Niedecker’s Frankenstein

Lorine Niedecker’s poem about Mary Shelley not only tells the story of the famous woman but about raises issues about herself, as well. The poem points out that Mary Shelley is known by her husband’s name; not many know “her name/ before she married” (2-3). Shelley made a career for herself and, after Percy Shelley died, made a life for herself. Though she is known by a man’s surname, she was not confined to living a life defined by him.  It is reasonable that Niedecker would also be concerned with the issues since she was- however briefly- married. The fact that she and her husband separated after two years of marriage speaks to the
fact that she did not let a man define her life, either, and her poetry is a testament to this. Niedecker points out that Mary Shelley “was Frankenstein’s creator” and that “She read Greek, Italian,” things that distinguish her from being just Percy Shelley’s wife (7, 14).

Something else that struck me about Niedecker’s poem is how much emphasis she puts on the fact that “She bore a child/ Who died/ and yet another child/ who died,” another thing to which Niedecker herself can definitely relate (15-8). Niedecker dangles the words “who died” twice in the last stanza, even ending the poem with that line. When reading the poem aloud, the word “died” hovers eerily at the end, drawing attention to the fact that Shelley miscarried. I think that it is important to note that Niedecker and the poet Louis Zukovsky had a professional and romantic relationship and, at one point, she was pregnant with his child. Zukovsky insisted that she have an abortion, and she did. It is likely that this event would have quite an impact of Niedecker, both personally and professionally. Perhaps she felt she had found a kind of kindred spirit in Shelley, since they both lost children.

As well as losing their children, Shelly and Niedecker both lost their husbands, in a sense. And both created careers for themselves despite living in a male-dominated world and dealing with a male-dominated profession. Perhaps, despite living in such different time periods and such different societies, the two women are not so dissimilar after all.

Revising Language in Crisis

Although it can be difficult to draw connections in or make sense of Charles Bernstein’s poem “The Lives of the Toll Takers,” I was drawn to one phrase in particular. On page 177, in the middle of the page, set off from the rest of the text, Bernstein includes a quotation: “‘Daddy, what did you/ do to stop the war?’” This phrase is reminiscent of a propaganda poster in the First World War:

The poster is meant to incite men to join the war effort by showing a man sitting safely at home but looking miserable and guilty for shirking his wartime duties as his little girl asks him what he contributed for his country. The previous stanza supports this war-time reading. Bernstein’s use of the world “bellicose” is significant as it denotes an inclination to war or fighting, and the “doddering/ demise of diplomacy” can be interpreted as the complicated alliances that characterized European politics just before the war broke out in 1914.

I was interested in the reference to the war because I’ve been studying the limitations of language in describing the painful experience of the trenches in the First World War. Elaine Scarry argues that pain “does not simply resist language but actively destroys it” because pain strips people of their ability to communicate what they are feeling in any effective, sharable way (4). Instead, people in pain revert to primitive screams and cries. The limits of language are expressed in the next few lines of the poem, which are just a series of letters, symbols, and numbers that seem to have no particular order whatsoever. These lines do not communicate any meaning, just as it is impossible for words to translate pain in an understandable way.

If Scarry is correct, then the Great War is a very relevant moment for the Language Poets to reference because it threw the boundaries of language into question. We discussed the Language Poets as experimenting with meaning by putting words together in new ways and playing with connotation and expectations of certain words. The First World War can be seen as a watershed moment for the breakdown of the meaning of language. In “Two Essays on Poetry and Society,” Theodor Adorno asked how we could write poetry after Auschwitz – how could people express themselves after such a universal, total cultural crisis? Similarly, the Great War made people ask how we could express truth after such a hugely destructive world event. How could language work? I see this same question earlier in Bernstein’s poem, when the speaker asks, “Then what can I believe in?” (176). If language has been robbed of its expressive ability, then how can we derive meaning from anything?

