Marianne Moore once explained that she did not put a question mark after the title of her poem "What Are Years?" - though it kept being printed with one. It's not a question at all, she explained: "It's a meditation: 'What Are Years. What Are Years.' You're not thinking about it, not asking anyone to come and answer you."
Really, Miss Moore?

(That was a rhetorical question.)
I had the Moore poem in mind, more or less, when I first read Leila Wilson's "What Is the Field?" from the September isue of Poetry; here are the first few stanzas:
The field is filled
with what we see
without sleep.
Never completely
closed, it quickly erodes
when tilled before rain.
If clogged with boulders
it won’t be razed
and once burdened
cannot quicken
under flocks.
The field reveals
glint and holds
leaning, pulls
twist from taut
knots of buds.
We watch the field
for stirring, wait
for stems to spring
back from sparrows.
We hope for a swell
in its middle so
we can say we saw
the sway that comes
from noticing.
It's a meditation, albeit one with a questioning title. And that field? Well, naturally, I also thought of Philip Larkin's "Days" -
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
That poem poses a question and answers it... with a riddle. (No coincidence that we have a special feature on Philip Larkin's doodles and drawings this issue, as well!)
And speaking of poems marked by questions, here's another poem from the September issue to think about, Kay Ryan's "Crocodile Tears" -
The one sincere
crocodile has
gone dry eyed
for years. Why
bother crying
crocodile tears.
That's not a typo at the end. Must be... a meditation?

Originally Published: September 5th, 2008

Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...

  1. September 5, 2008
     Mary Meriam

    Don, why did those publishers keep printing the question mark, when Moore made it clear that the title did not have a question mark???? I get very upset about this sort of editorial - what - patronizing? Do I have to write an essay justifying my punctuation to protect my poems from meddling editors?
    On the plus side, I'm glad to hear what Moore said about question marks, because I've been feeling conflicted about dropping them in my own stuff. Not for meditation reasons - I'm not sure why - must I think of a reason??? It's the way I want it, ok? So, editors, remember this! Keep your sticky paws off my punctuation! And that includes my lines that end with no punctuation at all.
    That Clive James essay is great. Practical criticism is Where It's At. Part of that effect comes from the way the iambs are morphed into spondees as the conversational accents are played off against the meter. Thank you. Yes.

  2. September 5, 2008
     Don Share

    Great question, Mary. Mostly, the answer is that MM was being sly: she obviously let publishers do this, for many years, which leads to an editorial crux (one which, in fact, even her most recent editor, Grace Schulman, has not resolved, but given in to): how do you print the thing? Anyway, what MM herself said was: "Since the poem appears in many publications with the question mark, I show it that way, but with a cautionary note." Interpret that as you will, or can.
    About punctuation, there's the great example of all those thousands of changes that were made to Frost's poems in the editions everyone had until the publication of the recent Library of America volume!
    About the Clive James: we interview him on our new podcast, and we tried to ask him about a lot of things, but.. Mary, were you bugged (I was!) about what he said about "women poets"???
    Yr. D.

  3. September 5, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    I noticed this practice a lot when I was a misguided young Spanish surrealist, particularly in that great American Spanish surrealist, the racist & sexist James Wright, whom I revered as only a young man who hasn't read much can.
    I can't say I've read all of Clive James's Cultural Amnesia, but more than a few entries are about how Communism Was Evil. I suppose there wasn't room for entries on Reagan & Suharto & sundry Latin American dictators, but there is a lovely chapter about how Maggie Thatcher Triumphed over Fascism.

  4. September 6, 2008
     Mary Meriam

    I listened but didn't hear the part about women poets - which is probably for the best. Ok, what did Clive James say. (I used up all my question marks in previous post, so won't use them here.)
    This is the first I've heard of thousands of changes made to Frost's poems. Terrible - what a scandal. I just learned recently about the problem with printing Charlotte Mew's long lines. Apparently, Mew had punctuation issues, too. (One thing I learned from listening to the podcast is that I don't have to spell things out for Don Share.)
    As for MM, maybe I'm too inflexible, but I can't imagine resting in peace if thousands of changes are made to poems in which I agonized over every letter and mark. I'm fascinated by the route poems take from poet to print. Like for instance, E. Dickinson. How much did she understand about printing and the editorial perspective?
    As for Clive James, I'm so grateful to learn the term "kitchen criticism" that I might let any slur against women poets slide. Also, he's a mensch for talking about IP.

  5. September 6, 2008
     Don Share

    Here I go being an ex-academic type again, but (this is all simplification) the poet's concern with the intricacies of punctuation is a fairly modern thing in Eng. Lang. poetry - as late as the 19th century, poets such as Keats and John Clare relied upon editors and compositors (typesetters) to supply punctuation for them! Things like spelling, punctuation, italics, and so on, were not governed by any standard rules till more modern times. Then, too, there are matters relating to what happens to poems - Dickinson didn't have her famous dashes in print till the 1950's! (Arguably, even present-day editions of E.D. don't really represent what he put on the page, but that's a whole 'nother can of worms! As for what she understood about printing, well, she did not intend to print her poems in the first place...) Then, too, it all depends on who ends up editing a poet's work. Scholars and editors still debate about what poems belong to poets as now-famous as Marvell. And think of how many versions of Lowell's poems Frank Bidart had to think about!
    Now Charlotte Mew - we need a whole Harriet post about her; if nobody else does it... I will!

