and the poet's muse—the mother of memory and imagination, the "mother of heaven, regina of the clouds" (CP, 13)—is also his earthly source, the "bearded queen" who would "feed" on him (CP, 507 ). All are imaginings of the same "mother" who opens and closes our earthly discourse, who binds the "handbook of heartbreak" (CP, 507 ). Thus Stevens understands metaphoric language as the threshold of fiction and truth, where the philosopher's "human should or would" and the poet's "fatal is" meet. In Stevens's impure voice, Emerson's "fatal is" becomes a copula that marks metaphoric unions.

From American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987. Copyright © 1987.

Mutlu Konuk Blasing: On "Sunday Morning"

Stevens's search for a rhetoric more than fiction and a nature less than an external fate begins with "Sunday Morning" and its realignment of the Emersonian and romantic dualities. The poem mourns at once the loss of Christian and romantic mythologies, which offer versions of the same fusion of temporal and eternal realities. "Sunday Morning" does not judge religion to be a fiction and Christ to be but a man in order to exhort us to a species of nature worship. For Stevens portrays the world of sense impressions as a fantastic play of surfaces. The painterly interior, the various trees and fruits, "April's green," and the cockatoo, swallows, and pigeons—birds represented, literary, or "observed"—all become equally phantasmal, passing like "things in some procession of the dead." In these terms, the sun-worshippers of stanza 7 reduce to mere "personae of summer" (CP, 377 ), their bookish status reinforced by Biblical imagery, for pantheism would be as foreign as the religion of Palestine when the sky itself is "isolated" and appears as alien as the "icy Elysee" (CP, 56) seems to a temporal speaker. The poem proceeds by contrasting the surfaces and the depths of things: the surfaces of nature—its false flicks and forms, its rhetoric—contrast with its depths, which turn out to be internal to the subject. A "wide water" silently flows below the welter of visible and audible phenomena, and, in contrast to the sensory experience of surfaces, this archetypal river of the unconscious carries the truth of "blood." The river of meditation courses to death—the "dominion of the blood and sepulchre"—and to erotic reveries of "supple and turbulent" men; Christian and romantic mythologies only code its natural course.

Thus Stevens dislocates the Emersonian alignment of nature with fate and the mind with freedom. The imagistic contrast of light and dark in the first stanza corresponds to the thematic contrast of freedom and fate, life and death, rhetoric and truth, the claims of the life of the senses and the life of the mind. It is nature and its sensuous attractions that are free, and their extravagant, ornamental "rhetoric" cannot satisfy the mind. For the mind and its course of meditation give us access to the truth of Eros and Thanatos. In Stevens's realignment, the mind alone knows nature: an undomesticated nature that is more than "a widow's bird" (CP, 18) is accessible only in the meditation of the "virile" poet. When Stevens announces, "Death is the mother of beauty," he is talking not only about the changes in nature that constitute its rhetorical appeal to the senses—senses equipped to register and take pleasure in change—but about the truth of the mind. For the seasonal repetitions of nature are temporal changes and intimate death only to the human consciousness, and these temporal changes open up the mental space of remembrance and anticipation, of memory and desire (stanza 4), of poetry and its measures. Death is the mother of the imagination—of the mind and memory, the "muttering" that engenders "myths" in the "burning bosom" of a destructive mother. The final stanza reaffirms this alignment:

We live in an old chaos of the sun,

Or old dependency of day and night,

Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,

Of that wide water, inescapable. [CP, 70]

Our dependence on the "chaos" of natural processes, our "freedom" from sponsoring deities, and our being constituted "of that wide water" are grammatical appositives and substantive equivalents. The "wide water" is the "wide water" of stanza 1—the inseparable and inescapable concourse of Eros, death, and meditation that constitutes us and our freedom. In linking the mind with death, Stevens is able to displace the terms of the Emersonian debate: freedom and fate are no longer aligned with the subject and object. Stevens's existential project is to show that our freedom is our fate, our discourse is our nature, our imagination is our destruction.

