Paul Breslin

Paul Breslin: On "Wichita Vortex Sutra"

One can see the result of psycho-political confusion in a poem such as "Wichita Vortex Sutra," in which Ginsberg views his mother as only one among many casualties of a vast historical violence. Wichita, where Carry Nation started the temperance movement, "began a vortex of hatred that defoliated the Mekong Delta" and


                            murdered my mother

        who died of the communist anticommunist psychosis

                    in the madhouse one decade long ago

complaining about wires of masscommunication in her head

                    and phantom political voices in the air

                            besmirching her girlish character.

    Many another has suffered death and madness

                in the Vortex.

                                            (AG, 410)


Here we have an easy, scattershot indictment, in which the prohibition of liquor, McCarthyite anticommunism, the use of defoliants in Vietnam, and Naomi Ginsberg's "death and madness" are all the results of a national "hatred." In this passage, Ginsberg treats individual madness as the symptom of political madness, but again, he wants it both ways. By suggesting, even if only for purposes of metonymy, that Carry Nation began "the vortex," Ginsberg identifies a villain whose individual repressions initiate, through social contagion, the repressiveness of a whole country. (Carry Nation's name serves Ginsberg's turn all too conveniently.) In this sweeping equation of any social evil with any other, individuals can be treated either as willing agents or as passive victims, according to one's mood. Ginsberg extends no sympathy to Carry Nation, who presumably was also shaped by her social environment. Those one has singled out as villains are responsible for their actions, while those who have been cast as victims are not.

Ginsberg wrote a great deal of political poetry in the late 1960s and early 1970s, all of it sentimental in its insistence that the war in Vietnam resulted directly from bad consciousness, and that good consciousness drives out bad. Even in Wichita Vortex Sutra, the best of these political poems, Ginsberg portrays the war as the work of "inferior magicians with / the wrong alchemical formula for transforming earth into gold."

Paul Breslin: On "Howl"

It is "Howl," completed in 1955 and published the following year, that marks the beginning of Ginsberg as we now know him. "Howl" also presents, in a remarkably complete form, a sensibility (if that Eliotic word will serve for such an un-Eliotic temperament) that we associate with a later time. The title and first line alone, closely considered, are packed with signs of things to come. In the mid-fifties, a poem might have a title such as "Speech for the Repeal of the McCarran Act" (Richard Wilbur, 1956); "The Dancer's Reply" (Howard Nemerov, 1958), or "Argument" (Elizabeth Bishop, 1955). In such poems, the title implies that a voice is speaking aloud, but doing so for a socially defined purpose, or on a socially defined occasion. More commonly, one might give a poem a sharply nominalized title, so as to hold up an object or landscape as a central symbol for contemplation: "The Beacon," "The Sunglasses," "The Bight" (Wilbur, Nemerov, and Bishop again, from the same collections). Titles of that period typically emphasize the act of seeing or contemplating; if they emphasize speech, then it is considered speech, fitted to an occasion. But a "howl" is unconsidered speech, prompted by overwhelming desperation or rage; indeed, it is not speech at all, but pure inarticulate sound as uttered by an animal. Nor can one rule out the possibility that "Howl" is an imperative verb addressed to the reader, in which case it is opposed to the more usual noun-phrase title in form as well as spirit. The conception of poetry as an expression of preverbal states akin to the consciousness of animals or perhaps even matter itself, the rhetoric of expressiveness or exhortation, the preference for titles that invoke actions or processes (often with a nominalizing -ing suffix)—all of these widespread tendencies of poetry in the next decade were curled up, latent, within Ginsberg's title.

It takes the benefit of hindsight to extract all that from Ginsberg's title, but one can hardly make too much of his first line: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked . . ." (AG, 126). The opening "I saw" does not startlingly violate period style; as it happens, Lowell's "Where the Rainbow Ends" opens with the same words. But the "I" this poem, we soon discover, is more literally Ginsberg than the "I" of Lowell's early poem is Lowell. Moreover, Ginsberg is not seeing in the usual sense; one does not "see" minds being destroyed by madness. Even more than Lowell in "Where the Rainbow Ends," which also speaks a language of visionary prophecy, Ginsberg uses seeing as if it meant knowing, as if moral knowledge were as immediate as sensuous intuition, an as self-evident. To say that one believes invites argument, but to say that one sees places the matter beyond dispute.

Like the campus New Leftists of the sixties, (and, as we shall find, like John Berryman and Robert Lowell as well), Ginsberg perceives himself as art of a "generation," victims sharing a collective historical fate. The best minds among them, Ginsberg says in passive voice, were "destroyed by madness"—as if madness were some sort of danger abroad in the world, like a hurricane or a virus, and could descend upon the individual mind to destroy it. Moreover, "madness" seems choosy about its victims, singling out the best minds to destroy; perhaps they go mad because they are the best minds. The three adjectives perched on the end of the line—"starving hysterical naked"—may at first seem mere overwriting. But they suggest that these elect "best minds" are "starving" not only for food, drugs, and sex, but for spiritual transcendence, for "the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night" (AG, 126) Such yearning seems mystical only to a society that represses its own hunger for spiritual (as well as sexual) exploration. They are "naked" not only in their refusal to wear the clothes of social convention, or in preparation for lovemaking, but also in their vulnerability. In refusing all covering, they refuse protection also. The best minds have no Reichian character armor. And although "minds" stands metonymically for persons and emphasizes consciousness rather than the body, these "minds" are presented in predominantly bodily terms: one thinks of the body in connection with the words "naked" and "starving," and even "hysterical" derives from the Greek word for "womb." The hysterias that Freud decided to treat psychologically had previously been considered somatic ailments. The effect of Ginsberg's language is to sexualize the concept of "mind," making it more bodily and instinctive, while simultaneously spiritualizing the body, making its hunger and nakedness into emblems of religious yearning.

