SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University.
MH ABRAMS: Thank you, Charles. The length of that introduction convinces me that I've lived a long life. And I'm delighted that so many people who use the Norton Anthology still came to hear the founding editor after having carried those-- having to carry those two heavy tomes to class for a whole year. I was rather afraid you'd hold it against me.
As the title of my talk indicates, I'm going to talk about some poems, and then exemplify what I say by reading them aloud. But the thing I most want to emphasize is that poems, like all art forms, have a physical medium, a material body, which conveys the nonmaterial meanings.
That medium is not, as we are apt to say these days, a couture or a printed text. The physical medium is the act of utterance by the human voice as it produces the speech sounds that make up the words of a poem. We produce those sounds by varying the pressure on the lungs, vibrating or stilling the vocal cords, changing the shape of the throat and mouth, and making wonderfully precise movements of the tongue and lips.
It can be said, then, that the physical production of a poem begins next to the heart and ends near the brain. That is one reason that poetry is felt to be the most intimate of the Fine Arts, as well as, by the meanings its physical medium conveys and as my examples, I hope, will indicate, the most inclusive and nuanced of the arts in expressing what is human.
We ordinarily take for granted the oral actions that produce the words of a poem and the sensations of motion and touch that we feel in performing such actions. An important function of reading a poem aloud is to re-embody it-- to recover the palpability of its material medium, of the oral actions which not only produce the words of a poem, but also interact in subtle ways with the meanings and moods that the words convey.
From what I have said, it follows that a poem comes into its full physical being only briefly during the act of reading it aloud. At other times, it has only a half life, consisting of fragmentary memories of having read it aloud, or else it exists in the abstract state of a written or printed text, which is no more than a graphic reminder of the words that, only when uttered, bring the poem into material being.
But what about the usual way we engage with a poem these days, in the silent reading of a printed text? Introspection will show and laboratory experiments have confirmed that even when you read a poem silently to yourself, so long as you read it with absorbed attention, you will, in fact, embody the abstract printed text. You do so by hearing the speech sounds in your mind's ear. And more importantly, by reproducing in the mode of mental images and incipient movements of the mouth, tongue, and lips, the verbal actions that materialize the poem. That is, you imagine and feel what it is like to enunciate the words by oral movements and sensations that, if the poem is a good poem, can port with, confirm, and enhance its meanings.
What I have said will, I think, become much clearer after I discuss some poems, and then read them aloud. But before I do so, I want to stress that there is no one right way to read a poem. Good readers vary greatly, and even the same reader rarely reads a poem twice in exactly the same way.
I go back far enough so that when I was a college student, I heard TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, and EE Cummings read their poems. Each read differently, but all read well. I heard Robert Frost talk his poems to great effect, and I heard Dylan Thomas recite poems, whether by himself or by other poets, in a kind of Welsh bardic chant to equal or even greater effect.
In the early decades after the founding of Cornell, Professor Hiram Corson used to offer weekly readings of poems to enthusiastic audiences of students, colleagues, and townspeople. Sometimes he would read aloud in Sage Chapel to the company of the Sage Chapel organ to great effect.
I myself favor a more subdued mode of reading-- a flexible one that adapts itself to and tries to express and convey the particularities of each individual poem. To illustrate, I shall identify some of the distinctive qualities of each of the seven poems on your sheet, then read each one aloud. I chose those examples because they are all splendid poems which I'm especially fond, yet differ markedly in the implied voice of the lyric speaker, in what the speakers say and the tone and style in which they say it, as well as in the enunciative means by which they achieve their very diverse effects. Each poem, therefore, presents its own kind of challenge or opportunity to someone who sets out to render its distinctive meanings and moods by uttering it, expressively, aloud.
The first poem, "On This Island," was written by WH Auden at the age of 28, in a youthful and exuberant display of his mastery over the resources of language. Most prominent is his use of devices, especially the emphatic repetition and complex patterning of enunciated speech sounds that he had learned from the poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins. Almost all of Hopkins' poems, though written in the high Victorian period, had not been published until 1918, only 17 years before "On This Island." And Hopkins' linguistic innovations captivated Auden, as they did other young poets of his generation.
Auden's poem describes a sunlit seascape as overlooked from, presumably, a chalk cliff on the southeast coast of the larger island we call Great Britain. "Look, stranger." The poet addresses himself directly to you whom the poem thus posits as a fellow observer of this vibrant scene, suffused by light and filled with the sounds of moving water.
Throughout the description, Auden makes us aware of something we normally overlook-- the delight that can reside in sheer utterance, in our uniquely human ability to enunciate an astonishing variety of speech sounds. Infants exhibit this delight in the activity called lalling-- that is, the repetitive utterance of newly-learned consonants. Ma-ma-ma-ma, Da-da-da-da, La-la-la-la.
Poets such as Auden recover for us, on a complex level, this lost primitive pleasure. For example, he bids us to look at "this island now, the leaping light for your delight discovers." In verbalizing the dazzle of the reflected light, which seems to leap up from the moving waters, Auden also evokes our pleasure in the reduplicated utterance of the elastic Ls, and then the evolving sequence of gradually altering speech sounds, from "leaping" to "light" to "delight" to "discovers"-- "the leaping light for your delight discovers"-- after which the restless movements are brought to an abrupt stop by the sturdy stressed STs in the imperative to you, the listener. "Stand stable here."
The conspicuous play of verbal speech sounds, in this and other lines of Auden's poem, is not pleasurable merely but has an added function, and that is to imitate the sounds that the words denote, the sounds they refer to. In line seven, for example, "The swaying sound of the sea," which describes the rise and fall and loudness of the sounds of the sea swells, the sibilance of the Ses mimic the susurrus of the sliding waters, at the same time that the overall rhythm of the line-- especially in that word "swaying"-- suggests the undulation of the moving water that produces those sounds.
