Monday, January 19, 2009

Reading Poetry #2

A good friend & faithful Robert Frost’s Banjo reader expressed a bit of frustration to me about poetry recently. She asked me, in a nutshell, if poets “mean” something, why don’t they just say it? There’s a glib answer to this, which would be that then the writing would no longer be poetry, but would be something else all together; but the question is actually important. Some of you may have the catch phrase, “how does a poem mean” in your minds—this was the title of a 1959 textbook by poet John Ciardi. Of course, Ciardi wrote from a mid 20th century perspective that was involved in certain movements of the time—while this has historical interest, it’s a bit beside the point of today’s topic. But the title is helpful because it gives a clue that poets are aiming at something other than a “what” of meaning. A very different writer, Anna Balakian, makes the statement that poetry is “a spreading of a fan of meanings” (as quoted on the blog Memo from the Fringes. There’s also the following from poet Ada Limón, from an essay called “Mystery & Birds: 5 Ways to Practice Poetry,” posted recently at—I’m quoting this at length because it’s a clear statement about poetic “meaning”:

So, I've come to think that one of the first things to learn about poetry is to simply relax in its mystery. We need to learn that a poem can have many mean
ings and that it can be enjoyed without a complete understanding of the poet's intent. On a good day a poem might bring you great joy, on a tough day, the same poem might reveal great agony, but the poem hasn't changed—it's what you have brought to the poem that has changed. The more you read a poem, the more time you spend with it, read it out loud to yourself or to others, the more it will open to you—start to wink and flirt and let you in. A poem is a complex living thing, its multiple edges and many colors are what makes this singular art form so difficult to define. There is an ancient Chinese Proverb that says, "A bird sings not because he has an answer, but because he has a song." That is how I have come to think about poetry—that a poem isn't a problem to solve, but rather it's a singular animal call that contains multiple layers of both mystery and joy.

From Limón’s perspective, then (which is similar to mine) poetry defies summarization, just a living entity defies summarization….”But wait,” you say, what about a poem that makes a clear statement in an aphoristic manner, like “Ode to a Grecian Urn”? For those of you who haven’t been reading your Keats lately, the aphoristic statement is “’Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Is the poem “in a nutshell,” as ‘twere? Putting aside the fact that in the poem’s context the statement is made by the Grecian Urn (apparently quoting Sir Joshua Reynolds—see this link for an interesting discussion of the quotation marks in the section spoken by the Grecian Urn), one could make the point that making these two lines a “summation” somehow suggests that they encapsulate—or even render unnecessary—the 48 lines of verse that precede them. For that matter, a person can publish aphorisms as such; a number of philosophers have done this, from the pre-Socratics to Nietzsche & beyond; & without even looking far afield, a British poet who was roughly contemporary with Keats did so—William Blake in The Marriage of Heaven & Hell. So if “all” Keats meant by the poem is contained in these two lines, why write the first 48? Why insert a phrase such as “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter”? In some ways that phrase recalls my earlier thoughts about a poem offering gaps for the imagination to inhabit—the “heard” melody gives less scope to the imagination because to some degree the listener receives it passively. The “unheard melody” is that created by the “listener,” who is simultaneously a “maker.” Why write about the static & mute nature of the urn (“foster-child of silence & slow time”) or how art can render love eternal (cf. the end of stanza two)? Does the statement “Beauty is truth” render the “real people” who are depicted on the urn “unreal” in a sort of Platonic sense: shadows cast by some eternal reality—what’s the point of considering “the folk” who are going to the sacrifice, or the “actual” lovers who modeled those depicted on the urn?

Here’s the poem in its entirety:

Ode on a Grecian Urn

Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thou express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:

What leaf-fring'd legend haunt about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter: therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,

Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal - yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed

Your leaves, nor ever bid the spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?