The entire first section of "Howl" rushes forward in a single sentence. By line four, it settles into a litany of "who" clauses, each of which gets a long Whitmanian line to itself. Occasionally Ginsberg substitutes another initial word for "who," and he may have intended to signal the approach of closure by breaking the pattern in the last ten lines, only one of which begins with "who." The incantatory syntax, as many critics have remarked, draws attention to the poem as speech rather than as an object for contemplation; the sweep of the enormous sentence encourages the reader not to stop and savor nuances, but to surrender instead to the insistent rhythm. Moreover, the syntactical complexities one associates with nuance are missing. There is little variety of sentence construction and, therefore, little complexity in the relations among words. To say this is not necessarily to condemn the poem, which aims at force, not subtlety. But the effect of the steady accumulation of parallel subordinate clauses goes beyond the suggestion of passionate speech. Like the catalogue passages in Whitman, the first section of "Howl" implies by its syntax a view of reality: the many parts of the world simply exist, next to each other, without conflict and without hierarchy of greater and lesser, and they are unified not by complex relations among the parts, but by a simple and all-embracing relation between any part and the whole.

But if we ask what that whole is, we must return two answers. There is the demonic world, in bondage to "Moloch the heavy judger of men" (AG, 131), and an angelic world, in which, as Ginsberg flatly declares in the "Footnote to Howl," "Everything is holy!" (AG, 134). The two worlds, moreover, exist in the same place at the same time. We read of "holy Bronx" (AG, 126), "the supernatural darkness of coldwater Hats" (AG, 126) and "Zen New Jersey" (AG, 127), and we hear Ginsberg exclaim, "Holy the solitudes of skyscrapers and pavements" (AG, 134). Yet we also find the same urban reality treated as the embodiment of the unholy "Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs!" (AG, 131).

Ginsberg seems aware of this contradiction, and at points scattered throughout the poem, he attempts to resolve it. Although Moloch is demonic, there is nonetheless "the Angel in Moloch," stunned perhaps, but never killed or displaced. In a long letter to Richard Eberhart, later published as a monograph, Ginsberg compared "Howl" to "Sunflower Sutra." Just as, in the shorter poem, the poet recognizes and loves the sunflower beneath its coating of industrial grime, so he recognizes in "Howl" an essential self and an essential world beneath the distortions of Moloch. "The effect is to release self and audience from a false and self-denying self-deprecating image of ourselves which makes us feel like smelly shits and not the angels which we most deeply are."

One could justify this division of the world into two superimposed images by various mystical traditions known to Ginsberg: the Gnostic doctrine of the pneuma struggling through a world of darkness toward its home in a world of light; the contradictory higher and lower truths of Buddhism (that all dharmas are empty, yet all dharmas have a conditional existence), reconciled by the middle path; the Hindu belief in the Atman, an essential divine self beneath the secular ego. Supplying traditional precedents absolves Ginsberg from the charge of know-nothing anti-intellectualism. But the trouble with Ginsberg's dualism—as with Manichean dualism—is that it creates an utter chasm between secular intelligence and mystical knowledge. Having made his huge repudiation of existing social reality, Ginsberg has little interest in a more particular account of it, or in secular causality.

Although "Howl" anticipates later confessional poetry, including Ginsberg's own "Kaddish," in its equation of personal and collective crisis, Ginsberg's mystical speculations tempt him to solve the confessional poet's problem of engulfment in false consciousness by a leap of faith rather than by secular moral inquiry. Indeed, it may be his extreme version of the problem of false consciousness that makes the mystical way out so appealing to him. Whereas John Berryman thought that "current American society" was enough to drive people mad, Ginsberg seems at times to think that the problem is the unredeemed condition of the world rather than any particular social evil. There is thus, from the beginning, a conflict between Ginsberg as confessional poet and Ginsberg as religious seeker—or religious prophet. After all, the notion that one's vocation as poet is to be destroyed by madness, bearing witness to that destruction in one's poems, is not very encouraging; Ginsberg can hardly be blamed for wanting to escape from it if possible. But the escape from madness, since the entire secular world is saturated with madness, becomes disturbingly akin to a rejection of secular reality altogether.

The only people in the urban landscape of "Howl" are the isolated "best minds," glimpsed in one-line tableaux as they jump from fire escapes, wander at midnight, or seek transcendence in drugs or "ultimate visions of cunt and come" (AG, 128). The various persons of the opening section are all-but-interchangeable avatars of the Universal Beat, "mind leaping toward poles of Canada and Paterson" (AG, 126), who migrates in the course of the poem from New York through New Jersey, Baltimore, Chicago, Kansas, Colorado, the Southwest, Mexico, Tangiers—only to end up back in New York with Carl Solomon in Rockland. These isolated persons are, as Ginsberg put it in "The Green Automobile," "hidden / like diamonds / in the clock of the world" (AG, 84). The square or Molochian world is a mechanism like a clock; in "Howl" it appears not in persons but in images of buildings or machinery, or it is abstractly summarized as the "shocks of hospitals and jails and wars" (AG, 127). Through this unremittingly hostile environment the "best minds" wander, like awakened Gnostics, looking for a way out, "waiting for a door in the East River to open to a room full of steamheat and opium" (AG, 128). Society and its artifacts are but an elaborate prison, and nature, in this overwhelmingly urban poem, does not exist as an alternative. The world offers nothing for loving contemplation except one's fellow angelic victims.

The entire intersubjective realm of culture, and with it the very landscape, has been devoured by "Moloch." The litany against Moloch in the second section of the poem so easily accommodates a wide range of pent-up grievances against society that one might forget to ask the hard question: what, after all that cathartic frenzy, is Moloch supposed to represent? Capitalism ("Moloch whose blood is running money")? Industrialization ("Moloch whose mind is pure machinery")? Aggression ("Moloch the vast stone of war," AG, 131)? Reason ("Mental Moloch") exalted at the expense of feeling ("Moloch the loveless," AG, 131)? Or denial of religious transcendence, of "Heaven which exists and is everywhere around us" (AG, 132)? Ginsberg's catch-all bill of indictment lacks incisiveness, although it allows him to work up a good rhetorical head of steam.

Peter Michelson, in an article cast in the form of a dialogue between himself and "G. Graph," whom "the reader of critical prose may be tempted to identify . . . with one Gerald Graff," allows "Graph" to argue that Ginsberg's diatribe against Moloch amounts to nothing but "fake" emotion and the sophomoric belief that

if you walk safely with the light across an intersection it's a sign of moral obtuseness, whereas if you walk against the light and get flattened by the bourgeois steamroller it's a revelation of your exquisite moral sensibility. Everything is levitated to a simplistic war between good and evil, and your medal of honor is insanity. Ginsberg's Moloch, when it's not pure bombast, is just paraphrastic sophistry.

