Roger Gilbert

Roger Gilbert: On "Shirt"

"No Histories but in Things: Robert Pinsky's Rhizomatic X-Rays."

Over the past two decades American poets have increasingly turned to history in an effort to extend the reach of poetry beyond narrowly aesthetic and expressionist parameters. Yet most contemporary poets continue to distrust the conventional narrative forms largely abandoned early in the century. One solution to the problem of including history without narrating it has been to maintain the focus on ordinary material objects and artifacts inherited from modernism while deepening and thickening their historical implications. Among recent poets who have explored the historicity of everyday objects is our current Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Pinsky's object poems is their refusal to posit a singular, genetic, linear history for the things they ponder. In the terminology of Deleuze and Guattari, Pinsky's histories are rhizomatic rather than arboreal; rather than tracing the branching pathways that issue from a single root, they map the multiple lines of historical meaning and process that converge in some deceptively simple object: a shirt, a saxophone, a window. In doing so they open a fresh perspective on more broadly human history as well, suggesting that it cannot be reduced to a set of self-contained narratives or traditions, whether geographically, ethnically or economically delineated. Pinsky's work seeks to imagine history as an infinitely complex web rather than a collection of discrete stories, while exploring the moral implications of such imagining for our view of human culture and society.

"Shirt," a poem from Pinsky's 1990 book The Want Bone, is his fullest attempt to locate a common object in history, to see it both as a material presence and as a ghostly embodiment of invisible forces and lives. Widely praised since its first appearance, the poem is a genuine tour de force, a work that invents a new genre yet feels inevitable, even classic. The poem's classicism may have to do with its deeply traditional roots. The literary evocation of a made object and its history reaches back to Homer's descriptions of Achilles' shield and other storied weapons. These epic interludes evolved into the ekphrastic lyric, a poem that meditates on a painting or other work of visual art, typically moving between imaginative engagement with a represented scene and contemplation of the work's aesthetic form and craft. The most famous instance of the genre is certainly the "Ode on a Grecian Urn"; perhaps the most distinguished contemporary examples are Elizabeth Bishop's wonderful poems about amateur paintings. Pinsky deviates sharply from this genre by taking as his subject not a singular work of art but a mass-produced artifact. Even more significantly, he substitutes for the play between physical surface and representational depth a rhythmic oscillation between minute details of the object's fabrication and various aspects of its history. In effect Pinsky's historicizing vision transforms the shirt from a blank, mute, unstoried artifact into a text or picture as dense with images of distant times and places as Keats's urn.

The poem opens with a series of isolated noun phrases that meticulously register the shirt's physical features, savoring not only those features themselves but their specialized, esoteric names:


The back, the yoke, the yardage. Lapped seams,

The nearly invisible stitches along the collar

Turned in a sweatshop by Koreans or Malaysians


Gossiping over tea and noodles on their break

Or talking money or politics while one fitted

This armpiece with its overseam to the band

Of cuff I button at my wrist.


Here Pinsky establishes the pattern he will continue to follow for the course of the poem, smoothly modulating from the tangible physicality of the shirt to an imagined or inferred scene of its production and then back again. This transition is managed in large part through grammar, as the floating nouns of the first line give way to a past participle ("turned") that transports us to the Asian sweatshop, and is in turn succeeded by gerunds ("talking," "gossiping") that evoke the scope and autonomy of the workers' lives. Throughout the poem nouns anatomize the fixed materiality of the shirt while verbs indicate its place in the flux of historical process. Accordingly the poem's syntax keeps shifting between discrete, contiguous noun clauses that name the shirt's visible components with scientific precision, and embryonic narratives whose accretive phrases track unpredictable swerves of action and causality.

The return to the physical immediacy of the shirt is signalled by the deictic "This" as we cross the line break from "fitted": "This armpiece with its overseam. . . . " Having once been admitted into the poem's field of vision, however, images of human agency continue to inform the speaker's awareness of the shirt. Now rather than enumerating the object's physical components, as in the first line, the same grammatical form serves to expand our sense of the human labor that has gone into the shirt's production:


The presser, the cutter,

The wringer, the mangle. The needle, the union,

The treadle, the bobbin. The code. The infamous blaze


At the Triangle Factory in nineteen-eleven.

One hundred and forty-six died in the flames

On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes--


The placement of periods in these lines plays a crucial role in establishing provisional word groupings that enact small dramas of association. In the first sentence, an imperceptible transition from human to object is effected by the word "wringer," which echoes the previous terms "presses" and "cutter," both names of specific workers, while semantically linking itself to the next word "mangle," a machine. Because "wringer" can denote both a person and a machine, it marks the point at which the two categories bleed together. The next sentence mixes three mechanical terms with a social term, "union," surprisingly placed not at the end of the sequence, where it would naturally lead in to the next words, but in the middle. The word thus interrupts what would otherwise seem a straightforward catalogue of sewing machine parts, suggesting that technological and human concerns can't be so neatly compartmentalized. Conversely, by giving "the code" a sentence to itself Pinsky highlights its difference as a purely discursive object.

The mention of the fire code naturally leads to thoughts of its violation, thus introducing the poem's most sustained foray into history. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was the scene of a notorious labor disaster that pointed up the indifference of industrialists to the safety of their employees and galvanized New York's working class. Pinsky's treatment of this event is striking for its lack of political context and interpretation; rather than dwelling on its role in the labor movement, he chooses to incorporate an eyewitness account that offers a strangely romantic view of the carnage:


The witness in a building across the street

Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step

up to the windowsill, then held her out


Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.

And then another. As if he were helping them up

To enter a streetcar, and not eternity.


A third before he dropped her put her arms

Around his neck and kissed him. Then he held

Her into space, and dropped her.


