Robert Pack

Stephen Dunn: "On "Mr. Flood's Party"

"Mr. Flood's Party," one of Edwin Arlington Robinson's Tilbury Town Portraits, above all shows his mastery of tone, and in this case how such mastery rescues--almost entirely--his subject matter from the bathos with which it flirts. "Almost" will be one of the concerns of this essay, though Eben Flood remains a memorable Robinson character, in the good company of Reuben Bright, Miniver Cheevy, Richard Cory, and the less-defeated Cliff Klingenhasen.

Eben Flood, his aloneness intensified by old age, may or may not be a drunk, but on this particular evening he has the regular drinker's comic sense of self-imposed propriety. He needs to give himself permission. For some, it's when the sun is below the yardarm; for Eben, the solitary that he is, it's the need for social drinking, for a companion, to have, as the title suggests, a party. It's one of the smallest and saddest parties ever registered in a poem, made so by Eben's elaborate formalities with his compliant alter ego. But the same formalities make us smile, too, which is Robinson's genius. We are regularly distracted from bathos by felicities both tonal and prosodic.

I found myself admiring Robinson's ambition to work as closely as possible to his subject while still orchestrating all of its effects. "Reuben Bright" and "Richard Cory," are also poems that display Robinson's gift for this kind of intimacy, though their famous endings (one character tears down the slaughterhouse, the other goes home and puts a bullet through his head) succeed with tones so matter-of-fact that they suggest a greater balance of distance and intimacy than Robinson was able to achieve at the end of "Mr. Flood's Party." This may be why the last stanza doesn't resonate beyond what has already been established in the poem.

The poem's first stanza situates us immediately, both physically and psychologically. Its five-line opening sentence couldn't be much better paced or orchestrated.

Old Eben Flood, climbing alone one night Over the hill between the town below And the forsaken upland hermitage That held as much as he should ever know On earth again of home, paused warily.

Eben Flood is between a place that is forsaken and a town (we will soon learn) that no longer remembers him. And this hermitage of his "held as much as he should ever know / on earth again of home." The word that pricks us is "again," because it suggests that home was once a homier place, and no doubt also because of its consonantal resonance with the other n sounds, as those in "alone" and "forsaken." And how adroitly Robinson emphasizes "paused" after the long clause that establishes Eben's plight. The three iambs before it prepare us for an unstressed syllable. When instead we get a stressed syllable, we feel that a dramatic moment has been properly timed and delivered, Eben has paused, warily. He's about to begin his party, and it would be too embarrassing for him if others were about. In the lines that follow, we don’t quite know how good and ironically understated "having leisure'' is until we read further. And the road Eben is on is "his" in more ways than one, and more ways than one is how Robinson likes it.

Well, Mr. Flood, we have the harvest moon Again, and we may not have many more

commences Eben's address to himself and, almost in passing, allows us to hear that he doesn't expect to live much longer. The poet of "the bird is on the wing" is Khayyám. Eben has his prop; the social drinker offers a toast to the only companion he has, and acceptance is guaranteed. They drink to the bird in flight. It's a toast to the departed or the departing--an excuse to indulge, perhaps even a death wish. Probably both.

The third stanza deepens what we already know, and the highly stressed "a valiant armor of scarred hopes outworn" distinguishes itself as language while complicating our attitude toward Mr. Flood. (Eben is valiant; he no longer even has scarred hopes.) We learn that he once had been "honored" by his friends. The allusion is either to Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" or to the medieval French poem "Chanson de Roland." The former suggests a quest and the latter a kind of stubborn heroism. If it's the former, it's for purposes of comic disparity (Eben's quest is drink). If it's the latter, there's reason to receive it poignantly, since Roland, trapped by the enemy, refused to blow his horn to signal help from Charlemagne's army until the moment of his death, just as plausibly, it is there to suggest that Eben is already like a ghost. He can hear the town's "phantom salutation of the dead" calling to him.