Auden also reminds us by this oral echosim that at the sea's edge, the waves don't merely hiss. When they strike the rocky shore, they also make slapping and clicking sounds. Like nine. "And its tall ledges oppose the pluck and knock of the tide." In the lines that follow, Auden foregrounds something that he also does, less obviously, elsewhere in the poem. He has learned from Gerard Hopkins the trick of breaking a word in the middle and then rhyming the first half of the severed word and the end word of nearby line. "Oppose the pluck," "After the suck-ing surf." A lot of the words broken right in the middle.
What Auden achieves by this device is to make us aware that an utterance has a physical, and general, and gestural, as well as an auditory dimension. That is, the movement by changing the shape of the mouth, moving your tongue and your lips. That is, he breaks the words for us to emphasize a change of direction in the physical act of uttering the speech sounds, from the front to the back of the mouth in "suck," if you think about it; then from back to the front of the mouth, to end far forward with a dentolabial F. "The suck-ing surf." And you end with your teeth on your lips.
So in these lines, even as speech sounds, the Ses and Fs and Ks reproduce the sounds we hear at the margin of the sea. The reversal of motion and enunciating the speech sounds enacts orally the reversal in motion of the wavelets that the words signify as these waves reach up on the shore, stop, and then reluctantly return to the open sea.
Now I don't mean to suggest that Auden and the other poets that I'm going to talk about deliberately set out in every case to get these effects and then found the words to express them. He set out deliberately to do some of these things. We don't know which. But being a good poet, the words just occurred to him as they are. And he inspected those words and found that they sounded right. And it's up to commentators like myself to come lamely along later and try to explain why the words sounds right.
One more comment about Auden's exploitation of articulative possibilities and poetic language. Each of the three stanzas contains a remarkable variety of line lengths, almost unexampled in poetry, consisting of two, three, four, and five iambic units that we call feet but in non-numerical order. If you look at the poem, you'll see, in the first two stanzas, the order of the line lengths is 4, 5, 2, 2, 4, 3 and then 3 metric units. When you read these lines aloud, the irregular length of their sounds mimics the sounds made by the variable reach of the individual waves as they impinge on the shore.
But Auden was also aware that we normally encounter a poem visually in a printed text. Accordingly, he uses the irregular pattern of the visual aspect of the poem, as you see it on the page before you, to replicate the irregular visual pattern that is etched on the sandy shore by the retreating waves. If you look at the poem, you'll see that irregularity. That's no accident.
But Auden's poem is a great deal more than linguistic tour de force. Note what he says in line five following. "That through the channels of the ear may wander like a river the swaying sound of the sea." In this passage, Auden attributes to the consciousness of you, the perceiver, a spatial dimension into which the oscillating water sounds enter, as though the sounds were themselves water that flows through your ear canals into your conscious mind.
And even more remarkably, in line 17 following, "And the full view indeed may enter and move in memory as now these clouds do, that pass the harbor mirror and all the summer through the water saunter." As the moving clouds are reflected in the water, so the full view-- that is, the view which is full because it includes both the water and the clouds reflected in that water-- are in turn reflected in your consciousness. You as the perceiver. Where the clouds continue to move in perceiver's memory. In both these intricate metaphoric figures, the outer is fused with the inner so that you, the human receiver, seem integrated with the substance and qualities and motions of the outer world, the visual world that you perceive in a seamless, poetic whole.
A final aspect of this remarkable little poem. I'm talking so much in length about this one because it brings up matters to be brought up at the later poems, but it does so very conspicuously. In the third line from the end, Auden introduces five sequential stresses. "And move in memory as now these clouds do." He then lengthens the concluding line of the stanza from three feet, which they possess in the first two stanzas, to five feet. If you just look at the text, you'll see how much longer that final line is in the last stanza. "And all the summer through the water saunter." He does so in order to make the metric pace and length of these lines accord with the unhurried pace of the moving clouds that are reflected in the water.
But beyond this, the last two lines are surely among the loveliest in English poetry. In great part, what we perceive as the beauty of that sound is, in fact, the result of the pleasurable ease with which we are able to utter all those frontal consonants all in the front of the mouth. It's a matter for another talk, but what we usually describe as euphonious sound, when we say a poet's line sounds well, is usually mostly a matter of the ease with which we utter those speech sounds.
More important, however, is that these two lines contain no less than five two-syllable words, all of which rhyme together but on the off beat. "Harbor." Now, the full rhyme of harbor would be something like barber. But no. "Harbor," "mirror," "summer," "water," "saunter." The oral production of this sequence of half rhymes on the unaccented or off syllable is the more delightful because Auden makes us sense vividly the contrasting feel of enunciating the nasal continuant Ms in mirror and summer.
Then, to move to the plosive T in water. "T." That's a stop. It's not a continuum like "mm." And to conclude in the nasal and plosive combination now of the NT of that perfectly chosen word in utterance, sound, and sense, the indolent verb "saunter."
May I ask you to read those lines, those last two lines, aloud with me. I'll keep time so we all read it together so as to savor the sensations of enunciating the sequence of those speech sounds. Here we go. "That pass the harbor mirror and all the summer through the water saunter." Did you taste those consonants?
Well, you're standing on the edge of a chalk cliff at Dover, and the poet turns to you. "Look, stranger, at this island now the leaping light for your delight discovers, stand stable here and silent be, that through the channels of the ear may wander like a river the swaying sound of the sea.