Although I find that "Graph" has the better of his antagonist here (and it's just possible that Michelson intended him to), this summary of the case against "Howl" fails to take into account Ginsberg's uncertain attitude toward the concept of madness. Even though the poem does for the most part regard insanity as a "medal of honor," it also raises, if only fitfully, the question of whether "madness" is only society's name for resistance to Moloch, or whether some "madness" really deserves to be called madness. Insanity in this sense would be undesirable to Ginsberg as well as to the squares and would signify the triumph of Moloch rather than rebellion against him. Ginsberg finds it hard to decide whether madness is the helpless internalization of destructive social norms or the defiant refusal to comply with those norms.

As an example of Ginsberg's equivocal attitude toward madness in "Howl," one might follow the progression of thought in the eighth line of Section Two:


Moloch in whom I sit lonely! Moloch in whom I dream angels! Crazy in

    Moloch! Cocksucker in Moloch! Lacklove and manless in Moloch!


The line begins with a complaint of loneliness. The second exclamation can be understood as arising from this initial thought: nowadays, people who dream angels usually dream alone. But whereas the first exclamation is a cry of pain, the second is more ambiguous. Is it a cry of pain or a cry of triumph? If being lonely is the price of seeking connection to "the starry dynamo in the machinery of night," then perhaps loneliness is better than company. Next comes the thought: "Crazy in Moloch!" To be lonely is bad enough, but to be "crazy" is worse. Is one "crazy" because one dreams angels or because Moloch frustrates the chance of making such a dream into reality. Then the last two exclamations turn to Ginsberg's homosexuality, which in the less tolerant era of "Howl" was itself often considered a form of craziness. The slang pejorative "cocksucker," moreover, reminds us of the contempt with which homosexuality was regarded. In the last of the exclamatory phrases, the loneliness of the first phrase becomes explicitly sexual.

At first glance, this line would seem to be a series of parallel outcries protesting the suffering that Moloch has inflicted. But one can read it in two mutually irreconcilable ways. One might conclude that Ginsberg himself thinks it is a misfortune to be crazy, lonely, and homosexual; he would rather be sane, surrounded by friends, and heterosexual, but Moloch has twisted him, (To make "homosexual" parallel with "lonely" and "crazy" already implies an introjection of the judgment that these adjectives are near-synonyms.) Or one might conclude, with equal warrant from the poem, that to be crazy, lonely, and homosexual is, as Michelson put it, a medal of honor, the sign of one's solitary resistance to Moloch within a subjugated culture. But Ginsberg wants it both ways. He berates Moloch for turning him into a "cocksucker," but he also portrays homosexuality as rebellion against Moloch when he laments, in Section One, that the homosexual contingent of the "angel-headed hipsters"


lost their love boys to the three old shrews of fate the one eyed shrew

    of the heterosexual dollar the one eyed shrew that winks out of the 

    womb and the one eyed shrew that does nothing but sit on her ass 

    and snip the intellectual golden threads of the craftsman's loom.


The words "heterosexual dollar" momentarily align heterosexuality with capitalist greed, although Neil Cassady's "innumerable lays of girls" are elsewhere cause for celebration.

Through the eighth line of Section Two, Ginsberg has imagined himself inside Moloch, "the incomprehensible prison," but in the ninth, this spatial relationship is reversed with the cry: "Moloch who entered my mind early!" Moloch's "name is the Mind," but he is an acquired mind; one of his other names is culture. In order to "abandon" Moloch, as Ginsberg claims to do at the end of the section, one must first exorcise him from the self. Thus insanity can be understood, in its laudatory sense, as the refusal of acculturation. If Moloch's name is the mind, and one must abandon him, then one must literally go out of one’s mind.

The question remains, however, whether abandoning the acquired mentality of Moloch restores one to a natural sanity that Moloch had usurped or leaves one so radically estranged that only an innocent but ineffectual holy madness is possible. In the third section of the poem, we find the poet in the madhouse with Carl Solomon, whose insanity is sometimes presented as an affliction. Ginsberg cannot think it entirely angelic that Solomon imagines he has "murdered [his] twelve secretaries," or that "the faculties of the skull no longer admit the worms of the senses." And no reader of "Kaddish" would wish on anyone that he should "imitate the shade of [Ginsberg's] mother." At other times, however, Solomon’s madness becomes a Christ-like redemptive sacrifice, or political revolution, or, as in these lines, both at once:


I'm with you in Rockland

    where fifty more shocks will never return your soul to its body

    again from its pilgrimage to a cross in the void


I'm with you in Rockland

    where you accuse your doctors of insanity and plot the Hebrew 

    socialist revolution against the fascist national Golgotha


I'm with you in Rockland

    where you will split the heavens of Long Island and resurrect your 

    living human Jesus from the superhuman tomb


I'm with you in Rockland

    where there are twentyfive-thousand mad comrades all together

    singing the final stanzas of the Internationale. . . .


Ginsberg's praise for this wisdom of Solomon—in which madness becomes equated with the "living human" in an inhuman world or with the political alienation of revolutionary "comrades"—echoes through the poetry and politics of the 1960s.

The indictment against Moloch is essentially the one that began to emerge in the conformity critiques of the 1950s and was more completely formulated in more radical writings of the following decade. Like Marcuse and Laing, Ginsberg envisions a repressive social determinism so all-encompassing that the idea of individual agency is lost. The ego has been totally socialized, and only by abandonment to the involuntary impulses of the unconscious id can we act from our own motives rather than those of one-dimensional society. But in this extreme position, the crucial difference between madness and rebellion is lost. The rebel chooses to rebel, being somehow able to make a choice between accepting the demands of society and rejecting them. But the mad go mad because they cannot help it. Madness resists authority only in a minimal way. Once classified as mad, one is no longer held responsible for understanding authority and is therefore excused from compliance with it. The dissenter or revolutionary wants it known that he understands perfectly well what is demanded but does not consent to it. Declare him mad, and you deny the meaning of his resistance. That is why the Soviet government sometimes puts troublemakers in the madhouse rather than in prison. If "madness" could be understood as enclosed in ironic quotation marks, then Ginsberg's affirmation of it as political rebellion might be easier to accept. But sometimes it is madness not only in Moloch's judgment, but in Ginsberg's own. And then it means estrangement from knowledge rather than attainment of gnosis. It becomes an emblem of defeat rather than defiance.

