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The Fish, II (following a recent post by Camille Dungy)

By Martin Earl

metsu21maidbroilingfish
Gabriel Metsu – “Maid Broiling Fish”, mid 17th century, Flemish

Gary Winogrand, one of America’s greatest street photographers, working in the tradition (or rather reworking the tradition) of Henri Cartier-Bresson, said that he was not interested in reality, per se, but what it looked like in a photograph. Camille’s passionate reading of a Bishop poem recently allowed me to make a connection I would have otherwise never made. Or at least that is what I assume, or I probably would have already made it. But, it was Camille’s picture of the poem, her version, what she highlighted and chose to include in the frame, how Bishop’s poem looked in her post that put me in mind of Padre António Vieira.

Padre António Vieira? The connection would not have been lost on Bishop, since she was, how shall we say, an honorary Brazilian, having lived there for fifteen years. She was also fascinated by the culture of Latin Letters.  He was a 17th century Luzo-Brazilian priest who left behind him one of the great bodies of Portuguese prose. It is hard to imagine that she would not have come across his work, or at least learned something of his life.

It is one of his sermons, given three days before he was to leave to return to Portugal to push for legislation to free the indigenous peoples of Maranhão State from slavery that suddenly shed new light on the Elizabeth Bishop’s “This Fish”. A few years ago I had translated and excerpt of Padre António Vieira’s “Sermão de Santo António aos Peixes” [Saint Anthony’s Sermon to the Fish], an indictment of the vanities of his compatriots. It shares much with Bishop’s poem in terms of figures, metaphors, description (the suffocation of the fish in what Bishop calls the “terrible air”, the hooks and tackle of the trade) and above all the subject of human vanity.  The sermon is composed as an allegory. Bishop’s poem turns allegorical through the pressure she places on the visual. Both authors rely heavily on anthropomorphism.

One of the most exciting qualities of Padre Vieira’s prose is how close to necessity it is.  This necessity is larger than the author, and yet he invests himself in it, in the guise of Saint Anthony, as though he is the only one that actually understands the true extent of the problem. His stance is almost Socratic in the way he uses the rhetorical question and statements of the obvious to make his audience feel their own thoughtlessness; and not only that, like Socrates he takes actual risks in preaching what he has to say. So there is drama; though it is not displayed so much as implicit. The art of it is that it is so beautifully fluent and so unflinchingly pertinent to the task at hand. The irony, the critical eye, even the grace notes are subsumed in the unwavering logic. Each sentence wields a dialectical edge. The parodic attention to fish, and their fine scales draws comedy to itself in isolation, but as a component of the argument it lays bare its antithesis in a rather miserable depiction of human vanity. Bishop’s poem has much in common. They both, after all, describe the life, character and motivations of a fish.

“The Fish” must be one of Bishop’s most anthologized poems. That is because it is one of her most accessible, even though it doesn’t work that differently from “At the Fish Houses”, “The Bite” or even “The Moose”. They move, these poems, from banality via crescendo through ever deepening riffs of observation until enough pressure has accumulated that epiphany must ensue.

It is only natural that after a few readings of the poems I have just mentioned, the veneer of naturalness becomes increasingly thin and we are forced to look at them as pure aesthetic constructs, assembled with a watchmaker’s care, rather than realistic narratives of the poet immersed in the act of examining her world. We know there won’t be a crisis – things in a Bishop poem are always very precise, emotions always a bit gauzy. How unlike Emily Dickinson, another naturalist, where the movement from natural to metaphysical is always a sharp, somewhat insane leap of faith.  

In “The Fish” descriptive virtuosity is ennobled, to a certain extent, at the cost of its subject. The life of the fish, its history of conquest over adversity for which it carries its medals hooked to its jaw; the portrayed fish, with its wallpaper skin and the isinglass eyes – all of this is gorgeously rendered, yet finally somewhat improbable. They are details that, after we have read the poem enough times, tend to become cloying rather than expressive. Vieira’s fish is a rhetorical fish as well. The difference is that we assume this from the beginning. That’s the premise. Released from realism he manages to be more realistic.

The verisimilitude of the poem’s narrator, what there is of her, depends as well on the description of the fish. She uses the fish to justify her own presence as observer. Besides her keen eye she is hardly there, or made so discrete that she seems hardly there. “I caught”, “I looked”, “I held”, “I starred and starred”. There is absolutely no introspection.  Two issues come to the fore in this poem, both concern the narrator: on the one hand her rather disembodied presence as an actual person sitting in a boat and catching a fish, and, on the other, her exaggerated, painterly precision which increases in power as the depiction shuttles line to line gathering force.

Epiphanic structure, especially when used as a method of closure, typically releases its charge upon the character or narrator who has had the epiphany. James Joyce’s use of epiphany in the short stories of Dubliners is one of the 20th century’s great examples of shattering denouement through sudden realization. The reader, having gradually merged with the narrator is also meant to take the brunt of altered knowledge, in which the story we have just read, thinking one thing, suddenly begins to flicker and shift, like those old-fashioned mechanical arrival and departure boards in train stations and airports. Poets have always relied on this device. “And in the garden, cries and colors.” The last line of one of John Ashbery’s short obscure little poems from Rivers and Mountains is an epiphany wondering what it’s doing at the end of the poem it is assigned to, “Last Month”. And yet the poem would not be complete without it. One of Bill Knott’s great poems, published in Selected and Collected Poems (Sun Press, 1977), “To American Poets”, uses an anti-epiphanic ending to extraordinary effect. Because it is a political poem (one of the most successful ever written by an American in my opinion) we have felt the blood and flesh narrator throughout, as though he were mounting the barriers of 1848 and shouting, like Baudelaire, Il faut aller fusiller le Général Aupick! A bas Aupick! Aupick was Baudelaire’s much-loathed stepfather.

Because the narrator in the Bishop poem is as thin as air, the final epiphany simply discharges, to no effect, into that very same air. The more we read the poem, knowing that that final line is there, waiting to impress us, the more artificial the description of the fish becomes. Is it building towards the epiphany, or is it description for description’s sake? Likewise, the more remote and unlikely the narrator seems to us, the more meaningless the epiphanic structure with its melodramatic penultimate line of repeating rainbows finally is. Like all epiphanies, this one is meant to transcend, and to a certain extent replace the poem with new meanings. But we are not sufficiently invested in this opaque narrator to receive the charge. Any moral line, drawn between narrator and subject (the idea that the narrator has learnt something) is shot to hell by the baroque perfection of the poetic eye – at one remove from the speaker and finally the main subject of the poem. The failure of the poem is that we want the life of the person describing the fish to be sufficiently there to care about. But she’s not. Instead of cathexis there is diffusion. This misalliance grows the more we read the poem, and I’ve been reading the poem for thirty years. I first became uncomfortable with it when I tried to teach it about fifteen years ago, when, naturally I read it many times over a short period. Since then I have hardly read it at all. I finally realized there was a problem when, after reading Camille’s post, I tried to read Bishop’s poem once again for the umpteenth time and found it a labor, not of love.

 

 

Comments (122)

  • On June 30, 2009 at 7:32 pm Bill Knott wrote:

    hmm, thanks for your kind words . . . considering the source i’m quite flattered—

    if anybody is interested in reading that poem you mention, it is on page 108 of the volume, “Odds and Endbook”,

    which can be downloaded free from here:

    http://stores.lulu.com/store.php?fAcctID=2254674

  • On July 1, 2009 at 12:32 am Christopher Woodman wrote:

    Martin,
    You write, “Epiphanic structure, especially when used as a method of closure, typically releases its charge upon the character or narrator who has had the epiphany.”

    Why “typically,” Martin?

    You may well be using the phrase “epiphanic structure” as an established critical concept, but if you are I’m afraid I’m going to be left out because I’ve never heard of it before. But I do know that passage in “The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” very well, having read it first when I was about 16 and many times subsequently. I can also draw on not only that intial, adolescent thrill but on the experience of having taught the passage all over the world to all ages for 50 years. And I say that that epiphany (of epiphanies!) is not a.) a “closure” and was not b.) intended solely for the character, Stephen Daedalus’, satisfaction. Indeed, going a little farther, drawing on my own experience as a writer now, I would say the passage wasn’t intended for anybody else at all, at least in its conception, but was wholly written into, like a vision, a nervous breakdown, or a coup de grace, as final as that! It was an overwhelming experience for the author, I feel sure—perhaps the most important of his lifetime. Indeed, I don’t think the passage belongs to the desk on which it was written, nor to any plot or literary project. It belongs to all times and all places, almost as if it had become a magical artifact like the Willendorf Venus. It’s an opening, Martin, not a closure—indeed, it seems to me you even detract from its power when you discuss it in terms of what it did for the young man in the book as opposed to what it does for the reader. It’s so much more than any of that–which is why we’ve come to call it an Epiphany. I mean, otherwise why bother?

    The distinction you’re making is that Vieira’s fish never pretends to be more than a “rhetorical fish,” that it has a function to play in the text that doesn’t involve swimming away as a real fish at the end, and that this gives it its power to convince. “Released from realism he manages to be more realistic,” you say about Vieira, and you fault Elizabeth Bishop for having created a more stilted fish that doesn’t convince because she tries too hard as a spectator. Elizabeth Bishop’s not there, you say, she just looks on without any introspection. She’s a “disembodied presence,” like a critic almost, a director who “shuttles” the action on towards the end with skill and precision but without much conviction.

    That’s interesting, but I’d say it has nothing to do with the last line or the thrust of the poem. Because the epiphany in “The Fish” doesn’t happen in the last line at all, which by the time you get there, I quite agree, is wooden and stale–but is meant to be! “And I let the fish go?” What sort of epiphany is that? Wopuld a poet as sensitive as Elizabeth Bishop set herself up for something like that?

    No, Elizabeth Bishop’s epiphany doesn’t happen in the last line but in the boat —which is not a sleek game-fishing speedster with a tanned captain, a tall white tower and thrones with little holes in them for the gin and tonics between tugs. This boat is poor and barely adequate, it’s “little,” it’s “rented,” the bilges are dirty, the engine is all rusted and presumably uncovered right there in the middle, and there’s an oil slick all over the floor. Pollution in other words. A bad engine that leaks cheap oil in the bilges of a poor fisherman’s local boat which is also for hire.

    Nor is this fish a gamefish–it’s no big businessman’s Marlin or even the one-on-one giant sunset Ajax of Ernest Hemingway’s old man and the sea. It’s an old homeless grouper, slow, bewildered and mostly blind, and was almost certainly hooked almost by accident. And to suggest that it would be delicious is ridiculous–it’s almost dead of old age, and disgustingly corrupted! I mean it’s skin is peeling off like old wall paper and it’s covered in vermin and fungus. It’s an old dog like you see in the hot countries where you die like a dog hanging out on the street corner so battered and mangey and worm infested it can’t even lie down on the street anymore.

    This is not a fish that you proudly pose with, you don’t go home to brag about this fish and get it mounted on the wall. This is an old-boat fish, a very small dirty old-boat with a disgustingly big and exhausted old fish hanging on the side. This poem is not about triumph or pride but about the sadness and length and struggle that life really is. There’s nothing here of heroism, just guts. So the release is not a triumph of compassion or recognition of valor at all, just as the description has not been beautiful or inspired us. This is the dirty sunset of the very hard time that is life, and partuclarly the life that manages to achieve big size. “Rainbow, rainbow, rainbow,” it says–not up on the dock sipping drinks but down in the shanty-town bilge water.

    Elizabeth Bishop was too sensitive to try for epiphanies, Martin, particularly during those years in Brazil!

    Christopher

  • On July 1, 2009 at 5:00 am Christopher Woodman wrote:

    I wish I’d written that better, everybody, particularly at the very end where I failed to do justice to what is special about the poem, and quite unlike anybody else’s.

    To have noticed the rainbow in the slick at the bottom of the boat, imagine that, the radiance on the crud and the bilge water!

    The fact that Elizabeth Bishop plays the expectation down and doesn’t do epiphany, Martin, that’s more what I meant.

    Which is why I’m disappointed by your “epiphanic structure” idea, a critical expectation that would make it hard for any real epiphany ever to appear, it seems to me—as if the final dah-daa we’re in training for is ever the real THIS IS IT!

    The Zen Master says that it you meet an Epiphany, cut its head off!

    Christopher

  • On July 1, 2009 at 6:16 am Martin Earl wrote:

    Christopher,

    I don’t really follow your two comments. First of all, I’m not even talking about Joyce’s Portait as you keep insting, but rather Dubliners, his short story collection. If you read through these stories, which I’ve enjoyed rereading since I was twelve, never tiring of them, you’ll see what I mean. Epiphany is a very common device in literature. Joyce defines it in Stephen Hero as “a sudden spiritual manifestation” when the charecter suddenly perceives the significance of an object or an action. Bishop’s rainbow, Larkin’s high windows, Proust’s madeleine. Various types of epiphanies. I don’t think the poem calls for your sociological interpretation, you businessman’s Marlin etc. Nor does this have anything to do with what I’m taking about in the post.

    Martin

  • On July 1, 2009 at 6:49 am Christopher Woodman wrote:

    I knew you were talking about Dubliners, Martin, but the surname of epiphany is the girl at the edge of the water in Portrait.

    There’s nothing sociological in my interpretation as long as you have the experience to deal with that particular boat and that fish, which you will have in Portugal. Many American readers won’t.

    This poem has to be read with exactly the detachment you find a weakness in Elizabeth Bishop’s stance in this poem. I think that’s the main disagreement between us, and I don’t think it’s a misunderstanding.

    I’ll look at whatever comes up with my very best goodwill, and I’d have no problem to say I was wrong. I usually am.

    Christopher

  • On July 1, 2009 at 9:00 am Don Share wrote:

    I’ve never read the poem as painterly or as indicating any kind of epiphany, strange to say, but more about tact and connotation – that is, about not identifying with an object or situation – as are many of Bishop’s best poems. A fulcrum for this is the fascinating word “isinglass,” which readers often gloss over: it means a gelatinous substance made of fish bladders used as, of all things, a clarifying agent. Bishop is a poet who lets go of the kinds of stratetgies lesser poets take for granted; she releases and is released from them. I’m no literary critic, please understand, so this is all meant to be quite simple, and I’m saying it by way of explaining how the things Martin perceives as inadequacies work for me as strengths!

  • On July 1, 2009 at 10:33 am Annie Finch wrote:

    I love this. So apt. “things in a Bishop poem are always very precise, emotions always a bit gauzy. How unlike Emily Dickinson, another naturalist, where the movement from natural to metaphysical is always a sharp, somewhat insane leap of faith.”

