As this blog still gets a steady stream of views, it seems worth noting that I now post at resistingtheintelligence, primarily though not exclusively about poetry.
Close attention to the meter in Emily Dickinson’s “When Night is almost done – “ reveals a tension between the meaning of the words and the mood of the rhythm. First, the poem (#347):
When Night is almost done –
And Sunrise grows so near
That we can touch the Spaces –
It’s time to smooth the Hair –
And get the Dimples ready –
And wonder we could care
For that old – faded Midnight –
That frightened – but an Hour –
The base meter of the poem is iambic trimeter – lines 1, 4, and 6 are all follow this meter perfectly. There are a few substitutions in the first six lines – line 2 has a spondee for its second foot (-rise grows), and lines 3 and 5 end with amphibrachs rather than iambs – but mostly she follows the meter closely in the opening lines. In the closing lines, however, Dickinson engages in quite daring metrical variation, and it’s very successful.
Before I get to that, however, I’d like to make some preliminary comments on other formal aspects of the poem. There is an obvious break-point in the poem, the stanza break, and it separates logically two halves of the poem. The first stanza focuses on the end of night and the coming sunrise, while the second stanza turns attention to the ability of night to frighten. This is a logical division, but other aspects of the poem fight against it. Dickinson uses off rhyme within stanzas (near/Hair; care/Hour), but lines 4 and 6 have perfect rhyme (Hair/care). Thus, even though there is a stanza break separating them, there is a close connection between lines 4 and 6. This creates the sense that the entire portion of the poem, from lines 2 to halfway through line 7, is a single entity separate from the rest. The remainder then looks like this:
When Night is almost done –
– faded Midnight –
That frightened – but an Hour –
Here we have together all the portion of the poem dealing with the night and its effects. They create an envelope, into which the portion about the sunrise is inserted. For me, at least, this suggests something less essential about the inserted portion. The fact that the night forms an envelope in this fashion keeps our attention focused there, and makes it the aspect of the poem that most lingers. Against this, the sunrise seems of secondary importance.
This sense is, I think, amplified by the metrical variations in the final two lines. Here’s a breakdown of the stress patterns (u = unstressed, – = stressed):
Line 7: u u – – u – –
Line 8: u – u u u –
I’m a bit uncertain about how to break down the feet in these lines. The base of the poem is iambic, which makes me want to read it this way:
Line 7: u u / – – / u – – [pyrrhic, spondee, cretic]
Line 8: u – / u u / u – [iamb, pyrrhic, iamb]
However, both lines contain a dash after the third syllable, and this forced pause leads to a competing inclination to read the lines as each opening with trisyllabic feet:
Line 7: u u – / – u / – – [anapest, trochee, spondee]
Line 8: u – u / u u – [amphibrach, anapest]
I am not sure which reading to choose, though I lean toward the first. In any case, the four stresses in line 7 really slow the line down, especially since they are bunched into a five-syllable span. This breaks up the relatively smooth flow of the preceding five lines, and dims the brightness of the sunrise for the transition back to night.
Then comes the last line, which is just masterful. The presence of only two stresses makes the line seem as if it should be really light. This complements the surface meaning of the words “that frightened but an hour.” They make the line go quickly, as the fright went quickly. But – there are the dashes. Read the line without the dashes, and it is as I just described, light, springy, easy. The first dash, however, inserts a pause right in the middle of its quickest portion (the pyrrhic), more or less eliminating the effect of having a pyrrhic there at all. The second dash, at the end of the line, similarly makes the line heavier. Instead of the satisfaction of a full stop (as one would expect at the end of a light, quick line), the dash forces us to linger with the night and the fright it brings.
The form of Dickinson’s poem thus fights with itself. On the surface, it seems to follow the literal meaning of the words, as seen in the stanza break and the meter, abstractly considered. However, the placement of the dashes and the rhyme scheme contest this obvious reading, showing a darker undercurrent to the poem. They resist the easy solution to the troubles of night that the poems appears to offer – even in the light, the night lingers.
Why be self-reliant? Emerson offers an aesthetic justification in “Behavior”: lack of self-possession is ugly, and painfully so.