Paul Breslin: On "Life at War"

Confessional poetics, as I interpret it, is in effect a tragic version of Altieri's "aesthetics of presence." Levertov's response, though obviously not confessional, shares the same premise: that the madness of the nation reaches deep into the psyche, distorting the very processes of thought, feeling, and perception. As Cary Nelson has remarked, Olson "associates open form with an Adamic childlike, innocent perceptiveness"; but what happens when "process" becomes demonic, the content of perception no longer innocent?

One can see Levertov struggling with these problems in "Life at War," part of the closing section of The Sorrow Dance (1966) in which she writes about the war for the first time. She begins by lamenting her own inability to respond: "The disasters numb within us" (SD, 79). Since the war is far away, and we know of it only through pictures and news accounts of "the disasters," one has trouble making it present to the imagination. In a sense, the Vietnam war is but a particular instance of an omnipresent war. Not only the conflict in Vietnam, but all instances of violent cruelty can occur only because of a failure of imagination:


The same war



We have breathed the grits of it in, all our lives,


our lungs are pocked with it,

the mucous membrane of our dreams

coated with it, the imagination

filmed over with the gray filth of it.


In this passage, "war" in the larger sense is in the air we breathe. Considering the importance of "breath" in Olsonian poetics, the reflection that we have breathed the contaminated air of war "all our lives" becomes even more melancholy. The rhythm of the breath was to have shaped the lineation of poetry, joining "the HEART . . . to the LINE" (SW, 19). Moreover, breathing is Olson's central emblem both of the continual interchange between self and environment and of the bond between poetry and the life of the body: "breath is mans special qualification as animal" (SW, 25). Levertov, in this passage, gives us a fallen version of Olsonian process, its Adamic innocence poisoned by "war." She cannot fathom why "delicate man, whose flesh / responds to a caress, whose eyes / are flowers that perceive the stars" (SD, 79), nonetheless


still turns without surprise, with mere regret

to the scheduled breaking open of breasts whose milk

runs out over the entrails of still-alive babies,

transformation of witnessing eyes to pulp-fragments,

implosion of skinned penises into carcass-gulleys.


The problem, then, is that by breathing the war in daily, by becoming used to "scheduled" brutalities, we lose our capacity to grasp the brutalities as such. The imagination becomes "filmed over, " unable to respond with anything more than "mere regret."

There is surely some validity to this understanding of how the American public condoned the war; Godfrey Hodgson remarks on the government's use of statistical quantification to lend a "pseudorational" logic to its arguments; statistics also treat abstractly what those in Vietnam experienced concretely, in their own flesh. And yet, Levertov's poem itself shows a failure of imagination, most of all in its very preoccupation with imagination. However sincere its expression of outrage against the war, the poem seems finally more preoccupied with the consequences of the war for Levertov's poetics than with the war itself.

"Life at War" ends by lamenting that "nothing we do has the quickness, the sureness, / the deep intelligence living at peace would have" (SD, 80). By closing with these lines, Levertov fixes our attention not on the plight of the Vietnamese, but on the way the war spoils life at home—the war is bad because it is bad for us. The images from Vietnam, torn from any context and programmatically lurid, protest too much. Instead of testifying to an imaginative grasp of the war, they betray an imagination flogging itself to respond.

Paul Breslin: On "For the Union Dead"

Some of Lowell's poems avoid the rigged rhetoric of "Skunk Hour" by relatively modest ambition, as in "Father's Bedroom"; others make the frustration of the quest for correspondence between self and other part of their theme. And there is at least one justly celebrated poem that takes a third and simpler way: "For the Union Dead."

One virtue of "For the Union Dead" is its restraint of analogies between public and private experience. For once, Lowell treats his public theme as precisely that and not another thing. Although, as Rudman points out, its landscape, the Boston Common, "is a ten minute walk from 91 Revere Street," many thousands of Bostonians have "passed it every day" besides Lowell. As the very name of the Boston Common implies, the poem is set in a public space. Although Lowell does recollect his childhood visits to the aquarium, he mutes the theme of his own unique relationship to the setting and concentrates on its shared meanings. In contrast to "Skunk Hour," the focus shifts away from self and toward environment. The landscape of the Boston Common, far more densely inscribed with cultural signs than that of Castine, Maine, offers readily what Lowell had to force on his surroundings in "Skunk Hour": a storehouse of symbols that reveal the consciousness of the inhabitants, past and present. This landscape, because it is urban and man-made, contains objects that testify, by their very existence, to what the people who made them value—and fail to value. The determinate historical origin of the surrounding objects provides a firm check on the tendency to treat self and environment as mutual reflections. The Shaw Memorial, the Statehouse, and even the unwittingly macabre Mosler Safe advertisement have a public meaning before the poem gets hold of them. "For the Union Dead" stands out in Lowell's work for its unusually firm resistance to solipsism and to conflations of public and private.

Not only does the landscape provide artifacts that were deliberately invested by their makers with public symbolism, it offers a full historical range from colonial times (the State House, the "old white churches") through the nineteenth century (the Shaw memorial itself) to the contemporary Mosler ad, which evokes both the historical present and the immediate historical past ("Hiroshima boiling"). The poem, one might say, is organized by archaeological strata (as Lowell may have wished to suggest by speaking of the "excavation" of the garage).

The two main symbolic artifacts in the poem are the aquarium and the Shaw Memorial, and the relationship between them is crucial to its interpretation. Given the title, the opening of the poem surprises by its obliquity. Lowell opens not with the Civil War monument but with his recollection of childhood visits to the aquarium, and it takes him five stanzas to come round to Colonel Shaw. The connections between the aquarium and the monument only emerge later, but the transition between the two begins in the third stanza. The statement "My hand draws back" signals also a drawing back from recollection into the present. "I often sigh still," the speaker admits, "for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom / of the fish and reptile" (FTUD, 70). The fascination with the fish is linked both with a desire to escape from human consciousness into the lower phyla (cf. Eliot's Prufrock: "I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the Boors of silent seas") and with regressive nostalgia for childhood or, in later stanzas, the historical past. The fish and reptile "kingdom" is the lowest stratum visible in the "excavation" the poem undertakes—it is our prehistory, the residuum of the animal within the human. The city has been built above it, yet never altogether covers or effaces it. The topmost strata appear mainly in images of mechanism, frantic activity, and ever more rapid change: the steamshovels threaten the Shaw monument, "propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake," and even the Statehouse requires bracing. The aquarium has been closed down, presumably to make way for new construction. And yet the surface and the depths are linked, since Lowell renders his images of mechanism in fishy and reptilean language—" dinosaur steamshovels," or the "giant-finned cars" of the last stanza.