(It should be noted that this passage is taken nearly verbatim from its source, including that haunting streetcar simile.) In focusing on the terrible lyricism of this act rather than either the gruesome effects of the fire or the socioeconomic conditions that led to it, Pinsky might well be accused of aestheticizing history, keeping his distance from its intractable violence so as to more readily assimilate it to the even-toned, meditative measure of his poem. Such an accusation has its force, but in my view does not do justice to the poem's larger project. Pinsky's aim is neither to recount a particular history in all its horror nor to reflect on its political repercussions, but to show us how much history lies behind all the things we touch and see. We can't become convulsed with rage every time we put on a shirt, but we can make room in our experience of everyday objects for a fuller sense of their relation to the world, to the vast web of stories that connect us to each other and the past.

Perhaps this is to say that for Pinsky aesthetic and historical ways of seeing don't preclude one another, though either may dominate at a given moment. The poem's return to the aesthetic presence of the shirt is mediated this time by another poem, as the description of the young man jumping from the factory window, "air filling up the legs of his gray trousers," triggers a memory of Hart Crane's suicidal Bedlamite, "shrill shirt ballooning" (from the "Proem" to The Bridge). These twinned images of violent death give way to an incongruously cheerful observation about the shirt's design:


Wonderful how the pattern matches perfectly

Across the placket and over the twin bar-tacked


Corners of both pockets, like a strict rhyme

Or a major chord.


The unabashed aestheticism of these fines may seem troubling in the wake of the Triangle Factory passage, and surely it's meant to. Like most good poets, Pinsky is asking us to hold contradictory perspectives in our minds at once: to feel the shirt's historical resonance, including its place in the long story of labor and exploitation, while also recognizing its beauty and elegance as a formal object. His adducing of rhyme and harmony solidifies the implicit analogy between shirt and artwork while hinting at the broader logic behind the poem's excursions into history. Just as Crane's Bedlamite "matches" the man falling from the Triangle factory, so the Korean workers of 1990 match the Triangle workers of 1911; history has its own rhymes and chords, its own patterns and symmetries.

Pattern provides the impetus for the poem's next historical digression:


Prints, plaids, checks,

Houndstooth, Tattersall, Madras. The clan tartans


Invented by mill-owners inspired by the hoax of Ossian

To control their savage Scottish workers, tamed

By a fabricated heraldry: MacGregor,


Bailey, MacMartin. The kilt, devised for workers

To wear among the dusty clattering looms.


The intrigation of historical and aesthetic lines becomes especially knotted in this passage: factory owners draw on a pseudo-epic to devise an ersatz visual tradition as an instrument of control, while a garment with totemic cultural status arises out of purely economic exigencies. In this Foucauldian scenario poetry, pattern and power are fused into a single densely woven fabric.

The poem's next historical moment leads us even deeper into the belly of oppressive power:


The planter, the picker, the sorter

Sweating at her machine in a litter of cotton

As slaves in calico headrags sweated in fields:


The allusion to slavery is fleeting, and as with the poem's previous historical episodes Pinsky refrains from overt moralizing, giving us only a quick flash of visual memory. Yet in making this link he insists on the shirt's implication in all phases of history, including its worst injustices. This particular shirt may not be a product of slave labor, but neither can the conditions of its making be wholly divorced from those that preceded it. Pinsky makes this point more concretely in the next lines:


George Herbert, your descendant is a Black

Lady in South Carolina, her name is Irma

And she inspected my shirt.


Like Hart Crane and Ossian, Herbert enters this poem as the representative of a tradition of making both distinct from yet strangely bound up with the making of shirts. Pinsky may have in mind Herbert's "The Collar" as a playful point of contact, but his claim here is also a more literal one: this black woman, whose name (presumably Irma Herbert) appears on a small slip of paper in the shirt's pocket, might well be a direct descendant of George Herbert, given America's complex histories of emigration, slavery, rape and miscegenation. The fact that a plausible if conjectural genealogy can be traced from a working woman in South Carolina to a 17th century English poet and cleric affords further evidence of history's tangled, rhizomatic texture, its refusal to dispose itself in neatly combed parallel lines.

The poem ends as it began, with a simple string of noun clauses, yet now every term has acquired new weight and resonance:


The buttonholes, the sizing, the facing, the characters

Printed in black on neckband and tail. The shape,

The label, the labor, the color, the shade. The shirt.


"Sizing," "facing," and "characters" reverberate with all the questions of scale, knowledge, and agency explored in the poem. The penultimate sentence, however, is surely the richest in its play of sound, form and meaning. The chain of five nouns has the feel of a word ladder, each term transforming itself into the next through small phonetic alterations; thus the diphthong of "shape" carries over into "label," whose first syllable in turn passes to "labor," and so on. This process evokes the metamorphic flux of history itself as represented in the poem, its widely removed places and events merging in their variable blends of sameness and difference. The crucial pair here is clearly "label" and "labor," encapsulating as it does the endlessly complex relations of thing and history, object and agency, name and act. But equally significant is Pinsky's choice not to end the sentence there, instead moving us back into the aesthetic realm with "color." The last word of the sentence, "shade," carries all its senses of shadow, hue, and ghost, holding the visible and the invisible in volatile solution. The fact that it differs by only one letter from the first word, "shape," suggests that these terms form a closed loop both of language and of thought. The same loop is implicitly present in the poem's final sentence, "The shirt," which invites us to begin the journey again that leads from thing to history and back, a process that could be called informed looking. The poem models a way of looking at and thinking about ordinary objects that is both reflective and relaxed, entailing neither an intolerable level of moral awareness nor a purely aesthetic gaze oblivious to history, but recognizing that the aesthetic and the moral form the inextricable warp and woof of all made things, whether poems or shirts.


Copyright © 2000 by Roger Gilbert. Published here by permission of the author.