"Sunday Morning" also marks the beginning of Stevens's stylistic development beyond the reductive dichotomy of rhetoric and meters that arrested Emerson's growth as a poet. In Stevens, the discursive and the Orphic modes are not polar opposites but inflections of the same conventional, exoteric, poetic voice. The range and flexibility of Stevens's diction and blank verse enable him to incorporate the course of nature and the discourse of the mind in the same internal monologue. In the first stanza of "Sunday Morning," for example, he signals the shift from observation to meditation with a switch in diction from polysyllabic, Latinate words to one- or two-syllable, Anglo-Saxon words; with vocalic modulations from front or "light" vowels to back or "dark" vowels; with metrical variations like the increased use of trochees and spondees; and with an insistence on alliteration, assonance, and repetition:

Complacencies of the peignoir, and late

Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair,

And the green freedom of a cockatoo

Upon a rug mingle to dissipate

The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.

She dreams a little, and she feels the dark

Encroachment of that old catastrophe,

As a calm darkens among water-lights.

The pungent oranges and bright, green wings

Seem things in some procession of the dead,

Winding across wide water, without sound.

The day is like wide water, without sound,

Stilled for the passing of her dreaming feet

Over the seas, to silent Palestine,

Dominion of the blood and sepulchre. [CP, 66-67]

The fatal truth has been internalized as an inflection of a poetic language that traces the course of an explicitly eccentric and inherently rhetorical meditation.

The language of "Sunday Morning" remains nostalgic, however, and Stevens has difficulty in developing a form that does not rely on the "magnificent measure" (CP, 13) of the English romantics yet can register the truth of rhetoric, the centrality of an explicitly eccentric poetic language. His development of a language both exoteric and central leads through an excessively rhetorical style that remains merely exoteric and thus is ironic about its decorative excesses. "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle," for example, engages this issue. Isabel G. MacCaffrey writes that the methodology of the poem, as well as its subject, addresses the "relationship between opaque, visceral depths and dazzling verbal surfaces," and she suggests that the poem rejects its own rhetoric as "inadequate, bombastic, bland, or self-deceiving," so that another, counter "meaning" can be apprehended "behind the words," which is the "wordless world" of Eros and Thanatos. Stevens's rejection of his own rhetoricity comes in the lines,

Last night, we sat beside a pool of pink,

Clippered with lilies scudding the bright chromes,

Keen to the point of starlight, while a frog

Boomed from his very belly odious chords. [CP, 17 ]

which pass judgment, in Harold Bloom's words, on "all amorous diction." Nevertheless, however inadequate it may be to Eros, rhetoric remains the necessary substitution by which love becomes love, for even the chords of the frog's mating call are natural substitutions for the "foremost law":

If sex were all, then every trembling hand

Could make us squeak, like dolls, the wished-for words.

But note the unconscionable treachery of fate,

That makes us weep, laugh, grunt and groan, and shout

Doleful heroics, pinching gestures forth

The "foremost law" is itself apprehended in and as substitution. If we are fated, we are fated to substitute one thing for another, to remain at the edge, and to play with words—"le monocle de mon oncle"—stringing together metaphoric or phonetic substitutions. For the poem demonstrates that no one language is more natural or less rhetorical than another.

From American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987. Copyright © 1987.

Mutlu Konuk Blasing: On "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

The physical and psychological enervation of Eliot's early personae may be read in part as correlatives of his literary situation; this is the way Prufrock, for example, states his problem:

And I have known the eyes already, known them all—

The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,

And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,

When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,

Then how should I begin

To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?

    And how should I presume?