But in stanza four, his context firmly established now, Robinson most artfully makes his poem resonate beyond its sentimental concerns. "He set the jug down slowly at his feet / Knowing that most things break; / And only when assured that on firm earth / it stood, as the uncertain lives of men / assuredly did not" are arguably the poem's finest moments, the poet allowing himself wise asides happily mitigated--though not reduced--by the fact that he's talking about a jug. No feel of the didactic here. These editorials on the human condition are rooted in setting and circumstance. Moreover, they represent a perfect blending of two sources, Eben's thoughts and Robinson's--just the right intimacy.

Eben's handling of the jug, which carries in it a temporary surcease of loneliness, is likened to the tenderness with which a mother would handle a sleeping child. This action is both comedic and heroic. We can imagine the slowness, the delicacy, with which a drunk puts something down so as not to break it. Eben is in the middle of a journey between two equally undesirable places, home and town; his heroism is in his effort toward good humor while he steels himself with drink. The jug is another character in the poem. In modern parlance, it's his baby, and he will care for it as such.

His invocation to his second self, his drinking companion, is more convivial at this point than self-pitying, though it's an edgy conviviality: "many a change has come / to both of us, I fear, since it was / last we had a drop together." The "I fear" registers with us, as does the end of his toast, "Welcome home!" We feel the irony in that last word, emphasized by its placement and its rhyme. it should be noted that Robinson employs only two rhymes (with one exception) in each of his eight-line stanzas: at the ends of the second and fourth fines and the sixth and the eighth. Here Robinson gets maximum effect out of rhyme, even though it's more near than exact. "Home" stops us, or is stopped for us by both its exclamation point and the click of cooperative sound. We have not forgotten where he is. Home now is stupor, in the middle of nowhere.

The toast complete, Robinson mimics successfully the manners of the drunk who might also be a Puritan: "if you insist" and "Only a very little." This is an engaging burlesque within the larger, pathetic scene. Tonally, at this moment, we as readers are not asked to feel sorry for Eben. We are allowed to enjoy how well the poet, by blending tones, has been equal to the psychological and linguistic imperatives of his task. The lines that follow serve further to demonstrate Robinson's deft comic timing, which is linked to his metrical brilliance.

For auld lang syne. No more, sir; that will do.

So, for the time, apparently it did.

And Eben evidently thought so too;

Throughout, the poem has employed a mixture of blank verse and rhymed, often loose, iambic pentameter. The iambic pentameter has been regular enough to permit Robinson many variations and substitutions. The illusion of natural speech has been maintained while "the grid of meter" has served as underpinning. To my ear, the line, "For auld lang syne. No more, sit; that will do," arguably has seven stresses. Only "For" and "No" and perhaps "will" would seem to be unstressed. But the prosodic fun occurs with the semicolon after "air." It breaks the iamb-spondee-iamb flow of the line (a string of two-syllable feet), while conforming exactly to the way that we trust Eben's elaborate formality with himself would be spoken. The ten-syllable line has been kept, but has been metrically fractured right at the point where Eben, or at least half of him, is trying to stop drinking. The narrative coyness inherent in "apparently" and "evidently" also serve the comic. Robinson would have us entertain that the narrator-observer, heretofore omniscient, is suddenly uncertain in this highly managed fiction. The uncertainty serves to underscore the narrative playfulness at this juncture, as does the placement of "did" after "do" as end words in successive lines. These are welcome balancing touches in a poem so potentially sentimental.

In the lines that follow, Robinson returns to a device that worked well for him earlier in the poem, the apparently positive word or phrase that in context suggests a harsh irony. Earlier we were told "The road was his" and that Eben had "leisure." Now Eben is "secure," a word set apart by commas, which denotatively means he's not worried about being overheard singing out loud. We wait a full line before the "until" comes, and then his entire landscape echoes back to him the song of old times, his sad anthem.

I'm not sure what "with only two moons listening" is supposed to mean. It's a curious moment, the "'only" suggesting that Eben expects more than two. My guess would be that Eben's selves each have a moon, or that to Eben's drunken eye there appear to be two moons. Frost's enigmatic reading of the two moons ("Two, as on the planet Mars.") in his "Introduction to Robinson's King Jasper" seems only to beg the issue.