  • On July 1, 2009 at 10:36 am duane sosseur wrote:

    “The fish, always the deep”

    ….Then the leaves were crisp underfoot, swirling in the breeze as well… taking the rush of autumn and the moon so very full looming above filling everywhere with that cool glow thru the hard dark sticks of the stark bare trees…the fog surrounds but I don’t care, moving without a mission just over the gravel road down the hill skirting the shoreline to the boat and the water’s like black glass…still, and under..deep, the silver shine of schools…a fast turn right by those hundreds together over the deep now a silver flash shimmers as they turn and their motion suggests harmony or purpose where there should be but why again…slip across to see the buck raise his head on the shoreline or a frosted tip porcupine scuttle to a tree and hunch upwards, and down below the musky slashes, tearing at a sucker past the remnants of summers cabbage weeds then the great fish swims gorging towards the deep, always the deep

  • On July 1, 2009 at 11:16 am Annie Finch wrote:

    Martin, thanks for helping me appreciate the poem better than I ever have and giving it new depth of place in literary tradition. This is the really the first time that I have had a doorway into Bishop as a woman poet in the literary sense of belonging to the women’s poetic tradition (other glimmers–a sense of the recognition of the otherness of the moose and of it being a she, and “Roosters,” which has had some feminist readings, are more psychological readings than literary-historical). In your honest sharing of your misgivings about the poem, you’ve pointed the way to something essential that may well not have been noticed by any critic (for exactly the reason I’ve been posting about here in the mentorship post and others–the blanket ignorance of the women’s poetic traditions that plagues us all).

    I think you are quite right that the poem fails at epiphany (and, more importantly, that it does try at epiphany). I have always felt it tries; for one thing, I can think of no other explanation for the uncharacteristically emotional repetition of “rainbow.” And if you look at some of Margaret Homans’ work (Women Writers and Poetic Self) or at some of my own work on metaphor and subjectivity in the poetess tradition (in The Body of Poetry and online), it should become clear why she fails. The weight of objectification, of being the object of the “male gaze” (to borrow a term from Laura Mulvey’s theories, based on films of the same period when “The Fish” was written), proves too much for the Romantic poetic subjectivity Bishop is trying to create for herself to bear up under. In spite of Bishop’s efforts to objectify the fish through obsessive descriptions and fetishization of the eye, as in “The Telltale Heart” (and I have always maintained that Poe was a poetess, but hadn’t thought of the eye in this connection), it’s the eye that does her in.

    The eye does in the “I.” The “I” of the fisherwoman is extraordinarily tentative throughout the poem, as you point out. I don’t know if there have been other images or accounts of women fishing in poetry, or in any medium for that matter—I don’t think I’ve ever run across any—but I know for a fact that when I got up the nerve to present the female narrator as fishing in my own poem “Catching the Mermother” in 1990, it was only thanks to the existence of “Ths Fish” that I dared do it. The frisson of excitement over vicarious agency at those female “I’s, frail as they are, who do those actions of “looking” and “staring” and “letting go,” so delicious to me as an undergraduate in the 70s when she was the only womean poet we read in Bloom’s undergrad class, still haunt me each time I read “The Fish.”

    I think the key to reading this poem is to recognize its heroic and doomed struggle with the Romantic model of poetic subject on which the classical theory of epiphany depends. Doing so not only adds context and depth to the poem, but also begins to limn the boundaries of epiphanic theory and to underscore that theory’s dependence on the Romantic subjective model of the poetic self, a model which has seemed to us universal, immutable and limitless but is, while still valuable, thank goodness none of these things.

  • On July 1, 2009 at 11:19 am Don Share wrote:

    I can’t help but picture E.B. blanching at the word “epiphany.” Sorry, guys!

  • On July 1, 2009 at 11:34 am Don Share wrote:

    Re Bishop’s “I” -

    I said to myself: three days
    and you’ll be seven years old.
    I was saying it to stop
    the sensation of falling off
    the round, turning world.
    into cold, blue-black space.
    But I felt: you are an I,
    you are an Elizabeth,
    you are one of them.
    Why should you be one, too?
    I scarcely dared to look
    to see what it was I was.
    I gave a sidelong glance
    –I couldn’t look any higher–
    at shadowy gray knees,
    trousers and skirts and boots
    and different pairs of hands
    lying under the lamps.
    I knew that nothing stranger
    had ever happened, that nothing
    stranger could ever happen.

    (The “I” is right there in “Elizabeth,” strangely)

  • On July 1, 2009 at 11:48 am Annie Finch wrote:

    Don, absolutely the last line is about tact, and letting go of the epiphany at the end—but from the victory line to the rainbows, don’t you think there is some kind of climax?

    Oh—but since it is a climax of victory, triumph, then maybe it’s not really epiphany. Because epiphany is more a matter of being inhabited by something, of receiving, than it is of triumphing or victory. Would you accept it is a climax of the same time-trajectory as an epiphany, but with a different mood and shape?

    The isinglass metaphor is very odd, almost confusing, the way the metaphor is doubled. Again, this emphasis on seeing (and it being a clarifying agent, the mystery is the odder).

    I’m very glad to read this poem again. It is wonderful and has new meanings for me since I got ‘hooked’ into this conversation.

  • On July 1, 2009 at 3:39 pm Annie FInch wrote:

    what a passage. breathtaking.

    she is truly the queen of trimeter.

  • On July 1, 2009 at 3:56 pm Don Share wrote:

    It’s quite something: trimeter / three days – till she turns seven…

  • On July 1, 2009 at 6:46 pm Martin Earl wrote:

    Annie,

    Thanks for adding credence to what I’m trying to say about Bishop’s famous poem. Recasting my argument, as you do, within a more feminist framework improves the argument, no doubt about it. You’re able to carry it a further and then reinforce the poem’s relevance on a new basis (its heroic and doomed struggle with the romantic model of poetic subject). Although, that’s not exactly a positive note.

    Of course there are a lot of poems that we study using a paradigm of “great failure”. Hart Crane’s “The Bridge”, Pound’s Cantos.

    I think we’ve been talking a lot, all of us, over the winter, of this notion of “poetic subject”, especially as it has come down to us from the Romantic heights. Even Kenneth Goldsmith’s post that just came in at the top the scroll talks about it. Although he’s interested in recyclables, at least he admits that there is a “poetic subject” behind his rebranding of Dada and Burroughs.

    One poem that was shadowing my dissatisfaction with “The Fish”, was Frost’s “Directive”, whose narrator displays that dry New England disdain at being interrupted in the middle of something, and then goes on, after seeming to measure the reader’s capacities, to offer a kind of rite of initiation. Like Bishop, the narrator wants to be out of the way, but unlike Bishop there is no ostentation. There is also no epiphany. Or if there is, it is described and not enacted, so that the poem has an almost a classical feeling. Horacian. Especially the gorgeous last line, the injunction (or directive) to “Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.”

    Martin

  • On July 1, 2009 at 7:13 pm Martin Earl wrote:

    Don,

    I love this formulation: “tact and connotation”, though I think immediately of “pity and dread”. You suggest that the narrator is not [your italics] identifying with an object or situation. That’s a stretch, especially here, when there’s obviously someone looking very closely at a fish. And even ascribing a kind of “human” history of struggle against adversity. Bishop means to show us this fish as a kind of creature of a Hobbesian underworld. There is more than a hint of anthropomorphism…which speaks of identification and transference. This seems obvious. You say that “Bishop is a poet who let’s go of strategies lesser poets take for granted…” Do you mean that she doesn’t use epiphanies at all? The moose just doesn’t come out of nowhere. Or maybe it does.

    Martin

  • On July 1, 2009 at 7:55 pm Don Share wrote:

    I think I do mean she is not a poet of “epiphanies,” yes. A moose is not an epiphany, it’s a moose!

  • On July 1, 2009 at 9:14 pm thomas brady wrote:

    The moose might be having an epiphany. You never know.

    FISHY

    I don’t like Bishop’s
    “Fish” poem. It reminds me
    of her mentor Miss Moore.
    There’s description and description
    and description and more description.
    The fish looked like this
    and the fish
    Looked like that,
    and then the camera,
    Done with examining the fish,
    In a mindless sort of way,
    Turns its eye
    to the boat.
    The boat. How can we
    Describe the boat?
    3 x rainbow,
    and I let the fish go.

  • On July 1, 2009 at 9:19 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

    “Directive” has been my favorite Frost poem ever since I read Jarrell fifty years ago. Maybe there ain’t no epiphany, but there’s a journey, which is a deeper, older way to take a poem. Richard García distinguishes between poems which move through the world and poems which just sit there.

  • On July 1, 2009 at 11:31 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    HIGH WINDOWS

    When I see a couple of kids
    And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
    Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
    I know this is paradise

    Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—
    Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
    Like an outdated combine harvester,
    And everyone young going down the long slide

    To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
    Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
    And thought, That’ll be the life;
    No God any more, or sweating in the dark

    About hell and that, or having to hide
    What you think of the priest. He
    And his lot will all go down the long slide
    Like free bloody birds. And immediately

    Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
    The sun-comprehending glass,
    And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
    Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

    Philip Larkin

  • On July 1, 2009 at 11:37 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    I guess what I worry about, Martin, is that the search for an “epiphanic structure,” as you call it, may distract us from the things a particular poem does that no other poem has ever done before. Indeed, the search for any sort of pre-ordained structure can stack the deck against the particularity of a poem, and force the poem to participate in a game with a conclusion that’s rigged.

    Like High Windows, how easy it would be to describe what happens at the end of this odd, quirky poem as an “epiphany”—whereas it’s so much richer if the poem can be allowed to conjure up its own, private critical apparatus to suit it’s intimate needs. It would be like calling High Windows a “mystical vision,” which would make poor Philip Larkin turn in his grave, of course. “This poem’s a mystical vision, class,” and that’s so good and such a relief for the class that it turns away from its much more urgent, more visceral concern with the pills and the diaphragm, and it forgets what matters. Or for more mature students, the terrifying image of the “outdated combine harvester,” for example. Or for readers that are reading the poem because their life depends upon it what the final image actually describes–which is not easy, because it doesn’t go to heaven or make any escape. It just doesn’t.

    In all the posts above, which I have read several times now, I still see no real interest in what this particular poem, The Fish, actually does. When I say the fish is not a gamefish or a trophy, for example, I still haven’t mentioned the fact that the fish didn’t even fight. It’s just hanging there over the side “a grunting weight.” Horrible, a grunting weight (some of those grouper-type fish do grunt, though of course that isn’t what the image has to mean).

    So what’s the victory? Why the rainbow? Why the release? And above all, what’s the feeling?

    Indeed, I would say that if this poem is an example of “epiphanic structure,” then you’re quite right, Martin, it is a failure—and I can understand why it wasn’t a comfortable poem for you to teach in class. It just wouldn’t work that way.

    But what if you remove the label and with it the expectation, does that free it up? Does it allow you to consider other dimensions and mechanisms that you might not have had the critical space for before?

    Same with High Windows.

    And this is a good argument too, because I have no idea really whether I’m right or wrong. The point is the poem is expanding, that it’s still fresh—even for those of us who have known it for 30 years!

    Christopher

  • On July 1, 2009 at 11:39 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    You know, Martin, I think one of the problems with the whole concept of “epiphany” is that it did come from Joyce, who of course employed it in a very particular way and always with great tact and delicacy. Araby, for example—my God, what’s that about? Or even the Portrait epiphany–which if you’d just read all the critical hoopla and not the passage itself would probably come as a terrible disappointment when you did!

    So it’s Joyce’s term, and is most useful in terms of his particular art.

    Perhaps it should be made to carry a warning label!

  • On July 1, 2009 at 11:43 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    Damn, I left out the italics!

    HIGH WINDOWS

    When I see a couple of kids
    And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
    Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
    I know this is paradise

    Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—
    Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
    Like an outdated combine harvester,
    And everyone young going down the long slide

    To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
    Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
    And thought, That’ll be the life;
    No God any more, or sweating in the dark

    About hell and that, or having to hide
    What you think of the priest. He
    And his lot will all go down the long slide
    Like free bloody birds.
    And immediately

    Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
    The sun-comprehending glass,
    And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
    Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

    Philip Larkin

  • On July 2, 2009 at 5:45 am Annie Finch wrote:

    Poets are poets and one of the main things they care about is being poets and writing poetry. By recognizing that for a woman poet of the 1960s, “being a poet” and “writing poetry” is a very different thing than for a man poet, a feminist reading offers a very good answer to Christopher’s question: “So what’s the victory? Why the rainbow? Why the release? And above all, what’s the feeling?” From a feminist reading (a kind of reading which is not marginal but central to this poem, and which has as much or more understanding and illumination about how the world, the self, and poetry works to offer to men as well as women), the meaning of the victory is clear.

    The victory is having created an interaction with the fish where the poet is, at least during that climax of agency (a state with some similarity to an epiphany, but active) that reigns until the very last line, firmly in the subject position, objectifying the fish, which is not looking back at her–a triumphant thing, actually, in addition to being doomed and heroic, even if it is only obtained through the maneuver of taking the eye that is looking at you and turning into something else by looking at it through what, as Don pointed out, is the fulcrum of this poem, isinglass—”through a glass darkly”—and what a fine parallel and contrast to this poem “Directive” is, Christopher.

  • On July 2, 2009 at 5:47 am Annie Finch wrote:

    holy cow, you’re right!

  • On July 2, 2009 at 6:07 am Christopher Woodman wrote:

    Yes, yes, yes. I get all of that. And Directive too, of course–let’s talk more about that if we dare.

    Here’s the tail end from Frost’s “An Empty Threat” as well–which has been a thorn in my spiritual side for years:

    Better defeat almost,
    If seen clear,
    Than life’s victories of doubt
    That need endless talk-talk
    To make them out.

    How lovely that it should be Frost of all poets we turn to, Annie–to help us understand a poem that perhaps only a woman could have written!

    Christopher

  • On July 2, 2009 at 6:12 am Christopher Woodman wrote:

    And if you’re lost enough to find yourself
    By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
    And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
    Then make yourself at home.

  • On July 2, 2009 at 6:13 am thomas brady wrote:

    With all due respect, the Miss Bishop poem will not hold all the super-structures you have built above it and around it.

    This is why poetry has no public, today, for the rhetoric used to describe Miss Bishop’s poem by you guys simply does not resonate with reality.

    As legislators, as members of the parliament of Letters, you have an obligation to the people, not erudition for its own sake.

    You are describing Miss Bishop’s descriptions, but not describing the poem.

    You are all being New Critics, who argue that one cannot paraphrase a poem, or appeal to the ‘message’ in a poem, and so ‘close-reading’ becomes a kind of web, a froth of free-association which covers the poem, and the poem itself is never actually seen; the poem itself is never actually criticized in a way that makes any sense to the public.

    Poetry is given over to a frothy, erudite priesthood.

    It’s a shame, really.

  • On July 2, 2009 at 6:14 am Christopher Woodman wrote:

    Or Simone Weil’s appetite.

  • On July 2, 2009 at 6:19 am Christopher Woodman wrote:

    Nonsense, Tom. Balderdash. There’s nothing either Annie or myself have said about this poem that is not precisely and minutely present in the poem. It’s the closest possible reading, and I don’t mean “close” in a critical sense. On the contrary, close=intimate, close=germane.

    Christopher

  • On July 2, 2009 at 10:27 am Annie Finch wrote:

    So, Christopher, by thinking in terms of epiphany, Martin has brought into the discussion a concept big enough to help bring “The Fish” into a deeper level through relating it to other poems and texts (and feminist modes of inquiry are another such tool for doing that.) Even though “The Fish” turns out not to be an epiphany in the Joycean sense at all, it is in the family of epiphany-type experiences, and allows us to understand the entire poem in that context.