Prufrock does not know how to presume to begin to speak, both because he knows "all already"—this is the burden of his lament—and because he is already known, formulated. His consciousness of the other's eye—I haunts his language at its source: "Let us go then, you and I." An "I" who addresses a "you" becomes subject to the laws of communication, and his voice is subsumed by expression. In his critical replay of the poetic process, Eliot remarks that the poet expresses not a personality but a particular medium. The particular medium expressed in "Prufrock" is a confession or a dramatic monologue. The you-I split being the formal ground of his medium, Prufrock's problem is in fact the problem the expressive medium introduces, and this identification of the formal and rhetorical dimensions of the medium with the emotion or psychic burden of the speaker makes for the airless closure of the poem. As in Poe's "Raven," the speaker's relationship to the form within which his adventure transpires constitutes the nature of his adventure: his form determines the content of his story.

And if Prufrock's problem coincides with the dynamics of Eliot's particular medium of dramatic monologue, Eliot's problem coincides with the dynamics of the poetic medium itself; just as Prufrock is paralyzed by his consciousness of the other, his author is paralyzed by his consciousness of the tradition. In the line "It is impossible to say just what I mean!" the dramatic character and his author meet, "uttering the words in unison, though perhaps with somewhat different meaning," and displaying the rhetorical advantage a dramatic poet holds. And Eliot's imprisoning his speaker in the very medium of expressive or even confessional speech may register his own intertextual interment in a medium inscribed with prototypes of original or central speech—whether prophetic, like John the Baptist's, or epic, like Dante's, or dramatic, like Shakespeare's—which are codified in and reinforced by conventions precluding the possibility of saying "just what I mean." Eliot's ironic use of rhyme and meter in "Prufrock" acknowledges the complicity of the poet's conventions with his persona's "de-meaning" language. On the one hand, the "comic" meter of lines like "In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo" equates poetic forms that channel force and the social forms of keeping conversation light. On the other hand, dreams of escape from the pre-formulating formulae are them- selves recounted in formulaic lines, for the solution to Prufrock's problem would be a "solution" for Eliot as well-forgetting the present and the separate self, surrendering to the oblivion of an unconscious nature and the "natural" meter of English poetry:

I should have been a pair of ragged claws Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

The epigraph to "Prufrock" formally subsumes its hero's problem with expressive language to the poet's problem with textuality. The poem is a dramatic monologue, a mimesis of speech, yet it opens with an epigraph that identifies it as writing and diminishes its urgency by absorbing it within the prototype of another confession, so that the beginning "let us go" is already the "end of something." At the same time that the epigraph consigns the persona to the company of his "semblables"—all those confined in the deadly circle of their solipsistic-confessional speech-likenesses—it seals the poet in the prison of literary "truth," which cancels out his life and tells someone else's "lie." Supernatural vision and natural blindness—issuing in prophetic or lyric utterances—would alike deliver Prufrock from himself; but such ascents and descents are not possible within writing, a historically coded and prescribed medium where vision drowns in revision and human voices drown out natural and supernatural music. And if Prufrock—too decorous and conventional to be a prophet or to dally with mermaids—is incarcerated in the echo chamber of his and others' chatter, Eliot finds himself locked in the "room" of literary "talk," too late to "tell all" or to "sing." The poem's epigraph at once opens and closes this discourse of a poet-hero generically old before his time. Eliot's early work is unusual in its dependence on epigraphs that mediate between the poet and the poem, preformulating the poem before it can begin, and his epigraphs often explicitly concern belatedness, exhaustion, and endings. Indeed, the epigraph to Prufrock and Other Observations locates Eliot's beginning as a poet by placing him in the company of Jean Verdenal and other "shadows"—Statius, Virgil, and Dante. In "Prufrock," the literary epigraph, bespeaking "not only . . . the pastness of the past, but . . . its presence" (SW, 49), casts such a shadow over the poem that nature itself disappears, for a "sky" that recalls "ether" is, in fact, "etherized" for the present speaker. Thus, social paralysis resulting from knowing all and being known or seen through parallels a literary anesthesia—knowing all predecessors and being preformulated and "epigraphed" by them. Both kinds of anesthesia subject the individual voice to anterior fon11ulas, forms, and styles.