Here at the small field's ending pause where the chalk wall falls to the foam, and its tall ledges oppose the pluck and knock of the tide, and the shingle scrambles after the suck-ing surf, and the gull lodges a moment on its sheer side.
Far off like floating seeds the ships diverge on urgent voluntary errands; and the full view indeed may enter and move in memory as now these clowns do, that pass the harbor mirror and all the summer through the water saunter."
It's an unassuming poem but an awfully good one. We turn to Emily Dickinson's poem, which, in contrast to Auden's extensive seascape, is an exquisite piece of minute description. "My business," Dickinson wrote in a letter, "is circumference"; by which cryptic comment-- and she's always cryptic when referring to herself in verse or prose-- I take her to mean something like this, that she circumscribes a small area of observation, then explores this minutiae.
In this poem, a robin dispatches a worm, hops about, and then, when offered a crumb, flies away. That's all. Dickinson makes of the robin's negotiation with the worm, and of its characteristic actions after that a comic pantomime in miniature; while of the bird's final flight-- well, how does one describe what she does in this astonishing passage of verbal impressionism?
Beginning in the third line of the fourth stanza. The act of the bird unfurling its wings and taking off, and of an oarsman rowing so gently as to leave no trace in the still water, and of butterflies launching themselves from flowers are so interfused, and the elements of air and water so commingled, that the bemused reader ceases to know-- or care-- which of the words are literal and which are metaphorical.
Within this floating suspension of equated actions, butterflies are said to leap from banks. We expect, in this watery context, that these are the banks of a stream. But no; they turn out to be the banks not of a river but of an abstraction, a time of day, the banks of noon. In this violent dislocation of concentrated reference, I can compare Dickinson to only one poet before her, and that is William Blake at his most audacious.
"A bird came down the walk-- he did not know I saw-- he bit an angleworm in halves and ate the fellow, raw, and then he drank a dew from a convenient grass-- and then hopped sidewise to the wall to let a beetle pass-- he glanced with rapid eyes that hunted all around-- they looked like frightened beads, I thought-- he stirred his velvet head like one in danger, cautious, I offered him a crumb and he unrolled his feathers and rowed him softer home-- than oars divide the ocean too silver for a seam-- or butterflies, off banks of noon, leap, plashless, as they swim."
Incredible that that should work the way it does. If this were all we had, this one poem would be enough to establish Emily Dickinson's genius. Fortunately, we have many hundreds of her writings. To be precise, she left in a manuscript at her death 1,775 poems, all but a couple of them unpublished. Of these, an astonishing number are comparable in excellence to the one I just read.
We've got to move on to the next poem on your sheet. In a note, Wordsworth tells us that "Surprised by Joy" refers to his daughter, Catherine, who had died a year earlier at the age of four. It was written when Wordsworth was in his middle 40s, in the demanding form of the Petrarchan sonnet.
His language has something of the stiff formality that deadens much of the poetry that Wordsworth wrote in his middle and later age. But what makes this brief poem all the more moving is that the speaker's spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings breaks into and disrupts the formality, both of its language and the end of its intricately rhymed stanza.
Surprised by a circumstance that brings him joy, the poet instinctively turns, and we turn with him, to share his feelings with his little daughter. But in midline comes the interjection "Oh!" and the word "whom" at the end of the line ominously forebodes its rhyme word, "tomb."
In a stab of pain, he remembers that she's dead. He consoles himself that his habitual act of trying to share his joy with her attests the strength of his love. Then the anguished outcry, "But-- how could I forget thee?" What these broken lines convey is a deeply human paradox about grieving. Time is a healer, but the dimming of grief in the passage of time can make us also feel guilty, as though it impugned the genuineness of our love.
In the sharpness of his self-blame, the poet belabors himself with a series of blunt bilabial Bs. "How have I been so beguiled as to be blind to my most grievous loss?" To realize that he has momentarily forgotten his loss is the deepest pain he's ever known. But no; once more he has to correct himself. The worst pain, now dimmed by time, was that which he suffered when he first learned that his daughter was gone forever.
"Surprised by joy-- impatient as the wind I turned to share my transport-- Oh! with whom but thee, long buried in the silent tomb, that spot which no vicissitude can find? Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind-- but how could I forget thee? Through what power, even for the least division of an hour, have I been so beguiled as to be blind to my was grievous loss!-- That thought's return was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore, save one, one only, when I stood forlorn, knowing my heart's best treasure was no more; that neither present time, nor years unborn could to my sight that heavenly face restore."
In a poem written to memorialize Wordsworth's death in 1850, Matthew Arnold said that the unique quality of Wordsworth's poetry was its healing power. "But where in Europe's latter hour again find Wordsworth's healing power?"
In our present critical climate, that is not the kind of thing one says about poems. But surely, Arnold's claim conforms to our experience of reading "Surprised by Joy," as by our reading Wordsworth's great narrative poems that deal with suffering-- "The Ruined Cottage," and "Michael."
In this sonnet, Wordsworth confronts the most terrible of bereavements-- the loss of a beloved child-- and by poetic alchemy transmutes it for his readers into an experience of comfort-- of comfort and even a kind of joy; the kind we call aesthetic delight. He does so in part because he achieves, and enables us to do so, a mode of mastery over grief by finding language so greatly adequate to its occasion. He does so also by reassuring us that we are not alone, that we share with this insightful poet the perplexities of our human condition.
I recall the first time I read Lady Mary Montagu's "The Lover" when it was retrieved from obscurity by feminist literary researches in the 1970s. I felt relief and a sense of closure. That was because I realized that when Lady Mary wrote her poem in 1747, it was in response to many prior centuries of amatory poems called Carpe Diem, a Latin phrase meaning "seize the day."