When the landscape echoes "For auld lang syne," the poem reaches its climax. Eben cannot escape the sound of his own lamentation. Afterward, his "weary throat gave out" and the poem spirals into unrelieved pathos. It is in this stanza that Robinson's compositional balance of intimacy and distance--his ability to deliver to us with multiple tones this valiant, sad, and drunken man--fails him. He can only sum up for us what we already know. One longs for some resonance comparable to what he was able to effect in stanza four, a line that would evaluate and measure Eben's condition as much as it declares it, or the sudden rightness that makes poetry poetry.

"Mr. Flood's Party" is a very good poem by a very good poet, as close to a great poet as a very good poet can be. Who knows, perhaps a great poet. I wouldn't argue. But in "Mr. Flood's Party," Robinson's language at the end neither pulls back far enough to position Eben as sufferer, nor does he stay close enough to him to participate sufficiently in his thoughts. Instead Robinson gets caught in the middle, a toneless ground that has to depend on easy (if momentarily effective) wordplay and juxtaposition: ahead/below; many doors/many friends, would have shut/had opened. Closure is accomplished, but tonal resonance is lost.

Compositional intimacy, like most intimacy, may be at its best when one keeps in reserve something peculiarly his own to, at last, give away. Robinson had said all he had to say about Eben halfway through the last stanza. But before that he gave us an exquisitely managed portrait of a man presumably without family and who had outlived his friends, struggling one evening to create his own solace.

John Engels: On "Frau Bauman, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartz"

The shape of Theodore Roethke's "Frau Baumann, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartz," narrow at the top and gradually widening, first to the pentameter of the break line, then, after an opening pentameter, back into eight two- and three-stress lines, abruptly resolves in the expansion and powerful stabilization of the heptameter. It moves from the passive declaration of the first line, through the furious activity of the next seven and three-quarters lines to the stop of the semicolon after "chrysanthemums." Then, after a slow interval of four lines--where all the windings and climbings of the opening are undercut by "the stiff / stems, jointed like corn" which the old women "tie and tuck," flat, truncated words and actions--it hurls itself into the next sequence and builds to its grand conclusion. These old women bring life out of cold sleep, they order the very light of the day, they plan beyond their own concerns.

The old women, long dead, return in the second stanza to the object of their plotting, or, perhaps, to the one who has made himself imaginatively the object of their plotting--the poet, lying cold in his bed, the seed asleep in him. They hover over him, the poem turns back on itself to all the doubleness of meaning that is in everything, and we are required to draw parallels between the poet and the forces that manipulate him, that order his wildness, that draw out his life--that work, as he must work, beyond themselves, for more than themselves.

In other words, these old women, like poets, are caretakers, orderers of plenitude, who take joy in their work. They creak, they wind, they straighten, tie, and tuck, dip, sift, sprinkle, and shake, straddle and billow and twinkle and fly. They do these things in the world of a greenhouse crammed to overflowing with flowers whose reality is their names; sweet-peas, smilax, nasturtiums, climbing roses, carnations, chrysanthemums, and their lively extensions--tendrils, coils, loops, and whorls.

All this takes place in short, three-stress lines, strongly enjambed, ending in twenty-one nouns, six verbs, and four adjectives, breaking over to nine lines that begin with verbs, six with nouns and two with strong adjectives, including five that consist of nothing but action: "to wind, to wind," "they tied and tucked," "they trellised ... they plotted," "pinching and poking." Further, the first nineteen lines are dense with verbs, the poem as it resolves trailing off into the relative passivity of the dream of the old women, long gone, but still in attendance on the speaker "in his first sleep" "alone and cold in his bed."