    In the same way your straw-man idea of “High Windows” as a “mystical vision” could be an extraordinarily fertile one, bringing understanding of how that poem is effective–how it moves those of us who read and love poems–to a deeper level. Of course, it belies the surface elements of “High Windows” which are moving and powerful to any literate reader–the pain, the pills and harvester–let alone just the unique piercing tone of it—but once that way of experiencing the poem is through with, to think of it as a mystical vision, to put it into the tradition of Henry Vaughan, say, could help those of us who live and breathe literature to understand it more deeply, and to put it in a context in which it illuminates and helps to change and further a centuries-old poetic tradition. I’ve never read “High Windows” in a class, but I, for one, consider it a wonderful insight on your part that “High Windows” can be read, in addition to all its other wonders, as part of the tradition of poems of mystical vision).

    Is your real problem the way literature is taught in introductory classes? Obviously a hypothetical class should enjoy and respond to this wonderful poem first and foremost as readers, shocked and moved by what it says on the surface, as everyone on this thread has been at one point or another. Only an insensitive professor would shove mystical visions down their throats before they had even experienced the poem as Larkin meant readers to experience it. But there is another, more informed and slightly more esoteric level of reading, to which some students will come on their own, and a sensitive professor will be ready to meet them there as well. That’s the level Martin is reading at, here, ss I’m sure you know. Do you think that level is inappropriate for this Harriet forum?

  • On July 2, 2009 at 10:40 am Annie Finch wrote:

    Dear Tom,

    I agree with you and Christopher that it’s a crime when an English class, for example, ruins poetry for students by over-analyzing it. When teaching undergrads, and when talking with general readers, let alone with myself, I am often totally into the “let’s read it aloud once or a few times, take some deep breaths, and then just sit and grin” school of literary criticism.

    I’d be happy to read “High Windows” or “The Fish” that way anytime.

    But more structured readings have their rewards too, some of which I’ve tried to lay out in a reply to Christopher above. At best, they can lead you through remarkable places into states of mind far beyond the vehicle of the poem. Guess what–it’s not an either-or proposition! THERE”S ROOM FOR BOTH! REALLY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! A truly good poem is never destroyed by any kind of reading–just as a truly good poet is never destroyed by any kind of education.

    I don’t know how old you are, Tom, or what you do in life, but I have to say that you have exhibited a kind of extraordinary passion, care, and insight for literature in the time I’ve known you on Harriet, leading me to think you might really enjoy becoming more familiar with literary criticism–David Lodge’s Reader for example. Just a thought. It’s mind-growing stuff, especially Lacan.

  • On July 2, 2009 at 10:42 am Christopher Woodman wrote:

    I’m fully ready to reply to that, Annie, but I feel Air Traffic Control has got a whole lot more airplanes up there that need to land before I come in with another load. Also I wish you had put that down at the end of the thread, because it’s not really a local reply but the main thrust of the thread as a whole, at least as I see it.

    Maybe you’d like to repeat it in due course.

    And I love the way you bring in the e-word, which is actually one I try my best to avoid, it’s such a hoary chestnut—to do some real wrangling of a metaphor.

    I’m off to bed at the antipodes.

    C.

  • On July 2, 2009 at 10:48 am Annie Finch wrote:

    Good point Christopher, I’ll try to move it if I can.

  • On July 2, 2009 at 10:49 am Annie Finch wrote:

    So, Christopher, by thinking in terms of epiphany, Martin has brought into the discussion a concept big enough to help bring “The Fish” into a deeper level through relating it to other poems and texts (and feminist modes of inquiry are another such tool for doing that.) Even though “The Fish” turns out not to be an epiphany in the Joycean sense at all, it is in the family of epiphany-type experiences, and allows us to understand the entire poem in that context.

    In the same way your straw-man idea of “High Windows” as a “mystical vision” could be an extraordinarily fertile one, bringing understanding of how that poem is effective–how it moves those of us who read and love poems–to a deeper level. Of course, it belies the surface elements of “High Windows” which are moving and powerful to any literate reader–the pain, the pills and harvester–let alone just the unique piercing tone of it—but once that way of experiencing the poem is through with, to think of it as a mystical vision, to put it into the tradition of Henry Vaughan, say, could help those of us who live and breathe literature to understand it more deeply, and to put it in a context in which it illuminates and helps to change and further a centuries-old poetic tradition. I’ve never read “High Windows” in a class, but I, for one, consider it a wonderful insight on your part that “High Windows” can be read, in addition to all its other wonders, as part of the tradition of poems of mystical vision).

    Is your real problem the way literature is taught in introductory classes? Obviously a hypothetical class should enjoy and respond to this wonderful poem first and foremost as readers, shocked and moved by what it says on the surface, as everyone on this thread has been at one point or another. Only an insensitive professor would shove mystical visions down their throats before they had even experienced the poem as Larkin meant readers to experience it. But there is another, more informed and slightly more esoteric level of reading, to which some students will come on their own, and a sensitive professor will be ready to meet them there as well. That’s the level Martin is reading at, here, ss I’m sure you know. Do you think that level is inappropriate for this Harriet forum?

  • On July 2, 2009 at 10:49 am Christopher Woodman wrote:

    Off to bed, but first I’ll model the poetry talk I’d do with anyone at any level:

    High Windows

    It used to be that in the harvesting of grains there were three distinct stages, first cutting the crop, then stacking and transporting it, and then extracting the grain from the straw or stalk. The ‘combine harvester,’ or just ‘combine’ as it is usually called, does the whole job in one go.

    Even in my childhood they were huge, dusty and noisy, though nothing compared to the monster described in Tess of the Durbervilles which was stationary and run by long and dangerous steam driven belts. How “outdated” the combine harvester was that Philip Larkin remembered from his early years is hard to say, but it was likely to have been a cumbersome contraption with painted wooden panels pierced by moving steel parts, wheels, levers and sieves, that would have sunk and mouldered into a crazy barn-like wreck in the corner of a field somewhere for many years after it had gone out of service.

    Rusty, craggy, stained, sprained and sprung, no longer of any use to anyone and too much work even to get rid of, even to move!

    Read combine for combine and you’ll hear what it does to aging sexuality, what it does to an outdated harvester like me or Philip Larkin.

    Christopher

  • On July 2, 2009 at 11:08 am Annie Finch wrote:

    great to notice the pun on “combine”–and its possible implication that aging sexuality no longer combines people (I must put in a totally off-thread but no less earnest plug here for a book I am currently reading, Passionate Marriage by David Schnarch, a brilliant recipe for sexuality at any age)

    and I will compensate for it by combining Bishop’s Fish with this one, by her mentor:

    The Fish
    by Marianne Moore

    wade
    through black jade.
    Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
    adjusting the ash-heaps;
    opening and shutting itself like

    an
    injured fan.
    The barnacles which encrust the side
    of the wave, cannot hide
    there for the submerged shafts of the

    sun,
    split like spun
    glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness
    into the crevices—
    in and out, illuminating

    the
    turquoise sea
    of bodies. The water drives a wedge
    of iron throught the iron edge
    of the cliff; whereupon the stars,

    pink
    rice-grains, ink-
    bespattered jelly fish, crabs like green
    lilies, and submarine
    toadstools, slide each on the other.

    All
    external
    marks of abuse are present on this
    defiant edifice—
    all the physical features of

    ac-
    cident—lack
    of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and
    hatchet strokes, these things stand
    out on it; the chasm-side is

    dead.
    Repeated
    evidence ahs proved that it can live
    on what can not revive
    its youth. The sea grows old in it.

  • On July 2, 2009 at 11:09 am Annie Finch wrote:

    (first two lines of each stanza should be flush left, next two indented 3 spaces, final line indented 6 spaces)

  • On July 2, 2009 at 11:59 am Martin Earl wrote:

    To all of you who have been commenting: I will read this thread over again on the train down to Lisbon in about an hour. Tommorrow late evening I will be in the States (EST). Saturday I will come back on line. Thanks for your interest.
    Martin

  • On July 2, 2009 at 12:33 pm Camille Dungy wrote:

    And here I was thinking Martin was going to be a contrarian regarding my refusal to eat octopus because of its intelligence and that his post would have insisted on giving me his octopus recipe. Instead, he’s given us an insightful reading of Bishop’s poem. And the thread that has followed has been equally intriguing. I am most interested in Annie’s feminist reading of this poem, in which the I takes a step backwards (I’ll miss having you on Harriet, Annie). It seems that part of the issue I take with Martin’s reading is the very need for the narrator to be a major presence in the poem. That I-centered world does not seem to be the world rendered in this Bishop poem. I won’t argue with Martin’s reading from the perspective from which he read the poem. He’s right that the narrator all but disappears, and if you need the narrator to be present to feel the brunt of the poem’s epiphany (if you need the poem’s turns to be epiphanic), then I can see why the poem would fail for you. I suppose I haven’t asked that of this poem. This is, of course, one of the beautiful things about poetry. We can all take different fruit from the orchard. (Or fish from the sea, so as to not mix metaphors).

    One thing I can say about that thrice repeated rainbow at the end: I was raised in a household that loved the poetry of liturgy and the Bible, and I still love it, and I find, sometimes, my appreciation of these symbol systems seeps into my appreciation of most language (I noticed the point in the thread when Annie and Don noted the threes and sevens in “In the Waiting Room,” that sort of thing, when well-executed, delights me.) So, now that you’ve made me question my love of the poem’s penultimate lines, it could be as simple as the fact that I hear in them the redemption story several times in several ways. That trinity of rainbows provides some sort of promise in the end of the poem that has nothing to do with the narrator at all, but with something much larger than her or even the fish. The fact that the rainbows exist through the filth rather than in the places we come to expect to see rainbows (thanks, Christopher, for bringing up that aspect of things) is important to the way the poem makes us re-see the places in which we might seek and find redemption or new insights.

  • On July 2, 2009 at 3:47 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Annie,

    All public commentary on poetry is pedagogical, since private experiences are just that—private experiences, and for me to urge my private experience onto you cannot be a critical argument, but merely a personal one. Poems worthy of the name advertise themselves; they don’t need salesmen.

    I studied Shakespeare to understand Shakespeare, true, but what I was doing was learning the language, which in turn allowed Shakespeare to win me over himself; if S. were a bad poet, no amount of study could have produced any appreciation—this was entirely up to S. alone.

    Language, which is universal, can be taught; poetry, as much as it is unique, cannot. Nor can Taste be taught.

    I don’t object to any sort of discourse, per se, but I do think it is important to clarify what exactly we are doing.

    I am peevish, perhaps, on this subject just now, as I realize sadly (oh wipe away my tear!) we are all children of the New Critics.

    I am presently reading the Granddaddy of 20th century pedagogical treatises, the textbook “Understanding Poetry” by Brooks and Warren, the Trojan Horse in the war of Letters, and a flawed document it is, not on any sort of ideological grounds, really; it is just stupid. The pity is that this text much have chased away so many reasonable-minded students!

    The Modernist coup—-its New Critical tools merely a variety of blunt, coarse weaponry, lurking beneath so-called literary criticism-—was effected with no resistance, really.

    The danger of private enthusiasms is that they often are not even our own, but rhetorical tics we acquire after peer/authority exposure as we grow as students and readers. Articulating X is not the same as X, and discourse apart from the thing discoursed on can seduce the mind if philosophical safeguards and clarifications are not in place.

    No can read a poem intimately better than Christopher Woodman can—he comes to a poem as if he were a drowning man come to an island or a man dying of thirst to a stream; but I believe I was correct when I pointed out that Christopher was not describing Miss Bishop’s poem; he was describing her descriptions—the two are quite different. Unfortunately, we sometimes drink deep the drink of the New Critic, which intoxicates us into a belief that a poem is a kind of burning bush, incapable of being divided simply and soberly.

    Thanks for posting that Moore poem, by the way. I am reminded again how much I dislike it!

    Anyway, I apologize if any of this seems informed by ill-will. My pedagogy sometimes gets out of hand.

    Thomas

  • On July 2, 2009 at 4:17 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

    God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
    no more water, the fire next time.

  • On July 2, 2009 at 4:32 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

    What does seem peevish or informed by ill-will, Tom, is that you have just one thing to say. The New Critics, the Modernists, Pound, Eliot, Ransom, Tate, Brooks, bad. Poe good. You go on less about Pound since Rojas smashed your stance on that flank.

    I appreciate that we all need to cherish our obsessions, but in detail, you don’t quite come to grips. I would love a tough-thinking paragraph that illuminates the core problem with “Understanding Poetry.” I might not agree with it, but I’d like something to chew on. Instead you write: “it is just stupid.” Would you unpack that?

    An irony is that I somewhat agree with you about Modernism’s baleful side. I can’t read Eliot (though I agree with my Mexican friends that that is my Oedipal problem like Chileans with Neruda and he is probably our greatest 20th century poet) and I don’t love Pound. Tate and the Southern Agrarians can go back to NASCAR for all I care.

    But I do see Modernism as a historic rupture (much larger than the Anglo-English; Vallejo wrote Trilce in 1922, the same year as the Waste Land) that needed to happen because the old hegemony was getting soft and that’s the way the dialectic works. Without opposites is no progression.

    Hence, a century later, flarf, I guess. And so on.

  • On July 2, 2009 at 8:25 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    I’m just up. It’s Monsoon season so sometimes it almost seems overcast in the morning, and I feel I’m back in Colemans Hatch on an early summer morning in Sussex. All through the 70s I lived on the Ashdown Forest with Winnie the Pooh on one side of me and the cottage where Pound and Yeats got on each other’s nerves that winter on the other, and this morning makes me homesick for any literary landscape at all. But the sun’s coming up now in Asia and Margaret Thatcher and her awful yuppies got into Sussex while I was gone, so I’ll soon forget.

    Returning to the wonderful tangle of this thread, I have to deal first and foremost with Thomas’ condemnation of Annie’s and my reading of The Fish. Was it personal? Was it a raid on the community treasure? Did we employ elitist language to carry off the poem as our own booty and stash it away in our sinecured ivory tower to keep our band of critical thugs happy and terrorize all the others unless they paid up and joined in too? Because that’s what I think Thomas is really railing at, and how lucky he is to have found such a trove of literary-historical data in our era not only to support his aesthetico-political position but to fill up so many pages of brilliant posts. John Oliver Simon is always annoyed by Tom’s tactics, of course, but in reality John’s almost the same. Just like Tom he’s inspired by his fatal attraction to red capes and derring-do, winner-take-all thighs and buttocks. Of course you both want to tangle with Manolo, who wouldn’t, and of course that’s what we’ll pay to see at 5 any afternoon. Just don’t say we didn’t tell you!