Not to put too fine a point on it, Carpe Diem are seduction poems. In them, a self-assured male lover undertakes to persuade a reluctant virgin to change her condition by arguments that haven't changed for 2,000 years, nor still.
One. Time flies and youth is short. Two. For shame, you're afraid to satisfy your desires. Three. Or else, if you don't respond to me, it's because, by deficiency of nature, you're emotionally cold. All these are summed up in the first stanza of the poem.
Lady Mary's "The Lover" brought suddenly home to me that, in all these poems, I had heard only one side of a dialogue and that here, finally, after two millennia, we hear the response of a woman voicing her opinion-- both of the male suitor and of his suit. "The Lover," all in the form of a verse epistle written to a female friend she calls Molly, is in fact a devastating reply to the long line of Carpe Diem poets.
Lady Mary doesn't get angry. Instead, she replies in the dance-like meter of four stress anapestic couplets. That is, the basic meter is da-da-dum, da-da-dum, da-da-dum, da-da-dum. And in this light but lethal mode, she explodes the standard seductive arguments and skewers the seducers.
The fifth line, "I am not as cold as a virgin in lead," I think can be taken to say, I am not as cold as the female saint depicted in leaded, stained glass windows, who chose martyrdom rather than lose her virginity. Each of your arguments, she points out to the would-be lover in the first stanza, are specious. And in a single, point-blank phrase she demolishes them. "But I hate to be cheated."
The truth, she implies, is I don't find you in the least bit attractive. She implies this by describing at length the kind of lover she would find compellingly attractive-- a lover who in his qualities and in his behavior, both public and private, is everything that the Carpe Diem poet is not.
And look at line 16. It was written 250 years ago, but even in this era of acute awareness of sexual politics how up to date it sounds. "For I would have the power, tho' not give the pain." "For I would have the power."
I hesitate to mention another matter because it touches on gender identity, which is currently an area of debate strewn with land mines. But I'll risk it. In the stanza beginning at line 25, Lady Mary displays two traits that strike my obviously old fashioned sensibility as endearingly feminine. First, in referring to an imagined private supper with her imagined ideal lover, she takes care to specify the two main courses of the meal-- namely, chicken and champagne.
Lord Byron, a half century later, was struck by this passage. One would suppose that Byron, the legendary romantic lover, might think himself vulnerable to Lady Mary's putdown of the macho male. But as a great satirist himself, Byron recognized a fine verbal image when he saw it. "Is not her chicken and champagne," he said, admiringly, "worth a forest or two? Is it not poetry?" To which I reply, resoundingly, yes.
Second. What does Lady Mary say will follow this repast for two? Dalliance, yes, but anything more than that? Note the semantic ambiguity in the verb form she uses in line 32. "And he may be rude, and yet I may forgive." The term may can signify either "has permission to" or "it is possible that." Lady Mary could have said, and he may be rude, and yet I will forgive. Instead, even after this entirely imaginary supper and to a purely hypothetical ideal lover-- who, as her adjective "astonishing" indicates, is an excessive rarity-- Lady Mary, though she doesn't say no, doesn't quite say yes. She says, maybe. "And yet he may be rude, and yet I may forgive."
In reading "The Lover" aloud, I'm going to do something that might will provoke Lady Mary's dowdy spirit. I'm going to stop one stanza before she ends her point, not because the final stanza isn't witty, but because, in the preceding stanza, the poem has already come to a decisive, rhetorical close.
Until I meet that irresistible lover, she says there. "But till this astonishing creature I know, as I long have liv'd chaste, I will keep myself so." This assertion is a substantive and formal triumph and conclusive. Anything that comes after does too much of a good thing in the wrong place and produces the effect of anti-climax. If some of you disagree with my judgment-- and I'm sure some of you do-- the extra stanza's there for you to add at your pleasure.
And however that may be, I think everyone will share my pleasure in the way the poet controls the tendency of the anapestic meter to fall into a dog trot by her deft balance in antithesis, pace and pause, satiric thrust and parry.
"At length, by so much importunity press'd, take, Molly, at once, the inside of my breast; this stupid indiff'rence so often you blame, is not owing to nature, to fear, or to shame-- I am not as cold as a virgin in lead, nor a Sunday's sermon so strong in my head-- I know but too well how time flies along, that we live but few years, and yet fewer are young.
But I hate to be cheated, and never will buy long years of repentance for moments of joy, oh! was there a man-- but where shall I find good sense and good nature so equally join'd?-- would value his pleasure, contribute to mine; nor meanly would boast, nor lewdly design; not over severe, yet not stupidly vain, for I would have the power, but not give the pain.
No pedant, yet learned; no rake-helly gay, or laughing, because he has nothing to say; to all my whole sex obliging and free, yet never be fond of any but me; in public preserve the decorum that's just, and show in his eyes he is true to his trust; then rarely approach and respectfully bow"-- this is the 18th century-- "yet not fulsomely pert, nor yet foppishly low."
This is the great stanza. "But when the long hours of public are past, and we meet with champagne and a chicken at last, may ev'ry fond pleasure that hour endear; be banish'd alike both discretion and fear! Forgetting or scorning the airs of the crowd, he may cease to be formal, and I to be proud. Till lost in the joy, we confess that we live, and he may be rude, and yet I may forgive.
And that my delight may be solidly fix'd, let the friend and the lover be handsomely mix'd; in whose tender bosom my soul might confide, whose kindness can soothe me, whose counsel could guide. From such a dear lover as here I describe, no danger should frighten me, no millions should bribe; but till this astonishing creature I m as I long have liv'd chaste, I will keep myself so." That's triumphant.
