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.”
Has torn my mind apart recurrently every time I reread it, for decades. The sweet heart of patriarchal fascism. Which I grew up in.
Does that mean you’ve changed your mind about how you read it over time?
I spent a long time not getting and not liking Rilke, not understanding what all the fuss was about. This is a poet? This is a voice?
Well, I couldn’t read him in German, or hear him in Bly or anybody else.
Mark Wunderlich led me to Stephen Mitchell’s translations of Rilke into an English voice.
Rilke’s Elegy addressed to Marina Tsvetaeva (so there was a personal connection for me) while he was living his last year with leukemia, in the spring of 1926, in April, in May is 1 1/4 pages of long lines. Needn’t read all of it . . . maybe just the first dozen lines, ending at “lament”?
to Marina Tsvetayeva-Efron (by Rainer Maria Rilke in German, translated by Stephen Mitchell)
Oh the losses into the All, Marina, the stars that are falling!
We can’t make it larger, wherever we fling ourselves, to whatever
star we may go! In the Whole, all things are already numbered.
So when anyone falls, the perfect sum is not lessened.
Whoever lets go in his fall, dives into the source and is healed.
Is all of life then a game, a meaningless fluctuation
of sameness, nowhere a name, nowhere a lasting achievement?
Waves, Marina, we are ocean! Depths, Marina, we are sky.
Earth, Marina, we are earth, a thousand times April, like larks
that a song bursting out of them flings into invisible heights.
We being it as joy, and already it wholly exceeds us,
suddenly the force of our weight bends the song down to lament.
Yet, isn’t lament really a younger, descending joy?
Even the gods below want to be praised, Marina.
So innocent are gods, they listen for praise like children.
Praising, my dearest—let us be lavish with praise.
Nothing really belongs to us. We put our hands lightly around
the necks of unbroken flowers. I saw it on the Nile, in Kom Ombo,
Just so, Marina, the kings offer up the gifts they renounce.
As angels draw marks as a signal on the doors of those to be saved,
we, though we seem to be tender, stop and touch this or that.
Ah, how remote already, how inattentive, Marina,
even in our innermost presence. Signalers: nothing more.
This silent commerce, when life is no longer willing
to endure one of our kind, when it seizes him in its grip,
avenges itself, kills. For the fact that its strength can kill
was plain to us all from its delicacy and restraint
and from the curious power that transforms us from living beings
into survivors. Non-being. Do you remember how often
a blind command would carry us through the icy
waiting-room of new birth? . . . Us?—a body of eyes
under numberless lids, refusing. Carried the down-
thrown heart in our breast, the hears of a whole generation.
To a goal as welcome as the South is for migrating birds,
it carried the soaring image and plan of our transformation.
Lovers were not, Marina, are not permitted to know
destruction so deeply. Must be as if they were new.
Only their grave is old, only it ponders and darkens
under the sobbing tree, remembering all that has been.
Only their grave collapses; they are supple as reeds;
what bends them too far, rounds them into rich garlands.
How they blow about in the May wind! From the midst of the Ever.
in which you breath and surmise, the moment has shut them out.
(Oh how I understand you, female flower on the same
Imperishable stalk. How wildly I scatter myself into the night air
that in a moment will touch you.) The gods long ago
learned to dissemble halves. We, drawn into the cycle,
filled ourselves out to the whole, like the disk of the moon.
Even in the time of waning, in the weeks of our gradual change,
nothing could ever again help us to fulfillment, except
our own solitary course over the sleepless landscape.
Same for me, except that the first translation that connected me was David Young’s. Then Mitchell’s, and more recently Edward Snow’s. A friend of mine found Gary Miranda’s version helpful. Good translations are crucial if you don’t know the original–and I don’t.