Roger Gilbert: On "To Elsie"

William Carlos William’s great poem "To Elsie," . . . begins with the famous declaration "The pure products of America / go crazy—" and then immediately starts offering examples of the "products" in question: "mountain folk from Kentucky /or the ribbed north end of / Jersey. . . ." These phrases are wholly generic in their reference, of course, and the poem continues at this level for several stanzas,. speaking of "devil-may-care men" and "young slatterns" without fully individuating them. When Williams finally turns to the particular he does so with a gesture that looks like a qualification of his initial statement:

[Gilbert quotes lines 28-51]

Much of the pathos in this extraordinary passage has to do, I think, with the way Williams stations Elsie just on the border between the particular and the generic. Robert Pinsky has called attention to the insistent use of the word "some" in this poem, a word that, as I hope to show, has a profound significance for American poetry as a whole. Here it serves to locate Elsie, an utterly particular human being, within the societal and discursive contexts that "produce" her. "Some hard-pressed house," "some doctor's family" are conventional phrases that simply point to a specific member of a class; "some Elsie" is devastating, because it identifies individual and class in a way that leaves no room for the saving difference of selfhood. And indeed Williams' portrait brutally physicalizes Elsie, reducing her to a mute symptom of cultural degradation, "expressing" only by her brokenness what has been done to her. We may well conclude that Williams himself does as much to rob Elsie of selfhood as her culture; it is after all his language that transforms her to "voluptuous water" and that dwells on the tawdriness of her desires. Yet it is also Williams, like the state, who has plucked Elsie out of her original context, who has made her an example, a special case, part anomaly and part specimen.

Much hinges on the "Unless" that opens the passage: what does it imply? That Elsie somehow escapes or transcends the misery and the madness that beset the more generic "products" of America, those nameless deaf-mutes, thieves, and slatterns? Does the naming of Elsie itself constitute an act of rescue or merely one of humiliation and display? The poem's subtlety forbids clear-cut answers to any of these questions. What we can say is that the grammar of exemplification in this poem beautifully reproduces the tension between the irreducible singularity of a human being, an Elsie, and the way social and cultural systems can turn such a human being into a generic product, like the car in the poem's closing lines: "No one to witness and adjust, / no one to drive the car." The poem's language frames Elsie as both an exception to and an example of that law that "the pure products of America go crazy," and this grammatical ambiguity is what accounts for her nearly tragic stature. For Williams, exemplification becomes a discursive version of the dehumanizing social forces that turn people into types: hence the poet's refusal to make Elsie just an example, his insistent granting of special powers and qualities to her, can be taken as an effort to "rescue" her from those forces, to give her a life of her own. This effort may be no more successful than that of the state agency, but at least it reminds us of the extent to which language itself always participates in the making and unmaking of selves.

From "Some Parts of a World: Example as Trope in American Poetry." WHR (Summer 1994).

Roger Gilbert: On "Corsons Inlet"

The walk functions as more than metaphor in many of Ammons's poems, most notably his two masterpieces "Corsons Inlet" and "Saliences." Both these poems present themselves as meditations unfolding in the course of actual walk; and both seek to integrate the phenomenal data of the walk with its accompanying stream of thought. They use the walk to lend a formal unity to the formless flux of consciousness, to stake out beginning and ending points, and to establish a spatial ground for the poem's temporal wanderings. The physical walk thus plays an indispensable role in firming up and shaping the analogical, discursive "walking" that the poem enacts, enabling the poet to coordinate his inner processes with the real time of experience, and so to be simultaneously faithful to the limitations of particular circumstance and to the expansive possibilities of pure thought.

"Corsons Inlet" is a volatile balancing of these two conditions, alternating between tight contractions to perceived particulars and broadly general assertions. Ammons originally titled the poem "A Nature Walk" but while this certainly lays greater emphasis on the formal coincidence of poem and walk it also tips the balance too far in the direction of a universal "Nature," and away from the restrictions of the local. In naming the poem after the place in which it is set, Ammons implicitly announces his fidelity to the particulars of his walk, his refusal to synthesize them into some larger conception that would replace or dissolve them. Indeed this refusal constitutes the central discursive gesture of the poem, a fact that accounts for a peculiar discordance between its style and theme. Over and over Ammons tells us that he has "reached no conclusions," committed no "humbling of reality to precept," "perceived nothing completely"; yet he does so in a tone of calm authority and certitude that seems radically at odds with his meaning. One might say that the grammar of statement in the poem clashes with the more fluid kind of syntax associated with the walk itself, so that we are being given both a representation of consciousness in flux and a series of firm claims retrospectively imposed on that flux. The poem's strength lies in its ability to balance this didactic mode of assertion and evocations of a more genuinely open consciousness caught up in the becoming of experience.

The poem opens with a straightforward narration of the walk in its purely external aspect:

I went for a walk over the dunes again this morning

to the sea,

then turned right along

    the surf


                    rounded a naked headland

                    and returned

    along the inlet shore:


    it was muggy sunny, the wind from the sea steady and high

crisp in the running sand,

    some breakthroughs of sun

but after a bit


continuous overcast:

Ammons's language here is at its most mimetic, reminiscent of Williams and Snyder in its alignment of topography and typography. The shape and rhythm of the poem both work to capture the experiential contours of the walk; as David Lehman writes: "Such poems as the frequently anthologized 'Corsons Inlet' feature a more rambling gait, uneven lines with jagged edges that suggest a grammar of space; the poet constantly shifts his margins in an effort to set up antiphonal patterns apposite for 'a walk over the dunes' beside 'the inlet’s cutting edge.’" Ammons makes subtle use of spacing here and throughout the poem to convey not only spatial forms, like that of the headland, but also temporal rhythms, as in the contrast between "some breakthroughs of sun," slightly indented to suggest its intermittent character, and "continuous overcast," which is set off on the page in a way that seems to mime the condition of linear stasis it describes. This kind of mimesis, however, is somewhat foreign to Ammons, who does not share Snyder's willingness to let his experience embody its own meaning. These opening lines must therefore be seen as a deliberately restrained prologue, in which the merely physical aspect of the walk is laid out so as to establish the ground of the poem's discursive utterances. It is essential to the poem's procedure that it begin with the physical experience, since this provides the necessary frame for its assertions, locating them temporally and spatially and so reminding us of their provisional, circumstantial character.