These old women, tenders of the greenhouse, are "witches" who tease out all those spiralings, inward-turnings, reachings-out, and relentless vegetable graspings that in the greenhouse poems and throughout his career signified for Roethke the obduracy of life. The old women are life-givers, who provide the same service to the "spindly kid," as to the flowers, pinching and poking him, who, like the plants, would otherwise lie forever "cold in his bed." They come to him, muses whose responsibility it is to "tease out the seed that the cold [keeps] asleep." And lest it seem that he has transformed them beyond themselves and out of real breath, Roethke at the end of the poem is emphatic that the world is their province--they have awakened from their first sleep and fallen into their last, but they still sweat and bleed, and "their snuff-laden breath blows lightly over [him] in [his] first sleep."

I've always preferred Roethke's earlier poems. The later ones seem to me often overwrought and over-wrought, while the early poems, though certainly not always understated, usually display a control beyond their obvious formalities. They play off a considerable exuberance of language and feeling against a base restraint, and exhibit a controlled wildness of voice and spirit that in some of the later work is gone at too hard and can seem manufactured.

My favorite of the greenhouse poems is "Frau Baumann, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartz." I admire its massing of detail, its rapid accumulation of disparate elements until suddenly, quite unexpectedly, a critical mass occurs, and the whole edifice ignites, develops the momentum that jazz musicians call drive, and that force the music critic of Time once attributed to Helen Traubel’s voice, saying it was like a steel girder abruptly flung across the auditorium. I like the effect of the long coordinate sentences run through and over short lines, that Yeatsian trick, forcing the reader at every line ending to the life-threatening little decision as to whether or not to go on, as the sentence requires, or to stop, as the line with an equal imperative insists--and in making that decision, feeling the orchestration of tiny propulsive shocks that manipulate the poem's tempi and rhetorical strategies.

Roethke is not addressing us expositorily in this poem. As he says elsewhere, the poet always "perceives the thing in physical terms." He is realizing the substance of an emotion. In another genre he might have been more analytical, or dealt with matters more fully, paying more attention, for example, to characterization, narrative, or setting. But here, in the especially immediate and concentrated vision of the poem, he is re-presenting and reimagining a particular experience that at the same time provides us the name for something we suddenly are required to realize we have always known.

"Frau Baumann, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartz" is a poem that demonstrates particularly well this characteristic double vision of the artist, this illumination of the simultaneity of two realities. Thus the three old ladies of this poem are at the same time quite literally three old ladies with sensible Teutonic names, greenhouse workers, sweaty, smelly, "thorn-bitten," but strangely passionate about their work, at the same time that they are mysteriously transubstantiated to keepers of Creation.

A great poem is an improvisation, something both individual and collective, ending in something new and strongly punctuated by bursts of ego in the solos, during which the rest of the world riffs. But nothing is ever given up by one vision to the exclusion of the other. As Marvin Bell points out, "poetry is a quality of the imagination and language inextricably bound up with the recognizable world ... a kind of flying, that ... gets up and goes." In other words, a poem, though it begins and ends in time and the world, is never simply a representation of nature--for, as someone has said, "a mirror returns to us not our identity but our anonymity." We require to be brought to our identities, to the source of the common life we recognize intuitively in one another.

Thus the sense we have, in any lively work of art, of dimension, of more than one thing happening at the same time, of contingent existences, mutually energetic, none disposing of the other for its own sake, nor of itself for the other. The poet must generalize the subject, without destroying its particularity, in order to extend its significance beyond the limits of that particular experience. The result is to merge our understanding with others, to enlarge it--to emphasize community. Experience is not univocal, but orchestral, and cannot be expressed adequately in templates of experience.

Lev Loseff points out that "words are accumulations of immense practical experience. Language is a million matters of thought, and the aim in a poem is to make it untranslatable." Roethke succeeds especially well here, I think. Still, poets are devious, and this poem is interpretable, as I hope we have seen, if not paraphrasable. We come to its truths as in the real world we come to conclusions, first through the provision of our senses, the practical intellect that feeds the speculative.

We are dealing here with the issue of indirectness, the meaning of the poem as a complex interrelationship of expressive elements, a resonant matter. What happens, for example, when one tries to paraphrase "Frau Baumann, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartz"? What is the poem doing, except describing an action? How does one paraphrase an action? There is no meditative process here, no interpretation of the action, no exposition, no metaphor, and, despite its allusiveness, not much in the way of symbolism. This poem seems to be doing no more than reporting what it sees and appears at first glance to be almost nothing but literal surface.