Prufrock's acute consciousness of his age is thus the classic symptom of Eliot's philosophical and literary problem. Prufrock's body is presented as a text, for he literally carries the burden of the past on his body—in the lines, the thinning hair and arms and legs, and other signs of age that record time's passage. In the same way, his monologue is a "polylogue," superscribed with quotations, allusions, and echoes that document the presence of the past. Since existential experience is subsumed by textual experience in early Eliot, bodily and natural forms correlate with literary forms. The labyrinthine cities and "corridors" of history, the sepulchral drawing rooms with their "atmosphere of Juliet's tomb" (CP, 8), the body aging "on its own," and the formulas of discourse are all experienced as suffocating incarcerations. They are all modeled as texts, as stages set and scripts written before the speaker enters to recite his lines. And attempts to free the individual voice by breaking out of forms register, as in "Prufrock," only as impulses to dismemberment and suicide.

From American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987. Copyright © 1987.

Mutlu Konuk Blasing: On "Canto 81"

Pound's "resuscitation" of dead languages (P, 187) is both literally a translation of texts and a passage of "air" through abiding patterns or codes. The patterns are abiding not because they carry the authority of the past but because tradition only carries on the form/force that inheres in the nature of things. His use of a global tradition in the Cantos is neither an exoticism nor an archaism. It is meant to show that '''as a wind's breath / that changing its direction changeth its name'" (106:752 ), different languages, literatures, and ages variously name the same breath animating all life. Because the tradition records the shape of things, the poet's language is naturally allusive. Poetic ontogeny repeats phylogeny; organicism rewrites the tradition. In Whitman's words, "See—as the annual round returns the phantoms return" (LG, 299).

Such knowledge underwrites the chant of creaturely "humility" in canto 81:

Pull down thy vanity, it is not man

Made courage, or made order, or made grace,

        Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.

Learn of the green world what can be thy place

In scaled invention or true artistry [81:521]

The pun on "scaled invention" is Pound's axis here: the poet bows before nature and scales down his pride before the artistry of scaled creatures, the "green casque" that has outdone his "elegance." Yet the entire canto 81, which reiterates "(To break the pentameter, that was the first heave)" (518), is also an extended homage to the scaled music of the English lyric tradition and indeed scales the very climax of its "awakening" to the pentameter:

What thou lovest well remains,

                                the rest is dross

What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee

What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage. [520-21]

In the same move, Pound scales his "vanity" to both nature and tradition yet concludes by reaffirming, in clear speech rhythms and diction, that his attempt to "make it new," to gather "from the air a live tradition," was not "vanity." The Cantosextol such a community of nature, tradition, and the individual poet. The signatures in nature, the seeds that carry its mystic cipher, are borne on the wind, just as the verbal tradition is borne on the breath. And just as the "whole tribe is from one man's body" (99:708), its whole long tale is from one "man's" breath.

From American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987. Copyright © 1987.

Mutlu Konuk Blasing: On 657 ("I dwell in Possibility--")

Dichotomy not only informs Dickinson's themes but structures her rhetoric and form. To begin with, the brevity of her poems sensitizes us to the minutest literal details of her language by juxtaposing material or quantitative limitation with semantic, metaphoric, or qualitative expansion. "I dwell in Possibility— / A fairer House than Prose" (P-657) is the manifesto of this poetic, which stages the logic of poetic language. "Dwelling" in "possibility" both separates and joins the determined and the indeterminate, limitation and freedom, houses and nature, closure and expansion. Dickinson presents poetry as a house of words that closes to open and—as "spreading wide my narrow Hands / To gather Paradise" suggests—opens to close. Prose, by contrast, is simply closed:

They shut me up in Prose— As when a little Girl They put me in the Closet— Because they liked me "still"—

Prose cannot sustain a dialectic of limitation and freedom, because such a dialectic is generated by playing formal elements, which emphasize the letter, against figurative features. And the same dialectic operates within metaphor itself, for describing one thing in terms of another constitutes a mutual redefinition that simultaneously limits and liberates. To describe a house as nature, for example, is to blow it apart:

Of Chambers as the Cedars— Impregnable of Eye— And for an Everlasting Roof The Gambrels of the Sky—

Yet this description also defines and delimits nature as a house. For Dickinson, poetic language exposes the coeval emergence of the literal and the metaphorical, the material "seen" and the nonmaterial "unseen," the letter and the breath or spirit; in other words, she lays bare the logic of the Logos.

