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.


Marriage and the Marys

In class we briefly touched on the idea of the women authoress in Niedecker’s Mary Shelley poem, and I wanted to come back to this as well as dive into a segment of Rich’s “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law” to further explore the tension that Rich sees in the role of poet and traditional wife and mother. In “When We Dead Awaken”, Rich states that “to be a female human being trying to fulfill traditional female funtions in a traditional way is in direct conflict with the subversive function of the imagination.” This declaration draws a very hard-line, I feel, and one that both Rich and Niedecker grapple with in their own lives and within the context of their poetry as well. Rich chooses to reference Mary Wollenstonecraft in “Snapshot” introducing and analyzing a strong female writer, while Niedecker writes of another Wollenstonecraft’s daughter, Mary Shelley, delving into the rememberance of Shelley as a writer and woman.

For Rich, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law is the beginning of her turning a critical eye on past literary tradition and producing works that highlight this blossoming interest. I want to hone in on Section 7 of the poem, which deals directly with Mary Wollenstonecraft. The segment starts out with a quote from Wollenstonecraft’s Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, followed by “thus wrote a woman, party brave and partly good, who fought with what she partly understood.” Rich would seem to be a bit critical of Wollenstonecraft here, perhaps alluding to the fact that the latter didn’t really grasp what she was writing of. But then in the next lines, “Few men about her would or could do more, hence she was labelled harpy, shrew and whore” Wollenstonecraft is even harsher on those other literary (male) minds of the time, claiming that they were not as talented or well-equipped a Wollenstonecraft. Also significant in this last line, is the titles the Rich implies were given to Wollenstonecraft by these men, out of spite for her growing, though not fully developed genius. “Harpy, shrew, and whore” were some of the descriptors that were left to stain the name of Wollenstonecraft by the patriarchy, in this bit of Rich’s poem.

Niedecker writes of the other Mary (Shelley), wondering in the first lines of the poem, “Who was Mary Shelley?/What was her name before she married?” These two lines are implying that there is great significance who Mary was before she became Percy Shelley’s wife. She was after all “Frankenstein’s creator” whom she created after
Byron, Shelley talked the candle down.” She is painted throughout the poem as a great literary and learned woman who “read Greek, Italian” and had a whole life outside the role of “Percy Shelley’s wife.” The poem concludes “she bore a child/who died/and yet another child/who died.” This is the first time that she is framed as a mother, and the final note we are left with is not one of legacy, accomplishment or grandeur, but that two of her children had died. Not only is this a somber final few lines, but also puts Shelley again within the context of wife/mother and not of famous author.

Rich’s claim then in “Re-vision” is a struggle that is made apparent through the lives of the Marys. Rich and Niedecker both felt the tension of the numerous hats that they as women writers were called to wear: as both poet and wife. They used these to analyze the lives of both Mary Wollenstonecraft and Shelley, and determine through their works and how others remember these literary women. Though I believe neither Rich, nor Niedecker reach a formula by which to balance the two roles mentioned in their exploration of the Marys, they do insight speculation as to how these two women are historicized, and if it is within their roles as women or as authors. Do we often box female writers or poets into their relationships or can we as critics see them only as artists outside of their more familial role? And do the examples of the Marys show us that women can be both poet and wife/mother, without their imagination or creative consciousness being stifled?

Taken on a “Journey”

The concluding piece of the Galax Quartet concert, which we were given a preview of in class, was a transformative medium of reading poetry. I found it so self-effacing that the composer modestly hoped that it somehow enhanced the piece itself, without taking away from Snyder’s original intent or essence in Journeys. Through the narrative arch of the poem and the shifting tones of the music, I believe we were taken to a different place, where the poem itself resided. The power of poetry, and great literature in that same vein, is to transport its reader to something outside their realm of experience. In this case, the transportation dabbled in areas of the majesty of nature, the dilapidation and decay featured in the middle segment, and the transcendent, other-world of the mystical conclusion. The musical accompaniment increased this journey through time and space significantly.