Williamson finds, in the persistence of the fish and reptile, a critique of the very desire to build cities and monuments. He reads "For the Union Dead" as an indictment of civilization much like Norman O. Brown's in Life Against Death. "Man creates cities and technologies partly in order to . . . escape his two greatest fears, his animal instincts (purged in the cleanness of mechanical processes) and animal mortality (denied in the seeming permanence of steel and stone)." The closing of the aquarium becomes emblematic of our repression of the fish and reptile within, and the persistence of the fish and reptile in descriptions of steamshovels, cars, and the monument itself (which "sticks like a fishbone / in the city's throat") hints at a Brownian return of the repressed, "more pervasive and uncontrollable in direct proportion to the intensity of the repression. . . . Denied a fixed locality in the scheme of man's city or man's mind, the fish suddenly appears everywhere."

Williamson's remarks need to be qualified by the recognition that the aquarium, though it once gave the fish and reptile the "fixed locality" they are now denied, is nonetheless a public building, no less an example of civic architecture than the Statehouse or the Shaw Memorial. Indeed, one might argue that the aquarium is itself a monument, parallel in symbolic function to these other buildings. Just as the Statehouse recalls vanished ideals of government and the Shaw Memorial recalls an ideal of heroism we prefer to ridicule as sentimental, the aquarium, while it remained open, had held up a mirror to our animality. The point is not, in that case, that building monuments and cities denies our animality; on the contrary, the earlier society that still took monuments and civic virtue seriously also found it easier to accept the connection between human and animal nature. If, as Lowell remarked in introducing the poem at a reading in 1960, "we've emerged from the monumental age," so much the worse for us. Instead of Colonel Shaw, leading the first black regiment into battle, we have the nonheroic speaker reduced to spectatorship, watching the civil rights struggles of his own day on television, where "the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons" (FTUD, 72).

In "For the Union Dead," the denial of "animal instincts" and "animal mortality" as part of the human condition is not expressed in the desire to attain immortality through monumental architecture; rather, this denial is akin to the denial of history expressed in the destruction of the aquarium and the near-destruction of the war memorial. It is a failure of memory. To endanger the Shaw Memorial for the sake of a garage is to forget the meaning of Shaw's death or to deny that this meaning still matters. And yet, the presence of those "Negro school-children" on television proves that it still does. To close the aquarium is to forget a more distant past, the common evolutionary origins that bind us to the fish and reptile. To advertise a safe as impervious to a nuclear explosion is to forget a very recent past, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki only fifteen years before the poem was written. The forgetfulness of the present is symbolized by the hectic urban renewal everywhere visible in the landscape; the lack of purpose to this activity is symbolized in the fact that the destruction of the landscape will bring forth only a parking lot for the "giant finned cars" of the last stanzas. These cars, too, are monuments in a debased sense, expressing their owners' preoccupation with acquisition and mobility. But here, the representation is unconscious; the society that builds and buys the cars reveals its values without having intended to do so. The cars are a means, not an end: they will take their passengers to any destination. The garage, then, is a means serving a means, and the steamshovels digging the garage are a means serving a means twice removed. Lowell's judgment on monuments, mechanisms, and cities in this poem is finally closer to Allen Tate's than to Norman O. Brown's: what we build reveals what we desire, and only when we desire worthy ends do we build well. "A society of means without ends, in the age of technology," wrote Tate,

so multiplies the means, in the lack of anything better to do, that it may have to scrap the machines as it makes them; until our descendants will have to dig themselves out of one rubbish heap after another and stand upon it, in order to make more rubbish to make more standing room. The surface of nature will then be literally as well as morally concealed from the eyes of men.

Lowell's "civic sandpiles" are a version of Tate's "rubbish heap." But Lowell, more pessimistic even than Tate, fears that we will not be able to keep digging ourselves out but will slide into the ever-nearer "ditch" of extinction.

With the question of Lowell's attitude toward monuments goes that of Lowell's attitude toward heroism. Axelrod argues that Lowell "praises the military valor of Shaw, but also suggests dark, mixed motives beneath that valor"; Philip Cooper finds a "death-wish" in Shaw's acceptance of his commission; Jonathan Crick finds in Shaw the embodiment of "the Puritan virtues" that "also produced the commercial greed that has devastated Boston, and the destruction of war." Williamson observes that the Massachusetts 54th was exploited for propaganda purposes and "trained with a hastiness that suggests no high regard for the value of black lives"; Shaw was thus "wholly committed to a morally dubious, though seemingly idealistic, enterprise." It is worth remembering that Crick, Cooper, Williamson, and Axelrod were writing during or soon after the war in Vietnam, a historical circumstance that would dispose them toward a cynical view of military heroism like Shaw's. It is hard, from the vantage point of the mid 1980s, to discover irony in Lowell's praise for Shaw:


He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man's lovely,

peculiar power to choose life and die—

when he leads his black soldiers to death,

he cannot bend his back.


The stanza seems all the more unequivocal in the context of Lowell's other work. The "power to choose life and die" must have seemed especially "peculiar" to a poet of futility and divided will, for whom "the simple word," as he later put it, was always becoming "buried in a random, haggard sentence, / cutting ten ways to nothing clearly carried" (H, 132).

What troubles Lowell's meditation on Colonel Shaw is not the possibility that Shaw's heroism is an illusion but rather the possibility that such heroism can no longer exist. For one thing, as the Mosler advertisement reminds us, the individual act of courage has little consequence in a war fought With modern techniques of mass destruction; for another, the problem that Lowell discovers in contemporary Boston is not one that can be solved by a dramatic and clear-cut action like Shaw's. One can't die in battle against the forces of forgetfulness and commercial greed. Even the civil rights movement, which did produce a hero in Martin Luther King, is treated unheroically, from the perspective of a concerned but passive witness for whom participation in events is unimaginable—for a brief moment, one sees the anxious children on television. Like the fish in the aquarium, they are separated from the speaker by a wall of glass. Implicitly, Lowell proposes this way of experiencing public reality as typical of our time.