Now the poem by Tennyson. In lyric poetry, by far, the most frequent topic is, of course, love. But in the 2000-plus years of recorded amatory poems, I know of nothing quite the match of this one.
Tennyson's popularity with the prim Victorian middle class is unexampled in the history of poetry. But the truth is proper Victorians had nothing against amatory poems. To the contrary, provided the poem is discreetness, language, and lacks overt physical references. Tennyson's poem qualifies on both counts, but barely.
"Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal" is, in its discreet way, a poem of pure, unmitigated, suspenseful sexual longing. Its setting, we learn, is an opulent palace garden, which contains red and white rose bushes, cypress trees, and goldfish in a rich stone bowl. The garden adjoins the shallow margin of a lake in which grow day blooming water lilies. And the ultimate exotic touch, it harbors a white peacock.
Night has at long last settled in, lit only by fireflies and the luminous track of a shooting star. The lyric speaker is waiting for his beloved to waken and join him in the rich, fragrant, breezeless darkness. As we are told in the sixth line of the poem, the beloved seems indeed to keep the rendezvous. "And like a ghost she glimmers on to me." The pronoun "she" in that line can't refer to the peacock who is a male peafowl. What the line conveys, then, is that the loved one appears, her white dress glimmering, ghostlike, in the distance.
Meanwhile, the lyric speaker's perfervid imagination transforms every detail that he perceives into an analog of his relation to his loved one. We don't notice that the verses like end rhymes so dense are the repetitions and internal echoes of the enunciated speech sounds and the poem's luxurious language. Listen to this for example. "Now slides the silent meteor on and leaves the shining furrow."
Though lacking rhyme, the lyric is divided into stanzas consisting of an opening and closing quatrain-- that is, four lines-- and four intervening couplets-- pairs of lines. Each stanza begins with the temporal adverb "now" and ends with the personal pronoun "me." The cumulative effect is of the growing urgency of a desire so intense that it induces in the lover a physical anger. Now, now, now, now. With me. To me. Unto me. And then twice, in me, in me.
The second of the insistent couplets contains what I would nominate, though in an unobvious way, as the most explosively concentrated erotic image in all poetry. "Now lies the earth all Danae to the stars." In Greek mythology, Danae is a young woman whose father, in order to ward off all suitors, has locked her behind bars. But the amatory god Zeus, King of the gods, in a standard euphemism, visits Danae in a shower of gold.
Just unfold Tennyson's compressed allusion, and it turns out to say something like this. By the intensely expectant lover, all the earth is perceived as though it were an enamored female, lying receptive to the multitudinous silver showers of all the visiting stars. Note also the first line of the concluding quatrain. The normal word order would be, now the lily folds up all her sweetness. By inverting the subject and predicate and postponing the preposition "up" until the end, Tennyson suspends the syntax so as to replicate this suspense of the waiting lover. "Now folds the lily all her sweetness up."
I draw your attention to an aspect of an expressive reading that could also be exemplified by any of the other poems on your sheet. I'll do it with Tennyson because it's conspicuous there. Tennyson's verse quickly establishes as its basic meter five iambic feet per line-- da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, da-dum-- with each foot taking up an approximately equal segment of time.
If a reading reproduced metronomically these stresses and time intervals, it would be lethal to the poem. Instead, an expressive reading plays counterpoint to the normative meter so that its intonation, the voice intonation-- that is, its changes in pitch, timbre, pace, and rhetorical stress-- sometimes deviates from, sometimes coincides with the steady ongoing pulse of the underlying meter. This dynamic of tension and resolution between the normative meter and an expressive rendering is what gives vitality to a poem when it's uttered aloud.
As example, take the opening line. When reading it, I once used to stress rhetorically the opposing terms, "Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white." But that was clearly a mistake. The difference between white and red roses is not functional to the import of the poem. Instead, the key note term is "now," which in consequence, lacking a metrical stress, nevertheless invites an intonational stress.
Equally important is the verb "sleeps." "Now at last, at last, the darkness falls so that the red rose sleeps." Here the intonational stress conjoins with, so as to reinforce, the metrical stress. In this longed-for darkness, the firefly, in antithesis to the rose falling asleep, wakens. And now at last, at last it's time for my love also to awaken to keep our rendezvous in the still darkness of this garden with me.
So throughout the poem, an expressive reading establishes a counter rhythm that plays with and against the underlying metric pulse. And as earlier, so at the very end, the metrical and the intonational stresses coincide. The poem thus concludes with a plangent double emphasis on the sentient center of all this longing-- "me."
"Now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white; nor waves the cypress in the palace walk; nor winks the gold fin in the porphyry font. The firefly wakens; waken thou with me.
Now droops the mill-white peacock like a ghost, and like a ghost she glimmers on to me. Now lies the Earth all Danae to the stars, and all thy heart lies open unto me. Now slides the silent meteor on, and leaves a shining furrow, as thy thoughts in me.
Now folds the lily all her sweetness up, and slips into the bosom of the lake. So fold thyself, my dearest, thou, and slip into my bosom and be lost in me." Nothing else quite like it.
Now I've been inordinately fond of Ernest Dowson's "Cynara" ever since, as a college sophomore, I came across it in a survey course in English literature. Yes, there were survey courses even before the Norton Anthology. I like it not despite but because of its extravagance.
The subject of the poem is outrageous, deliberately intended in 1891 to shock the late Victorian reader. The lyric speaker, during a long night of dissipation, and while lying in the arms of a prostitute-- note the second stanza, "her bought red mouth"-- is obsessed with the memory of an earlier love and asserts that this obsession in these circumstances demonstrates his fidelity to his earlier love. I find appealing the candor of which Dowson, instead of downplaying, flaunts his poem's high artifice.
