the map that hangs by me (or, thomas hardy, or, blogging the MSA, part two)
It's neat to see someone you know is a very sharp critic give a smart talk (or to see someone whose poems you expect to like read new, good poems), but it's even neater in some ways to come across truly informative arguments from a critic you've never encountered at all. The best paper I heard in Long Beach by a critic whose name I'd never before seen was also one of the best, and most ambitious, arguments about poetry I've heard all year: the critic was Eve Sorum, and the argument had to do with the poetry of Thomas Hardy, the late-Victorian practice of cartography, and the debate about how to read English metres which was taking place while Hardy wrote his poems. Which poems? What debate? What maps? Huh? More below the fold.
Sorum starts with this poem of Hardy's, "The Place on the Map," a mysterious minor lyric in which the poet (or, in an earlier version, a schoolmaster) examines a map and remembers-- well, something; it's not clear what-- that took place at a seaside spot the map indicates. Whatever happened there, it put an end to the "weeks and weeks" of seaside love Hardy and his beloved enjoyed: "the map revives her words, the spot, the time,/ And the thing we found we had to face," which mysterious thing-- suspected bigamy? suspected pregnancy? infidelity? the poem itself does not say-- put an end to their heavenly time. (The poem may belong to the famous group of sad poems Hardy wrote after the death of his first wife, Emma; it's in the same book, though not part of the famous sequence.)
I'm not going to do justice here to Eve Sorum's argument, but I can say that it did what all the best arguments about poetry do-- it took me deeper into the poem; like most of the best such arguments these days, it started way outside that poem, with the cartographers who are deciding how to make accurate maps of England, and with the debaters (among them Coventry Patmore) who are having an argument about whether English metre is "really" composed of feet with two or three syllables, or whether instead it's "dipodic," having feet (as in the scansion of classical languages) which often contain two strong beats.
Sorum convinced me that the poem's weird scansion-- most of the stanzas have first lines of five or six feet, then seven, then three, then six for the rest of each stanza-- mimics the movements, in the poem, between past and present, which is to say between territory and map (I hope I got that part of it right). These stanzas also try to turn the poet's movement between past and present (his movement within memory, in time) into the record of a place: they create a sort of "thematic map," which is to say that the poem itself is like a map, which is to say, too (though she didn't say this) that this poem of Hardy's really resembles, and may even be one source for, Elizabeth Bishop's much-quoted poem "The Map."
Sorum also thinks-- and here I want to read more on the topic: I'm interested, but not convinced-- that Hardy is experimenting with dipodic metre, crafting at least some of his lines in a way that (according to dipodic metre's advocates) speaks to the history of the English language, a way that keeps faith with that language, just as the man in the poem wishes he could keep faith with the beloved who vanishes into his past.
There are several versions of "dipodic metre," and several ways to take this argument. I'm not sure from Sorum whether the mode of English scansion Patmore advocated, and Hardy (if we believe her) contemplated, was the dipodic metre Annie Finch says Poetry Foundation blogger Patricia Smith uses really well (I think the latter is a way to hear ballads, whereas the former is a unit of analysis applicable to many stanzas and lines). I myself don't hear lots of two-beat units within most lines from this poem of Hardy's, whose hexameter conclusions remind me instead of his poem about the Titanic. Hexameters like Hardy's tend either to break in half, into trimeters, or to hold up as integrated units: which one, and when, can determine the sound of a poem. Moreover I'm not sure how much the maps in this poem, or the maps in the other poem she discussed, are informed by the history of maps. (I'm fascinated by maps these days; I'm writing about poems and maps myself, though not about Hardy.)
I am sure, though, that these arguments about how lines in a poem are like spots on a map, and how both are like Hardy's versions of memory and of metre, made me want to read more-- more Hardy, of course, and more about Hardy (especially this book by Dennis Taylor, which true Hardy-heads have always already read), but also more of Sorum's own claims about how to read a poem, how other people hear the poems I read, and how everyone used to read English maps. There's not much more, from a critic, that I can ask.
Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...