Unlike O'Hara, Ammons sets his walk in the past tense, thus acknowledging the inevitable gap that intervenes between occasion and composition. This gap becomes palpable in the course of the poem, since its discursive assertions are all cast in the present tense, and so are sharply differentiated from its mimesis of the walk as an event in the past. This grammatical difference creates a problem for the reader, however; are we to interpret the poem's thought-content as taking shape after the walk, during the act of composition? Or does the poem’s thought unfold in the course of the walk itself? At first Ammons maintains the temporal separation between walk and thought, as if meditating on an experience that had already taken place; but as the poem continues this division is slowly blurred, until walk and reflection become virtually indistinguishable.

The structure of the poem as a whole may thus be described as a gradual convergence of seeing and thinking, perception and reflection, two modes of consciousness that are at first kept rigorously distinct.

the walk liberating, I was released from forms,

from the perpendiculars,

        straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds

of thought

into the hues, shadings, rises, flowing bends and blends

                of sight

Here Ammons insists that his walk is not contaminated by the rigid forms of thought, but is given over entirely to the subtle continuities of perception. A firm opposition is thus established between thought, with its sharp, angular schemata (imitated in the very sound of the words "blocks, boxes"), and sight, with its "flowing bends and blends," its apprehension of curve and gradation. Yet while Ammons is clearly valorizing the flowing contours of perception, his compartmentalizing of thought and sight in fact exemplifies the "blocks and boxes" of thought, a contradiction that the poem must wrestle to overcome.

While persuasive at first, the opposition between thought and sight turns out to be dangerously constricting as the poem proceeds, since it presents as mutually exclusive aspects of experience that the poet ultimately hopes to unite. While the passage ends with a colon, suggesting that it will be followed by some illustration of the "flowing bends and

blends of sight," it in fact gives way to a more blatant instance of "thought," that is, abstract statement, though now framed in terms taken directly from the landscape of the walk:

                    I allow myself eddies of meaning:

yield to a direction of significance


like a stream through the geography of my work:

    you can find

in my sayings

                    swerves of action

                    like the inlet's cutting edge:

                there are dunes of motion,

organizations of grass, white sandy paths of remembrance

in the overall wandering of mirroring mind:


but Overall is beyond me: is the sum of these events

I cannot draw, the ledger I cannot keep, the accounting

beyond the account:

This conversion of the landscape into a metaphor for the poem represents an overly facile solution to the problem of mediating between sense experience and thought; the notion of "mirroring mind," which recurs throughout Ammons's work (see his poem "Reflective") is here given too literal a realization. Note especially the use of the allegorical "of" construction ("white sandy paths of remembrance"), which has the effect of denying the empirical reality of its first term. This allegorizing of the landscape is, I think, an inevitable outcome of Ammons's overly rigid distinction between perception and thought at the outset of the poem. Like Stevens in "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven," Ammons begins with a static polarity that forces him to commit crude reductions in his effort to bridge the poles. This passage is thus the equivalent of canto II of "An Ordinary Evening," in which Stevens internalizes New Haven too fully, rendering it "an unpalpable town." Like Stevens, Ammons must blur his initial polarity if he is to arrive at a subtle and nuanced account of experience. Accordingly, as the poem proceeds, a more fluid relationship between the literal details of the landscape and the poet's meditation on his own consciousness begins to emerge, in which the landscape does not act as a mere emblem of mind, but rather provides the means by which mind measures its own uncertainties and fluctuations.

The poem's central assertion, as I have said, is its denial of totalization, of the possibility of achieving an "Overall' understanding. All that the poet can do is to enumerate or record, one by one, the separate "events" of both mind and nature as they occur, without seeking to amass them into a larger configuration. Yet the very denial of such a synthesis itself constitutes an act of synthetic thought, an attempt to generalize at the most all-encompassing level. Throughout his work Ammons weds this insatiable penchant for generality with a nominalist distrust of all general concepts; as a result his poetry must keep in constant motion, oscillating between provisional efforts to theorize about the cosmos and adamant returns to the hard data of experience.

Such a return to the immediate circumstances of the walk takes place in the next lines:


in nature there are few sharp lines: there are areas of


    more or less dispersed;

disorderly orders of bayberry; between the rows

of dunes,

irregular swamps of reeds,

though not reeds alone, but grass, bayberry, yarrow, all ...

predominantly reeds:

The passage begins with another general assertion, but thereafter shifts to an account of particulars--somewhat disorientingly, since we are abruptly brought from the level of "nature" as a whole to the localized landscape of the poem without any evident transition. In cataloging the different forms of vegetation he sees, Ammons now adopts in his own language the kind of self-modifying looseness that he didactically invokes in the discursive portions of the poem. At first calling attention to the "irregular swamps of reeds," he at once feels compelled to point out that these contain "not reeds alone, but grass, bayberry, yarrow, all. . ." He trails off because he knows he can never adequately account for the multifarious particulars of the scene, that he will always be guilty of some degree of oversimplification. The "all" thus stands as a gesture toward the many organisms he has had to omit from his catalog; and it is followed by a new formulation that returns to his initial reduction, but this time acknowledges its inadequacy: "predominantly reeds" (italics mine). The three lines nicely illustrate the essential trajectory of Ammons's thought, as he moves from a too singular account of the world ("reeds") to a futile effort to represent its full complexity and multiplicity ("though not reeds alone"), finally coming back to his first account with a new awareness of its partial nature (" predominantly reeds"). They thus begin to offer an antidote to the stark mind/world dualism that led Ammons to allegorize the landscape in the previous passage. Now the poet is able to represent mind and world simultaneously, not by subordinating one as vehicle to the other as tenor, but by depicting mind in the process of grasping world in all its complexity. Seeing and thinking have begun to coalesce.

In the next lines Ammons returns to the assertive mode that runs throughout the poem, alternating with more tentative, exploratory passages:

[. . . .]

