All in the Timing
In the January 2012 issue of Poetry, poems from across the years toy with time. Like unreliable escalators, they slow us down only to speed us up, taking us for startling rides.
In his translation of Martial’s elegy for a scribe, David Ferry provides a first sentence as long as the scribe’s life was short:
He, who had been the one to whom I had
Recited my poems and then he wrote them down
With his faithful scribal hand for which already
He was well known and had been justly praised,
Demetrius has died. He lived to be
Fifteen years old, and after that four summers.
After we wander through this complex of grammar (veering into pluperfect and then retreating to simple past and all the while tracking a series of events—recitation, transcription, and praise of transcription), we finally hit upon the name of the mourned. Why does the speaker delay mentioning “Demetrius”? Is it that he can’t bear to utter the name? By deferring his clarification, is he enabling himself to believe—if only for the length of this lengthy sentence—that Demetrius has not actually died?
While grammatically simpler than his first, Ferry’s second sentence is just as temporally complicated. We learn that Demetrius was fifteen years old. Then the speaker extends his life through a peculiar locution (“after that four summers”). What’s the effect of this wording? It’s as though we have caught the speaker correcting himself in the very act of counting—as though he is painstakingly detailing his memories even as he writes. His emotions, like his wish for Demetrius’s survival, become all the more immediate.
This issue of Poetry involves time travel of another sort: in honor of the magazine’s hundredth birthday, V. Penelope Pelizzon has sniffed through the archives in search of strong poems from other eras. One such work, like the Martial elegy, operates in slow motion: “Like an age / The hours are long tonight,” writes Ridgely Torrence, and he stretches out “The Bird and the Tree” (1915) accordingly. His intricate, shifting rhyme scheme slows our progression through the poem, reminding us of old sounds with each new line. He sometimes even recycles rhyme words:
No use to reek with reddened sweat,
No use to whimper and to sweat.
They’ve got the rope; they’ve got the guns,
They’ve got the courage and the guns;
But silence, inch by inch, is there,
And the right limb for a lynch is there. . . .
Note the density of repetition in this selection: twice he writes “no use to,” “sweat,” and “the guns”; three times he says “they’ve got.” How do these echoes influence your reading experience? They might grant a sense of entrapment that matches the poem’s subject, and its key image: “Blackbird, blackbird in the cage.”
Pelizzon also dug up Marion Strobel’s “Snow.” This 1939 poem appears to freeze time not merely through sound repetitions, but also through its description of literal stillness:
The mouths of cannon turn a silent “O”
Up to this miracle of snow.
Our hands are idle, our commander mute,
The trigger is not cocked to shoot.
This manifesto that no man can make,
This lazy ﬂake on falling ﬂake
Withholds our orders and the cannon’s speech:
The snow smokes on the pin and breech.
All is quiet on Strobel’s front; no man orders and no cannon fires. Yet by emphasizing lack of activity, the poet reminds us of its possibility. Indeed, the poem’s only victims of violence are the snowflakes themselves—instrument of peace that smoke when they land on the cannon. These guns have not been still for long.
Notice the truncated meter of each couplet’s second line, which limps along on four feet instead of five. What’s the purpose of this uneven rhythm? Perhaps it enhances the poem’s sense of unease, and its concern with moments ending too soon.
A far more recent poem—Louise Glück’s “A Summer Garden”—likewise paints a complicated stasis. Looking at a photograph of her mother, she observes that “dogs / were sleeping at her feet,” and “time was also sleeping, / calm and unmoving as in all photographs.” If time sleeps, has it stopped, or does it continue, or does it hover in an in-between state? Gluck’s use of the imperfect—“shining,” “sleeping,” “sleeping” again, “unmoving”—grants the impression of a scene still setting itself, where time might yet awaken. And indeed, she begins to see the image change: “The sun moved lower in the sky, the shadows lengthened and darkened.”
Cleaning the photo, she notes, “the more dust I removed, the more these shadows grew.” The more clearly she sees the stopped instant, the more she recognizes that it hasn’t stopped at all. Her poem acts out this paradox—she concludes by narrating the scene from her mother’s perspective, and filling the frame with movement:
The planes passed back and forth, bound
for Rome and Paris — you couldn’t get there
unless you ﬂew over the park. Everything
must pass through, nothing can stop—
Could you say the same about poetry? Can poems ever “stop”? How effective are techniques like Ferry’s and Torrence’s at slowing us down? Or might the techniques’ power lie in their failure to do so?