Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Technical Appreciation of Poetry, For Example in Frost's "Design"

The last post and the Sept. 20, 2009, one on Emily Dickinson address the technical side of poetry in terms of versification, metrics, imagery, expectation, and surprise. It is tempting to choose a complex poem to illustrate all the different ways that word choice, sentence structure, imagery, figurative language and even punctuation are used by poets as rich resources of expression and suggestion. Instead I’ll choose a “simple one” to show a few examples.

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth—
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning, right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth—
A snow-drop spider, a flower like froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.
(“Design” by Robert Frost)

Before analyzing the color symbolism, metaphors, and nature imagery, it is worth noting how the poem begins in a familiar, almost offhand, voice, “I found,” suggesting a casual encounter on a roadside walk. Yet the language becomes increasingly formal as the poem goes on until we get to words like “kindred” and “thither” in the last few lines. Is this merely accidental or does the shift in level of language parallel the shift from casual observation to philosophical speculation in the content of the poem? And, if the latter, is it merely an unconscious fitting of language to thought or is it part of the intentional crafting of the poem? Regardless of how we answer this question, it is remarkable how word choice can create different expressive voices appropriate to what is being said.

Similarly, the sentence structure grows increasingly complex as each stanza develops. The first three lines, though tightly structured, constitute a relatively straightforward statement. But the sentence continues piling on appositives and modifiers until it becomes densely complex.

Of the three questions in the second stanza, the second is the most straightforward grammatically but uses the most formal language. The first question separates the appositive from its antecedent noun (“flower”), creating a jarring effect grammatically that parallels the seeming contradiction of describing a flower as both white and blue at the same time. The third question uses “appall” as an intransitive verb, an unconventional, if not obscure, expression, which sounds almost archaic, once again using language that reinforces ancient philosophical questions about chance and fate and longstanding religious questions about the moral goodness of nature, including human nature. Do we live in a purposeful universe of “design” or do we live in a random world of accident and chance? And, if it is orderly and purposeful, what does it mean if death and suffering are built into the design? The unstated question is “What kind of designer would design such a world 'to appall'?"

The dashes create an informal, conversational effect, but the tightly structured, highly composed sentences contradict that style, sounding more educated, formal, and complex. The tension of opposites again parallels the juxtaposition of casual observer and philosophical thinker or serious moralist.

Other examples of opposition include the irony of “assorted characters of death and blight” being “mixed ready to begin the morning, right” (emphasis added) and the white imagery in contrast with “a witches’ broth” and “dead wings.”

White is a conventional symbol of purity and innocence (at least in Western European based culture), but in this poem the white spider, flower, and moth represent “death and blight.” As Melville reminds us in “The Whiteness of the Whale” chapter of Moby Dick, white can just as easily be associated with the pallor of sickness and death or the burial shroud as with purity and innocence or the wedding gown.

“What had that flower to do with being white…?” is a question with multiple meanings. The heal-all is typically blue but occasionally white. Consider the coincidence of the rare white heal-all serving as the stage for the white spider’s predatory attack on the white moth. Is it mere chance or part of the orderly design and purpose of nature? If the latter, it is a “design of darkness” serving to “appall” our na├»ve sense of God’s goodness and nature’s innocence. How innocent is innocence if “death and blight” are integral to its nature? The color symbolism of white, blue, and “darkness” in their varying relationships is what gives those questions their poetic power.

Another irony is the heal-all, a flower known in folk culture for its healing power, serving as a natural death bed for the moth.

In addition to irony and symbolism, metaphor abounds. Three are obvious similes: the moth being held up “…like a piece of rigid satin cloth,” the “assorted characters…like the ingredients of a witches’ broth,” and the “dead wings carried like a paper kite.” Lest these comparisons be thought frivolous poetic flourishes, consider the association of “rigid” with death, of a satin cloth with a death shroud, of witches with evil (a more cultural than natural comparison), of a kite with playfulness (ironically contrasting with the “dead wings”). Other metaphors include the moth being “steered” and “design” governing “in a thing so small,” metaphors which suggest a hidden power with a dark purpose.

Finally, we are led by almost every technical device available to the poet to conclude that this seemingly simple poem is a dark allegory of Mother Nature who brings both life and death, of “original sin,” and of innocence that cannot be separated from evil. And if the inseparability of good and evil “govern in a thing so small,” what are the implications for human nature and for the universe at large?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Sensory Pleasures of Poetry

There is no purer way to appreciate the sensory pleasures of poetry than through nonsense verse:

Twas brillig and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gymble in the wabe
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe. –Lewis Carroll

Regardless of the meaning, the repetition of sounds (“toves” and “borogoves,” “gyre and gymble,” “wabe” and “outgrabe”) provides pleasure to the ear. As do “brillig and “slithy,” repeating the liquid “l” and rhyming the two different “i” sounds.

The predominantly iambic (unstressed/stressed syllables) tetrameter (four stressed syllables to a line) broken by two strong spondees (two stressed syllables in a row) in the fourth line offers a combination of regular rhythm and unexpected variation, which avoids both a sleep-inducing sing-songy effect and the jarring cacophony of disordered sounds.

My favorite limerick growing up, partly because I was so skinny as a youth, offers an irresistible combination of mirthful imagery, delightful rhythms, and playful repetition:

There was a young lady from Lynn
Who was so exceedingly thin
That when she assayed
To drink lemonade
She slipped through the straw and fell in.—Anonymous

There’s something about that final “fell in” that is both natural and unexpected at the same time. It is quite a trick to combine both the satisfaction of expectation and the pleasure of surprise.

The image of the skinny lady falling through a straw is entertaining because it is both ridiculous and somehow logical. The lady and the straw have nothing logically in common, except that they are both thin, a comparison that takes a poetic imagination to see.

At the level of imagery, sensory pleasure overlaps with the fun of mental gymnastics.

No greater pleasure in imagery can be found than in Japanese haiku. The vicarious sensory experience, whether it be visual, auditory, or tactile, is characteristically concentrated and intense:

On a withered branch
A crow has settled--
Autumn nightfall.—Basho

A lightening-gleam
Into darkness travels
A night-heron’s scream.—Basho

What piercing cold I feel!
My dead wife’s comb in our bedroom,
Under my heel…--Buson

And each image suggests a story, whether it be of the rhythms of nature or of human drama. Stories provide pleasure by imitating life, expressing human emotion, and presenting them in such a way as to render order and beauty out of raw experience.

The dying branch, the settling crow, the closing year, and the falling night put the universal story of decline into parallel form. The flash of lightening in the dark similarly mirrors the heron’s scream breaking the silence of night, again imaging the universal story of sudden contrast and unexpected surprise. And the physical sensation of a cold comb under a widower’s heel captures the story of a cold marriage bed, as well as of the cold grave.

The chaos of actual experience is tamed and made, not only bearable, but beautiful.

Such are the sensory pleasures of poetry.