There were definite moods and feeling that the music conveyed in the different segments of the piece, the beginning producing a very tensely, chilling building of suspense. This effect was much different than how I had interpreted the first section, but was much more thrilling to listen to musically. The second shift moved into the very lithe and sprightly music that painted the picture of a man on a journey, the walking nearly being felt through the traveling tone of the sound. Then they moved into a cacophonous depiction during the “underground building chambers clogged with refuse,” the sounds emanating being so disjointed and harsh to the ears. Then the final section sounds quite ethereal and strange, perhaps to convey the spirit of the “backcountry.” We were taken on a “journey” through this poem being put to music, accomplishing the purpose or at least inciting an enriching response from the audience’s understanding of the poem itself.

Pinkness of Plath’s “The Applicant”

In Robert Lowell’s acceptance speech for his Life Studies, he remarked that there are “two poetries now competing, a cooked and a raw…the raw, huge blood-dripping gobbets of unseasoned experience are dished up for midnight listeners” (Lowell 1). We briefly discussed in class that his earlier, more traditional style of poetry hearkened towards the cooked, formulaic lyrical poetry, whereas in his shift towards confessionalism later in his career his would have considered his art to be more “raw.” Irving Howe feeds on this analogy, referencing the correlation between Lowell’s “rawness of confession” in Life Studies and its effect on the shaping of Sylvia Plath’s poetic career. Howe suggests Plath’s brand of confessionalism differs from that of Lowell’s, however, considering that Lowell manages “to suggest reverberations that move the poem beyond the edges of his personal wound,” while Plath only gives her readers insight into her own struggles without inviting them to commiserate in her pain.

I would like to consider Plath’s poem, “The Applicant,” which we were unable to touch on in class, to question of the qualification of “rawness” and also Howe’s label of confessionalism of her poetry. In “The Applicant,” Plath opens with someone looking to fill a position or role presumably that of a wife, though the woman is characterized inanimately and impersonably throughout the poem. First, the wife is called a “hand” in the second stanza, one that will “bring teacups and roll away headaches/and do whatever you tell it.” Like a product being sold, after these attributes are listed, the poem questions, “Will you marry it?/It is guaranteed.” Again, the woman is reduced to an “it,” a toy that will live up to its warranty. In the following stanza, the man himself is suited up to fit the stereotypical businessman role in a “suit- black and stiff, but not a bad fit,” though there is still the question of who will play the role of his wife in this cookie cutter image of the 1950s home. But once again the woman in the poem is brought out on display in the sixth stanza, in which she is first referred to as a “she” or “sweetie.” This “she” is  cheesily advertised again to the man, “a living doll; everywhere you look./It can sew, it can cook,/It can talk, talk, talk.” The gadgets and functions of this doll wife are emphasized again and again, giving the man his choice whether or not to pick this product that would seemingly fill his every need, “You have a hole, it’s a poultice./You have an eye, it’s an image.” The female character of this poem is being marketed as an item up for sale, Plath’s evident comment on the objectification of women within the societal constraints of the era’s typical married life.

While this representation of the marriage market may reflect Plath’s frustration with the socially enforced role of women in her own life, she is generally reflecting on the time period’s standards as a whole. She comments on this societal issue as oppposed to delving into the deeper recesses of her own personal pain that is empathetically inaccessible to the reader. We get no intimate insight into the her own marriage, life or psychology that would tend to characterize confessional poetry. Arguably, Howe’s definition of Plath-al confessionalism is not a key player at work in “The Applicant,” considering the way in which Plath seeks to extend beyond the experience of her own personal plights to encompass the plight of a generation, such as Howe claims Lowell does in Life Studies. In terms of the “rawness” of Plath’s proposed confessionalism, the close end rhymes and tight, consistent five line stanzas in this poem would suggest that this is a fairly well-prepared portion of poetry. One wonders if Lowell himself would have considered Plath a prodigy of his “raw” and “confessional” movement or if he would have seen her work as slightly too seasoned to fit the bill?

Can we characterize a poet’s style by the general sum of their works, though as shown here there can be exceptions to the rule? Why is there the need to categorize poets into a certain movement, though some of their poetry may not reflect its characteristics? Also, if “The Applicant” is not a particularly “raw” or “confessional” poem, as I have argued here, which of Plath’s poems could be viewed as Lowell’s quintessencially pink and rare counterpart?