It begins with an epigraph from a Latin ode, in which the poet Horace, referring to a former love, declares, "I am not as I used to be under the reign of the good sinner." Dowson then appropriates the name of Horace's mistress for his own lost love.
The artifice is highlighted also by the intricacy of the six line stanza, in which five of the lines are written in iambic hexameter-- a six stress meter common in French poetry but rare and difficult to maintain in English. The poet cunningly interpolates in each stanza a fifth line, which is shortened from 6 to 5 stresses, and is made additionally emphatic because it interrupts the two line refrain repeated in every stanza with this resounding rhyme of passion and fashion.
There are many other metric touches in the poem that I won't bother you with. But he is a master metrist. Just take one example. Lines 14 and 15. Notice the suspension in the juncture between those two lines forced by the need drastically to reform the vocal organs between the two stressed syllables "throng" and "dancing," in which the movement in the enunciative action mimics the bodily action when we dance. "Flung roses, roses, riotously with the throng, dancing," and so on.
Most prominent is the unabashed theatricality, even staginess, of the poem's high rhetoric and broad gestures, which would be at home in a lush Victorian melodrama. "Last night, ah, yesternight"; "Yea, I was desolate." And then the third stanza, "I have forgotten much, Cynara! gone with the wind." Yes, that's where Margaret Mitchell got the title for her Civil War novel.
Incidentally, from this poem derives also the recurrent phrase in the verses by that very literate songwriter Cole Porter. How many of you remember-- are old enough to remember-- I'm Always True to You Darling in My Fashion? (SINGING) I'm always true to you, darling, in my fashion. I'm always true to you, darling, in my way. Such literary echoes reassure me that I'm far from the only reader to have been beguiled by Dowson's flamboyant poem.
Now somehow, despite his patent contrivances, sinner escapes seeming meretricious or insincere. Instead, the very candor of its artifice generates a kind of authenticity, building up to the plangent cry of the heart in the fifth short line of the last stanza. "Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire." In rendering this line, as well as the rest of the poem, the reader is licensed-- indeed, required-- to be theatrical. That's why it appeals to the ham me, I guess. But must take care to stop short of slipping into self-parody.
Such restraint is made easier, and the poem is also made much more interesting, by the teasing phrase that closes each stanza and lingers in memory when the poem ends. "In my fashion." How is one to take those words? Clearly, they indicate the speaker's awareness of the outrageousness of the extravagance of his claim, but do they imply also a touch of self-mockery? Well, that depends on the interpretation of the individual reader, as that interpretation is expressed in the intonation the reader gives to the concluding phrase, especially in the final stanza.
"Last night, ah, yesternight, between her lips and mine there fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath shed upon my soul between the kisses and the wine; and I was desolate and sick of an old passion, yea, I was desolate bowed my head-- I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat. Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay; surely the kisses of her bought red mouth was sweet; but I was desolate and sick of an old passion, when I awoke and found the dawn was gray-- I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind, flung roses, roses riotously with the throng, dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies of of mind; but I was desolate and sick of an old passion, yea, all the time, because the dance was long; I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
I cried for madder music and for stronger wine, but when the feast is finished and the lamps expire, then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine; and I am desolate and sick of an old passion, yea, hungry for the lips of my desire-- I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion." Quite a wonderful poem, isn't it, in its fashion?
We come at the end. "Blessed word, end," Coleridge once said, who was a very long-winded lecturer. We come at the end to a poem by the late AR Ammons. Ammons, who was long my colleague and friend at Cornell, and is indubitably a major American poet.
You couldn't get farther from Dowson's "Cynara," with its conspicuous complexity and artifice, than the conspicuous simplicity and artlessness of Ammons' "Mansion." The poem is also strikingly different from all the others I've read. Ammons renounces almost all the traditional resources that mark the distinction between poetry and ordinary prose speech. He gives up meter and rhyme for free verse. He avoids the use of words and figures of speech that, through the 19th century and later, constituted the standard parlance of poets.
How many noticed, for example, that all the poets earlier than WH Auden that I've read, said "thou," "thee," and "thy," instead of "you" and "your." "But how could I forget thee?" "Waken, thou, with me." "I have been faithful to thee, Cynara!" The use of that pronoun is an index to other locutions that we take for granted in traditional poems. Although written at the time, they were almost never used in ordinary talk. What we hear and mention instead is a forthright, everyday American vernacular, with a slight North Carolina accent. The kind of plain talk that has no scruple about ending both of the first two sentences with a preposition-- "to be delivered to"; "to show its motions with."
"Mansion" turns out to deal with a profound human issue. What are we to make of life knowing that we must die? But it begins with the utmost casualness. "So it came time for me to cede myself," as if death were the most natural thing in the world, which, of course, it surely is.
Ammons uses the word "cede" in the quasi-legal sense, to officially turn myself over to. The setting of the poem is a southwestern American desert. There, the speaker addresses himself to the wind. So had many earlier poets. Shelley, for example, apostrophized the wind grandly. "O, wild, west wind," at the beginning of his great "Ode to the West Wind."
In "Mansion," however, the poet speaker, without ceremony, simply engages the desert wind in a friendly chat. He offers his body to the wind-- "dust to dust"-- and by doing so, accepts his role in the natural cycle of death and life. Later in the poem he says, "when the tree of my bones shall rise." After he's turned to dust, his sunbleached rib cage will be like another desert tree, like the one he describes, the ocotillo.