  6. September 6, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Is there some reason my comment about James Wright & Clive James from last night didn't appear, Harriet?

  7. September 6, 2008
     Don Share

    Harriet goes to bed at night, being a little creaky in her joints, Michael. She slept in this am.
    I tell ya, soon as the new September podcast goes live, hint hint, I will start a new thread about Clive James, so hold your surrealist horses and tomatoes till then, if you can. Apologies for the reference to Breton.

  8. September 7, 2008
     Mary Meriam

    You can put on your academic hat any old time you want, DS, as far as I'm concerned, and thanks for explaining some things. I wish I could attend your ALSC seminar about ED and WW this fall. Meanwhile, I'd love to see a whole Harriet post about Mew - such a great poet.

  9. September 7, 2008

    I've only read two essays by James, one on Rilke, and not only was it riddled with factual errors, but it was blithely anti-intellectual and certainly anti-Rilke. Rilke was too deviant for him.
    His essay on jazz was even worse -- aesthetically narrow and irresponsibly -- almost libelously -- inaccurate, but consistent with his Rilke essay in that it had a faux-populist veneer. James used Duke Ellington to beat up on be-bop (too modern!) and John Coltrane (too noisy!), when Ellington, in actual fact, praised be-bop and John Coltrane warmly and convincingly, was influenced by be-bop and free jazz late in life, and recorded more than once with Dizzy Gillespie and a quartet album with Coltrane.
    Both the essays were from "Cultural Amnesia," which came to seem a self-diagnosis. If anybody has good things to say about James, I'd be curious to know what they are.

  10. September 8, 2008
     Don Share

    OK, OK, Clive James it is; I may as well post a link to the podcast; Clive James talks to us at the end. Listen, and report back!
    Here's the piece itself.

  11. September 8, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    I suppose we can add Clive James to the "controversial" list.

  12. September 8, 2008
     Don Share

    Since Clive James got his title from Hokpins, let me tie all the foregoing together by saying that you virtually never see Hopkins' poems the way he wrote them. As Paul Mariani puts it in his new biography of GMH, Hopkins left his poems, "like his contemporary, Emily Dickinson, in manuscript, often in multiple kaleidoscopic versions." Not only that, there are those odd scansion marks, almost never fully reproduced anywhere. For the most part neither Hopkins nor Dickinson, in other words, ever prepared their work for publication of any kind - so we can't say for sure what the poems ought to look like... or sound like. (There's a recording of Geoffrey Hill's valient reading of some Hopkins here.)

  13. September 8, 2008
     Tim Upperton

    This discussion has shifted its focus to Clive James's article - let's not call it an essay - and what is most striking about that piece of work is its offensive rhetoric. Notice, for example, how his willingness to accept the possibility of a poetry critic who is not a practising poet is couched as an offhand sneer at F.R. Leavis ("Just because Dr. Leavis, for example, who never wrote a poem, rarely said anything interesting about one either, does not prove a case"). James discusses Hopkins, and it was Leavis's 1932 essay on Hopkins (in New Bearings in English Poetry) that, more than any other, dismissed the then prevalent notion of Hopkins as Victorian minor eccentric and oddity patronised by the superior Bridges, and established him in our minds as "for our time and the future" - 1932, remember! - "the only influential poet of the Victorian age".
    James's easy rhetoric assumes that all people of intelligence will agree with what he has to say. The success of that assumption depends on his convincing us that he is actually a bit more intelligent than his plain-speaking persona lets on. And so we have "There was almost nothing Auden couldn’t do in the writing of a poem". Oddly enough this echoes the rhetoric of C.P. Snow's long-ago and much derided "Two Cultures" lecture, where of Ibsen he remarked "there wasn't much that old man didn't understand". It was Leavis who drily remarked the implication that, if called upon, Snow could supply that small deficiency.

  14. September 8, 2008
     Michael Gushue

    I've had a sore spot with regard to Mr. James since that jazz article. I've never read anything more condescending towards Coltrane.
    The essay in poetry was a good read, and Clive James clearly has a good ear. I liked what he had to say Hopkins, Plath. But perhaps he is deaf to certain frequencies. Today's deliberately empty poetry? Some very nice specifics, including about Aiken, and then a sweeping, generic statement? It might be effective rhetoric, but I'm not convinced of its critical fairness or truth.
    I've been able to get into some rap (The Coup, e.g.) and some metal, but there's much I can neither distinguish nor discern. I'm old. The fault lies not in Metallica, but in ourselves. The years, whatever they are (365.25 days last time I looked), will sort us out.

  15. September 10, 2008
     Don Share

    Michael G. - You didn't even mention what Larkin said about Coltrane, quoted by James, I believe; folks who want more condescension should check it out!
    But I can't stay mad at P.L.: he loved Sidney Bechet, after all.

  16. September 10, 2008
     Michael Gushue

    Valid point. I can't stay mad at Phil either. Plus, his poems are da bomb.

  17. September 10, 2008
     Michael Robbins

    Robert Christgau, in his sixties, loves Lil Wayne, Nas, Clipse, & scads more hip-hop. Age ain't nothin' but a number. (Xgau hates metal, but he hated it when he was young, too.) Now in my mid-thirties, I find it confusing that people stop keeping up with good popular music as they age. I don't plan to. I listen to Lil Wayne with as much pleasure as I listened to the Feelies & Public Enemy when I was sixteen -- a different sort of fervor, probably, but as much pleasure.