Paul Breslin: On "Skunk Hour"

In "Skunk Hour," the confessional mirroring of public and private is expressed formally in the poem's symmetrical division into four stanzas about the social environment and four about the poet's "dark night" of voyeurism and incipient madness. Lowell, in an essay on the composition of the poem, revealed that he had written the stanzas about himself first, later adding the other four . . . . By putting the stanzas about his surroundings first, Lowell reinterprets the private suffering as only one more symptom of a pervasive cultural breakdown. His account of the composition of this poem, however, points to its central problem. As evidence that "the season's ill," that the surrounding world is falling apart, the first four stanzas simply aren't convincing. . . .

What, after all, are the social analogues of the personal crisis in "Skunk Hour"? There is a slightly dotty "hermit heiress" who "buys up all / the eyesores facing her shore, / and lets them fall." Her son, moreover, is a bishop. If he is her only son, and if he is a Catholic rather than Episcopal bishop, the family line will presumably end there; otherwise, this detail has no discoverable significance. What else is wrong? The "summer millionaire" has died, and his "nine-yacht yawl has been "auctioned off to lobstermen." Not only that, the "fairy / decorator" has painted the once-functional "cobbler's bench and awl" a garish orange for his shop display, and despite his homosexuality, he is willing to marry for money. One would be grateful if these were the worst problems in one's own neighborhood. The sinister language of illness ("the season's ill") and contamination ("A red fox stain covers Blue Hill") does not rest on a convincing portrayal of anything sinister in the environment; it is only intelligible as the projection of the poet's internal sense of foreboding.

. . . .

The line "I myself am hell" would seem, in isolation at least, to tell us that hell is within rather than without. And if "nobody's here," the hermit heiress and the fairy decorator have in effect disappeared. Our attention is shifted from them to the self that saw in them, as in everything else, only its own misery. If so, then the poet has proposed the external analogues of the first four stanzas only to turn on himself and reject them as rationalizations. The plot of "Skunk Hour," so interpreted, is one of self-recognition.

Much as one might wish to construe the poem thus, it will not quite support such an interpretation. There is a curious, and as it turns out, crucial slippage of tense in stanza five. The "dark night" is recounted for five lines, in the past tense. Then comes an ellipsis and the declaration, in present tense, that "my mind's not right." The poem continues in present tense, although the events are recollected, all the way to the end, implying that the encounter with the skunks occurred when the speaker returned from his voyeuristic prowl among the "love-cars." It makes a great deal of difference whether the recognitions expressed in "my mind's not right" and "I myself am hell" occur in the narrative past, as realizations already made during the dark night and now recollected, or whether they now strike the poet unexpectedly for the first time in the moment of recollection. For if the speaker of the first four stanzas has already had these insights, one cannot suppose that he catches himself in a self-deception as a new interpretation of the recollected experience suddenly dawns on him. The blurred boundary between recollected experience and the process of recollection makes it impossible to decide whether the analogues in the first four stanzas should be taken as reliable or not.

Paul Breslin: On "Lying in a Hammock on William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota"

… The horse droppings are changed from dung to "golden stones" by the natural alchemy of sunlight, much as the butterfly turned to "bronze." The mention of "Last year’s horses" gently disturbs the illusion of temporal suspension, but time remains a benign force; it has taken away the odor of the horse droppings, cleansing them of their rankness and preparing them for their transformation into "golden stones."

It is the last line of "Lying in a Hammock …" that everyone remembers, but a close look at the two lines preceding it reveals that Wright very skillfully turns the poem toward its ending; the last line has a subtle but convincing connection with them: [Breslin cites the last three lines of the poem]. As if prompted by the reminder of time in the words "last year’s horses," the poet notices that the day approaches its end. He is finished looking about a leans back, passively waiting for the evening, which quite actively "darkens and comes on." With the arrival of the chicken hawk, "looking for home," the poet realizes that he too must go home; it is time to rise from the hammock and return to the "empty house." It is this impending return that prompts him to compare reality as seen from the hammock with the quotidian reality awaiting him in the house. After his experience of solitary plenitude, his usual pursuits seem a waste of time; the hammock seems more truly "home" than the house does.

Paul Breslin: On "Dream Song 4"

With Berryman, the adoption of "Henry" as a persona mitigates the bluntness of self-disclosure. So does his self-deprecatory wit. Lowell and Plath are seldom funny, and even when they are, theirs is a muted, saturnine humor. Already by the fourth Dream Song, Berryman has struck a comic note never sounded in their poetry:

and only the fact of her husband & four other people kept me from springing on her

or falling at her little feet and crying 'You are the hottest one for years of night Henry's dazed eyes have enjoyed, Brilliance.' I advanced upon (despairing) my spumoni.

Much as I like Berryman at his best, I have omitted detailed discussion of his work, because he seems less "confessional," in the sense defined by Rosenthal and Alvarez, than Lowell and Plath. Although Berryman occasionally claimed representative implications for his private suffering (as in the Massachusetts Review interview quoted earlier), the poems seldom draw the sorts of parallels between personal and social history that one finds in those of Lowell and Plath, who, between them, define a polarity within the confessional mode.

from The Psycho-Political Muse: American Poetry since the Fifties. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. Copyright © 1987 by the U of Chicago P.

Paul Breslin: On "Lady Lazarus"

"Lady Lazarus," another anthology-piece, reveals that this vacillation has, in addition to its misplaced mimetic function, a rhetorical function as well. This poem, much more overtly than "Daddy," anticipates and manipulates the responses of the reader. The speaker alternately solicits our sympathy and rebukes us for meddling. "Do I terrify?" she asks; she certainly hopes so. By comparing her recovery from a suicide attempt to the resurrection of Lazarus, she imagines herself as the center of a spectacle—we envision Christ performing a miracle before the astonished populace of Bethany. But unlike the beneficiary of the biblical miracle, Plath's "lady Lazarus" accomplishes her own resurrection and acknowledges no power greater than herself. "Herr God; Herr Lucifer, I Beware I Beware," she warns. Her self-aggrandizing gestures invite attention, and yet we are to be ashamed of ourselves if we accept the invitation:

The peanut-crunching crowd

Shoves in to see


Them unwrap me hand and foot—

The big strip-tease.