From American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987. Copyright © 1987.

Mutlu Konuk Blasing: On "Filling Station"

[In "The Map’] [t]his disjunction or questionable relation exists within language itself: does Bishop start by questioning the color differences on the map, or do alliteration and rhyme call "shallows" forth from "shadows" to generate the questions? In "Filling Station," Bishop exploits this process whereby words of similar sounds but different meanings trigger metaphysical speculation. The "dirty" family filling station, run by the father in a "dirty, / oil-soaked monkey suit" and ‘several quick and saucy / and greasy sons" – "all quite thoroughly dirty" – hums to a repetition of "oily" and "dirty" and insistent rhymes to them. When Bishop proceeds to the metaphysical question – "Why, oh why, the doily?" – the very question seems generate by the literal pattern of the poem: "doily" includes "oily." "Somebody embroidered the doily"; "Somebody / arranges the rows of cans so that they softly say: / ESSO – SO – SO – SO"; somebody set the poem humming to a rhyme of -y, as in dirty, oily and doily; "somebody loves us all." The questions and answers repeat and revise the dominant pattern of sounds found in the poem. Although they may rise from observation, they may also spring from the partly fortuitous and partly planned literal pattern of the poem; there is no way of telling which came first."

From Mutlu Konu Blasing, "The Re-Verses of Elizabeth Bishop," Chapter 6 in American Poetry: the Rhetoric of Its Forms (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 107-108. 

Mutlu Konuk Blasing: On "One Art"

"One Art" not only effects such poetic reversals but exposes them as affected. Bishop's choice of a villanelle, a traditional form of repetition that promises to make "art" out of "losing," seems to support the opening assertion, but the negatives cast doubt on the project at the outset:

The art of losing isn't hard to master; so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Yet the title tells us that the art of writing and the art of losing are one, and the requirements of the form serve to render loss certain from the start. The third line already gives us the last word of the poem-the word she means to deny but is fated to write:

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident the art of losing's not too hard to master though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Writing and losing are one art because the formal repetition of loss, which promises mastery, simultaneously finalizes disaster: "(Write it!) like disaster." Repetition duplicates and divides, both masters and loses, and thus makes for "disaster." The division-by-duplication of the "aster" is the ill star that governs poets.

from American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987. Copyright © 1987.

Mutlu Konuk Blasing: On "In the Waiting Room"

"In the Waiting Room," then, properly tells or narrates the "growth of a poet's mind." The poet originates in the recognition of her separation from, and identity with, her world, at once finding and losing her "self." Her birth or awakening comes with a scream from inside the dentist's office that is also the voice of the child in the waiting room, since "inside" says "either." When the child produces her explanation, she is a poet:

How—I didn't know any word for it—how "unlikely" . . . 

To explain an identity in nature, she finds the word "unlikely"; the perception of sameness is unlikely, because it is more than a likeness or likely. If all accounts of phenomena are likely stories only, the breach that gives birth to the poet is an origin that both is and is unlikely. This is also the breach of metaphor—unlikely identities. The scream, which is not "like" the child's voice but is hers all the same, signals a birth into natural identity and an unlikely language. For one's identity, one's sameness with and difference from others and objects, comes to be adequately revealed in the unlikely likenesses of metaphoric language. If there is an "inside" or a primal source that is glimpsed in the child's vertiginous insight, it is covered up or "framed" by the conspiracy of common sense, "objective" facts, and grammar—of nature and poetry: "You are an I, / you are anElizabeth, / You are one of them." And the source disclosed in the grammatical cleavage of "you are an I" is not a luminous star but nothingness itself, "cold, blue-black space," split by a cry—"an oh! of pain"—that might have been ours.