    So Tom’s a communist firebrand, a critical John the Baptist getting us ready for the rapture. No, we can’t hold private poetry property anymore in his presence, but you know, as I read it I think most of us here on Harriet share those sentiments. I think we all want this revolution to get started. As to me, I’m 100% all the way in there with him on that. Indeed, that’s why I came in so hard right at the beginning of the Fish II thread with my refusal to accept Martin Earl’s reading of The Fish, How dare he attempt to force Elizabeth’s Bishop big washer-woman’s foot into his elitist silk slipper? “Epiphanic structure” presses all my political buttons, and I’m going to do everything I can to show exactly why a phrase like that doesn’t fit The Fish. I mean, Martin’s even prepared to say it’s a bad poem just because it doesn’t fit this fish, even when it’s so obvious he’s using advanced metric measurements when of course the poem’s written in inches. And I don’t think that’s fair, politically I don’t think that’s fair, for publishing and people. I also don’t think it’s fair poetically because it’s partly responsible for the plethora of junk.

    But here we come to today’s crunch, Martin being away.

    There’s nothing wrong with close reading in my sense, Tom—i.e. close=intimate, close=germane. There’s also nothing wrong with a loving and detailed discussion about a specific poem with a critical paramour if you can find one and you do both get off on the same pleasure. If the poem is a bridge between you, walk it for goodness sake, because such crossings are one of the greatest blessings life has to offer, and very, very rare!

    And can anybody share in the love-music Annie and I have found in this poem? Well, on Harriet they can because we’re doing our pillow talk in public, and you’re all listening in. But that’s not the same as setting up a school based on your private affairs with your colleagues, and if it is you’re probably in Iowa. Here it’s about individual people, unattached, and it’s about individual poems. More than that, it’s what could happen all over the place in America if we could only get the poetry back to the people! [Wave flags]

    And is poetry a private experience?

    You bet it is, just like Handel’s Messiah! is a private exoerience, or Tannhauser! Indeed, if it’s not private and personal it’s just about frequencies and amplitude on an oscilloscope!

    Christopher

  • On July 2, 2009 at 9:43 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    I loved your Fish I article, Camille, as I said right at the start. Indeed, I got so high on your celebratory prose I didn’t read what you said about The Fish critically at all. I just had fun with it.

    Just now I went back to it because of what you said about the “rainbow” line, Biblical language, and the Redemption theme. And yes, I see all those things and I think they probably are there, but in a very special sense. Indeed, you have to be very careful because if you use ANY expectation as a conceptual fulcrum to roll a poem, so to speak, you may miss that poem’s particular value–the point I have been trying to make with Martin. Because The Fish is not an easy poem simply because it’s not about an easy moment—any more than the wallpaper-like shreds of the skin are beautiful like beautiful wallpaper on a sunlit wall. They’re just not. Because this is damp, fungus stained wallpaper peeling off a homeless wall that stinks of urine. Disgusting. And just because it’s a poem about a big fish doesn’t mean that the fish is going to be delicious either. That doesn’t follow at all. Indeed, the flesh of this mouldy old cave denizen will be “coarse” in texture, and because it’s so obscenely overgrown the characteristic folds of its fish flesh will be even more notable, but not necessarily edible. “Packed in like feathers,” says the poem, but that could also make you gag!

    So you have to be very careful with the Redemption idea too, that you don’t try to make the poem spiritually delicious because for you Redemption tastes good. Ditto rainbows. Ditto Biblical langage.

    Christopher

  • On July 3, 2009 at 1:52 am Christopher Woodman wrote:

    Annie,
    This is a reply to your earlier feminist critique of The Fish but I’m going to tuck it in here–I myself have a terrible time navigating around this site, and lose things all the time. For example, I can’t for the life of me find that exchange about what is higher than God yet worse than the Devil. And I’ve looked and looked for it, because it was good. Frustrating.

    What I want to say loud and clear is that a level of interpretation that involves academic concepts and specialized vocabulary isn’t necessarily higher or deeper than the big-hearted, much-experienced, sensitive common-reader’s approach. So just because you can say “epiphany” and bingo, not only every single instance in Dubliners but Stephen Hero and The Portrait of the Artist along with High Windows, Directive, A La Recherche du Temps Perdu and I don’t remember what else gets on the list, that doesn’t mean you can read any of those things better or deeper or more truly, just that you can talk about them better in the club. It’s the discourse unites you, not the depth of your experience or sensitivity. And of course it’s the discourse that qualifies you for the job.

    So with reference to The Fish you wrote the following at the moment above that so irritated Thomas, and you were very up front about it being a feminist position:
    “The victory is having created an interaction with the fish where the poet is, at least during that climax of agency (a state with some similarity to an epiphany, but active) that reigns until the very last line, firmly in the subject position, objectifying the fish, which is not looking back at her–a triumphant thing, actually, in addition to being doomed and heroic, even if it is only obtained through the maneuver of taking the eye that is looking at you and turning into something else by looking at it through what, as Don pointed out, is the fulcrum of this poem, isinglass—”through a glass darkly”—and what a fine parallel and contrast to this poem “Directive” is, Christopher.”

    Yes, this is feminist special pleading, a discourse which I know only a little and, to tell you the truth, am not really that interested in getting to know better. On the other hand, every single word of it, including clubby words like “agency” and “subject position,” were fully comprehensible to me because of my experience of The Fish, which was of course also an experience I was sharing with you. So that wasn’t a bad’ or ‘clubby’ discourse in the context, in fact, though obviously you’re not going to use it without being sure that you’re either surrounded by members or talking to some nut like me.

    But I would have liked it even better, Annie, and have been even more impressed by it, if you hadn’t had to give me its pedigree. Why did I need that? Why did I have to be aware of your critique’s provenance and credentials? Why wouldn’t just its message have been enough?

    And this isn’t anti-intellectual as Michael Robbins has suggested either, it’s just intelligent common-sense. Poetry belongs to human beings, not to human institutions, after all, so why can’t we just have the poetry between us?

    It always was before?

    Christopher

  • On July 3, 2009 at 1:56 am Christopher Woodman wrote:

    I’ve answered Annie’s two previous posts in a reply 10 posts above.

  • On July 3, 2009 at 9:34 am Annie Finch wrote:

    christopher, very good point about the “pedigree.” thanks. it’s done some eye-opening for me. Actually my intent was not at all to alienate, but rather to share a few key background references, sources and information for those who might want to puruse the topic further–and since i developed this way of perceiving the poem by reading those sources myself, it seemed necessary. But I think I understand your point: there is no need to mention laura mulvey or, perhaps, even feminism, in order to make the point about the victory over being the object of a gaze. With many things in life, it seems best to leave out the background thinking you are responding to unless it’s specifically called for, and this may well be one of those times.

    Still, I don’t see why you use the phrase “special pleading.” Nothing pleading about it, and nothing very special either; to quote Carolyn Kizer, “the world’s best-kept secret:/ Merely the private lives of one-half of humanity…”

  • On July 3, 2009 at 9:49 am Annie Finch wrote:

    Thomas, a thoughtful, thorough, fair-minded critique and assessment of the real value of Brooks and Warren is long overdue and I would love to read one–I have long agreed with you that Modernism has become something like the air we breathe, invisible, and that doesn’t do poetry much good.

    I hadn’t really thought about liking or disliking the Moore poem, but posted it thinking about the similarity in imagery and tone of its descriptions to Bishop’s fish description.

    I find evaluation and ranking, and their relatives insult and name-calling, to be the least helpful aspect of literary discussion–in fact, usually distinctly unhelpful because it gets people’s combative instincts up and distracts from real thought for no good reason.

  • On July 3, 2009 at 9:57 am Annie Finch wrote:

    nice point about the rainbows, and the threes, Camille. I’ll miss you too…

  • On July 3, 2009 at 11:55 am thomas brady wrote:

    John,

    I don’t say ‘one’ thing, but I know what you are saying, I am a dog with a bone on this subject, I do realize that; but I think it’s a big bone and it happens to be lodged in a very bad place and no one seems to be making any cohesive, sustained complaint about it (in my experience it seems to be a fully accepted, and good, if not perfect, norm for nearly all poets) and even the voices who protest and complain and issue harsh reviews from a ‘conservative,’ ‘sane,’ ‘high-brow,’ ‘established’ position against the ‘poor quality’ aspects of contemporary poetry (the ‘McPoem,’ the Workshop ‘factory-ism,’ the eating of poetry by prose, the solipsism of extreme experimentalism) such as Bloom, Vendler, Logan, and Houlihan, etc, ALL praise High Modernism, ALL march to the tune of Modernist/New Criticism.

    Imagine, then what a lonely, ‘must-set-things-right’ world I live in. (OK, OK, don’t cry for me Argentina. I’m loving this.)

    If I am right–and I’m quite certain I am–then others, many, many others, will FEEL, if not quite cohesively BELIEVE, what I am saying is true, and I believe this is so; you gave a hint when you said,

    “I somewhat agree with you about Modernism’s baleful side. I can’t read Eliot (though I agree with my Mexican friends that that is my Oedipal problem like Chileans with Neruda and he is probably our greatest 20th century poet) and I don’t love Pound. Tate and the Southern Agrarians can go back to NASCAR for all I care.”

    I truly hope my tone, my ‘dog-with-one-bone’ rhetoric, or whatever it is about me that might annoy some people, will not diminish too much the substance of what I am trying to say.

    The issue is a pedagogical one. “Tate and the Southern Agrarians” were not the NASCAR type so much as the land-based gentry type (thus the ‘agrarianism’)–who tend to be more reactionary while featuring ‘progressive’ window-dressing. They became the New Critics, and set the pedagogical tone for an entire generation immediately after WW II, when GI Bill soldiers and the new American consumer middle classes flooded the universities and were greeted with ‘Understanding Poetry’ by Warren and Brooks, two important members of the Rhodes Scholar, Fugitive, Agrarian, New Critical, clique. (some clique, huh? Did I mention they were trans-atlantically connected to Pound thru Ford Madox Ford?)

    “But I do see Modernism as a historic rupture (much larger than the Anglo-English; Vallejo wrote Trilce in 1922, the same year as the Waste Land) that needed to happen because the old hegemony was getting soft and that’s the way the dialectic works. Without opposites is no progression.”

    I appreciate this textbook Hegel/Engels/Marxist dialectic of yours, but I think we need to be more exact. I’m all for things like ‘opposing forces’ and ‘progress.’ That’s why I’m opposing an old hegemony right here and now. Progress? You’re soaking in it.

    I’m still researching. I’m reading fastidiously now, the third edition, 1961, of ‘Understanding Poetry.’ I’d love to have the first edition, 1938, or the second edition, 1950, but this will have to do–in 1961 the editors were still alive and the New Critics were still in the driver’s seat and their spiritual kin were infesting the appreciation and study of poetry in the academy and in publishing.

    The problem for me is the facts keep harmonizing with my investigation; my theme is continuously vindicated, and the reason I say it’s a ‘problem,’ is that I don’t want this to be true; I want it to be a silly nightmare from which I can awake, but, alas, it is not.

    Yes, indeed, I certainly do plan to ‘unpack’ “Understanding Poetry,” a crucial document because

    1) It had far-reaching, authoritative, pedagogical influence on millions

    2) It is not only a wide-ranging anthology of Enlgish speaking poetry, but is a textbook with commentary,

    3) It appears in the time period in which the Modernist/New Critical coup really made its move

    4) Poets, editors and critics still think like this today and

    5) the two authors were important members of The Clique.

    So I’m wondering, is this textbook going to be nice to Pound, and mean to Poe? Or will it just be a guide, not taking sides? What sort of things will this book say?

    Ahh, just wait. This will not disappoint.

    Thomas

  • On July 3, 2009 at 12:12 pm thomas brady wrote:

    I just wanted to add one more thing in my reply to John, and respond quickly to Annie on what she said about competition between poems, etc

    I do want to get to work on ‘unpacking’ ‘Understanding Poetry’ (3rd edition)

    John,

    It’s not that Poe is always right. My issue is not that Poe is wrong or right (though he is awful good most of the time). My issue is that Poe is attacked. My question is, why did this clique feel it had to attack Poe? Let’s not forget Millay, either. And Shelley, and others… They were attacked, too, by the same clique.

    Annie, the issue of battling and comparing and ranking, when it comes to poetry, is not always pleasant, and I understand that art for many is an *escape* from petty and awful and violent human competition. But if Poe is attacked, viciously and unfairly, I have to go to war. Secondly, the ‘touchstone’ method of criticism, in which works are compared and put side-by-side is a legitimate method and this does overlap with ‘ranking’ and every varient which features competition.

    We do this all the time. Isn’t there, right now, a poetry *contest* by the National Poetry Review, in which someone is going to *win,* in *your* name? I just don’t think we can escape comparison, judgment, and all these sorts of things; we would be hypocrites if we pretended we could.

    Thomas

  • On July 3, 2009 at 12:24 pm Desmond Swords wrote:

    Tom raises a perfectly valid point.

    Competition.

    Poetry today is guided by and defined by the notion of competition. For a poet to *succeed* the usual route is to win prizes and get a reputation that way, by the amount of silverware on their sideboard.

    However, when it comes to engaging critically using the same principles, for some reason, the winners sweeping the boards feel this is bad form, as if winning prizes and being elevated on the strength of competitive values is something we should just all accept without question and their role is to act all modest as they pick up the dough.

    What’s changing or challenging this cosy nod and wink love-in, is the world wiode web were people who think the competition is a closed shop of self-serving coteries, can engage in democratic debate and the most eloquent voices win, because like Woodie said about a poem not needing a commentary to make it any good – so to the prose will stand or fall on its own two feet.

  • On July 3, 2009 at 12:34 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    You’re right entirely, Annie, I was pushing my point too hard when I accused you of special pleading. There was no special pleading in what you said, and if you look at my response at the moment itself you’ll see how deeply and spontaneously I received what you said. Indeed, I only scolded you just a little in my subsequent post, and then only to reinforce the point I was trying to make in the larger context of the whole thread.

    “The victory over being the object of a gaze,” that’s it, that’s The Fish—though that’s not going to be easy to grasp for most people, anymore than it’s easy to grasp in the poem. We’re very lucky it worked between us, very lucky. That was a moment of grace.

    You say as well, “With many things in life, it seems best to leave out the background thinking you are responding to unless it’s specifically called for, and this may well be one of those times.” Yes, saying just enough at just the right moment, that’s wisdom. Saying too much tends to weaken a thought or a concept, and to set it up not only to be misperceived but misused. That’s why in many traditional educational structures there are very tough initiations as you progress from insight to insight. Zen for example—the great Zen scholar and translator of the 1st half of the 20th Century, D.T.Suzuki, was appalled when ‘devotees’ like Alan Watts came along in the 60s and spilled all the beans. And indeed, Zen has never recovered in the West.

    I’m still thinking about Frost’s “An Empty Threat,” and want to repost it here:

    Better defeat almost,
    If seen clear,
    Than life’s victories of doubt
    That need endless talk-talk
    To make them out.

    Christopher

  • On July 3, 2009 at 12:53 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    Thanks for underlining that, Desmond. A poem doesn’t need commentary to be good, yet we’ve arrived at the point now where the commentary (or anti-commentary or meta-commentary or post-commentary etc.) precedes the poem and even takes it’s place. The poem is written into the commentary instead of vise-versa!