The crowd is aggressive ("shoves"), its interest lascivious; it seeks an illicit titillation, if not from the speaker's naked body, then from her naked psyche.

Again, one might argue that the divided tone of "Lady Lazarus" is a legitimately mimetic representation of the psychology of suicide. A suicide attempt is partly motivated by the wish to get attention and exact revenge on those who have withheld attention in the past by making them feel responsible for one's death. Those who attempt suicide in a manner unlikely to succeed—and Plath 's attempts, including the successful one, seem to have been intended to fail—are torn between the desire "to last it out and not come back at all" and the hope that someone will care enough to intervene. Moreover, a suicide attempt is itself a confession, a public admission of inward desperation: Recovering from such an attempt, one would have to contend with the curiosity aroused in other people. One might indeed feel stripped naked, sorry to have called so much attention to oneself, and yet suddenly powerful in commanding so much attention.

Plath's analogy of the strip-tease or the sideshow conveys, with force and precision, the ambivalence of suicidal despair. Had she extended that metaphor through the entire poem, holding its complexities in balance, "Lady Lazarus" might have achieved the stability of tone and judgment lacking in "Daddy." But unfortunately, Plath succumbed to the urge to whip up further lurid excitement with the analogy of the concentration camp, introduced in stanzas two and three but dormant thereafter until it returns at the end of stanza twenty-one. It reenters stealthily:

There is a charge


For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge

For the hearing of my heart.

It really goes.


And there is a charge, a very large charge,

For a word or a touch

Or a bit of blood


Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.

The first five lines of this passage, which continue the metaphor of strip-tease or freak show, are witty and self-possessed in their bitterness. "Large charge" is of course, slang for "big thrill" and so glances at the titillation the audience receives as well as the price of admission. But with "a bit of blood / Or a piece of my hair or my clothes," we suddenly recall the "Nazi lampshade" of stanza two. The speaker's "enemy"' whether it be Herr God, Herr Lucifer, or the peanut-crunching crowd, would kill her and dismember the body for commodities (or, in the context of biblical miracle, relics; in either case she is martyred). Interestingly, as the irony becomes less controlled, more phantasmagorical and unhinged, the rhythm begins to fall into anapests, and the rhyme on "goes" and "clothes" is one of the most insistent in the poem. The sound of the poetry, reminiscent of light verse, combines strangely with its macabre sense, rather like certain passages in "The Raven" where one feels that Poe has been demonically possessed by W. S. Gilbert ("For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being / Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door").

In the last twenty lines of "Lady Lazarus," irony vanishes, its last glimmer coming ten lines from the end in "Do not think I underestimate your great concern." By this point, the speaker has turned from the crowd to address a single threatening figure:

So, so, Herr Doktor

So, Herr Enemy.


I am your opus,

I am your valuable

The pure gold baby. . . .

The enemy, hitherto unspecified, turns out to be a German male authority figure, perhaps a scholar like Otto Plath ("Herr Doktor"), who thinks of the speaker as his "pure gold baby." An inward confrontation with this father imago replaces the confrontation with the intrusive crowd. The poem enters a realm of pure fantasy as the "Herr Doktor" rapidly assumes the cosmic proportions of "Herr God, Herr Lucifer." There is also a shift in the figurative language, corresponding to the shift in tone and implied audience. The clammy imagery of "the grave cave" and "worms . . . like sticky pearls" gives way to an imagery of death by fire. The resurrection of Lazarus becomes the birth of the Phoenix, and the extended metaphor of a public spectacle abruptly disappears. The threat of the final line, "And I eat men like air" (SP, 247), has little connection with anything in the first twenty-one stanzas.

As with "Daddy," one may try to save consistency by declaring the speaker a "persona." The poem, by this reckoning, reveals a woman gradually caught up in her anger and carried by it toward a recognition of its true object: not the crowd of insensitive onlookers, but the father and husband who have driven her to attempt suicide. The end of the poem, thus understood, breaks free of defensive irony to release cathartic rage. But it is hard to see why this rage is cathartic, since it no sooner locates its "real" object than it begins to convert reality back into fantasy again, in a grandiose and finally evasive fashion. Was it that Plath unconsciously doubted her right to be angry and therefore had to convict her father and her husband of Hitlerian monstrosities in order to justify the anger she nonetheless felt? Or did she fear that the experiential grounds of her emotions were too personal for art unless mounted on the stilts of myth or psycho-historical analogy? On such questions one can only speculate, and the answers, even if they were obtainable, could illuminate the poems only as biographical evidence, not as poems.

From The Psycho-Political Muse: American Poetry since the Fifties. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. Copyright © 1987 by the University of Chicago Press.

Paul Breslin: On "Daddy"

"Daddy" is one of Plath's most detailed autobiographical poems, and perhaps for that reason, it occasionally takes the shared resonance of private references too much for granted. When Plath describes her father as a "Ghastly statue with one gray toe / Big as a Frisco seal," the reader may shrug and mutter, "Oh, well, a harmless touch of surrealism." If one reads Butscher's biography and learns that Otto Plath's fatal illness began when "he developed a sore on his toe in the middle of 1940 and neglected it completely until he required hospitalization," the literal significance of this otherwise arbitrary detail becomes clear. But one can read not only "Daddy," but all of the other poems as well, without finding the literal fact required to remove the lines about the "gray toe" from the opacity of private symbolism. One might also ask the motive for the portentousness surrounding the ages ten, twenty, and thirty (which requires Otto Plath to die when his daughter is ten rather than eight). finally, the association of the father with Nazis becomes somewhat more comprehensible when we realize that Otto Plath died in 1940. The Plaths, as German Americans, were appalled by Hitler and followed the news from Europe closely. One can see how, to a child, the death of her father, roughly coinciding with a terrible threat emanating from the father's country of origin, might suggest fantasies of Hitler as her father's ghost, striking back from the grave. But all of this is guesswork based on information withheld from the poem—and withheld, it seems likely, from Plath's conscious recognition also. To interpret the poem thus is not merely to use biography as a way of understanding context, but to use it as a counter-text, correcting that of the poem. Such interpretations may be useful in reconstructing biographical truth, but they will not do for reading poems.

