Poetry News

Will it Achieve its Nothingness? Reading a Poem Backward

By Harriet Staff


Brad Leithauser writes for The New Yorker about the art of reading a poem backward:

Reading a poem backward is a distinctive experience, during which you’re typically asking not Where is this going?, but Can the poet justify the finish? In other words, Will the conclusion feel deserved?

Say you read Keats’s sonnet “When I have fears that I may cease to be” backward. You begin with its close:

Then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

You then proceed to the start, aware that the poem is going to entail a throwing off of earthly cares and concerns. In the domain of poetry, abnegations of this type usually represent a triumph (the eternal spirit overcoming the fleeting temptations of the body, and so forth)—but not here. We’re marching toward a state of unremitting desolation: the world will drop away, with no compensating replacement. And as you progress in that direction, you’re wondering the whole time if Keats’s conclusive despair will feel authentic—if it will engender a heart-sore pang—or seem callow and easy. And whether or not you ultimately decide that the poem achieves its nothingness, so to speak, is probably a good indicator of how much or little you like Keats.

The other day, I took down from a friend’s bookshelf Conrad Aiken’s anthology “Modern American Poets” (1927). I opened to the table of contents. Aiken’s selections afforded me that old but ever-welcome sensation of superiority of taste that typically comes of looking at any outmoded anthology. How shortsighted people used to be! (How much more discerning we surely are…) No Marianne Moore? No John Crowe Ransom? No E. E. Cummings? And yet page after page of Alfred Kreymborg (who?) and Anna Hempstead Branch (who?) and Maxwell Bodenheim (who?). I looked into Kreymborg (familiar to me chiefly as an early champion of Moore) and happened to read a poem of his, “Vista”, backward.

I fell upon its amenable concluding couplet: “Ah, yes; ah, yes; ah, yes, indeed, / Verily yes, ah yes, indeed!” It seemed highly unlikely, and yet beguilingly conceivable, that the poem’s preceding lines could justify such an effusion. Clearly, those lines would need to contain something deeply revelatory or monumentally uneasy-making to validate an ending so glib and empty-sounding.

Eventually he gets to the secret. Read all here.

Originally Published: July 16th, 2013