    On the other hand, good poems like The Fish, High Windows, and Directive are very likely to guide, inspire and support bridges between human beings as they seek to understand each other and the world better, almost like profound passages in sacred texts are likely to attract glossators.

  • On July 3, 2009 at 1:07 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

    On the other hand, Randall Jarrell’s commentary pointed me to “Directive” when I was seventeen, and I’ve treasured that poem for half a century. I recited it by heart to my girlfriend some years ago when we were camped out in Montana along a creek that felt like our waters and our watering place. For which I’m grateful to Jarrell.

    As for destructive commentary, “Fire and Ice” might be apropo.

  • On July 3, 2009 at 1:17 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    What I said about Zen doesn’t make sense unless you realize that in Japan (same for Chan in China) the adept passes through years and years of very strict discipline before they’re allowed to hear the teaching that says just “let go.” The same thing has happened to the Tantra and Shamanism in general in America, I’ve heard—three young Anerican women came to stay with us here in Chiang Mai who had just graduated from Wesleyan, and were very proud because they had taken lots of courses in the subject.

    Can you imagine? I mean who teaches such stuff without realizing it can’t be understood by anyone who hasn’t done all the preliminbary work? And that it’s dangerous!

    The girls were also very proud about the semester they’d done in Pornography, I remember, yet didn’t know what had happened in China in 1949 or in Tibet a decade later.

  • On July 3, 2009 at 1:21 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    Why “on the other hand,” John? Isn’t that just what I said?

  • On July 3, 2009 at 1:42 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    There are so many things going on on this thread of such importance I’m afraid it will all cslip away into nothing!

    I’m still working back to Martin Earl’s original article in which he says he finds The Fish disappointing because the epiphany fails, that the narrator is disembodied and the vision at the end unconvincing.

    He brought up High Windows as another poem that has an “epiphanic structure,” and I don’t think that one does either. I’ve already started on my sense of the “outdated harvester” some posts back. Here are some more thoughts on why I simply don’t see “epiphany” in any of it, and that indeed the critical concept may distract a reader from what it does say.

    High Windows.

    You are inside looking out of them, of course, so the sense isn’t of windows high up on a building, the third or fourth or fifth floor. This is a room with high windows on any floor, i.e. windows that are well above eye-level as perhaps in a library or hospital or courthouse. The windows are there just for the light, not the view, and indeed their position is deliberately obstructive.

    So “high” here doesn’t give any view at all, just sky. Furthermore, the windows come as a thought in place of the words that don’t. After all, what can one possibly say when one thinks back to one’s own youth and considers that those painful, awkward confusions might have given an older spectator a bit of a rush? I mean, if you’re honest with yourself, what could you say about that?

    And they’re not sun-shining either, these high windows, but “sun-comprehending”—there’s a certain utilitarian quality in that, it seems to me, knowing what’s what, a limited purpose restricted to just passing light. Because all they show is the deep blue that is “nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless”—which may be enough or not enough, depending.

    Call it an “epiphany” if you like, but I don’t think this emperor gets a whole lot of clothes from that. Despite the grandeur of the critical concept, and its pedigree, it’s too limiting.

    On the other hand, how about ubi sunt? Indeed, being careful with that trope might be an excellent way of coming to terms with an ending that’s not an epiphany really, what is more a mystical vision, more a giving-up. It’s more like simply “not knowing where to look,” in English working-class parlance. The smutty thoughts at the beginning of the poem, so typical of Larkin as well as so typically brave of him, are like graffiti in the school toilets. You think of them, and then you look away, disgusted with yourself.

    So you end up with high windows.

    Of course, I haven’t dealt with the italics in the poem yet, but then he doesn’t know where to look after those thoughts either—they’re so irrelevant to what he/it was really like at the time.

    And, of course, to say this poem is an example of an “ubi sunt structure” could do just as much damage as “epiphanic.”

    Christopher

  • On July 3, 2009 at 4:09 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

    We could have an argument in which we each agree with the other while raising our voices and shouting from farther and farther away.

  • On July 3, 2009 at 7:28 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    Maybe we won’t have to raise our voices at all, just rely on the Doppler Effect.

    Love it, John. Thanks.

  • On July 4, 2009 at 4:13 am Christopher Woodman wrote:

    I hope you’re not bored with this poem–or more likely my talk about it. I’ll risk that, I think, for the sake of it’s genius, and for what it has given to me. Such debts are hard to repay.

    HIGH WINDOWS

    When I see a couple of kids
    And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
    Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
    I know this is paradise

    Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—
    Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
    Like an outdated combine harvester,
    And everyone young going down the long slide

    To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
    Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
    And thought, That’ll be the life;
    No God any more, or sweating in the dark

    About hell and that, or having to hide
    What you think of the priest. He
    And his lot will all go down the long slide
    Like free bloody birds.
    And immediately

    Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
    The sun-comprehending glass,
    And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
    Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

    Philip Larkin

    It’s the fact you go down the long slide TWICE that makes all the difference to understanding what happens at the end, the astonishing dexterity that each time defyies the structure of both the poem’s lines and its stanzas. The first time “down the long slide” is a long-one with a butterfly jump in the pit of the stomach as you go up over the big bump between stanzas “to happiness, endlessly.” And oh those caesuras, the little one and the big one, the comma and then the full stop—but in the middle of the line, of course, because you still have to go on. Yes, you have to “wonder if…/” You still have to go on to do that, regardless of the consequences.

    And the second time is even more wrenching in the pit of the stomach because they’re “bloody birds” this time, girls, thighs, knee socks, hair ribbons flipped up at the bottom of the slide is what they are! Mid-line full stop again too, just like the other, but this time there’s a rhyme that comes up that drives the querying soul right through all the words to “the thought of high windows”—end stop, and colon.

    And “Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.”

    Not what you’d call “a sudden spiritual manifestation. Nothing is revealed, nothing is answered—nothing is finished or done.

    Extraordinary, but not an epiphany, at least not in any sense that James Joyce’s experiments or the trope would lead you to receive.

    Christopher

  • On July 4, 2009 at 4:17 am Christopher Woodman wrote:

    I’m playing with your heads—of course they’re birds too. But the bloody makes them a whole lot more difficult than just the creatures of the air, and a whole lot less free!

  • On July 4, 2009 at 6:05 am Forrest Gander wrote:

    Martin, reading you first thing in the morning is so much better than reading the paper. (Epiphany.) Or about anything else.

  • On July 4, 2009 at 8:33 am Don Share wrote:

    Most of my friends like words too well. They set them under the blinding light of the poem and try to extract every possible connotation from each of them, every temporary pun, every direct or indirect connection – as if a word could become an object by mere addition of consequences. Others pick up words from the streets, as if they were shouting, “See what I have collected from the American language. Look at my butterflies, my stamps, my old shoes!”. What does one do with all this crap? – Jack Spicer

  • On July 4, 2009 at 8:01 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    Interesting, Don–but I wouldn’t say, at least from my experience, that I have much control over such words, at least initially. I almost never “set them under the blinding light of the poem” (thought-provoking phrase!), that is put them there by intention. They just turn up like rocks work their way up through the soil to the surface of the ground to bedevil farmers, or landmines have a knack of reappearing after years of silent neglect you know where, or scraps of paper fall out of books you thought you’d never read again, and condemn you to agonies of introspection.

    There are so many words like that in Philip Larkin, but most of them creep in not from the streets but from the back alleys of his own street language. English boys of his class and period were buried in the smut of their own, secret language, and one of the unique qualities of Philip Larkin is how he could redeem even the most banal of such verbal eruptions.

    Like “bloody girls” or, perhaps equally telling, “about hell and that.”

  • On July 4, 2009 at 8:04 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    Interesting, Don–but I wouldn’t say, at least from my experience, that I have much control over such words, at least initially. I almost never “set them under the blinding light of the poem” (thought-provoking phrase!), that is put them there by intention. They just turn up like rocks work their way up through the soil to the surface of the ground to bedevil farmers, or landmines have a knack of reappearing after years of silent neglect you know where, or scraps of paper fall out of books you thought you’d never read again, and condemn you to agonies of introspection.

    There are so many words like that in Philip Larkin, but most of them creep in not from the streets but from the back alleys of his own street language. English boys of his class and period were buried in the smut of their own, secret argot, and one of the unique qualities of Philip Larkin is how he could redeem even the most banal of untoward verbal eruptions.

    Like “bloody girls” or, perhaps equally telling, “about hell and that.”

  • On July 4, 2009 at 8:42 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    Sorry about the repeat. And the phrase is, of course, “bloody birds.”

    (For the English, “bloody” doesn’t have any blood in it, anymore than “fucking” has a fuck. The epithet is derived from “by our Lady,” of course, but nobody recalls that. On the other hand, it’s almost always combined with “birds!”)

  • On July 4, 2009 at 10:09 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    The “secret language” of English boys of Philip Larkin’s class, “upper” by just a hair, is almost always “working class”—the terrible dirty secret of the whole ‘British’ experience.

    The amazing thing about Philip Larkin is that he was able to bridge the social divide in his poetry, or just reduce it to irrelevance—as he does in High Windows by proceeding all the way from the vulgar “bloody birds” at the bottom of the slide on up to the poetic’ “nothing” of a window with no view.

    Which is almost certainly why he called the whole collection High Windows.

    But he doesn’t say the windows are purer, or holier, or mightier. You go down the slide “endlessly,” grow old and irrelevant, and pass out of sight—nothing, nowhere, “endless.”

  • On July 4, 2009 at 10:18 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    Like the “guide” in Directive, the movement of this poem “only has at heart your getting lost.” Had it delivered a “sudden, spiritual manifestation” at the end, it would still have been part of the “too much for us” we have to “back out of.”

  • On July 4, 2009 at 11:32 pm mearl wrote:

    To everyone who has posted here in the last couple of days, I have some catching up to do. I’ve been traveling from Portugal to Massachusetts. It’s a two day affair, rattling around the back of the moon in radio darkness. I was amazed to see so many comments when I finally came to a grinding halt yesterday evening. Since this is my last post under contract, I want to wrap things up properly. I’m riding a very faint signal here (one of the neighbors – I hope they appreciate the fact that they’re contributing to the discourse). Monday, when the town library opens, I’ll have all the books I need, and all the internet I need. I got searched, as usual, at Logan. I get searched everywhere. I think it’s because I don’t carry much luggage (my computer bag and a tiny rolling affair full of handkerchiefs and pencils). They’re looking for quixotries. I always tell them they’ve got the wrong guy.

    Tomorrow I will take up this very interesting thread.

    Thanks for your patience, and for continuing without me,

    Martin

    ps… top of the scroll looks wonderful. Eileen in fantastic form, Joel Brouwer worried about the fate of the Republic (seems fine to me so far – it’s been two years since I’ve been here) and a wonderful post by Katie Hartsock revisiting Matthea Harvey’s bathtub tragedies. Here’s a great sentence (except for the adverb, but life is far from perfect): “The poem hauntingly describes girls in a glass factory, making thermometers, portholes, and, most interesting, a glass girl.” Thanks, Katie, for that sentence.

  • On July 4, 2009 at 11:32 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Interesting how “High Windows” took over this thread, a more profound poem than Bishop’s “Fish.”

    Of course it was Bishop who called up Larkin with this:

    “I was saying it to stop
    the sensation of falling off
    the round, turning world
    into cold, blue-black space.”

    and

    “I knew that nothing stranger
    had ever happened, that nothing
    stranger could ever happen.”

    and

    “isinglass”

    With Bishop, I sense existential dread, and her descriptiveness, which tends to bore me, was her way of clinging to something; it comes out of loneliness and anxiety, that panic expressed so well which she felt in that dentist waiting-room in wintry Worcester, Mass.

    I’ve been thinking hard about what makes ‘High Windows’ such a powerful poem and I think it’s because this poem represents a shift which occured in poetry roughly 100 years ago, a new kind of sensibility in poetry, and yes, it does fit into Eliot and the Moderns, for I think of Eliot and his poem of high anxiety, Prufrock, and “It is impossible to say just what I mean! But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen…” as similar to Larkin’s “rather than words comes the thought of high windows…” with their inexpressible, eternal blank, which can be interpreted in a variety of ways…but we know that even a modern boy and girl who are fucking are still trapped in the bonds of jealousy; most older people looking at that couple will say, ‘just wait until the first kid comes along, then life won’t be such a paradise…’ Larkin’s view is naive; it’s the view of someone who just wants to fuck and not have children, and he projects this ‘ideal’ onto the young couple (who may not even be in ‘paradise’ at all, even as we grant Larkin poetic license to say so).

    The crucial shift here is that canonical poems were, up until the 20th century, family poems, in both senses, poems for the family (as readers) and poems expressing the notion (explicitly or implicitly) of family (as theme).

    But now here’s this poem with the word “fucking” written by a bitter, sad man who had no children. Bishop and Eliot also had no children. What “changed around 1910″ was that, in a very profound sense, poetry became free to be sexual and sordid and, most importantly, it became unmoored from the implicit formula that poetry was ‘for the whole family.’ I am not making any sort of moral judgment here, just a simple cultural observation. It’s rather ‘too-obvious,’ a truism, really, and therefore it escapes our most profound judgment; yet the shift–even as much as it is only one of degree, and often in its particulars, partakes of the superficial (the word, ‘fucking,’ for instance)–if is of high importance.

    The Larkin poem resonates with us, because it not only expresses explicitly this shift, but within the poem is a kind of sorrowful realization and protest against the shift (with the high windows image and its strong and beautiful hint of the sublime).

  • On July 4, 2009 at 11:37 pm mearl wrote:

    Don,

    This makes me think of Mr. Ed. “A horse is a horse, of course of course. But no other horse is a talking horse.” A moose doesn’t just wander into a poem. That is, the moose’s appearance is plausible rather than coincidental. Even if the poem is based on a real experience, the moose in the real experience is different from the moose in the poem. Drive a new car out of the shop, and all of the evaluative criteria change as soon as those four tires hit X Street. The moose is no longer just a moose.

    Martin

  • On July 5, 2009 at 12:05 am Christopher Woodman wrote:

    Thanks so much for that, Tom–I was beginning to feel a bit lonely!

    I think you’ve got it, I really do–and of course many of your ways of “getting it” are different from mine, but not one of them fails to resonate for me, and to add to my very considerable “delight.”

    I’ve been meaning to do this for awhile, to put my m. where my m. is. Those of you who know me will probably already know it, but I hope in the context it may still be worthwhile. And although I’m just an amateur as a poet, and this poem having been rejected by almost all of my favorite poetry journals including, among others, by APR, Beloit, FIELD, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Poetry (Chicago) and Shenadoah, I think it comes as close to what Philip Larkin meant by “high windows” as any poem I’ve ever read.

    APOLOGIA PRO VITA AUTISTICA

    Is it to wash or pray we find
    ourselves upon our knees
    mute before this stain?

    These empty hands speak hours
    of doing other things and then
    something not so nice besides.

    Palm to palm they claim
    each other’s ears even when
    there’s nothing left to say.