Ammons's claim that he has not separated "inside / from outside" stands in direct contradiction to the various dualisms we have already observed in the poem. Yet if Ammons's poem never quite behaves the way he keeps insisting it does, it nonetheless manifests a genuine tendency toward "the becoming / thought," in its less assertive passages at least. The ever-shifting shapes of dunes are his central emblem of mind in motion, an image that will be stunningly developed in "Saliences." A more relevant image of mental process for our purposes comes in his claim to be "willing to go along," in which the literal and analogical dimensions of the walk merge, as they have been implicitly merging throughout the poem. In Ammons's own words (from "A Poem is a Walk"), the walk is "an externalization of an interior seeking," representing with physical immediacy the restless wanderings of a mind that is rarely content to stand still. The problem with the poem up to this point is that Ammons has spent too much time striking a pose, and not enough time "going along," an imbalance that he will shortly begin to remedy.

The notion of transition as "soft," impossible to fix at a given place or moment, is elaborated in another descriptive passage:

by transitions the land falls from grassy dunes to creek

to undercreek: but there are no lines, though

        change in that transition is clear

        as any sharpness: but "sharpness" spread out,


allowed to occur over a wider range

than mental lines can keep:

This again conveys the poet's vision of change as minutely incremental, too gradual to be assimilated to "mental lines." The landscape is no longer merely a metaphor for the poet's consciousness; although this image of natural transition clearly has relevance to what Ammons calls "the becoming thought," it also retains its integrity as a view of the landscape. Indeed this passage itself serves as a transition to the poem's central exploration of the place and its inhabitants, as Ammons leaves behind his posturing and gives us an extended representation of mind caught up in the becoming of world:

the moon was full last night: today, low tide was low:

black shoals of mussels exposed to the risk

of air

and, earlier, of sun,

waved in and out with the waterline, waterline inexact,

caught always in the event of change:

    a young mottled gull stood free on the shoals

    and ate

to vomiting: another gull, squawking possession, cracked a crab,

picked out the entrails, swallowed the soft-shelled legs, a ruddy

turnstone running in to snatch leftover bits:


risk is full: every living thing in

siege: the demand is life, to keep life: the small

white blacklegged egret, how beautiful, quietly stalks and spears

        the shallows, darts to shore

                to stab – what? I couldn't

see against the black mudflats—a frightened

fiddler crab?

In this brilliant passage, sight and thought are at last fully united. We are no longer conscious of any gap between the experience of the walk and the meditation that it prompts; the verb tenses waver between past ("a young mottled gull stood free") and present (white blacklegged egret ... quietly stalks"), suggesting that Ammons is no longer intent on separating occasion and composition. Most importantly, the poem is no longer alternating, as in its opening passages, between two extremes of discourse, one a detached, flat reportage of external phenomena, the other a rather strident assertion of the poet's own nominalism. Now exactly rendered perceptions are blended with a flexible meditation that always maintains contact with the world through which the poet walks. As in the central sections of "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven," where Stevens carefully measures the mutual impingements of mind and reality, Ammons here succeeds in representing the fluid interminglings of thought and perception, now seen as interdependent rather than mutually exclusive. Like Stevens, then, Ammons moves toward the notion of "a visibility of thought," a state in which seeing and thinking can no longer be differentiated, as they had been in the poem's opening lines.

Much of the power of this passage lies in its adoption of what Linda Orr calls "an imitative language," one that stands in sharp contrast to the language of assertion that has previously dominated the poem. As Orr points out, "Sentences in poems-of-process must be doubling back all the time, qualifying and contradicting. . . . The poet must be alert to any tendencies for rest and sweep the words up again." In this respect the language of this passage most resembles that of Bishop's "The End of March," with its incessant qualifications and questionings of its own perceptions. But Ammons is more intent on interpreting what he sees than Bishop; hence he is constantly broadening out from particular phenomena to larger ideas of order. Unlike its earlier assertions of a general stance, however, the poem's conceptual language now remains firmly tied to the minute particulars of the walk, representing the poet's moment-to-moment effort at making sense of the landscape before him.

The most prominent feature of this landscape is expressed by the recurrent term "risk," which evokes both the terror and the exhilaration of natural freedom. Throughout the passage Ammons expresses a simultaneous awareness of the aesthetic dimension of the scene and the savage struggle for life that underlies it. This doubleness is epitomized in the first line: "the moon was full last night: today, low tide was low." Full moon and low tide can both be seen as aesthetic phenomena, each permitting a human spectator to see more than is normally visible. But in the next line this aesthetic bonus is revealed as a terrible danger to the creatures who inhabit the shore: "black shoals of mussels exposed to the risk / of air / and, earlier, of sun." Suddenly we are made aware of the helplessness of creatures for whom air and sun are not pleasures but threats.

Yet having acknowledged this darker aspect of the scene, Ammons cannot help continuing to dwell on its beauty, as in the lovely line "waved in and out with the waterline, waterline inexact," which seems to embody, in its undulating rhythm and evocative use of repetition, the motions it describes, like the line in which Bishop describes the wet string rising and falling in the water. But the next line again underscores the predicament of the mussels, while translating it into an existential condition: "caught always in the event of change." Change itself is the source of both beauty and terror here, combining freedom and risk in one violent spectacle. The brilliant description of the feeding birds does not seek to pass judgment on the predators, but sees their activity as deeply natural, if also deeply frightening. Responding to the sight, the poet again takes refuge in generalization: "risk is full: every living thing in / siege: the demand is life, to keep life." The key word here is "full," which takes us back to the full moon, and implies that what seems destructive is in fact a form of plenitude, the fullness of life desperately holding on to itself, even if it be at the expense of other life.