In his book The Great War and the Language of Modernism, Vincent Sherry argues that the war was the Modernist moment, and that the language of Modernist writers such as Woolf, Pound, and Eliot changed to meet the unimaginable destruction of the war. The linguistic tools of the previous generation were not able to meet the challenge posed by a completely new, completely destructive type of warfare, so the Modernists had to create a new way of using language in order to express themselves in the shadow of the war. Bernstein acknowledges the need to rework and revise language after times of crisis, as well. Following a mention of the Jews and anti-Semitism, an allusion to the atrocities of the Second World War, he writes:

            There is no plain sense of the word,

nothing is straightforward,

            description a lie behind  lie;

but truths can still be told. (172)

This passage accepts the limits of language in accurately representing truth – there are no plain meanings because nothing is as straightforward as it seems. These are the conventions that the Language Poets experiment with, as did the Modernists. In that inability to pinpoint meaning, however, truth can still be told. Effective communication is still possible, but there must be a revision of language in order for this to happen.

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Making “Ammons” with Nature in “Corson’s Inlet”

A.R. Ammons is a master when it comes to making sense out of the senseless in “Corson’s Inlet.” In his poem he narrates his walk along Corson’s Inlet and describes everything he sees along the way. He begins by describing that he is escaping the rigid walls of our human world into nature when he says, “I was released from forms,/from the perpendiculars/straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds/of thought” (13-16). This is probably how most of us feel when we are constrained to the rigid thought processes of close reading poetry.

As the speaker walks further into nature he discovers that the forms he could once understand and control are no longer susceptible to his grasp of intellectual understanding. He says, “but Overall is beyond me: is the sum of these events/I cannot draw, the ledger I cannot keep, the accounting beyond account:” (30-32). This seems to be his general point in this poem. Ammons has no grasp of the occurrences of nature, which are transitively the occurrences of the universe. Ammons implies he is talking about the universe when he capitalizes the “O” in “overall.

Ammons also mentions the word entropy in this poem. Entropy is a scientific law that states that all things in the universe are deteriorating with time; everything is becoming more disorganized “the dune’s shape that will not be the same shape tomorrow” (47-48). Ammons also makes a clear distinction between entropy and chaos “thousands of tree swallows/gathering for flight:/an order held/in constant change: a congregation/rich with entropy: nevertheless, separable, noticeable/as one event,/not chaos:” (79-85). Chaos is nothingness. Chaos has no order. Although entropy is becoming more disordered, there is an order to the way it becomes disordered. The relationship between order and disorder is an intricate one in “Corson’s Inlet.” The speaker understands this relationship as well when he says, “the working in and out, together/and against, of millions of events: this,/so that I make/no form of/formlessness:” (102-106). There is no sense in trying to understand what is going around the speaker because it is too vast and random to formulate into a precise logical occurrence.

Things change and the speaker must go with the flow in the way that the dune’s sand do when presented with the force of wind. The speaker summarizes his walk at the end of the poem and summarizes the poem itself in the last few lines, “I will try/to fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder, widening/ scope, but enjoying the freedom that/Scope eludes my grasp, that there is no finality of vision,/ that I have perceived nothing completely,/that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk” (123-128). There is some invisible force that drives everything that is going around the speaker. This might entice him into thinking there would be some way that he could possibly comprehend it all but he is wise enough to understand that there is no sense in doing so because tomorrow it will all be different. The natural world in which the speaker dwells is different from the lines of poetry or prose that he alludes to in the beginning of his poem. They lines do not move. Literature can be studied because it remains stationary, whereas the world around him is constantly moving and changing and becoming less orderly. This is the realization that the speaker comes to by the end of his walk.

“Church Bell” does not capture that sound that you hear.

When we first began looking at the language poets and their examination of what, precisely, language is and does, I was a little bit skeptical of the work we were reading. I understand the concept that language is highly limited, and I actually love that idea, but I couldn’t quite let go of the fact that language can still be so very beautiful, something that a lot of experimental poets or poems don’t seem to be concerned with.

However, reading Jorie Graham’s work was quite another experience. I particularly enjoyed her poem “The Swarm,” which experiments with the idea of words as referents for objects and language and sound as being unable to convey or accomplish certain things.

One of the first things I noticed as I read the poem is the presence of the word “listen” in the first line, and the word “hear” in the last. I think these words frame the poem quite well – not only is the person to whom the speaker is speaking supposed to listen for the church bells, but we are to listen to the poem. I also like that “listen,” a request, comes first, and “hear,” the action, later, as if the speaker’s request to listen to the church bells mirrors Graham’s “request” to listen to her poem.