    Sway back and forth, clap,
    tap a blade of grass and turn
    cartwheels down the stairs

    and drill that time and time
    can spin, shake, tilt & wring
    a certain starry whiteness in.

    Christopher

  • On July 5, 2009 at 9:38 am thomas brady wrote:

    I tremble at the significance of the torch in my hands.

    Despite the ‘modernity’ of ‘High Windows,’ we still see the reason for its appeal spelled out explicitly in a lecture on poetry by Edgar Poe, known as ‘The Poetic Principle:’

    “An immortal instinct, deep within the spirit of man, is thus, plainly, a sense of the Beautiful. This it is which administers to his delight in the manifold forms, and sounds, and odours, and sentiments amid which he exists. And just as the lily is repeated in the lake, or the eyes of Amaryllis in the mirror, so is the mere oral or written repetition of these forms, and sounds, and colours, and odours, and sentiments, a duplicate source of delight. But this mere repetition is not poetry. He who shall simply sing, with however glowing enthusiasm, or with however vivid a truth of description, of the sights, and sounds, and odours, and colours, and sentiments, which greet him in common with all mankind — he, I say, has yet failed to prove his divine title.

    There is still a something in the distance which he has been unable to attain. We have still a thirst unquenchable, to allay which he has not shown us the crystal springs. This thirst belongs to the immortality of Man. It is at once a consequence and an indication of his perennial existence. It is the desire of the moth for the star. It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us — but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above.

    Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave, we struggle, by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time, to attain a portion of that Loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain to eternity alone. And thus when by Poetry — or when by Music, the most entrancing of the Poetic moods — we find ourselves melted into tears — we weep then — not as the Abbaté Gravina supposes — through excess of pleasure, but through a certain, petulant, impatient sorrow at our inability to grasp now, wholly, here on earth, at once and for ever, those divine and rapturous joys, of which through the poem, or through the music, we attain to but brief and indeterminate glimpses.

    The struggle to apprehend the supernal Loveliness — this struggle, on the part of souls fittingly constituted — has given to the world all that which it (the world) has ever been enabled at once to understand and to feel as poetic.”

    —ea poe, the poetic principle

    What is Larkin’s ‘high windows’ image which closes his poem but “a wild effort to reach the Beauty above. Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave, we struggle, by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time, [the combine harvester?] to attain a portion of that Loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain to eternity alone.”

    I believe this is also why ‘High Windows’ resonates with readers more than ‘The Fish.’ The former poem evinces ‘ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave…a struggle to attain a portion of that Loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain to eternity alone’ while in the latter poemm the poet FINDS the ‘glory’ in the ‘rainbow’ of the oily water in the bottom of the boat, and the triple cry of ‘rainbow’ carries a certain amount of bathos.

    Poe also quotes ‘Tears, Idle Tears’ by Tennyson in this same lecture, a poem which features the IDENTICAL IMAGE (nearly) Larkin uses. I quote a portion of that famous poem (also used in ‘Understanding Poetry’ by Brooks & Warren, who despite abusing Poe in the 3rd edition, steal the best of their ideas from him):

    “Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
    The earliest pipe of half-awakened birds
    To dying ears, when unto dying eyes
    The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;
    So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.

    Dear as remembered kisses after death,
    And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feigned
    On lips that are for others; deep as love,
    Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;
    O Death in Life, the days that are no more.”

    ‘The casement slowly grows a glimmering square’ is the ‘window’ image.

    There is also another place in Poe’s writings where Tennyson’s window image from ‘Tears, Idle Tears’ is selected as an example of high merit.

    The sentiment expressed in the Tennyson poem is also similar, as an older man in the Larkin poem contemplates young lovers: ‘hopeless fancy feigned on lips that are for others…wild with all regret; o death in life, the days that are no more…’

    Poe’s influences are staggering in their variety and force. Is there still another?

    Did Poe’s ‘Poetic Principle’ inspire Larkin’s ‘High Windows?’

  • On July 5, 2009 at 10:11 am Don Share wrote:

    Inside the house, above the wood
    Look out of the tall windows squared
    With wood-strips painted white.
    The wild grass runs up the wild hill
    The wild hill runs up the wild sky
    The wild sky runs over itself
    And goes nowhere.
    - Mary Butts, in Zukofsky’s “objectivists” anthology

  • On July 5, 2009 at 10:23 am Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    You may be feeling lonely, Mr. Woodman, because, like the proverbial bull in a china shop, you barge in here, by your own admission for just a month, where people have been communicating for years and not only completely dominate every thread with your apparently endless self-important blather but actually have the audacity to criticize others for the things that they have posted. I would describe you as seriously culturally-challenged, at least as far as internet etiquette is concerned.

    I was advised by Harriet that it is not permissible for me to call you an idiot, so I won’t.

  • On July 5, 2009 at 10:37 am michael robbins wrote:

    Oh, I hate these wives-tale etymologies. Of course the epithet does not derive from “by our Lady.” The OED:

    [The origin is not quite certain; but there is good reason to think that it was at first a reference to the habits of the ‘bloods’ or aristocratic rowdies of the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th c. The phrase ‘bloody drunk’ was apparently = ‘as drunk as a blood’ (cf. ‘as drunk as a lord’); thence it was extended to kindred expressions, and at length to others; probably, in later times, its associations with bloodshed and murder (cf. a bloody battle, a bloody butcher) have recommended it to the rough classes as a word that appeals to their imagination. We may compare the prevalent craving for impressive or graphic intensives, seen in the use of jolly, awfully, terribly, devilish, deuced, damned, ripping, rattling, thumping, stunning, thundering, etc. There is no ground for the notion that ‘bloody’, offensive as from associations it now is to ears polite, contains any profane allusion or has connection with the oath ‘'s blood!’]

  • On July 5, 2009 at 10:56 am thomas brady wrote:

    Christopher,

    Dungy’s ‘Fish I’ was a good thread for me, as I was granted opportunity to post my ‘Fish’ poem, which you liked, and now I’m glad I was able to crack ‘High Windows’ which had me stumped, here on ‘Fish II.’

    Your poem aspires to the ineffable quite nicely. Thank you for putting it here.

    Thomas

  • On July 5, 2009 at 11:50 am thomas brady wrote:

    Interesting, Don. Thanks.

    Larkin did not include Butts in his 1970 anthology of Oxford Book of 20th Century English Verse. She was more a novelist and reviewer; she knew Stein–the Objectivists included Modernist support (Williams, Pound, etc) and were even more obscure, unpopular, self-indulgent, and silly. Hard to say if Larkin saw it. Larkin had no patience for things like this. Larkin wasn’t big at all on Modernism, per se, (though he had the requisite schooling in Eliot, etc) and was attacked as a middle-brow populist; well, he may be the best-loved poet in Britain right now.

    This example is too vernal, I think, and ‘wild’ is over-used, and it’s unclear how the hill and sky are interacting, since hills and skies are ‘wild’ in different ways. ‘wood-strips painted white’ and ‘wild sky runs over itself and goes nowhere’ are not exactly memorable expressions.

    I do see the similarities; enough similarities, that it is possible Larkin saw this and something of it stuck, but the passage is not memorable–it has no emotional resonance. It features one of Modernism’s worst vices, dullness: ‘in reaction to Tennyson, let’s be…dull!’

    Thomas

  • On July 5, 2009 at 12:12 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Gary,

    Aside from the essays by the guest writers, Harriet is a pond as large or small as the number and size of responses.

    If the frequency of responses increases, the pond will get larger.

    If the frequency of responses decreases, the pond will get smaller–making it seem like Christopher Woodman is everywhere.

    You are blaming Mr. Woodman for making the pond larger.

    Thomas

  • On July 5, 2009 at 12:37 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

    This.

  • On July 5, 2009 at 12:42 pm thomas brady wrote:

    I dunno, it doesn’t sound like the OED is certain or has any documented proof…

  • On July 5, 2009 at 3:11 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    Dear Thomas(never his real name)Brady:

    The loquacious megalomaniacal nincompoops have dried up the pond!

    Get it?

    Now, it’s like a party of five at the Red Lobster. It used to be packed like a Stones concert.

    Get it? Why?

    You
    can’t
    get
    a
    word
    in
    e
    d
    g
    e
    w
    i
    s
    e
    .

    There are conversations and then there are seminars.

    .

  • On July 5, 2009 at 4:29 pm mearl wrote:

    Christopher,

    I’ve just settled down enough to take up this thread again and am going at it a bit randomly, commenting on things that strike me.

    This statement seems a bit off:

    ‘You know, Martin, I think one of the problems with the whole concept of “epiphany” is that it did come from Joyce, who of course employed it in a very particular way and always with great tact and delicacy.’

    I’m trying to figure out what you mean by this. Obviously “epiphany” doesn’t start with Joyce. Classical literature and the Bible are loaded with epiphany, as well as is Wordsworth and Tolstoy, Hawthorne and many others.

    Martin

  • On July 5, 2009 at 4:35 pm mearl wrote:

    Thomas,

    I’m wondering who “you” is in this comment.

    I certainly didn’t set out to paraphrase the poem, nor did Camille in her reading, the one I am responding to. Actually I had something else in the back of my mind, “the unity of effect”, which you brought up in another thread at one point. In the Bishop poem the device of description and the relative substantiality of the narrator seem to create a lack of unity.

    Martin

  • On July 5, 2009 at 4:57 pm mearl wrote:

    Annie,
    This is so well put, and I think it relates to the fact that we can (and must) talk about poetry out of our own experience of reading poems. This is what Camille is doing in her post, what I am doing in mine, and what she does again so gracefully in her retort.

    What Thomas says about private experience doesn’t actually reflect how we read poems and then talk about them. To say that critical arguments cannot arise out of private experience seems problematical. Where do they come from?

    One question I do have for you is whether you consider “evaluation” and “ranking” to be the same thing. In my post I certainly evaluate the poem, but I don’t think I rank it.

    Martin

  • On July 5, 2009 at 5:09 pm mearl wrote:

    Christopher,

    Here’s another one that I think needs a bit of explanation:

    Indeed, that’s why I came in so hard right at the beginning of the Fish II thread with my refusal to accept Martin Earl’s reading of The Fish, How dare he attempt to force Elizabeth’s Bishop big washer-woman’s foot into his elitist silk slipper? “Epiphanic structure” presses all my political buttons, and I’m going to do everything I can to show exactly why a phrase like that doesn’t fit The Fish. I mean, Martin’s even prepared to say it’s a bad poem just because it doesn’t fit this fish, even when it’s so obvious he’s using advanced metric measurements when of course the poem’s written in inches. And I don’t think that’s fair, politically I don’t think that’s fair, for publishing and people. I also don’t think it’s fair poetically because it’s partly responsible for the plethora of junk.

    1. “How dare…” This is not church, and I didn’t dare anything.
    2. “Elitist silk slipper” – that’s a fine one, especially from one who has made such a point telling the world he about attending Harvard, Yale and Cambridge, or wherever it was. I was just commenting about why a poem didn’t work for me, why is that “elitist”?
    3. I never said it was a bad poem. If I could write a “bad poem” that well I’d be a very happy poet.
    4. Everything is “fair” in the final analysis and I don’t see what politics has to do with it, nor do I consider myself a junk dealer.

    Martin

  • On July 5, 2009 at 7:30 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    I’m glad you’re back, Martin–I’m sure I wrote myself out onto several limbs as there was so little resistance to what I was saying. Also, as I’ve said a number of times, I’m in this for the delight of it, the companionship and the insight, not to be personally right.

    As I’ve also made clear, I have no particular training in literary criticism, just hung around places where it was in the air, and picked up whatever I needed as I pursued my own personal interest in poetry. Needless to say, I never thought that Joyce invented the appearance in poetry of moments of great intensity where an image takes on a numinous quality, as if the other side were appearing in a vision. Indeed, I think it was those moments that made all poetry so important to me, and what I was always looking for in all my reading.

    I didn’t come across the word “epiphany” as a critical term to describe such a moment until I heard it used as such by Donald Davie at a lecture in Cambridge in 1966, or thereabouts. I remember this specifically because I was so struck that such an ancient phenomenon should have become associated with a specific text by a specific author. Perhaps I made that jump from your consideration of Dubliners to The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man because that is what I remembered from Davie, that the wading girl with the bloomers had come to stand for an important literary device, and that Joyce’s own use of the word in Stephen Hero had become a critical fixture.

    To tell you the truth, I had never heard anyone use the word in the phrase “epiphanic structure” before you, and I think that is what I was probably reacting to. My point was that I was fearful of all such critical language, and felt that it had led you into misreading The Fish. Of course, Camille Dungy had misreadThe Fish too in another earlier article (Fish I), but I think she was mislead by her enthusiasm for fish in general and by the strength of her own style, so much so that inititially I didn’t even notice her misreading.

    I discuss that too on this thread.

    We just have to be so careful when we read, because our interest in commentary is sometimes in danger of swamping the whole boat!

    Christopher

  • On July 5, 2009 at 7:55 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    Martin,
    A lot of water had passed under a lot of bridges by this point in the discussion. For me the high point was when Annie and I discovered in what was the middle of the night for me a feminist discourse that suited us both perfectly for both the poem we were discussing, The Fish, and for the joy of understanding each other. I then went on to use the phrase “special pleading” which pushed an Annie button, and we had to go back and discuss that mechanism too, i.e. button pushing. In the end we managed to go even a bit further in our discussion of what makes a creative and helpful critical discourse.

    What I said in the passage you just quoted was part of that process, and I do apologize for the tone which, when taken out of context, does sound patronizing. I didn’t mean that at all, and wish now I hadn’t used debating red flags like “how dare he” or “elitist,” which I usually don’t. On the other hand, if you can forgive me I think you may also see that the image of forcing Elizabeth Bishop’s washerwoman’s foot into a silk slipper is a pretty good one. Of course Elizabeth Bishop didn’t have a scrap of washerwoman in her, and of course you aren’t in any way a macho person or critical snob, but in the context of the feminist epiphany that had just transpirted, it was good!

    Ditto the words “Bad” and “fair,” which only made sense in the context. You found The Fish hard to teach which led you to a explore what you felt was the author’s “disembodiment,” but you never suggested the poem were bad. I was challenging your reserve about the central effect of the poem, and felt your literary-critical apparatus had to some extent distorted your understanding of the poem as a whole. That’s all.

    Christopher

    Christopher

  • On July 5, 2009 at 8:08 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    Gary,
    I know I’ve been hard on you, and now you’re being hard on me. Fair enough.

    And of course there is some truth in what you say. Would that I could have said what I said on this thread in a quarter of the words, but I just couldn’t. I’m not that good. I’m not that sharp. I had to hear what I said to understand what I meant–I too was enmeshed in the process.

    So I hope you’ll forgive me for that way of exploring, and I promise not to do it too often.

    On the other hand, during this whole week on Martin Earl’s Fish II I haven’t participated in any other thread. Do take note of that. I don’t just wander around doing my droppings. I’m not at all just trying to be there.