The next lines offer a particularly fine rendering of the concurrent beauty and savagery of nature. Ammons has to interrupt his description of the "small white blacklegged egret" to exclaim "how beautiful," then goes on to tell of how it "quietly stalks and spears / the shallows." What follows is a striking instance of the way Ammons cues the poem's syntax to the phenomenological time of the walk: the egret "darts to shore / to stab--what? I couldn't / see against the black mudflats--a frightened / fiddler crab?" The torsions of the sentence create the effect that it is unfolding simultaneously with the perceptions it describes, a device we have seen in Williams, Bishop, and Snyder as well. This temporalizing of syntax is an important element in Ammons's style, since it permits him to give a verbal form not only to the flux of phenomena but to "the becoming thought." Just as important here is the poet's acknowledgment of his own limited perspective; he does not have a godlike vantage on the scene--"Overall is beyond me"--but can only see according to his position at any given moment. He is willing to speculate about what he cannot see, however, and his surmise is in no way less harsh than the realities he has witnessed: he is careful to specify that his hypothetical fiddler crab is "frightened."

From the terror of "every living thing in siege," the poet has but to turn his head to observe a different spectacle, one with less baleful implications:

            the news to my left over the dunes and

reeds and bayberry clumps was

            fall: thousands of tree swallows

            gathering for flight:

            an order held

            in constant change: a congregation

rich with entropy. nevertheless, separable, noticeable

            as one event,

                not chaos: preparations for

flight from winter,

cheet, cheet, cheet, cheet, wings rifling the green clumps,


at the bayberries

    a perception full of wind, flight, curve,


    the possibility of rule as the sum of rulelessness:

the "field" of action

with moving, incalculable center

Here again perception modulates into thought all but imperceptibly, in part with the aid of Ammons's beloved colon, which helps to enforce the sense of continual forward motion that all his poems try to embody. Now rather than the vision of nature as an ongoing struggle for life in which every creature must work for itself, he beholds a more delicately balanced picture of "order held / in constant change." For all its multiplicity, the gathering of swallows coheres into a single phenomenon, "a congregation / rich with entropy." That last phrase resembles the earlier "risk is full" in its insistence on the plenitude made possible by change and disorder. The syntax of this passage consists not of a shifting hypotaxis imitating the temporality of particular events, as in the previous passage, but of a looser paratactic sequence of clauses held together only by colons. It thus approximates the state of order in multiplicity embodied by the swallows, in which individual entities form a larger whole not by virtue of any specific transactions among them, like the predatorial transactions of egret and fiddler crab, but simply through their contiguity, their copresence in a shared space.

Still describing the swallows, Ammons gives us a vivid series of close-ups that emphasize the restlessness of this pseudo-organism: "wings rifling the green clumps, / beaks / at the bayberries." The word "full" returns once more in the phrase "a perception full of wind, flight, curve, / sound," evoking a condition of maximal activity, in which too many things are occurring at once to be perceived completely. Clearly this condition is an exhilarating one for Ammons, suggesting "the possibility of rule as the sum of rulelessness: / the 'field' of action / with moving, incalculable center." It could be said that the poem's own "moving, incalculable center" lies somewhere between these two alternative visions of natural process and change, the predatorial, Darwinian vision of "every living thing in siege" and the more harmonious "congregation / rich with entropy" of the swallows. That moving center is in fact simply the poet's own body, as his use of the coordinate "to my left" suggests. Rather than locating the phenomena he describes in objective spatial terms, he acknowledges the central place of the body and the perceiving self in balancing different aspects of the environment . His walk thus becomes a vehicle for achieving a kind of equilibrium between the news to the right and "the news to [the] left," the harsh and the harmonious possibilities of life. Ultimately Ammons's Thoreauvian temperament inclines him to see order rather than struggle as the dominant principle in nature; thus it may be significant that he turns from the predators to the swallows. Spatially the two are symmetrically balanced, but temporally the second replaces the first, allowing the poet to move toward a final affirmative vision of an order that ends individual struggle.

From the swallows, with their evocation of a "soft" order, shapeless but unified, the poet’s gaze narrows to discrete objects with definite forms:

[. . . .]

Ammons here acknowledges that nature offers countless instances of hard-edged form--flowers, shells, organisms--but insists that phenomenologically these represent details in a larger picture that contains no "lines or changeless shapes." The very act of turning his gaze to small, formally perfect items may relieve the poet of the burden of comprehending the "millions of events" constantly working together; but that relief can only be momentary, since his primary commitment remains with "the large view," the difficult vision of process and multiplicity microcosmically represented by the swallows.

Reflecting further on the large view, Ammons now chooses to characterize it with a rather surprising word, "serenity":

orders as summaries, as outcomes of actions override

            or in some way result, not predictably (seeing me gain

the top of a dune,

the swallows

could take flight--some other fields of bayberry

        could enter fall

        berryless) and there is serenity:


        no arranged terror: no forcing of image, plan,

or thought

no propaganda, no humbling of reality to precept


terror pervades but is not arranged, all possibilities

of escape open: no route shut, except in

    the sudden loss of all routes.

The very absence of a controlling will, the poet argues, creates a sense of peace, despite the ongoing struggle he had earlier depicted. Terror is a pervasive force here, he concedes, but it "is not arranged," and hence not evil. He takes comfort in the knowledge that "all possibilities / of escape [are] open" (what possibilities of escape for the hapless mussels, we might ask), that "no route [is] shut, except / in the sudden loss of all routes." The last phrase, evidently a reference to death, seems a fairly drastic qualification of the sense of freedom and serenity being evoked here; yet after all it is a mark of Ammons's willingness to "accept the becoming thought," even if it leads him back to the darker vision of "every living thing in siege" that he has been working to overturn.

The poem's closing lines shift back into the rhetoric of assertion that had been abandoned in the middle section:

[. . . .]

Once again the poet gives us a statement of policy, though now oriented toward the future rather than the past, and so less self-congratulatory in tone. Ammons's use of capitalization to distinguish between vision in process (scope) and a totalizing perspective ("Scope") is perhaps overly subtle, but the contrast is clear nonetheless. If the preceding lines are a little too comfortably abstract, however, the final line beautifully returns us to the poem's generative occasion, and gives us a formulation at once concise and concrete: "tomorrow a new walk is a new walk." This is I think deeply satisfying both in its air of cadential firmness and in its implicit denial of closure. For once the poem's paradoxical conjunction of authority and provisionality does not seem contradictory, perhaps because the line refers beyond itself to experience. In reminding us that the poem's meditation has been framed by a particular walk, Ammons locates its categorical claims in time and space, and so softens their authority. These are my thoughts today, he tells us; tomorrow I will change my mind. We should recall at this point that the poem's first line announced, "I went for a walk over the dunes again this morning" (italics mine), implying that this walk is already one of a potentially open-ended series, and should not be taken as in any way definitive or unique. Ammons does not claim that this particular walk, like Frost's walk in "The Wood-Pile," for example, deserves to be singled out from the poet's experience because it has yielded a special insight; tomorrow's walk will be equally valuable in the thoughts that it occasions.

