The Unified Dance
A poet I worshiped in high school to the point of wanting to "be like" when I grew up was W.B. Yeats. I'm sure this was because my father, who loved to read poems aloud to his family, conveyed to me the rhythmic excitement that Yeats himself experienced reviving ancient songs and folklore:
"I am of Ireland,
And the Holy Land of Ireland,
And time runs on," cried she.
"Come out of charity,
And dance with me in Ireland."
I remember my father reading this lyric in the kind of sing-song chant in which Yeats is said to have composed, interrupting himself with a harsh, contrasting voice:
One man, one man alone
In that outlandish gear,
One solitary man
Of all that rambled there
Had turned his stately head.
"That is a long way off,
And time runs on," he said,
"And the night grows rough."
The dramatics of the situation used to make me jump up and down with excitement, even though at the time I knew next to nothing about Ireland. Today I am the more moved because I hear the antiphon moving back and forth throughout the poem, pitting the ideal against the reality, an imaginary Ireland of legendary romance against Yeats's Ireland, torn (as throughout its history) by political strife and bitterness. Whoever he was, that man who "turned his stately head," and "cocked a malicious eye," he couched his metaphor in language that is not only rich with imagery but also infectiously rhythmic and dramatic:
"The fiddlers are all thumbs,
Or the fiddle-string accursed,
The drums and the kettledrums
And the trumpets all are burst,
And the trombone," cried he,
"The trumpet and trombone."
The line "the trumpet and tromBONE" was always boomed out fortissimo in a voice like a full symphony orchestra. Why did my father—an analytical philosopher who dismissed Yeats's dabblings in mysticism as "completely crazy"—find these lines so irresistible?
Because, I suspect, poetry written for the ear speaks to the ear before it appeals to the mind or asks for an interpretation. The Ireland poem, as Richard Ellman affirms in The Identity of Yeats, reached Yeats himself aurally. "One night at Yeats's home [in August 1929] Frank O'Connor read aloud an early fourteenth-century English lyric: 'I am of Ireland.' Yeats took fire at once from the words, snatched wildly for a piece of paper, and gasped, 'write, write.'" The female speaker of the lyric was for Yeats, of course, not only of Ireland, but also the persona, Ireland, herself. Yet you don't need to be Irish to feel stirred by this musical duel between voices that might equally represent the spirit calling to the body or a divided soul longing for an ideal state of primal innocence while at the same time skeptically mocking it. The mind of the poet encompassed multiple contradictions, and the task he set himself was to reconcile them, to realize some ultimate unity of being (the one entire chestnut tree) through the hard labor of versifying. Though Yeats was obsessed with philosophies and symbolic systems, he hated the dry, passionless language of the intellect alone and looked for images that would, in sensual cadences, physically dance out his ideas for him:
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
As a sophomore at the University of Michigan in the fifties, I was so taken with the recurring image of the dance in Yeats's poems that I wrote and directed a play for dancers in as many rhythmic verse-patterns as I could think of. It was my first attempt at combining musical and poetic rhythms in stanzas that, like nursery rhymes, rang in the ear before they spoke to the mind. Although I rarely write in set forms now, poems still come to me as tunes in the head. Words fall into rhythms before they make sense. It often happens that I discover what a poem is about through a process of listening to what its rhythms are telling me.
Although I didn't know it, while I was scribbling verses at Michigan, another girl almost exactly my age had fallen in love with Yeats and was patiently hammering out lines in her room at Smith College in Massachusetts. Sylvia Plath had absorbed the rhythms of English verse from her mother, who had read it aloud to her just as my father had to me. No wonder her English professor at Smith was astonished when he read poems of hers that play with inventive rhymes in different meters:
Today we move in jade and cease with garnet
Amid the ticking jewelled clocks that mark
Our years. Death comes in a casual steel car, yet
We vaunt our days in neon and scorn the dark.
Such close attention to craft shows Plath to have been a poet in her pulse from the beginning. It was only a matter of a few years before that beating heart was pounding out steely, acoustical lines such as:
Stone of the side.
Side of green Adam
or the seething alliteration and assonance of:
In a pit of a rock
The sea sucks obsessively,
One hollow the whole sea's pivot.
Sylvia Plath's debt to Yeats (among many poets she learned from) is usually attributed to her similar fondness for symbols and myths, but I believe she owed as much to Yeats's ear. You can almost feel her disciplining her lines—to vent her anger and anguish, sure, but also hoping to hit upon a magic formula that would open a way out of her sick self into a meaningful, enduring life. Poetry might somehow save her if only she could get the sounds right—the right words for the right rite. Her tragedy was that she did perfect her poems, but that wasn't enough. The vision of the perfected dead woman conjured up in "Edge" proved too strong for her:
The woman is perfected
Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity
Flows in the scrolls of her toga.
Fifty years on, it may be impossible to write well in the exalted language that intoxicated Sylvia Plath (and me) in the days when poets aspired to rise through the magic of words to a level above ordinary life. Plath herself unwittingly helped inaugurate the fashion for therapeutic confession, which soon took the field in women's poetry and owed more to Sigmund Freud and the spread of feminism than to any major poet. But even without the permission seemingly granted by psychoanalysis to break rules, whether in life or in verse, and even without the conservative pull of Robert Frost's sturdy iambics (still overheard in the elegant poems of Richard Wilbur and younger formalists), American poetry would have had to broaden and change in the second half of the twentieth century. Two generations have grown up in the market-obsessed, quasi-democratic mass culture we all have to live in, and young poets naturally demand new styles of poetic architecture.