But poets are not much in favor of the self-evident; they are not only concerned, in the words of R. P. Blackmur, with "the matter in hand," but wish to add "to the stock of available reality." For poets, as for an artist, the world is not expendable. No artist wants to abandon its determinations, but always to transform the observable without destroying it, to incorporate realities into the unified vision of the work. And so in "Frau Baumann, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartz," beyond the description and apart from the narrative, there occur points of transformation at each of which the literal surface, while powerfully presented and sustained, is extended to what Caesar Pavese has called the double vision "through which, from the single object of the senses vividly absorbed and possessed, there radiates a sort of halo of unexpected spirituality."

Thus the catalysis of the phrases "these nurses of nobody else" who "keep creation at ease," "teased out the seed the cold kept asleep" and "plotted for more than themselves." These inform the poem to its extension from what until that point has been--however resonant, active, and richly textured--no more (or less) than a vivid recreation of the quotidian. At such nodes in all great concatenations of language, the drive is given impulse, the voice flung out into and over the anonymities of the auditorium, and the incarnation takes place--in short, there commences the poem.

Robert Pack: On "The Snow Man"

In the remarkable poem "The Snow man," Steven dramatizes the action of a mind as it becomes one with the scene it perceives, and at that instant, the mind having ceased to bring something of itself to the scene, the scene then ceases to exist fully.

[. . . .]

We, with the "one" of the poem, begin by watching the winter scene while in our mind the connotations of misery and cold brought forth by the scene are stirring. But gradually, almost imperceptibly, we are divested of whatever it is that distinguishes us from the snow man. We become the snow man, and we see the winter world through his eyes of coal, and we know the cold without the thoughts of human discomfort. To perceive the winter scene truly, we must have the mind of the snow man, until correspondence becomes identification. Then we see with the sharpest eye the images of winter: "pine-trees crusted with snow," "junipers shagged with ice," "spruces rough in the distant glitter/ Of the January sun." We hear with the acutest ear the cold sibilants evoking the sense of barrenness and monotony: "sound of the wind," "sound of a few leaves," "sound of the land," "same wind," "same bare place," "For the listener, who listens in the snow." The "one" with whom the reader has identified himself has now become "the listener, who listens in the snow"; he has become the snow man, and he knows winter with a mind of winter, knows it in its strictest reality, stripped of all imagination and human feeling. But at that point when he sees the winter scene reduced to absolute fact, as the object not of the mind, but of the perfect perceptual eye that sees "nothing that is not there," then the scene, devoid of its imaginative correspondences, has become "the nothing that is."

From Wallace Stevens: An approach to his poetry and thought. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1958. Copyright © 1958 by Rutgers, The State University.

Robert Pack: On "Disillusionment of Ten O' clock"

Stevens' titles often provide us with his attitude toward the action that takes place within a poem, and therefore they have a special function in the structure of the poem. If the title is humorous, ironic or ambiguous, it is necessary to regard the poem from this perspective. "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock" contrasts people who "are not going/ To dream of baboons and periwinkles" with the old, drunk and dreaming sailor who "Catches tigers/ In red weather." The inability of these people to live in the colored world of the imagination, to be ghosts dressed in "purple with green rings," is their disillusionment. Stevens' irony is severe in its judgment; clearly he would not have the sailor abandon the illusion that enables him to catch tigers. And we may conjecture further: why are ghosts in "white night-gowns" any more real than ghosts attired in color? The color red suggests the intensity of the sailor's commitment to imagination, and if we believe with Stevens that the imagination is "The magnificent cause of being, the one reality/ In this imagined world," then surely the dreaming sailor's illusion saves us from the disillusionment which reduces modern life to a drab reality.

The "disillusionment" in this poem would deprive us of the fictions that enrich our lives.

From Wallace Stevens: An approach to his poetry and thought. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1958. Copyright © 1958 by Rutgers, The State University.