"Daddy" always makes a powerful and simple effect when read aloud. One hears the gradual release of suppressed anger, building to the triumphant dismissal: "Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I'm through." The simplicity immediately evaporates when one begins to ask what attitude the poem encourages us to take toward its speaker. To what extent does this voice have the poet's endorsement? One finds, once the initial impact has worn off, many of the ironic disclaimers associated with dramatic monologue. By calling the poem "Daddy" rather than, say, "Father," Plath lets us know that she recognizes the outburst to follow as childish, truer to the child's fantasy of domination and abandonment than to the adult's reconstruction of the facts. The diction of the poem keeps reminding us of that childishness: "Achoo" as a verb, "gobbledy-goo," "pretty red heart." The obsessive repetition, not only of certain words but of the rhyme-sound oo, evokes the doggerel of playground chants or, more to the point, the stubborn reiterations of a temper tantrum. The poet shows her awareness that her rage is partly a tantrum by allowing the savagery to be touched with humor:

There's a stake in your fat black heart

And the villagers never liked you.

They are dancing and stamping on you.

They always knew it was you.


But of course they couldn’t know "it was you," since "daddy" is a vampire only in the privacy of the speaker's fantasy. The joke turns—although one may laugh at it without quite realizing this—on the brazen ratification of private nightmare as communal good sense.

There is some warrant, then, for claiming that the speaker of "Daddy" does not have the full endorsement of the poet, who knew very well how excessive the speaker's outburst is and wrote that knowledge into the poem. On these grounds too, one might defend the poem against Irving Howe's charge that "there is something monstrous, utterly disproportionate, when tangled emotions about one's father are deliberately compared with the historical fate of the European Jews." If we argue that the poet encloses the speaker's point of view within a more mature authorial judgment, we can claim that the disproportion is deliberate and ironic. The grotesque inflation of private suffering to the scale of the holocaust would then illustrate the workings of the unconscious, in which such distortions occur as a matter of course, and would not represent the poet's rational assessment of her condition. It was not Plath or any other confessional poet, but W. H. Auden who wrote:

Accurate scholarship can

Unearth the whole offense

From Luther until now

That has driven a culture mad,

Find what occurred at Linz,

What huge imago made

A psychopathic god. . . .


If, as Auden's lines would have it, the "psychopathic god" whom the Nazis worshipped as their Fuhrer was an externalization of typical German fantasies about typical German fathers, why should we fault Plath for looking through the other end of the telescope, finding in her own fantasies about "daddy" the stuff of which psychopathic gods are made?

Having made this defense, however, I find that the poem as a whole will not sustain it. Sometimes, as in the simpering cuteness of "bit my pretty red heart in two" or the impotently furious tautology of "the brute, brute heart / Of a brute like you," Plath seems intent on making her speaker sound foolish. But there is no mistaking the dead-serious rage that generates the poem's hypnotic reiterations. The ironic self-deflation fades in and out without warning:

But the name of the town is common

My Polack friend


Says there are a dozen or two.

So I never could tell where you

But your foot, your root, I never could talk to you.

The tongue stuck in my jaw.


It stuck in a barb wire snare

Ich, ich, ich, ich,

I could hardly speak

I thought every German was you.

And the language obscene


An engine, an engine

Chuffing me off like a Jew,

A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.

I began to talk like a Jew.

I think I may well be a Jew.


One can get dizzy trying to follow the tonal shifts of this passage. The first lines are casual: the speaker can use the pejorative "Polack," since the friend knows it's a joke. "There are a dozen or two"—the precise number is of no great concern. "The name of the town is common," after all. One would never guess, from these three lines alone, the breathless intensity that prevails elsewhere in the poem. From their perspective, the story of Otto Plath is but one of many like it—many immigrants came to America from towns like his. But with the next lines, we are back inside the speaker's haunted psyche: the location of the town becomes a dark secret withheld, another proof that "I never could talk to you." With the return of the oo rhyme, the obsessive, angry voice that began the poem returns also. The speaker's comparison of herself to a Jew hauled off "to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen" is chilling, but the last two lines of the passage are again ironic, even incongruously funny.

Not only does the tone of "Daddy" veer precipitously between the luridly sinister and the self-deprecatingly clever, there are places where Plath's technical competence simply deserts her. Poems that ironically bracket the consciousness of the speaker within that of the poet must give assurances that the poet sees through the language of the speaker, and recognizes, as the speaker does not, its evasions and failures. Many lines, even whole stanzas, resist enclosure in an ironic discourse:

I have always been scared of you,

With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.

And your neat mustache

And your Aryan eye, bright blue.

Panzer-man, panzer-man, O you—


"Scared of you"—this is the speech of childhood, but in earnest. "Gobbledygoo" is also the language of childhood, but it is applied to the father, not the daughter, and seems to be chosen for reasons of sound, not sense. Why is "gobbledygoo" parallel to "Luftwaffe," as if it were an equally dreaded alternative? The rhythm of the last line, moreover, is extremely awkward. The sing-songy lilt of iambs and anapests suddenly reverses accent in a line of two dactyls followed by an iamb. (I assume demoted stress on the last syllable of "panzer-man," because otherwise there is total metrical chaos.) The exclamation "O you," since it cannot raise the already feverish emotional temperature any further, appears, like "gobbledygoo," to result from carelessness. My point is not just that the stanza is badly written, although it is, but that it sounds full of conviction, rather than ironically aware of its own badness. One cannot feel that the poet sees through the speaker's obsession and presents it to the reader for judgment. My reservations about "Daddy" are similar to those expressed earlier about "Skunk Hour." Both poems memorably evoke intense and painful inward states but vacillate in their implicit interpretation of the experience they present. In both, the language fluctuates between lyrical endorsement and ironic critique of the speaker's despair. Such vacillation, of course, occurs in the experience of those who struggle against despair or madness, but if form is not to be mere imitative form, poetry about this kind of experience must clarify the motives of that vacillation rather than simply reproducing it.

From The Psycho-Political Muse: American Poetry since the Fifties. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. Copyright © 1987 by the University of Chicago Press.