For this, all further wind is grateful because it remarks in playing its own part in that cycle. It needs that kind of dust in order to make its motions visible. It then asks what it can do in return. In the lyric speaker's response, the colloquialism rises in stylistic pitch. The poet even introduces two very unprosaic neologisms, novelties. "Come and whirlwinding stroll my dust." "Whirlwind" is a noun, but Ammons uses it here as the present participle of the verb.
"Stroll" is an even bolder invention because it is an intransitive verb used transitively. "Stroll my dust." As such, it presses us to recognize it as what Louis Carroll called a "portmanteau word." That is, it fuses the word "stroll"-- to move casually-- with "strew"-- strew my dust. "Stroll my dust."
In "Mansion," however, this momentary heightening of the speech is whimsical, even playful. It serves to remind us of the traditional high-lyric style that the poem deliberately plays against in order to achieve its distinctive counter traditional effects.
The speaker requests the obliging wind to blow his dust to a place where he can see the ocotillo or cactus tree and the desert wren. The phrasing is odd, deliberately so, in a way that implies what it doesn't explicitly say. He asks the wind to strew his dust where I can see how the ocotillo does and how saguaro-wren is.
The phrases "how it does" and "how it is" serve unostentatiously, I think, to humanize the relation of the lyric speaker to the ocotillo and the wren. They do so by echoing the two standard greetings between two human beings-- how do you do, and how are you?-- but convert the interrogative mode to the declarative mode-- how the ocotillo does, how saguaro-wren is. In this way the tree and wren, like that other natural thing the wind, are made companionable with the human observer at the same time that all four of these living things are represented as participating in the processes of nature.
In the last stanza, the speaker requests that at nightfall, the wind drop his dust here. I had read the poem a number of times before I recognized the significance in the concluding section of that locative adverb. The speaker asks that after he dies, the wind deposit him here-- that is, at the very place he is standing while he is talking to the wind-- in order that after death he may continue to do what? Exactly what he was doing when alive.
Ammons' poem on dying, then, concludes in a celebration of life, in such elemental enjoyments as looking at a desert tree, observing a desert wren, and finally, watching the dusk and anticipating the dawn. In its tone, furthermore, the closing segment of the poem is clearly positive. It conveys, without saying so, an affirmation-- of life, that is.
How does it manage this feat of conveying to the reader an essential point that it doesn't say? For one thing, the speaker ends his request to the wind at nightfall, then looks forward to daybreak. The poem, in fact, concludes with the emphatic present tense of the verb "breaks." And notice the slight surprise one feels at the phrasing of the concluding line. Where we would expect the simple statement "and see the day break," we get instead, "and think how morning breaks." "And think." That is, he will ponder the possible significance of the fact that night does give way to day.
But note that by this phrasing, Ammons also achieves a very subtle metrical effect. In these last three lines, the iregular free verse rhythms of the poem modulate quietly into the assured steady beat of an entirely regular iambic meter. I'll exaggerate it. "Where we can watch the closing up of day and think how morning breaks."
Whatever Ammons may lose by not using a regular meter he recuperates, in this and other poems, by being able to adapt that meter passingly for special, unspoken purposes. By this and other means, Ammons, without expressly saying so, writes a poem about dying that celebrates the values in living. To put it the other way, the poet tacitly affirms life, while tacitly acquiescing to his mortality.
I said earlier that Ammons' poem was conspicuously simple and artless. The statement is, I think, true but can be misleading. For in this, as in another of his lyric poems, in his individual, at times idiosyncratic, way, Ammons is a meticulous craftsman. It might be less misleading to put it this way. The effects of "Mansion" are produced by an art that hides its art conspicuously. That is, Ammons intends his reader to be aware of what the poem does not say, of what it resists saying, as well as traditional poems in this lyric mode that this poem plays itself against.
An extreme instance of his reliance on the effect of what he doesn't tell you is the teasing baffling title itself, "Mansion." What does mention have to do with the arid desert setting of this poem? The answer was provided to me by Roger Gilbert of the Cornell English department, who is writing what will be an absolutely indispensable book about Archie Ammons and his poetry.
Roger showed me a statement Ammons wrote in 1987, in which he said that he was influenced as a poet, I quote, "especially by the only poetry I knew as a child, hymns." Hymns. To illustrate, Ammons quotes the opening lines of a hymn. That hymn is called "An Empty Mansion." And Roger Gilbert found it in an old song book that belonged to Archie's family.
The first stanza from which, remember, Archie quoted the beginning in his statement of his first poetic influences, reads as follows. "Here I labor and toil as I look for a home, just a humble abode among men, while in heaven a mansion is waiting for me, and the gentle voice pleading come in." Some of you may know the hymn.
It includes the following chorus, which is repeated three times in each of the chorus. And each time, the word "mansion" occurs twice. "There is a mansion, now empty, just waiting for me. Near the door of that mansion some day." There can, I think, be no doubt that by naming it "Mansion," Ammons, without saying so, deliberately opposed his poem against the hymn, by choosing, instead of a mansion in the sky, to cede himself to the wind here. In what the hymn calls "this humble abode among men," where he is able to see the ocotillo and the wren and to watch the sun rise.
By relying so heavily on indirection, understatement, and non-statement, Ammons' spare and powerful little poem runs the risk that it will slip by a casual reader as pleasant, perhaps, but inconsequential. By the same token, "Mansion" sets anyone who undertakes to read aloud a formidable challenge. How does one read what the poem says in such a way as to indicate the many other things that are essential to the range and depth of its meaning, but that the poem conspicuously does not say?