Those who are not self-possessed, obtrude, and pain us. Some men appear to feel that they belong to a Pariah caste. They fear to offend, they bend and apologize, and walk through life with a timid step. (1046)
There is a tone to our actions, and two instances of what is nominally the same action may be unmistakably distinguished by their possessing distinct tones. The one acts with assurance, the other with apology, and though the act alone be of equal value in each, we are willing followers of the former, and detest the latter.
One would say, that the persuasion of their speech is not in what they say, – or that men do not convince by their argument, – but by their personality, by who they are, and what they said and did heretofore. (1048)
One means by which such a tone is generated is through manners, etiquette – I am convinced Emerson would have named this essay “Manners” had he not already published an essay by that name in Essays: Second Series. Self-reliance stands opposed to conformity, but nonconformity here does not mean reckless abandonment of etiquette, that powerful creator of forms. Forms are requisite for expression – they are constraints only when they are imposed upon the content.
An illustration of the point may be found in poetry. Paul Fussell, in his book requisite for all readers of poetry (Poetic Meter & Poetic Form), notes that what makes poems poetic is their density: that each element may be seen to contribute to the meaning, that none are tacked on or arbitrary. If a poem contains stanza divisions, those divisions must matter. If a poem has a meter, that meter must bubble up out of the poem’s content, and prove itself worthy of it. &c.
So too actions. One can not simply add form, manners, tone to action arbitrarily. Actions require density. Or, better, persons require density.
And you cannot rightly train one to an air and manner, except by making him the kind of man of whom that manner is the natural expression. Nature forever puts a premium on reality. What is done for effect, is seen to be done for effect; what is done for love, is felt to be done for love. (1047)
No more than one can write a poem in iambic pentameter whose thought does not so move, can one cultivate a person’s appearance who remains barbaric underneath. The barbarism will show through.
One of the aesthetic markers of self-reliance – I note in passing a confidence between Emerson and Nietzsche on this point – is a mistrust of too much giving grounds. One need only watch a contemporary discussion between disputants each of whom is concerned to display his rationality, his cautiousness, his consideration of all sides, his charity to opponents to be disgusted by the ugliness of a too great love of the appearance of rationality.
Emerson noted this opposition in grand style in his essay on “Self-Reliance”:
I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation. (262)
It is important, however, so he reiterates here, with an interesting variation:
Self-reliance is the basis of behavior, as it is the guaranty that the powers are not squandered in too much demonstration. In this country, where school education is universal, we have a superficial culture, and a profusion of reading and writing and expression. We parade our nobilities in poems and orations, instead of working them up into happiness. (1048)
In this expression of the point, Emerson ties it to the thought that poetry might profitably disappear – not his first time having entertained such a thought. He mistrusts that poetry (and other writing) that becomes a show of nobility, often at the expense of the enacting of that nobility. Were this form of poetry to disappear, what is poetic in it would nonetheless remain: “when a man does not write his poetry, it escapes by other vents through him […] clings to his form and manners…” (1048)
This disappearance of poetry is, moreover, annexed to a consideration of happiness: there is something sickly, unhappy, about a person who sacrifices happiness to poetizing. As a person possessive of at least pretensions to such poetizing, this thought is interesting to and useful for me. Ought I not to write, in favor of other forms of expression? I do not think so, and do not believe that I am merely gratifying myself in so thinking. What this suggests to me instead is that Emerson places a priority first on happiness (by which I do not believe he means that sloppy self-content that today sometimes carries the name). Once this is secured, it may overflow into poetry.
The requirement is that poetry be a product of joy, of healthful morning hours. If such joy be its fount, it will adopt poetic bearing of its own accord, and wear it regally. If not, all the cultivation of form imposed upon it will not protect forever the impostor.
It is very rare for an essay by Emerson to insist on a single point without a countermovement. Let whatever have its say, some opponent also demands a voice, and Emerson grants it. Yet in his essay on “Power”, Emerson defers this movement to later chapters of The Conduct of Life.
