March” is full of wild music—poncho/banjo, witty/insincerity, yodel/ daffodil, hauteur/water-mutter, oxen/equinox, did/grid—what about that particular month elicits these ebullient rhymes?

Cannily I refuse the pyrrhic tactic here, appealing to March’s rum- bustible reputation, insofar as then I’d have to explain why this poem doesn’t go out like a lamb. The fault is in myself and not my rain hats. I remember James Merrill once suggested I might stop banging the casseroles; he declined he’d ever say such a thing; I understood him to be speaking about style, not content. He did once write, a little more gently if no less pointedly, that one might want to “resist the temptation to play Mozart in transcriptions by Liszt.” I didn’t understand that at the time. A quarter-century later I understand, and find myself unregenerate. I have a weakness for acoustical bombast. I do understand that one person’s luna-moth-in-a-banjo may be another person’s percussion-hammer-in-an-ear-trumpet.

Does the luna moth caught in the banjo create any music of its own?

But seriously: respecting “music” in poetry—I mean prosodic and echoic effects of the managed kind—do I think these are not just famous features of an historically decorative art, but rather limbic torsion-wrenches crucially applied to the threads of felt thought throughout the monkey house generally, the nature of which may be known and explored first and best in verse? — that however these implements may be misplaced or intentionally and reasonably declined by individual practitioners, they’ll always remain available, because both their employment in hand and their traction in the heart are prefigured in our evolutionary nature? That’s what I think.

Where is the Quad?

There was once a man who said “God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there’s no-one about in the Quad.”
              — Ronald Knox

Not that Quad, but the tree-lined one existing only as observed on college campuses in that gong-tormented season when pheromone trumps faculty, and frisbees clog the atmosphere, sophomores molt, and all that.

In what ways are boys “such oxen,” and what happens to them in spring- time (the oxen as well as the boys)?

I think that rather than appealing to the obvious Darwinian metaphors, cave art, Flintstone atavisms, etc., I’ll invoke spacemen, landing, as they will, on the Quad. Would the Arcturans think that boys are like oxen? Not necessarily at first, but once they got to know the girls.

Anaerobe” gets its title and subject matter from microbial organisms that don’t require oxygen to exist. The poem explicitly traces the process of evolution, with images of gill slits, sharks, tubeworms, and time. How has the speaker of the poem been “foreknown,” and what is the mechanism by which he has “dived /down dawnless /microbial snows?”

That poem is really Michael Collier’s, who once entranced me with a description of his descent in an Alvin deep-sea submersible, under the scientific direction of his (and my) friend, the oceanographer John Delaney. That “snowy” image—straight and literal, from his experience. Delaney has done much of the pioneering research on the geology, chemistry, and ecology of deep thermal vents—“black smokers,” as they’re called — off the Northwest coast. The notion of an archaic biology independent of solar support — intimations of the beginnings of things—those resonances came by way of Michael’s story, subsequently informed in the course of a short trip with John aboard a University of Washington research vessel. Thanks Michael, thanks John!

How might disease (“swollen tonsils”) constitute part of the evolutionary movement described here? Is there a sense, given the progression of the poem, in which time only exists through its embodiment in individual moral creatures?

I’m not sure how to respond to these thoughts. I was thinking less of disease than of metamorphosis, according to the Darwinian dream, which explicitly denies foreknowledge, but nevertheless wakes up in us, speaking English. How moral creatures might rise to the surface of such a dream—that would be a poem! I’ll be technically ready in ten years, and intellectually ready never.

You’ve written of quarks and texts before:

                                          Eclectic quarks
                                           a dish collects
                                           to parse into
                                           initial text —
                                           exotic sky! —

The quotation is from “Physics” in your 1985 book, Orrery. Does this indicate a long-standing interest in quarks? “Words Are the Sum” refers to “so-called quarks.” Is there skepticism here about scientific terminology, or physics itself?

I’d say I feel for quarks about as I feel for quaggas, but less. I could tell a quagga from a horse chestnut, but they’re of different kinds: the buckeye is for my pocket, in a tactile, thing-ish sense; my quagga’s just a word, in the catnip sense. I feel the same way about blancmange and hyrax. It’s maybe more than just interesting that Murray Gell-Mann borrowed his quarks from Joyce. He’s a literary man, a polymath genius, a cavalier in two cultures. It seems to me that from a tonal perspective, the word requests just that degree of gravitas that I or the duck it imitates may be inclined to accord it. As for the objective reality of mathematically inferential spooky objects—absolutely presumed by many scientists, no doubt dismissed as social constructs by some literary critics down the hall—I prefer the middle way of “The Blind Men and the Elephant.”