"Mansion." "So it came time for me to cede myself and I chose the wind to be delivered to. The wind was glad and said it needed all the body it could get to show its motions with and wanted to know willingly as I hoped it would if it could do something in return to show its gratitude. When the tree of my bones rises from the skin I said come and whirlwinding stroll my dust around the plain so I can see how the ocotillo does and how saguaro-wren is and when you fall with the evening fall with me here where we can watch the closing up of day and think how morning breaks. Thank you very much.
SPEAKER 2: Does anyone have any questions?
SPEAKER 2: Speak loudly, please.
AUDIENCE: I have a question about the Emily Dickinson poem.
MH ABRAMS: Yes.
AUDIENCE: On the end of the third stanza, beginning of the fourth, "he stirred his velvet head like one in danger, cautious, I offered him a crumb." I don't know who this is referring to. Is it the speaker of the poem or the bird?
MH ABRAMS: Yeah. You all see that passage? Let me find it. "He stirred his velvet head," the bird does, of course, "like one in danger." There's a comma there in the text. I think it should be a period. "Cautious" goes with the way you offered him the crumb. "Cautious, I offered him a crumb." "And here unrolled his feathers," and then that wonderful passage. Is that relevant to your question? Yeah.
Anybody else have a question at this late time of the evening? All right.
AUDIENCE: In the Tennyson poem, why do you think the [INAUDIBLE] changes from the second person address, "thou," which you get throughout the [INAUDIBLE] in the second stanza. "And like a ghost she glimmers onto me." That seemed like a striking change.
MH ABRAMS: Yeah. I take that-- that can only mean that she is his beloved who actually makes an appearance in the distance, glimmering in the distance, dressed in white, presumably, like the white peacock. She becomes part of the description of the scene, of course, and it would have to be-- if he were going to refer to her, it would have to be in the third person. And "she" is the sweetheart. And I think, from then on, we can hear the lines that he utters as addressed directly to her. From that point on. I take it that's the way the poem goes. I can't read it any other way. Yes.
AUDIENCE: Back to that [INAUDIBLE], what makes you so sure that it's that way and not the other way? It seems like it goes one way. The word "cautious."
MH ABRAMS: That same line, you mean?
AUDIENCE: Yeah. You said it was meant to be a period. Why do you think so?
MH ABRAMS: What else could the "she" refer to?
AUDIENCE: No, he's back in Dickinson.
MH ABRAMS: What?
AUDIENCE: He's back in Dickinson.
MH ABRAMS: Oh, back in Dickinson. Oh, I'm sorry. Yeah. Could you tell me what the question was? I missed it.
AUDIENCE: It's a follow up on her question.
MH ABRAMS: Yeah.
AUDIENCE: You answered, but it didn't seem like you were quite sure that the "cautious"--
MH ABRAMS: Oh.
AUDIENCE: --could be read one way and not the other way. Seems to be able to be heard both ways.
MH ABRAMS: In its rather eccentric grammatical way it could go either way, but I think it makes much more sense if it goes with the "cautious," that's why I offered him a crumb. Of course, a robin isn't the least bit interested in the crumb. What it wants is worms. So it flies off. It just seems to me that the syntax goes more easily if "cautious" goes with the way you offer the crumb, rather than the movements in the robin. If you want to read it the other way, I think you have license to do so.
One more question? Yes. This is the one I want to hear. Go ahead.
AUDIENCE: I think he wants the little girl.
AUDIENCE: Oh, my bad.
AUDIENCE: It's you.
MH ABRAMS: Not a question here?
AUDIENCE: Go ahead.
AUDIENCE: Where it says the bird let the beetle pass, why wouldn't the bird just eat the beetle?
MH ABRAMS: Could somebody repeat that for me?
AUDIENCE: Why wouldn't the bird just eat the beetle?
MH ABRAMS: What?
AUDIENCE: She wants to know why the bird doesn't eat the beetle when the beetle passes.
AUDIENCE: Emily Dickinson.
MH ABRAMS: We're back with Emily.
MH ABRAMS: And the question?
AUDIENCE: The bird let the beetle past. The bird let the beetle pass. Why didn't it eat the beetle.
MH ABRAMS: The only way I'm going to answer that is to read it to you once more, and that'll be the end of the evening.
And I think this may-- when I read it this way, I hope to persuade you to attach "cautious" to my actions, to her actions, rather than to the robin. "A bird came down the walk-- he did know I saw-- he bit an angleworm in halves, and ate the fellow, raw." That's wonderful, you know. That's wonderful. Emily Dickinson has to be given credit for her wonderfully sly sense of humor.
"And then he drank a dew from a convenient grass-- and then hopped sidewise to the wall to let a beetle pass." All in miniature. "He glanced with rapid eyes that hunted all around-- they looked like frightened beads, I thought-- he stirred his velvet head like one in danger, cautious, I offered him a crumb, and he unrolled his feathers and rowed him softer home-- than oars divide the ocean too silver for a seam-- or butterflies, off banks of noon, leap plashless as they swim." Wonderful, isn't it?
SPEAKER 2: If you haven't already gone to CyberTower, Cornell CyberTower, I would suggest you go there. And there's a wonderful interview, and you'll learn a little more about Professor Abrams. Thank you all for coming.
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A poem is "one of the most nuanced of the arts in expressing what is human," said Cornell Professor Emeritus M.H. (Mike) Abrams, who shared some of his deep understanding and love of poetry in a public lecture, "On Reading Poems Aloud," July 16, in Alice Statler Auditorium.
"Poems, like all art forms, have a physical medium -- a material body that conveys the nonphysical," said Abrams, the Class of 1916 Professor of English Literature Emeritus, to the large audience. "A poem comes into a small physical being only briefly while reading it aloud."
He discussed seven examples of the art of poetry, from Emily Dickinson and W.H. Auden to the late Cornell professor A.R. Ammons.