I have not forgotten that there are sublime considerations which limit the value of talent and superficial success. We can easily overpraise the vulgar hero. There are sources on which we have not drawn. I know what I abstain from. I adjourn what I have to say on this topic to the chapters on Culture and Worship. (985)
It is telling that Emerson imposes this delay on himself. He has just been defending the fundamental role of power in human life. Life itself he defines as the search for power, and immediately connects this to a favorite theme: selectivity. Genius is selective, Emerson teaches again and again. This may be applied to life as the search for power, for such life takes events as the ore in which power is found, that is, as something to be sifted. “He can well afford to let events and possessions, and the breath of the body go, if their value has been added to him in the shape of power.” (971)
Emerson’s picture of power is not a humanized one. He is not playing games with the word, making it mean something softer, lighter, than in a generic context it conveys. No, power is power, the ability to control and dominate, to subject some material – be it inert or animate, animal or human – to one’s will. Given the choice between power and ethics, Emerson will take power – “if it be only a question between the most civil and the most forcible, I lean to the last” (977) – and he considers seriously the worry that “conscience [is] not good for hands and legs.” (978)
Nor does Emerson see such a reliance on power as harmful. If “this power, to be sure, is not clothed in satin,” nonetheless “it brings its own antidote.” (976) The solution to the problems power raises is more power, of a different sort – counterbalancing power. Politics, with its brute clash of forces, becomes a model of self-reliance writ large: it is not goodness, conformity to civil standards, that makes for sustainable politics. It is that each comes “with a mind made up to desperate extremities.” (975) This paragraph, by the by, is a strong plank in the case for seeing Emersonian self-reliance as it must be seen: as a form of egotism.
Power is fundamental. It is because power is fundamental that Emerson defers the coming movement. To be sure, Emerson hints at it in the essay. “Physical force has no value, where there is nothing else.” (980) But Emerson cannot disparage physical force, for without it, nothing else has value. Emerson is clear where value lies:
Everything good in nature and the world is in that moment of transition, when the swarthy juices still flow plentifully from nature, but their astringency or acridity is got out by ethics and humanity. (980)
The value of power lies in its ability to be directed, when it is not an end in itself, but put toward some aim. The power, however, comes first. The aim without the power is “idle seeing,” and accounts for nothing. (982) Ethics and humanity without power leaves only tamed and neutered animals – that is why Emerson chooses the forcible over the civil. Emerson favors the moment of transition precisely because power is preserved in it. When the transition is complete, all that remains is undiluted ethics – conformity. Then brute power is again required.
Emerson draws from these views on power a consequence for the artist. As someone who has recently begun writing poetry (again, if my horrid teen years are to be counted), I found the following passage of especial significance:
The triumphs of peace have been in some proximity to war. Whilst the hand was still familiar with the sword-hilt, whilst the habits of the camp were still visible in the port and complexion of the gentleman, his intellectual power culminated: the compression and tension of these stern conditions is a training for the finest and softest arts, and can rarely be compensated in tranquil times, except by some analogous vigor drawn from occupations as hardy as war. (980)
Aside from my pet interest in the connection between Emerson and Nietzsche – who, familiar with Nietzsche, can fail to see how the German on so many occasions rewrote this very passage? – the passage is interesting for treating fine arts and intellectual endeavors as only one step removed from war, and as degenerate when further removed. Just as in politics and business, the material side of life, where self-interest and the crudest egotism rules, so also in poetry and painting, power is fundamental.
That origination of art in power has an interesting consequence:
The friction in nature is so enormous that we cannot spare any power. It is not question to express our thought, to elect our way, but to overcome resistances of the medium and material in everything we do. (984)
Art is not about expression. How many turn to poetry or other arts to express themselves, or to express a message about society, or… – in any case, to express something! And how much terrible, unreadable poetry results! What results from such endeavors is a chaos of words held together only by their meaning, a distended organization of unrecognizable shape.
This because art – as all else – is about power, is about overcoming the “resistances of the medium and material.” It is not about expression, not even about beauty. It is, in the case of poetry, about dominating words, forcing them into position, making them do the work the poet commands. (Vladimir Nabokov once said, “My characters are galley slaves.” He knew.*) There is resistance imposed by meter, by the sounds of words, by the conventions of form – all of which require power to be overcome. It is in that overcoming that the successes of poetry lie.
[*Nabokov also, to my great surprise, appears to have found Emerson’s poetry “delightful.” I can’t say I’m displeased.]
This is not to say that expression and beauty have no role. It is just: their role is secondary. They are sources of constraints. Not only must meter be obeyed (and in meter-lacking verse other constraints take over this role), but meaning must be conveyed. Thus the resistance of the medium increases. Not only must meter be obeyed and meaning be conveyed, but the result must be beautiful. The resistance of the medium becomes nearly impervious to the poet’s effort.