To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e'er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

I’m not enforcing any “interpretation”—I’ve simply posed the questions above (& other questions could be posed as well) to suggest that even in this poem, taken from an era when poetry may have had more of an “expository” element than it does in 20th & 21st century English verse, that the poem is still in Balakian’s words, “spreading… a fan of meanings.” Of course, Balakian specifically was writing about surreali
st poetry when she made this remark. Let’s look at a poem by the Godfather of the Surrealist movement, André Breton. In French the poem is titled “Non-lieu,” which is a legal term referring to not having “grounds” to hold an arrestee. The poem moves thru a dream-like state: “Dream’s wheels charming the splendid ruts” (“Les roues du rêve charment les splendides ornières”); a disconnected set of images, with the refrain “Art of days art of nights” (“Art des jours art des nuits) “laced” thru the poem—the ibis, the roses in the well of mirrors, the seashells, the enigmatic acrobats. Does all this lead to the final aphoristic statement: “Never freedom only freedom” (“Jamais la liberté que pour la liberté”)? Do we read the poem in reverse to trace the course of “Art of days art of nights” to “Never freedom only freedom”? Or are these images on a “scale chronically frenzied”—a scale that doesn’t weigh objects in the conventionally accepted manner, but by some frenetic system? Are there indeed “no grounds” on which to build “a case” (existentially speaking)—no “proofs”—no “empirical evidence?” Is this the only freedom? Here’s the poem in a translation done by yours truly back in the 90s:

No Grounds

Art of days art of nights
The scale of injuries known as Forgive
Red scale sensitive to a birdflight's weight
When the horsewomen whose collars are snow their han
ds empty
Urge their steam chariots over the meadows
This scale chronically frenzied I see it
I see the ibis with beautiful manners
Returning from the pond laced into my heart
Dream's wheels charming the splendid ruts
Rising so high along the seashells their gowns
And astonishment springing helter skelter on the sea
Move on dear dawn forget nothing about my life
Take these roses that creep up the well of mirrors
Take the fluttering of every lash
Take everything down to the thread supporting the
steps of the rope-and-waterdrop dancers
Art of days art of nights
I'm at the window far off in a city bursting with horror
Outside the men wearing opera hats are following each other at regular intervals
Like the rains I used to love
When the weather was fine
"The Wrath of God" was the name of a cabaret I went to yes
It was written on the white facade in even paler letters
But the sailor-women who glide behind the window-panes
Are too cheerful to be fearful
Here never a body always murder without proof
Never the sky always silence
Never freedom only freedom

André Breton, 1932
translation: John Hayes © 1993-2008

The question of “meaning” in poetry is large indeed—a post, even a longish one at that, can at best scratch the surface. My argument wouldn’t be
that “poetry means whatever we want it to mean,” but that poetry by its very nature can’t produce meanings that allow encapsulation—by its nature it wishes to expand. The static scene on the Grecian Urn expands; there is “Never freedom only freedom….”

The top pic is John Keat’s tracing of an engraving of the Sosbios Vase; bottom pic shows the cover of Breton’s 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism



  1. Speaking as someone who likes to think of herself as a poet, I would like to address the question of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn": I believe the poet writes not solely to make a point or sum something up, but because he MUST express his innate reactions to what he sees or touches. I think the "truth" is the deep-seated response to the "beauty" and the "beauty" is the manifestation of "truth". The thesis, if you will, of the poem, follows the outpouring of the response. The summation evolves as an epiphany after the unleashing of the emotion. Does that make sense?

    I have a simple little poem that I wrote in reaction to an author who was trying to explain an element of Hardy's poetry. He was speaking about the time in which he wrote it and what was happening in the world - Einstein, particularly. I found myself very doubtful that Hardy would be influenced by science versus nature. I suddenly thought, "Why?" Why is he trying to explain something that he can't prove? It is a contradiction and a conundrum at once.

    Here's the link:

    I hope you don't take this to be cavalier; it was merely my response at the time.


  2. Hi Kat:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment-- yes, I've seen that poem you mentioned & like it-- I even linked to it for Saturday's post here on RFB. I generally agree that a poem is moving towards something & reaches that something at the end; on the other hand, it seems that the something reached at the end isn't an encapsulation of the poem, but one more moment of it-- agreed, a very important moment.

    Thanks again.

  3. Poetry criticism is hardly my strong suit, but from an expository perspective one could posit that for most of the poem Keats lays out his argument leading to the conclusion that truth is beauty and beauty truth.

    But that's more than a little dry. There's also the matter of what Keats wrote v. what an individual reads and perceives, and where that takes him or her. That and the pure joy taken in great language causes one person to linger over lines that another person passes by.