Another conspicuous move Graham makes is the omission of the sounds of the church bells in the fifth stanza. Rather than attempting to capture the sound of the ringing in letters, she simply leaves a blank where the word or sound would go. She does reference each chime of the bell as a petal falling, however, which interestingly has no sound at all. In that same stanza Graham uses the word “yes” six times, the first in parentheses, the next following “like a vertebrate,” and the last four making up their own line with nothing else, including punctuation. These “yesses,” which seem to be the affirmation of the voice on the telephone that they can hear the bells, actually seem to be the closest Graham gives us to the sound of the bells themselves. It’s interesting that we don’t even know whether or not the person has heard the bells – in fact, we never hear from the person directly – and yet their affirmation, or at least what the speaker hopes to hear from them, is the closest we can get to hearing their sound. The form of the last line, “yes yes yes yes,” is written like an echo as a bell would be, but clearly the sound itself isn’t captured.

In the stanzas to follow, the most noticeable repetition is of the word “blue.” It is used six times before the end of the poem, often in ways that don’t make a lot of logistical sense, for instance, in “something announces itself/ like a piece of the whole blueness broken off and thrown down…” However, the reader can’t help but hear the sound of the word over and over (six times in twelve lines, two of those lines containing the word twice). I think this goes back to Graham’s instruction to “listen” and her question at the end of whether or not we “hear” – like the echo of “yes” as the speaker tries to get her or his companion to hear the bells in order to feel together, we are given the repetition of “blue” not so much for the word itself as for the echo and connection it brings.

The last thing I wanted to point out is just something I loved about Graham’s language – in the eighth line from the end of the poem, the speaker refers to the telephone as “the plastic parenthetical opening wherein I have you.” I love that description that so carefully balances the idea of plastic, something hard and impersonal, with a “parenthetical opening,” which for me creates the image of a curve (presumably the mouthpiece) mimicking one half of a parentheses – one half on each side of the ocean, with a relationship filling the space between even though physical proximity isn’t possible. It’s a beautiful idea.


I’d be interested to see what other people thought about Graham’s experiments with language – is her balance between words as beautiful and flawed believable? Do her omissions and echoes work?  Is her work an experiment in the first place?

One of Rich’s “Twenty-One Love Poems”

Adrienne Rich is one of the poets who has truly impressed me this semester (which is probably why I’m writing my final paper on one of her poems!), so I’ve really made an effort to read at least all of her work contained in the Norton Anthology. Since one of my two specializations is Renaissance lit, I am well aquatinted with the sonnet sequence and so was particularly intrigued by Rich’s “Twenty-One Love Poems.”

It would be impractical to try and cover all 21 poems within the confines of this post, so I’m going to begin at the beginning and close-read the first poem, “I” (that is, Roman Numeral I).

The opening imagery strongly evokes the chaos of an unnamed city (I’d be interested to find out which city in particular): “screens flicker/with pornography, with science-fiction vampires/victimized hirelings bending to the lash” (lines 1-3). There is not just the typical sleeze of the city (pornography and poorly paid laborers) but a mystical element (the sci-fi vampires).

The dirt of the city is overpowering: “we also have to walk . . . if simply as we walk/through the rainsoaked garbage, the tabloid cruelties/of our own neighborhoods” (4-6). I’m not sure what to make of the “. . . ” that separates the parts of line 4- it seems to me to complicate the line as a whole to the point where I’m not really sure what Rich is getting at, unless you put 4 and 5 together to say “as we walk/through the rainsoaked garbage” and then the garbage seems to refer to tabloid newspapers. The “cruelties/of our own neighborhoods” are unclear, but the fact that they are of the neighborhood and not distant show that they are close to home and very present.

From the image of rainsoaked newspapers, Rich moves into a call for action: “We need to grasp our lives inseparably/from those rancid dreams, that blurt of metal, those disgraces” (7-8), further employing images of city life- “the red begonia perilously flashing/from a tenement sill six stories high/or the long-legged young girls/playing ball/in the junior highschool playground” (9-12). Suddenly, femininity has been introduced to the dismal gray of the city scene in the person of the young girls and with the red begonia. In my presentation, I made the case that Rich uses the metaphor of a “red plant in a cemetery of plastic wreaths” in “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” to symbolize herself standing strong against the cemetery of male-dominated poetry and I think that same metaphor is used and applies here.