As it happens, I encountered one of the most conspicuous new-style innovators at Michigan in the fifties. Frank O'Hara, thanks to the GI Bill, had enrolled as a graduate student at Michigan, drawn by the hefty Hopwood prizes offered each year for new writing. I remember a wiry, very animated, red-faced young man in his twenties around whom other poets buzzed like bees at a honey pot, but who, when we met, either ignored me or looked upon me rather as a professional boxer might size up a kid sister trying on his gloves. Like Sylvia Plath, O'Hara died young in the sixties, in a tragically absurd accident that drew as much attention to his giddy New York lifestyle as to his work. No anthologist today would want to omit a rich selection of O'Hara's poems—sassy, urban, affectionate, full of allusions to painting, jazz, and the delight he took in the movies. Just the same, the innovations he made—substituting a poetry of the everyday eye (and the personal I) for what seemed to him a tedious, worn out "yearning" poetry for the ear—have to be set against serious losses. The manifesto O'Hara called "Personism" more or less laid the foundations for the now fashionable New York School, but I have to say that when the English poet, Lee Harwood, sent me a copy of "Personism" last summer, I was alarmed to discover that it read like a freshman essay. "Everything is in the poems," it begins:
but at the risk of sounding like the poor wealthy man's Ginsberg I will write to you because I just heard that one of my fellow poets thinks that a poem of mine that can't be got at one reading is because I was confused too. Now, come on. I don't believe in god, so I don't have to make elaborately sounded structures.
The terrible prose can, I suppose, be overlooked, but the non-sequitur about god? What has believing in god to do with writing in disciplined forms? Everything is in the poems, he says, suggesting that to write good poems you don't need traditional forms, music, great lines, or any other "technical apparatus." You only have to use your common sense: "if you're going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you."
O'Hara was right about his poems: he pulled them as tight around his metaphorical buttocks as any stylist could wish. But why dash off a silly manifesto like that? Is Personism such a new idea? I can't think of any period in which poets have not written with particular people in mind, whether lovers, enemies, patrons, or a group of other poets like Yeats's companions of the Rhymers' Club in London. Claiming for Personism a populist departure from High Modernism, O'Hara and his friends simply created an alternative clique. Compare Personism's coy formula for tightening up poems with the hard labor Yeats describes in "Adam's Curse": "A line will take us hours maybe;/Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,/Our stitching and unstitching has been naught."
My argument is not that Yeats worked on his poems while O'Hara didn't. No one could create a poem as prosodically laid back and yet moving as "The Day Lady Died" without skill. The real difference between the disciplined art that raises Yeats's personal recollections in, say, "Among School Children" to a level above the ordinary, and the clever tone and pacing that persuades us that "The Day Lady Died" is ordinary, seems to be a difference of purpose. What do you want poetry to do? What do you think poetry is for? Those are questions, of course, that people who care about poetry have to answer for themselves. It's no good trying to wean people away from their tastes. Quarreling about what poetry should or shouldn't be usually ends up with poets hotly defending their own brand of the product.
Poetry, as Marianne Moore affirmed, is after all personal, yet it must in some sense be universal, too. And even for poets, there are times when you need poetry and times when you don't. Some months ago, I stumbled into a situation that surprised me by perfectly matching a particular poem with a particular occasion. The occasion was the registry office wedding of my Jewish nephew, Ivan, whose mother, my sister-in-law, had been battling for many months with terminal cancer. There were no Christian believers present, and yet Ivan's South Korean bride (a Buddhist) had asked me to complete the ceremony by reading aloud the final passage of T.S. Eliot's "Little Gidding." Knowing the passage well, I had only glanced at the text before I stood up to read. It must have been the sound of the words as I read them—as Eliot himself put it, every word "Taking its place to support the others" and every phrase in "complete consort dancing together"—that, to my amazement, choked me with tears. I might have broken down altogether had I not remembered, even as I read Eliot's words, those stoic lines from Yeats's "Lapis Lazuli": "[Actors who are] worthy their prominent part in the play,/Do not break up their lines to weep." So I read from "Little Gidding" as if understanding it for the first time—almost as if the lines were inevitable and had come to me in a dream:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always.
The power of such lines can never be explained by metrical analysis or by counting end-rhymes (although rhymes play subtly throughout the passage), and any intellectual "meaning" a conscientious critic or teacher might tease out of them at such a time would be superfluous. The best poetry—great poetry—happens when sound, rhythm, and image bring about a mysterious feeling of wholeness that somehow draws mind, body, and spirit together into what both Yeats and Eliot envisioned as a unified dance. What we call "the power of the word" is really a pattern of words in a rhythm originating in heartbeat and footfall. Language, like the human mind, consists of a conscious and an unconscious element, and what "real" poetry can do, even when it looks like prose on the page, is to reproduce the hidden music we are all born hearing but lose as we grow up. The danger today lies in pursuing novelty beyond a point of no return, of technically "making it new" until we no longer hear anything but the virtual pulse of a spoiled, over-mechanized civilization that is destroying its childhood as it ages, boasting the while of its progress.
Born in Cambridge, England, Anne Stevenson moved between the United States and the United Kingdom numerous times during the first half of her life. While she considers herself an American, Stevenson qualifies her status: “I belong to an America which no longer really exists.” Since 1962 she has lived mainly...