    I lingered here:

    Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
    Are sweeter: therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;

    It's hard for me to say where this takes me, but the lines encourage introspection and heeding oneself, listening the quiet voice within that can be drowned out by the noise of the day.

  4. Thanks K.:

    I guess my question would be what is the difference between a poem building an argument & an essay building one. & what does it mean that the summation is "spoken" by the urn as a proxy(?) for the poet.

    Thanks, as always, for stopping by.

  5. I was just thinking about the subject of purely enjoying poetry for its artform and beauty of words, to enjoy its mystery, just because. Great post.

  6. Thanks, Willow: for me poetry is an art of words, which means that to a greater or lesser extent it communicates ideas-- since that's one thing words do-- but also communicates thru sound & verbal "picture," & thru the whole connotative web of language.

    Glad you enjoyed this.

  7. I often feel annoyed by sweeping generalizations about poetry, so here I am having the humbling experience of wanting to express some of my own. To my mind, the kind of meaning we perceive as an object and the kind of meaning that exists as a process are very different—to encapsulate a meaning in any way is to turn it into an object, at which point it partakes of all the problems associated with objectification. To my mind, one of the basic purposes of poetry is to subvert objectification—especially the objectification of meaning. Every poem has its own “way”, creates its own language—the thrill of it is that you learn/create (your own version of) the poem’s language as you are using it, i.e. as you are reading the poem; it’s an internal improvisation. Like an improvisation, it’s physical—the “goosebump” response, or a feeling of intoxication-- or anger, sadness, communion with humanity, or joy or whatever-- comes from actual physical participation in the process. In this sense, poetry is associated with prayer as well—beauty is truth and truth is “way”—a relational dynamic that constantly dissolves objectification. Poetry, like prayer, is radical in the sense that it subverts the tendency toward leveraged power, dehumanizing possession, etc. and enacts a different scale of values—the absolute value of the individual. That’s why the canon seems so weird to me, when the preoccupation seems to be with ranging artists like items on supermarket shelves in hierarchies separate from any actuality, making poetry into commodity, readers into consumers, and, like, totally missing the point. Similarly, I can’t see talking about the meaning of a poem in any way separate from not only the multiplicity of meanings but the experiential process of that multiplicity (of course, that’s kind of what I’m doing right now…this seems to be a basic problem with language, and the very problem that poetry involves itself with solving by playing around in?)

    I hadn’t read Ode to a Grecian Urn for a long time, and the fact that I’m currently doing research on ancient Antioch put a different slant of light on it for me. It is truly so strange to come across 4th century mosaics excavated from houses in Antioch that ended up in the Harvard Business School, or entire ancient temple-scapes recreated in European museums. It is especially strange to see these images while trying to grasp the concept, for instance, of the Syrian Goddess who was so associated with place that often she had no name separate from the specific locality of worship…. Museums represent one kind of ultimate in objectification. The British Museum, during Keats’ time, was remarkable for the objectification of culture as well as nature—not only butterflies and poetry in cases but artifacts from exotic (meaning exploitable) lands. From Wikipedia : “The predominance of natural history, books and manuscripts began to lessen when in 1772 the Museum acquired its first antiquities of note, Sir William Hamilton's collection of Greek vases.” The connection between economic exploitation and this objectification of artifacts enters into my own internal improvisation of Keats’ poem because I see him as subverting that—by taking this totem of cultural imperialism and transforming it into a poem—into a living “way” rather than a possessed object. Actually, I see this as similar to what Breton does within a single line over and over again: a phrase like “the ibis with beautiful manners” or “the seashells their gowns” invites me to dissolve the categories I have in my mind about nature as somehow opposed to culture. That dissolving of categories is part of the landscape/language I create with Breton by reading the poem and that opens my mind in a particular way so that I come to the line “Never freedom only freedom” suddenly wondering if John meant to draw a very specific comparison between the last two lines of Keats’ poem and the last two lines of the Breton poem? I say to myself, as I often do: that Johnny Jack Poetry is a deep character and full of surprises.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. I fully appreciate your offerings - we weave common threads
    Do visit: http://www,

    APOGEE Poet
    Rose Marie Raccioppi

  10. punctuation error in link corrected:

    Do visit.
    Warm regards,

    Rose Marie Raccioppi


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