    Christopher

  • On July 5, 2009 at 8:31 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    Also, Gary, I posted my poem as I said—to put my m. where my m. is. I’d said such a lot about High Windows, some of it very adversarial, I know. I was also writing, as critics tend to, from a certain position of impunity. So I felt I wanted to be vulnerable too, and put myself on the table, unwrapped. What I meant.

    It will pass.

    C.

  • On July 5, 2009 at 9:37 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    Yes, very hard to document that indeed in the past.

    We had to wait for the Moderns to clear the way for vulgarities in polite discourse–as Thomas points out in his analysis of High Windows.

    Fortunately, whatever the origins of “bloody,” with these “birds” the English weren’t coming (“les anglais ne sont pas arrivés”)! That’s all I meant.

  • On July 5, 2009 at 10:01 pm thomas brady wrote:

    No, my dear friend Gary, I’m afraid I don’t ‘get it.’

    So five people are holding a seminar in an open room and somehow preventing thousands from getting in to see the Stones? How does that work?

    It’s physically impossible to talk over someone in this format. Everyone has their own separate bubbles of air. No one is stopping you from talking.

    I think the ‘reply’ feature is working well. Sometimes a series of long posts makes a thread rather time-consuming to catch up on, but that goes with the territory. I wouldn’t want to tell those people who have posted in that thread–for my convenience that they should write less. I would never presume to do that. And I can always skip comments. No one is making me read them.

    Your m.o. is to make brief, funny remarks and post your own poems. I would think you would appreciate substantive talk, simply as a contrast. Imagine a room full of Gary Fitzgeralds. Enjoy the variety!

    Christopher Woodman has seen a lot of things, done a lot of things, and his literary opinions are informed, passionate, and sincere. I just have to sadly shake my head at your objections.

    There are many threads with only a few posts, waiting for you and your Stones-fan friends. Why doesn’t anyone comment in those near-empty threads? We few, who you somehow feel are spoiling it for the thousands, have no presence in those near-empty threads. You say you can’t get a word in edgewise, and yet there’s no one in those near-empty threads to prevent this–and yet you and your friends don’t comment there. Why not?

    Can you be specific about a thread in which you dearly wanted to say something and were prevented from doing so, because there simply were too many comments for you to…you see, I’m really trying to understand this, to see this logically…was it someone’s opinion that made you so mad that you were unable to reply?…what was that opinion? Can you point to a place in a thread where you felt you were muzzled by someone’s presence…?

    This is hardly worth a lengthy reply, because, frankly, I can hardly bring myself to take your complaint seriously, but then I don’t like to respond in a half-hearted manner…

    Thomas

  • On July 5, 2009 at 10:51 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    John Oliver Simon
    Re. “This.”

    I queried you on this mysterious little word when I first saw you use it it in a similar situation on Annie Finch’s “Farough: An Evening of Persian Poetry” thread. You explained to me:

    “This.” (with period) in my other active Net community (a passel of simulated historical baseball managers) is a handy tag to indicate agreement with the last speaker. What he said.”

    So I assume you are agreeing with the post by Thomas Brady just preceding, and to which you were replying.

    In the very same reply to me on “Farough” you went on to write:

    “Probably a gentle nudge in the direction of the original thread is more effective than a scold. I should talk. Wonderfully well-read one-trick-pony Tom pushes my buttons, and I can’t read Desmond’s novella-length rants (mostly I take his advice and scroll on down).”

    So you’re wonderfully forgiving in this This., John—I just wish you’d said a bit more. I get a thrill from all your posts even when I don’t have any background in what you’re talking about. You make me realize how much I’ve missed by losing my hemisphere at 16, among many other things.

    Christopher

  • On July 5, 2009 at 11:10 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    “Aspires to the ineffable.” Is that what I meant, I ask myself, or he meant?

    If you can call getting thoroughly lost in a ruined place where all that remains is a dent in the dough o.k., o.k.

    I’d say that if you can’t tell the difference between prayer and a good scrubbing and are haunted by things not so nice besides even when you’re trying your best to sort all the crap out—I’d say then its more like “perspires” than “aspires” or, hey, why not, “expires!”

    Thank you so much for noticing, Tom. I say we’re all in this bother together but don’t realize it until we get well into high windows.

    Christopher

  • On July 5, 2009 at 11:51 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    Sorry about the BOLD contagion yet again. It was supposed to have just been feminist epiphany.

    Has anybody come up with that tag yet, by the way, or do I get the credit? “As Christopher Woodman was at some pains to show on Independence Day, 2009 on Harriet, The Fish is a fine example of Feminist Epiphany.”

    But more seriously, Martin, I know I haven’t replied to the gist of your 4th complaint: “Everything is “fair” in the final analysis and I don’t see what politics has to do with it, nor do I consider myself a junk dealer.”

    I’m merely saying, stripping away the polemic (cf. above), that your phrase “epiphanic structure” is a metric unit that’s unsuitable to measure a poem written in inches. And I still feel that about your interpretation of The Fish. To say that you, Martin Earl, are “responsible for the plethora of junk” that all such misapplications can lead to would be absurd–I’m just talking about the tendency in contemporary literary theory to produce poetry that satisfies theories rather than poetry that generates enthusiasm for reading it. You are a most wonderfully informed, eloquent and generous writer, Martin, which is evidenced in every word you write. But still you’re part of the problem, as I am too with my “feminist epiphany,” for example–or my suggestion that High Windows is a fine example of an “ubi sunt structure, or is in the great English mystical tradition (Vaughan, says Annie).

    What we’re all trying to do everywhere on Harriet, I would say, is liberate ourselves from everything that predetermines our judgements, aren’t we? Is it so bad to say mea culpa when the stakes are so high?

    Christopher

  • On July 5, 2009 at 11:58 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

    I’m agreeing with Tom that Gary’s post to you was rude and uncalled-for. It’s a pleasure to agree with Tom for a change.

  • On July 6, 2009 at 12:02 am mearl wrote:

    Thomas, Gary, Christopher, Camille, Annie, Michael, Don, Cathy, others…

    I certainly don’t see a problem, and I second Thomas’s drift in this comment. The thread is about open space, cornfield, Nebraska style space. Thomas has a point. You read what you want to read. Volume can only be stimulating, especially when the discourse is conducted at such a high level. I’m sure this is exactly what Ms. Lilly had in mind, free and open forums which grow organically. Any given post can sustain pointed commentary for only so long before drift, meta-commentary, opinion, personal ideology and the gifts of individual experience begin to take hold. I, for one, feel extremely lucky, as one of the hired perpetrators these last few months that the threads unfold the way they do. Maybe Gary has a point – some people could be scared away by the clobbering breadth of the most enthusiastic threaders. But perhaps not. I suspect a lot of people are reading just for the fun of it, for the spectacle, without necessarily feeling the need to contribute. And I’ve seen enough examples of people, late in the day, breaking in without any trepidation. Thomas has brought up a lot of good points here about the way things are supposed to work. And I would say, having observed this process over the last six months, that, given the lawlessness, there has always been a sense of decorum, even decorum threaded into the syntax of insult (a wonderful thing to see). We are all at a very lucky moment in the progress of letters. A kind of 18th century vibrancy is again the order of the day. We should all thank the circumstances that have led to this moment. We should drink a lot of coffee and get to work.

    Martin

  • On July 6, 2009 at 12:27 am Christopher Woodman wrote:

    I just wrote a reply to Ellen Moody on Annie’s last thread, saying how much I would miss her, Ellen Moody, if she felt Annie Finch was the only voice worth staying for. Listen to Martin, I say, Ellen. What he says is precisely what I would have liked to say to you in my post–but who would presume?

    Many, many thanks, Martin. You are the most conscientious of thread spinners, and this one spun away into some wild, uncharted orbits while you were, as you say, passing the other side of the moon.

    We’ll survive in this universe that is Harriet precisely because we are as you say.

    Christopher

  • On July 6, 2009 at 6:37 am thomas brady wrote:

    Christopher,

    I am of such a philosophical nature, that I would rather talk about how to read a poem, than the poem. I admit it.

    I suppose there is irony in praising ‘a poem’ for being ‘ineffable.’ And it may not be ironic; it may be plain stupid. Perhaps it’s a weakness in the critic (myself).

    Or perhaps, to be plain and ineffable at the same time is the secret to great, or, popular poems.

    I’m not going to go back and read your poem, just mention from memory that I think it’s about an autistic child, odd and clumsy in how they experience life and communicate, but find a glory, a ‘starry whiteness,’ –to paraphrase it as crudely as possible.

    Here’s a similar thing–just two lines, which the authors Brooks & Warren of ‘Understanding Poetry’ praise by way of Yeats.

    “The poetic effect depends not on the things themselves but on the kind of use the poet makes of them.

    We have seen, then, that a poem is not to be thought of as merely a bundle of things which are ‘poetic’ in themselves. Nor is it to be thought of, as the ‘message hunters’ would seem to have it, as a kind of box, decorated or not, in which a ‘truth’ or a ‘fine sentiment’ is hidden.

    Certainly it is not to be thought of as a group of mechanically combined elements–meter, rhyme, figurative language, idea, and so on–put together to make a poem as bricks are put together to make a wall. The relationship among the elements in a poem is what is all important; it is not a mechanical relationship but one that is far more intimate and fundamental. If we must compare a poem to the make-up of some physical object it ought not to be to a wall but to something organic like a plant.”

    Mssrs. Brooks and Warren are FAR too prolix for my taste; I quote a sample to give you of how the teaching of the standard outlook of modern poetry must have looked to students during the time when roughly all of us alive today grew up. I suppose they are making ‘an extremely good point,’ but I feel they are protesting too much, and failing to say what is truly more important. But let’s get to the Yeats…

    “Here are two lines by Robert Burns which have been greatly admired by the poet William Butler Yeats:

    The white moon is setting behind the white wave,
    And Time is setting with me, O!

    Yeats has summarized…as follows:

    Take from them [the lines] the whitness of the moon and of the waves, whose relation to the setting of Time is too subtle for the intellect, and you take from them their beauty. But, when all are together, moon and wave and whiteness and setting Time and the last melancholy cry, they evoke an emotion which cannot be evoked by any other arrangement of colors and sounds and forms.

    The remarks by Yeats here apply, as we can see, to the elements of the scene itself as well as to the rhythm. He is not praising the lines merely because the scene of the white moon setting behind the white wave gives in itself a pretty picture.”

    (Brooks and Warren use the word ‘pretty’ whenever they wish to castigate the beautiful. A typical Modernist trick. The Modernists hate beauty.)

    The New Critics praise the ineffable COMBINATION of things in a poem, and put almost no stock in the elements themselves. One cannot paraphrase a poem, or point to elements in a poem; one must respect the COMBINATION. It matters not, in otherwords, if rhythm, rhyme, beauty and wit are absent, so long as the poem in question is expertly combining a ‘white moon’ and a ‘white wave.’

    Thus ‘Understanding Poetry’ lavishes praise on ‘In a Station of the Metro’ by Yeats’ friend, Ezra Pound, and Yeats is seen lavishing praise on tepid, very un-Robert Burns-like, lines.

    But the Burns we know and love never gets to speak in ‘Understanding Poetry.’

    The Burns of

    Then tho’ I drudge thro’ dub an’ mire
    At plow or cart,
    My Muse, tho’ homely in attire,
    May touch the heart.

    never makes an appearance.

    Instead we get the professors swooning over

    The white moon is setting behind the white wave,
    And Time is setting with me, O!

    Christopher, it all depends on th critic. The combination which the be critic is seein’ is ALL. The poem donna matter.

    Burns, again:

    Thou canst not learn, nor can I show,
    To paint with THOMSON’S landscape-glow;
    Or wake the bosom-melting throe,
    With SHENSTONE’S art;
    Or pour with GRAY, the moving flow,
    Warm on the heart.

    Yet all beneath th’ unrivaled Rose
    The lowly Daisy sweetly blows;
    Tho’ large the forest’s Monarch throws
    His army shade,
    Yet green the juicy Hawthorn grows
    Adown the glade.

    Then never murmur nor repine;
    Strive in thy humble sphere to shine;
    And trust me, not POTOSI’S mine,
    Nor KING’S regard,
    Can give a bliss o’ermatching mine,
    A rustic bard.

    Thomas

  • On July 6, 2009 at 10:14 am John Oliver Simon wrote:

    Potosi, of course — San Luis Potosí — was and is a silver mine at 15,000 feet above sea-level in the Bolivian altiplano, where thousands upon thousands of Aymará Indians were worked to death from dawn to dusk and cradle to grave — “drudge thro’ dub and mire” indeed — so that mules out of Wallace Stevens could be burdened with bags of silver down tkoward Buenos Aires and the estuary river which for that reason was named La Plata, contributing to European inflation and industrialism. Contemporary Aymará poet José Luis Ayala writes, almost untranslatably — though the poem is so simply done — about losing his original language. The title, ARU, means “word” in Aymará.

    Aru

    He perdido una palabra
    y nunca
    volveré a escribirlo

    He perdido una dicción
    y sé
    que no podré hallarla

    He perdido una expresión
    y nunca
    voy a encontrarla

    He vuelto a perder un vocablo
    y nunca más
    lo pronunciaré

    He perdido mi nombre
    y nunca jamás
    jamás sabré cómo me llamaba.

    Aru

    I have lost a word
    and I will never
    write it again

    I have lost a phrase
    and I know
    I will not be able to get it back

    I have lost a figure of speech
    and I will
    never find it

    I have lost an accent
    and I will never
    pronounce it again

    I have lost my name
    and I will never never
    again know what I was called

  • On July 6, 2009 at 7:31 pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:

    .
    “Why do you do this, Gary? I mean, what is it in this poem that contributes one iota to this discussion, beside the title? Indeed, the content of the poem is way off mark, as it fails to touch any of the issues Martin has raised about words and images.”

    POSTED BY: CHRISTOPHER WOODMAN ON JUNE 19, 2009 AT 10:28 PM

    .
    “Honestly, Tere. How could you? What possessed you to think that a post like Desmond’s should be sabotaged at 5am, and the whole Iranian Poetry Night sunk before dawn?”

    POSTED BY: CHRISTOPHER WOODMAN ON JUNE 22, 2009 AT 12:18 AM

    .
    “No, my dear friend Gary, I’m afraid I don’t ‘get it.’”

    POSTED BY: THOMAS BRADY ON JULY 5, 2009 AT 10:01 PM

    .
    Maybe now, Thomas

    .

  • On July 6, 2009 at 7:51 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Some are born to sweet delight,
    Some are born to endless night.

    I have lost a word
    and I will never
    write it again

    The word is wheel barrow.

    I have lost my name
    and I will never never
    again know what I was called

    Your name was Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.

  • On July 6, 2009 at 8:06 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Gary,

    That only shows Woody objecting in very specific terms that one can agree with or not; he’s not making vague insults, and saying ‘well, there goes the neighborhood!’

    You take a little risk when you put one of your poems out there; that’s the way it should be. A poem is not an automatic ticket to some fawning blurb…

    What, do you feel you are chained to a rock, now, and a bird is eating your liver? Shall we start calling you ‘Prometheus Fitzgerald?’

