All of us who read poetry spend a lot of our time re-reading. Whether it’s a poem we’re new to or one we’ve known for years, the impact changes from one reading to the next–something comes clear that wasn’t, it means something different to us at different times in our own lives, it thickens as we know more of the historical context, or look up a word or an allusion, see a pattern we’d missed. Sometimes it thins as we realize it’s all dazzling surface, no depth. Sometimes it’s just incremental changes, but sometimes it’s a real shift from something we disliked to something we find deeply moving.
One of the most significant examples for me was Wallace Stevens’ poetry. I loved the words and images, but I could not find a way in, a way to take hold. I kept reading for the surface beauty, and because all my teachers said he was a great poet. Eventually something clicked, I started to see and hear them as whole poems, and he became one of my central poets. I never understood why everyone assigned W. C. Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” until I knew the historical context of imagism and free verse lines. I loved the music and beauty of his poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” without paying much attention to what it was saying, the way I listened to rock songs, until someone mentioned it was about a man asking for his wife’s forgiveness. Then I liked it even more, for a few minutes, until I re-read the poem and discovered that the speaker ends up forgiving himself.
I liked but didn’t sense the power of Dickinson’s poems until I read them without the reductive punctuation that had been added by editors. And just last week I came to see how much deeper one of Whitman’s short poems, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” is than I had ever thought when I did a little discussion with the poet Kevin Prufer and he drew an illuminating diagram of it.
I mention him specifically because he’ll be a guest at next week’s Fridays at 4, May 6th, and we’ll be talking about something similar.
I’d love to know what poems and poets you changed your mind about as you read, and why. Please post the examples here, and plan to bring them to this week’s Fridays at 4, April 29th. I’ll send the zoom link Friday morning.
#465 (with added editorial punctuation)
I heard a fly buzz when I died;
The stillness round my form
Was like the stillness in the air
Between the heaves of storm.
The eyes beside had wrung them dry,
And breaths were gathering sure
For that last onset, when the king
Be witnessed in his power.
I willed away my keepsakes, signed away
What portion of me I
could make assignable–and then
There interposed a fly,
With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz,
Between the light and me;
And then the windows failed, and then
I could not see to see.
#465 (as Dickinson wrote it)
I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –
The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –
I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portions of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –
With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –
THE RED WHEELBARROW
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Marvin Bell, from his essay “Noun/ Object/ Image,” in Old Snow Just Melting:
“So much depends,” he writes, “upon a red wheel/ barrow,” and then says nothing about what depends upon it. The poem argues for Imagism, but its method is rhetorical; the effect of the poem depends on the rhetorical beginning of its only sentence and on those expectations which it may thereby establish and frustrate. From the frustration itself arises the point to be made. In other words, though one could argue the propriety and advantages of a red wheelbarrow, it could have been something else.”