Taken by itself, this closing line may seem a striking but ultimately empty declaration, paying lip service to a principle it cannot truly observe. After all, "Corsons Inlet" is a poem fully conscious of its centrality to the poet's oeuvre; it is not by accident that it has become the most anthologized of Ammons's poems, for its rhetoric aims at the very "finality of vision" whose possibility it denies. Remarkably enough, however, Ammons chose to take his last line literally: the next day he went for another walk, and wrote another poem about it. He thus confronted, more squarely and explicitly than any other poet I have so far discussed, a problem central to the mode of representation that the walk poem exemplifies, the problem of repetition. If "tomorrow a new walk is a new walk," that is, if all experience is equally valuable, equally fresh, can one simply go on writing poem after poem based on walk after walk? Surely at a certain point sameness will overcome newness, and monotony will set in. We have seen how Frank O'Hara wrestled with this danger, ultimately destroying the very grounds on which his walk poems are based out of a restless urge to move on. But Ammons is not as restlessly innovative as O'Hara, although in a subtle way he may be the more daring of the two. For he takes up the challenge of repetition with unprecedented directness, writing a second poem the day after his great manifesto was composed, and taking as his occasion another walk in precisely the same setting.

From Walks in the World: Representation and Experience in Modern American Poetry. Copyright © Princeton University Press. 

Roger Gilbert: On "At the Fishhouses" and "Diving into the Wreck"

Two of their most familiar and oft-anthologized poems—Bishop's "At the Fishhouses" and Rich's "Diving Into the Wreck"—reveal some surprising affinities of trope and language while casting into relief the fundamental differences between the poets, which revolve around questions of knowledge, history, and, in a key metaphor for both poems, immersion. Most prominently, both poems allegorize the sea as a medium of pure knowing wholly distinct from the compromised, constructed world above. Bishop famously says of the icy water off Nova Scotia that "It is like what we imagine knowledge to be: / dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free, / drawn from the cold hard mouth / of the world, derived from the rocky breasts / forever, flowing and drawn, and since / our knowledge is historical, flowing and flown" (66). "Historical" in this final line assumes a double meaning: Our knowledge is necessarily historical inasmuch as it occurs in time and is therefore subject to the transience of all temporal things, "flowing and flown"; but it is also knowledge of history, of the lives and events that precede our own and give it meaning. Thus the history of this particular Nova Scotia fishing village proves to be closely bound up with Bishop's own painful childhood and its formation of her present self. The old man the speaker meets near the water "was a friend of my grandfather," she tells us, and like the "ancient wooden capstan" with its "melancholy stains, like dried blood," his presence speaks of a past beyond recovery. "We talk of the decline in the population," she reports dryly, her euphemistic language failing to obscure that the real subject of their conversation is death—her grandfather's included, as the "was" in the preceding line poignantly attests.

Rich's allegory is no less clear-cut than Bishop's, but she is not quite as explicit in her association of the sea with knowledge, choosing at first to characterize it by negation: "the sea is another story / the sea is not a question of power / I have to learn alone / to turn my body without force / in the deep element" (Fact 163). The world of the "sun-flooded schooner" with its "sundry equipment" of ladders, knives, books, and masks is governed, like the human world at large, by the will to power, the effort to master and subjugate one's environment. But the sea does not yield to such efforts, requiring a different approach, gradual, patient, "without force." As becomes clear in the course of the poem, this is because the sea marks a dimension beyond the reach of change, action, or intervention. Like memory, the sea preserves traces of past traumas that can only be inspected, acknowledged, and laboriously brought to light, never revised or effaced. Like Bishop's sea, then, Rich's is ineluctably historical, but unlike Bishop's, the kind of knowledge it contains is not "flowing and flown" but stable, solid, "more permanent than fish or weed." The wreck is not going anywhere.

If both poems draw metaphorical maps in which the sea embodies a pure or imagined knowledge beyond the reach of all human agency, they differ crucially in the ways they approach this alien realm. The two poems share a fundamentally downward trajectory; both begin above sea level and then chart an incremental descent that carries them past its threshold. Bishop and Rich employ similar poetic devices to evoke this movement, crafting strongly transitional passages that mimic in their cadence and syntax the sinking motions they describe. Bishop's passage is especially ingenious in its interplay of form and matter:

Down at the water's edge, at the place where they haul up the boats, up the long ramp descending into the water, thin silver tree trunks are laid horizontally across the gray stones, down and down at intervals of four or five feet.

This passage itself forms the descending ramp it names, made up of regular horizontal lines each containing "four or five feet." The corresponding passage in Rich's poem also gives a drumlike emphasis to the word down:

I go down. Rung after rung and still the oxygen immerses me the blue light the clear atoms of our human air. I go down. My flippers cripple me, I crawl like an insect down the ladder and there is no one to tell me when the ocean will begin.

In both passages the transition from land to sea is measured and gradual, but in Rich's poem it is quite clearly a matter of active agency, a willed descent undertaken in the face of enormous difficulty. Bishop is more circumspect; she merely registers the means of descent without evoking an individual act. Her greater ambivalence toward this route may be gauged by the clashing vectors named in her passage—" Down at the water’s edge, at the place / where they haul up the boats, up the long ramp / descending into the water" (my emphasis)—creating a push-pull effect rather than the impression of steady, purposeful movement given by Rich's lines.