    I’m sure you’ll be OK…

    Thomas

  • On July 7, 2009 at 12:42 am Christopher Woodman wrote:

    When you don’t know where to look you sometimes just whistle, blow your nose, or change the subject.

    I’m still trying to find a way to grasp the final image in High Windows–which is important to do because this thread is about final images, and how to read them. The irony is that I think we all have a sense of where The Fish goes, and though none of us would ever like to explain it in less words than have been spilled in this thread, I feel sure, there is a sense of closure in the discussion. But the other stirring event on this thread, for me anyway, is that almost everyone seems to have agreed that High Windows is probably the greater poem, and that its ending is even more elusive!

    So here’s the ending of Philip Larkin’s greatest poem (or at least that’s the claim), Whitsun Weddings:

    . . . . . . . We slowed again
    And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
    A sense of falling, like an arrow shower
    Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.

    The brakes are either drum brakes or caliper brakes (disc brakes hadn’t yet been invented), so there’s swelling either way due too friction, a filling up of the moving space, a tumescence, a ‘blooming,’ we sometimes say, in the sense of a pushing upward. Indeed, that sense of the word clarifies that rthe poem calls “a sense of falling”— which you can’t get, of course, unless you’ve got some altitude first, like on the playground apparatus. It’s a parabola, in other words, a swinging between extremes not unlike the slide in High Windows. And there you have it, down the chute “like free bloody birds”–the same creatures that are the subject of Whitsun Weddings, no less, and who are also, like the strange image of the arrows, being “sent out of sight”—on the train to oblivion and the disaster of marriage!

    “An arrow shower”—what an image for falling! And then the clincher that makes Philip Larkin so great–”somewhere becoming rain.”

    In High Windows it’s the “birds”/ “words” rhyme that propels the poem through the high window, “down the long slide / like free bloody birds” [flip upward] “and immediately / rather than words comes the thought of high windows.”

    “And is endless.”

    Christopher

    And his lot will all go down the long slide
    Like free bloody birds. And immediately

    Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
    The sun-comprehending glass,
    And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
    Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

  • On July 7, 2009 at 12:34 pm Matt wrote:

    unbelievable

  • On July 7, 2009 at 1:11 pm mearl wrote:

    If we are to compare the ending of “High Windows” with “The Fish”, I think that one of the obvious things that we can say is that in Larkin there is a more deliberate attempt to create an image of transcendence, almost in the religious sense of the word (poetic epiphany is of course derived from religious epiphany). Larkin is constantly setting the profane against the sacred. The is true, for example, in “Sad Steps”, “Church Going” and certainly in “High Windows”, where the narrator sees his own upbringing in contrast to the half ironic “paradise” of contemporary life. Light, endlessness, the deep blue air, though they are out of reach, are somehow resolving. The last line and a half of “Here” (his poem about Hull) is also very moving in this way. “…Here is unfenced existence:/ Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.” This is invariably a place beyond words (“rather than words”, “untalkative”), a place where the poem cannot go, but only suggest.

    The discussion in this thread dovetails with my previous thread on closure and the points I wanted to make there, but perhaps didn’t quite reach. This is the notion that poetic closure is not about snapping the door shut, case closed, etc. Poetic closure, formal closure, is often the moment of psychic opening, or release.

    There is a gorgeous poem by Chris Wiman in the New Yorker called “Five Houses Down”.* Structurally, it is somewhat similar to the Bishop poem which we have been discussing, namely in the accretion of detail. And yet it is more satisfying to me because the narrator is intimately involved. The closure to this poem (I don’t known if I’d go so far as to say that Wiman is using the device of epiphany) is extremely delicate, almost understated. It can be because the energy of recollection and description is still coiled very tautly in the voice and emotion of the narrator. The poet only needs to push very gently at the end for the whole thing to fly. But the same elements are there, especially the light, the “ancient light” in this case. It speaks about the acquisition of knowledge and the cost of that. Its echoes and the archetypes that inform it are dealt with so serenely that they don’t even need to be mentioned aloud.

    I would recommend the poem to all those who have been working on this thread, and anyone else for that matter.

    Martin

    *http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/poetry/2009/06/29/090629po_poem_wiman

  • On July 8, 2009 at 12:36 am Christopher Woodman wrote:

    Thanks for that, Martin, a truly rich comment, and one that is in every way worthy of the juggernaut you launched way back with the Fallacy of Closure (which I personally am very sad to see slipping out of sight–I don’t understand that aspect of Harriet at all, but then I’m not very good with the intransigence of past/present/future at the best of times!).

    Somehow I find your formulations here more sympathetic, more natural than I did those in the currect article, The Fish II. But you know, I’m perfectly willing to consider that maybe I’ve changed, maybe I’m less prickly, less suspicious of critical language. Or house-trained–maybe I’m learning where and how to go.

    I think my initial statement of purpose had it’s heart in the right place. Very near the beginning of this thread I wrote: “I guess what I worry about, Martin, is that the search for an “epiphanic structure,” as you call it, may distract us from the things a particular poem does that no other poem has ever done before. Indeed, the search for any sort of pre-ordained structure can stack the deck against the particularity of a poem, and force the poem to participate in a game with a conclusion that’s rigged.”

    I still think that’s good, but whether or not my attempt to talk about The Fish and High Windows in such a way that the poems can define their own critical parameters works, that’s up to all of you to judge. I apologize for the space I took up, and particularly to those of you who felt bored or intimidated. But I also thank those of you who responded to my efforts from the bottom of my heart.

    I loved your third paragraph, Martin, and so look forward to responses to what you say there.

    I was also thrilled to read Christian Wiman’s poem in The New Yorker, which made me realize that I don’t need to be such a Jeremiah after all. Any poetry scene that can produce a poem like that in the first place, and then get that poem into The New Yorker where it will be read by everybody, even me, that’s a healthy place for poetry. That’s my country too!

    It’s also an ideal poem for this thread, which has concerned itself not only with The Fish, High Windows and Whitsun Weddings but also with Robert Frost’s Directive. I’m also pleased personally because it helps me to understand better my own motives not only in writing Apologia Pro Vita Autistica, but for posting it here. My poem is so short by comparison, but it’s just as full of junk, including an old washing machine, a pinball machine, a mangle, a paint mixer, and a 78 crank up with a gospel choir.

    So I’d love you all to get in there and sway back and forth to Christian Wiman, and will post it if I’m allowed to–I certainly don’t want The New Yorker on my back!

    So can I , Martin?

    Christopher

  • On July 8, 2009 at 2:39 pm Don Share wrote:

    So, who’s up for a talk by John Ashbery about Bishop?

    http://www.kwls.org/lit/podcasts/2008/05/john_ashbery_on_elizabeth_bish.cfm

    “Elizabeth Bishop is a poet in whom the two kinds of I/eye are fully, and beautifully, fused. We do not read her to discover the details of her biography, yet I feel that we end up knowing her…”

  • On July 8, 2009 at 10:19 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    I am, Don, but I’m also up for the ending of “Five Houses Down.” This thread has stuck so tenaciously to the words of endings, so that would appeal to me more than John Ashbery’s noble reflections (excellent, but needless to say).

    Can I post it, because if we want to look we’ve got to have it right on the table before us?

  • On July 9, 2009 at 11:20 am thomas brady wrote:

    Silly Line Breaks: A Poem

    Do not care
    for you, for you, for you
    William Carlos Williams
    By the peach pit feeling
    blue.

    Maybe in December
    modern poetry will come
    Looking like a Bishop
    With her
    top
    button
    undone.

    Where’s my big bass drum?
    Boom! Boom! Know ye the land
    where the pedants bloom?

    I dazzled Molly
    Ford with pistol
    and gun I battered Don
    Blueberry
    And then some
    Peace (peach?)
    in a jar.
    Victory wins but defeat
    goes far

    Many a bird has sung
    By ornament and stream,
    Many a bird has sung
    In the middle of a dream,
    In the
    middle of a
    dream

    We don’t know you–
    You knew me
    So well
    When time reversed,
    it was
    history,
    it was hell
    but creative writing–
    knew–
    who you were,
    blurbed

  • On July 10, 2009 at 11:00 am thomas brady wrote:

    This recent article on Bishop: http://www.slate.com/id/2143626/
    mentions Alice Methfessel, a Kirkland House administrator at Harvard, who was in a relationship with Bishop; Alice just died, at 66.

  • On July 11, 2009 at 6:08 pm Don Share wrote:

    Let’s back up.

    How many of you have actually caught a “tremendous fish”??

    And – you may know that Bishop herself was unhappy with the poem, even threatening to redo it as a sonnet!

  • On July 11, 2009 at 9:04 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    I have, a number.

    I think the most impressive, and the most like Elizabeth Bishop’s, was caught in my presence by my young son, Noah, and very much with my assistance. It was in the mid 80′s, and we took a drive to Block Island. My son was obsessed with fishing but not very good at it, and certainly not patient about waiting to get out of the car and get his hook in the water, anytime, anywhere. It was off an old wooden pier somewhere on the island, and just getting dark. I was hardly watching as I only helped him Noah there because he’d been creating such a fuss.

    And almost immediately the rod was bent double, and I had to catch my son and the rod before they both went down into the water. It took us almost an hour to get the thing in, and the sun was just going down so it was almost dark at the end. Quite a crowd gathered around us, and a photo was taken–which I still have.

    I never weighed it but I’d guess near 10-15 pounds pounds, and hideously encrusted and scarred just like The Fish. Somebody in the crowd said it must be a world record and we ought to get it tested.

    We never did, and I don’t even remembeer what happened to it.

    That’s also the story of my life.

    Christopher

  • On July 11, 2009 at 11:59 pm Don Share wrote:

    I appreciate this story…

    Nicholson Baker says that the thing about the fish in Bishop’s poem is that it doesn’t want to be described, it wants to be let go. Which, if so, justifies that non-epiphanic last line.

  • On July 12, 2009 at 12:39 am Christopher Woodman wrote:

    Love that, Don–and if you’re naive enough, like me and you, you can just let that be and not have to invoke pathetic fallacy or some other phallus.

    And then it’s interesting to take that idea back and look at Annie Finch’s feminist reading, which I found so exciting in the middle of the night. The similarities are extraordinary.

    I found the old photo of the fish and on the back it says it was a tautog and weighed 21 pounds 11 ounces. I felt so badly about catching it, I remember, it was such a rude intrusion into private nature. I think that’s why I can’t remember what happened to it, and I truly let it go.

    Christopher

  • On July 12, 2009 at 8:55 am thomas brady wrote:

    Christopher–what a story. You wrote a ‘Creeley poem.’

    I found the old photo
    of the fish and on the back
    it says it was a tautog
    and weighed 21 pounds 11 ounces.
    I felt so badly about catching it,
    I remember, it was such a rude intrusion
    into private nature. I think
    that’s why I can’t remember
    what happened to it,
    and I truly let it go.

    So much is ‘missing’ from this ‘poem,’ however; the dark, the crowd, your son being there, the touching impatience/eagerness of your young son for the ‘sport of patience.’

    I could see ‘Creeley’ getting a lot of credit for this poem. Yet there’s no ‘art’ to it at all. It’s an intelligent man telling a touching story about catching a fish with his son.

    Nicholson Baker says the ‘fish didn’t want to be described.’ No. How can that be? (thanks, Don, for that reference) Writers (and especially critics, who conspire with writers rather than understanding them) DO practice ‘pathetic fallacies’ a great deal–especially modern writers. We sell our authorial responsibilities and hoard our capital to be invested later by critics in bank account minds of gullible audiences.

    When poetry was invented, people didn’t feel sorry for animals–they had no qualms about ‘intruding’ on nature; they kept and ate animals for survival; nature tried to kill Man every day. The sensibility/sensitivity Christopher expresses, Bishop expresses (and which I expressed in my ‘Fish’ poem) came about in Man gradually as an acceptable mainstream subject, and even today, most of the world eats fish and would never think to write or read a poem that evokes sympathy for fish.

    This may be why modern poetry tends to be different and obscure, and why moderns will not accept the identity of the ‘acting’ author. Moderns have come full circle back to a primitivism which fears/accepts the dictates of Nature.

    Thomas

  • On July 12, 2009 at 9:21 am Don Share wrote:

    Um – I don’t think you wanna read that Baker too literally!

  • On July 12, 2009 at 11:34 am Christopher Woodman wrote:

    Why not, Don? Do you think he couldn’t deal with it, or me? You don’t think Kafka meant what he said?

    The whole problem on Harriet is people don’t want to believe what is actually said. They want to hear the lecture at Harvard, not what is said. They want their graduate school lecturers and mentors to have the answers, and the texts they pour over, and not what is actually said by their lovers once they’re deep inside the bed. Or by some old bird on Harriet.

    Why are they so selective, why can’t they be alone and listen in a single bed?

    Christopher

  • On July 14, 2009 at 12:14 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    Sorry for that last post, Don. It was lazy.

    I admire those posters most on Harriet who wrestle with the language, partly because I take some risks myself. But I’m always embarassed when I get up the next mornng and find I wrote something the night before like that above.

    I’ve been away for a few days and it’s very late. I’ll try to pick this up again tomorrow–maybe I can do better with the fish that doesn’t want to be remembered or described. Because that’s the crux in The Fish, it seems to me, or at least it’s another way of looking at the description upon which the release at the end depends.

    It’s very, very odd. It’s very, very uncomfortable.

    Christopher

  • On July 19, 2009 at 8:44 pm Christopher Woodman wrote:

    As I’ve emphasized in a number of my comments above, the fish in The Fish is too big, too old, too encrusted, cumbersome and in-your-face to be a creature you’d want to take home as a trophy. Yet it’s interesting how often Elizabeth Bishop’s famous fish is described by readers as just the opposite, as heroic and beautiful and even wise. And why is that so?

    It seems to me it would be naive to think that Elizabeth Bishop wasn’t aware of this ambiguity in writing the poem in the first place, she herself having always felt such ambivalence toward her own reputation as a “big fish.” Because Elizabeth Bishop didn’t want to be in the pond at all, in a sense, and shunned the publicity that would shine a romantic light on her as well, hanging her up on the edge of the boat.

    There’s nothing romantic whatsoever about the fish in The Fish, I would say, so it should not be surprising either that the moment of intense vision at the end of the poem comes from a wholly other source. And that’s the key word, “wholly other”—the narrator turns away from the fish to the dirty water in the bilges, and in so doing has an insight into her own “wholly other” condition. Generic rainbows are what humanity sees at the end of the flood, and almost always have in them a glimpse of salvation. The rainbow in The Fish appears in the oily film on the water under the rusty engine at the bottom of the leaky boat, not as God’s gift to humanity way up in the sky. So the narrator glimpses her salvation by getting away from the horrible, obsessive, decomposing fish hanging on the outside in public, and moves back into the boat to be as she likes all alone. That’s why she lets it go, because the fish was such an outside intruder!

    That’s a start on the fish that doesn’t want to be caught, but as this thread has slipped so far away, and I’m so out of the action at the moment, I won’t say more. If anybody is interested to take up my suggestion, or redirect it, I’d be delighted.

    Christopher


Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, June 30th, 2009 by Martin Earl.