I cheer physics (speaking of twentieth-century physics, not screws and inclined planes) much as I cheer Chartres, especially the stained glass. I accept that my mind was designed for cracking nuts in the Old Stone Age, not quantum or cosmological paradoxes at inhuman scales. This is our creation story, weird and beautiful. I believe in quarks and the Big Bang and all the rest of it, on Sunday. Still, I sometimes remember that there have been other stories, extravagant, childish, or charmingly wrong in retrospect, and I think of the cockroaches in my circuit breaker box, and their chances of understanding the final paradigm there, and I feel like the dreamer who suspects he’s dreaming. When I read Stephen Hawking, current incarnation of the Pythian Oracle, making fun of the shaman who suggests it’s Turtles All the Way Down, and then offering his own best suggestion that it’s Particles All the Way Down — then I re-read “The Blind Men and the Elephant.”

How is the sudden blossoming of sound toward the middle of “Words Are the Sum” related to the “shimmery tangle,” the “dervishly complex” sets of words we have at our disposal?

I was thinking about the human shape as a vortex, a plume of matter, and how the atoms which constitute us don’t “wear man’s smudge or share man’s smell” when they move on to other deportments, any more than do the letters in our words. But the words themselves—they do. Hence, the “sum over histories” idea. Atoms and letters are wiped clean with each new use; words accrue associative meaning. Anyway, from an audible standpoint, the formal conceit that permitted the poem was the rhyming elaborations of the five vowels: all the long ones in part one, all the short ones in part two.

The molecules of which we are made will eventually be recycled by nature. If, as the poem says, “words are the sum of their histories,” what is the sum of individual human histories? The poem asks: “How can we not expect not less but hellish/Much more than to mean what we say?” Does the poem answer its own question in some way?

You know, the expression “sum over histories” comes from Richard Feynman’s refinements in quantum theory. I frame no hypotheses regarding Feynman or any serious science, especially as uttered in num- bers. I am perfectly innocent of this kind of thing. But the notion that a particle has a position and a velocity, and that these might be understood as a sum over histories, makes common sense to me. It would be true of a quarter or a buckeye in my pocket, and, more interestingly, of all the words in the lexicon. I often think of Robert Graves’s brilliant poem, “The Cool Web.” Denotative meanings are often treated like LEGO blocks, snapped together into data-bearing sentences. But the lexical connotations ripple out across the associative web altogether unpredictably, construed as a sum over all the histories the word has known, as modified on the human tongue in count- less unique circumstances. So: in speaking them, we can’t help but say not only less than what we mean, given the famous “limitations of language,” but — look at the web quivering over the horizon into etymological invisibility! — at the same time and more so, more than any speaker could ever know. Try to predict all emotional resonances resultant when two words are brought into proximity, wheezes Dr. Complexity; now try three—you see how it is. It’s a combinatorial problem, perfectly unmanageable. Absent prediction, one simply has to try the experiment, and see how it shivers out. For this indeterminacy, I conjured electrochemical discharge in a mess of stinging jellyfish. Denotation: snapping LEGO blocks. Connotation: tossing a bouquet of enormous, dripping, tentacled Portuguese Men of War into a copper pot. I’m not sure “shimmery tangle” quite gets it.

The poem’s last word is “love.” We were put in mind of Auden’s struggling with the last line of his famous, and (in his lifetime) suppressed “September 1, 1939”: “We must love one another or die.” “We must love one another and die.” The fulcrum, in both poems, seems to be hope. Any thoughts on this?

I suppose I think what others have thought, that the first version spoke a commonplace: we are mayflies. The second version, the sort of miracle revision one could hardly in cold blood think one’s way to, rattles our bones and frightens the future. I love the line, but the love of which I think I was thinking at the time was Frost’s, in my favorite essay, “The Figure a Poem Makes.” Frost speculates of poetry that its “figure is the same as for love.” Forty years ago that struck me as a handsome poeticism; in the intervening years I’ve come to understand he meant it. So, hope.

Originally Published: December 4th, 2012

Poet Richard Kenney was born in 1948 in Glens Falls, New York and earned a BA from Dartmouth College. His first collection of poetry, The Evolution of the Flightless Bird (1984), received the Yale Younger Poets Prize. The book’s formal ambitiousness and technical facility, including an extended sonnet sequence, presaged...

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  1. December 11, 2012

    Richard Kenney writes prose the way I would like to see more people write prose. Poetically. He doesn't swallow wholeheartedly (like most of us) the Western tradition of linear clarity as a necessary value to prose! To the future! *Just wait until the standard form of our texts start to become more three-dimensional--and I mean this literally.