I have permitted myself to write the above not just because it is, I believe, true to Emerson, but because it corresponds with my own experience. I can certainly not claim a single pure success in what I have written so far, except perhaps in an isolated line here or there, but the joy I have found in writing has not come from expression, but from the thrill that comes at each moment that the material yields even a little, at each correct placement of a single word. No such joy attends the successful expression of an idea – every half-baked line of mine expresses something – and I would banish meaning from my poetry if I would not thereby lose a rich source of friction, and hence a rich source, eventually, of joy.
This realization I came to before I read Emerson’s essay and its striking claims. As I wrote in my journal, earlier in the day: “Poetry: a struggle for power over words, words that fight back.”
[In this post, I shall talk about the following poems: “So I said I am Ezra” (“Ezra”); “Coming to Sumer” (“Sumer”); “In the wind my rescue is” (“Rescue”); “I came upon a plateau” (“Plateau”). Some may be found online, but sadly not all. All are contained in this collection.]
Ammons, I am noticing, is pulled by the wind and the sea, and sinks into sand. He cannot long avoid them. Even when his attention turns to stones, as in “Coming to Sumer” and “In the wind my rescue is”, the stones are “water modeled sand molded stones” (“Rescue”)—products of the sand and the sea. These forces are not necessarily distinct. Wind, sea, and sand intertwine in the final four lines of “So I said I am Ezra”, and Ammons everywhere finds what is fluid in dust, sand, and wind: “in whorls of it” (it = wind, “Rescue”), “dark whirls of dust” (“Plateau”), “lake of sand” (“Plateau”). His poetic narrators exist in an uneasy tension with these elements and forces.
What is this tension? I hesitate to consign Ammons’ poems (of which I have read but few) to depicting a single relationship. There is nonetheless a pattern emerging, which I may point out. The wind and sea, dust and sand, have a humbling effect. They show up human pretensions for what they are. Foremost among these pretensions is that of identity: declarations of oneself are swept away, ripped away, and individuality vanishes.
Thus, in “So I said I am Ezra”, the narrator’s repeated self-declarations are “whipped” by the wind and “swallowed up” by the ocean, until it reaches the point where Ezra himself “falls out of being”—and does so by becoming “like a drift of sand / and splashed among the windy oats / that clutch the dunes / of unremembered seas”—i.e., by becoming like just those parts of nature that took from him his voice. (The phrase “dust to dust” comes to mind—it seems to be an undercurrent of these poems.) Dissolution follows his unheeded, vain insistences upon himself.
So, too, in “I came upon a plateau”. The narrator, here unnamed—though it is tempting to see him as Ezra, returned, or in a different aspect—makes his declaration on a plateau surrounded by “a circle of peaks”. These are his observers. To them, or at least before them, he cries, “spare me man’s redundancy”—then, “putting on bright clothes / sat down in the bright orthodoxy.” Already he is somewhat ridiculous—as if bright colors were any solution to the inexorable problem that there is nothing new under the sun, that all of humanity is redundant. The narrator is brought to this realization by a white snake, upon seeing which he, “succumbing in the still ecstasy”, says, “this use is colorless”. In what follows in the poem, color is never invoked, only “dark whirls of dust”. This colorlessness of nature is simpler but more powerful and more lasting than the narrator’s “bright colors”, which come to seem more and more a tastelessly gaudy display. (How strange that nature, in which values and “taste” are unknown, should be the profoundest revealer of poor taste!)
Whereas, in “So I said I am Ezra”, Ezra went unheeded, the narrator of this poem receives a response. “The peaks coughing bouldered / laughter shook to pieces”. His observers mock him. Meanwhile, the snake sloughs off, as if it were nothing, the skin that so overpowered the narrator. I am not so sure this response really differs from the lack of response in the earlier poem—mockery and indifference are cousins, if not twins.
What emerges is a picture of nature next to which our insistences on our own identity come to seem absurd, comic in their futility. Is this picture bleak? I cannot decide. At one moment it devastates me, by bringing home what I already suspect: that life, held out next to nature, is a comedic error, a foolish enterprise. But, at the next, I may agree with the narrator of yet another poem, that “in the wind my rescue is / in whorls of it”.