Both poets also signal the transition to a more fluid medium by loosening or abandoning punctuation; Bishop describes the water as "Cold dark deep and absolutely clear," omitting the commas she would normally place after the first three adjectives, while Rich makes a more dramatic elision to suggest the diver’s felt loss of control in an alien element: "First the air is blue and then / it is bluer and then / green and then / black I am blacking out and yet / my mask is powerful." Again, however, what sets their approaches most dramatically apart is the degree of willfulness each brings to the water and the dark knowledge it represents. Bishop's speaker does not, of course, physically enter the sea as Rich's does, only surmising its effects on her body ("If you should dip your hand in, / your wrist would ache immediately"); but even in her imaginary descent she seems halting and full of trepidation, casting about for distractions in something close to a panic. After calling the sea an "element bearable to no mortal," she offers the typically Bishopian self-correction "to fish and to seals," thus opening the way for a digression about a particular seal that briefly dispels the gathering sense of menace. Playfully invoking debates over the proper method of Christian baptism, Bishop reports that this seal is "like me a believer in total immersion," a line with clear implications for the poem's allegory of knowledge. Yet like Bishop's speaker, the seal's behavior seems to belie such firm belief, as it anxiously hovers on the threshold between the two elements: "he would disappear, then suddenly emerge / almost in the same spot, with a sort of shrug / as if it were against his better judgment." The seal's tentative probing of the dangerous world above the water closely mirrors the speaker's reluctant engagement with the sea, an element she acknowledges to be "bearable to no mortal."

As though drawn irresistibly back to the water, the speaker next repeats her earlier formulation—"Cold dark deep and absolutely clear"—then tears her eyes away once more: "Back, behind us, / the dignified tall firs begin." After another quick descriptive interlude she returns for a last time to the sea, now forcibly maintaining her gaze: "I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same, / slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones, / icily free above the stones, / above the stones and then the world." In a characteristic bit of metaphorical sleight of hand, Bishop inverts the usual mapping of land and water, placing the sea "above the stones and then the world" (my emphasis) as if to reinforce its status as a dimension of knowledge detached from and indifferent to all worldly particulars. The hypnotic repetitions in these lines hint at the speaker's tormented relation to the sea, betraying a compulsive, almost masochistic drive to enter its deathly space. She knows too well what the results of such contact must be, though: "your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn / as if the water were a transmutation of fire / that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame."

I've already cited the allegorizing passage that ends the poem, disclosing in a somber epiphany that this corrosive element that entices and destroys is knowledge in its purest state. What the poem stages with great power is the profound ambivalence toward knowledge that energizes much of Bishop's work. Her poetry repeatedly locates itself on the threshold between aesthetic and cognitive modes of apprehension, feeling and recording the pull of each, yet unwilling to immerse itself completely in either. Bishop's penchant for picturesque description—the celebrated "eye" once invoked by critics to relegate her to minor status—certainly appears in "At the Fishhouses," particularly the poem's first half, with its lovingly textured account of a landscape plastered with herring scales; but its presence there serves chiefly to set off the colorless, homogenous, cold realm of knowledge that waits below.

Where "At the Fishhouses" remains uneasily poised on the margin that divides land and sea, unwilling to do more than conjecturally dip a hand into the chill water, "Diving Into the Wreck" takes the full plunge, in keeping with Rich's more aggressive stance toward knowledge. Rich's diver is of course much better equipped than Bishop's speaker to enter the hostile element, with her mask, wet suit, and flippers; for her the boundary is there to be crossed, not gingerly tested and probed. Thus, while Bishop's poem divides itself symmetrically between the fishhouses and the water, positioning the ramp-passage as a kind of fulcrum, Rich's poem takes place almost entirely underwater, with only the most cursory reference to a world above. Indeed the language used to narrate the diver's initial descent suggests it is what she calls the "human air," not the water, that threatens to drown her: "Rung after rung and still the oxygen immerses me" (my emphasis). The dull atmosphere of ordinary human affairs is itself an immersing element, Rich insists, to be cast off through total immersion in the more bracing element of historical memory. Rich is as conscious of the hazards the sea presents as Bishop is, yet she forces herself to confront them because the knowledge she envisions there is not simply fatal but potentially redemptive as well. The poets' differing conceptions of knowledge are clearly reflected in their central tropes: Whereas Bishop identifies knowledge with the sea itself—gray, undifferentiated, numbingly abstract—Rich makes of the sea a medium through which more specific, localized objects of knowledge like the wreck can be encountered and explored. Unlike Bishop's paralyzing generality, the cautionary knowledge Rich seeks can be put to use, carried back to the surface and translated into action, and so warrants the kind of active questing her speaker undertakes.

Another key point of contrast between the two poems involves the place of beauty in their allegories of knowledge. In Bishop's poem, beauty is located entirely above the water, among the weathered fishhouses and tubs lined "with layers of beautiful herring scales." It's here that the speaker encounters the old man who has "scraped the scales, the principal beauty, / from unnumbered fish with that black old knife, / the blade of which is almost worn away." That scraping movement serves as another powerful emblem for this poem's vision of knowledge, which entails a remorseless expunging of beauty and sensual particularity so as to arrive at the cold gray substance of truth. Rich's diver also carries a knife whose blade she dutifully checks, but her excavations lead her toward beauty rather than away from it: Even as the wreck bears witness to damage and disaster, she tells us, it has been "worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty ." Again we can surmise that it is the redemptive, nearly utopian potential Rich ascribes to the knowledge of disaster that lends it beauty, where Bishop finds in it only beauty's antithesis. By positing an aesthetic reward at journey's end, Rich shows that her impulse to descend into the harsh element of historical knowledge is neither masochistic nor purely altruistic. If Bishop's poem is a psychodrama that stages or enacts a central ambivalence, Rich's poem is essentially didactic, meant to instruct and embolden us in our own quests for difficult knowledge.

From "Framing Water: Historical Knowledge in Elizabeth Bishop and Adrienne Rich" Twentith Century Literature (Summer 1997)