Rich concludes: “No one has imagined us. We want to live like trees/sycamores blazing through the sulfuric air/dappled with scars, still exuberantly budding/our animal passion rooted in the city” (13-16). Who the specific “us” is is not explicit, but I assume (based on the rest of the poem) that Rich is referring to women in general. The idea of women as trees, still flowering in spite of the toxic air- probably flowering because of the driving “animal passion”- I think fits in very nicely with Rich’s ideas of herself as fighting for women against a resistant patriarchal society, especially in the realm of literature.

Black Swan Similarities

The Black Swan by James Merrill

Black on flat water past the jonquil lawns
Riding, the black swan draws
A private chaos warbling in its wake,
Assuming, like a fourth dimension, splendor
That calls the child with white ideas of swans
Nearer to that green lake
Where every paradox means wonder.

Though the black swans arched neck is like
A question-mark on the lake,
The swan outlaws all possible questioning:
A thing in itself, like love, like submarine
Disaster, or the first sound when we wake;
And the swan-song it sings
Is the huge silence of the swan.

Illusion: the black swan knows how to break
Through expectation, beak
Aimed now at its own breast, now at its image,
And move across our lives, if the lake is life,
And by the gentlest turning of its neck
Transform, in time, times damage;
To less than a black plume, times grief.

Enchanter: the black swan has learned to enter
Sorrows lost secret center
Where like a maypole separate tragedies
Are wound about a tower of ribbons, and where
The central hollowness is that pure winter
That does not change but is
Always brilliant ice and air.

Always the black swan moves on the lake; always
The blond child stands to gaze
As the tall emblem pivots and rides out
To the opposite side, always. The child upon
The bank, hands full of difficult marvels, stays
Forever to cry aloud
In anguish: I love the black swan, the black swan.

I was initially drawn to Merrill’s unique voice and style, which led me to sift through his other works. “Black Swan” was his first published piece and is also now considered a literary rarity due to its small circulation. The “Black Swan Theory” established by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is best briefly described as “an event or occurrence that deviates beyond what is normally expected of a situation and that would be extremely difficult to predict”. While there is obvious evidence to this reference in the poem (i.e. “illusion: the black swan knows how to break through expectation” and the paradoxical nature of the black swan that is emphasized), I would like to focus this blog post on the comparison of Merrill’s poem to the recent film, Black Swan.

Brief synopsis for those who haven’t seen the film: Nina, a corp ballerina is given the role of the Swan Queen in Swan Lake, called to then embody the innocence of the white swan and also her evil and seductive counterpart, the black swan. Through this character transformation and stress/pressure, Nina is consumed by role and descends into a mental breakdown. Throughout the movie, Nina is haunted by images of her “black swan self” or her imagined rival, Lily, which aligns with the repetition of the “always” that appears four times in the final two stanzas of Merrill’s poem. Drawing similarities across this media bridge, I could see the child in the poem representing Nina. The child starts out with “white ideas of swans” or innocent conceptions of the swan (typically seen as white).

Further on, the child becomes captivated by this black swan “the enchanter, the paradox” just as Nina is wrapped up in her quest to “become the black swan” in ballet. The final lines state that the child will forever “cry aloud/in anguish: I love the black swan, the black swan.” Similarly, Nina’s final line in the movie is “Perfect. I was perfect…” The fascination with the black swan has drawn in both the child and Nina to the point of obsession. However, dissimilarly, the child is forever thwarted in attempts to be near to the black swan as it “pivots and rides out to the opposite side,” while Nina achieves the “perfection” of the black swan. To continue this conversation, I would simply love to know if you all see similar parallels between these two representations or am I stretching this analogy too far? Do you think it is the notoriously ominous connotation of the black swan figure that creates these connections or are more intentional similarities at work here? Also if you are interested, there is a reading of this poem by Merrill on YouTube and it’s quite hauntingly cool.