There are some poets we encounter in youth who make an immediate electrifying impression and then become close friends or demonic intimates through days and nights. Over time, we change and develop new interests, and these poets drift into the remote background. When we chance to bump into them again, we are always glad to see them but feel no need to continue the conversation longer than we need to. For me, this is Keats. Then there is the opposite kind of poet, the one whom someone tells us we have to read but who leaves us cold; yet years later, when me meet them again, their poems suddenly hold all the secrets of the world and we wonder why we couldn’t see that before: Dickinson. In between these two, there is the poet we like on first encounter, and indeed like on every encounter, but who doesn’t particularly deepen or ever become tedious; he remains a constant presence in our lives, like a benign uncle: Whitman. And there is the poet whom we like mildly at first, but who, each time we read him, deepens into something like a true love who can be a companion through the decades: Chaucer, George Herbert, Wordsworth, Basho. And there is the uncomfortable, wild, perilous friend who sometimes is just too much but without whom our lives would feel empty of something vital: Blake.
Provoked by recent study of the Sanskrit classic of poetics, the Dhvanyaloka, to ask what sensitivity to poetry is, how it begins, and how it might be cultivated or lost over time, I decided to write down a few musings on my own changing relationship to poetry over forty years of very dedicated reading — with a view to obtaining a little clarity on “what happened.” These essays will be a kind of poetic archeology, as I excavate the significance a handful of poems have had for me and try to recreate how I read them over the years. My reading was never static, and I tend not to settle on interpretations of great poems. A poem after all is not ink on paper, but rather it is something that occurs when those marks on paper are read, with all that involves ; and when it is tasted, chewed, digested, and assimilated into a living consciousness, the poem then lives in that consciousness, which is in constant motion over many dimensions of thought, feeling and perception, and is never the same from one moment to the next. Thus it might be an interesting experiment to try to remember what certain poems have been for me over the course of a reading life.
In my early teens I was a voracious reader of popular fiction, and a few revered writers whom I no longer read opened some important doors for me. For example, I started to read Plutarch and Roman histories at 13 because several of the heroes of Louis Lamour’s westerns claimed to admire those books. Similarly, the first time I fell in love with a poem was in a short story by Ray Bradbury, which featured this famous poem by Byron:
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.
And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!
When I say that I fell in love with this poem, what I mean is that I fell in love with the first line and tried really hard to love the rest of the poem — which even to a 13-year-old novice in verse seemed dull. But that first line is audacious in its swagger: walks in beauty says more than “is beautiful,” but inhabits, is surrounded by, is contained by, as if in a different realm than other mortals. The in says so much. Walks is also rich, evoking King James locutions like “walked with God.” It suggests walking in the mountains, an aloof independence perhaps, active motion, a confident stride. She walks in beauty is striking enough, bursting with dhvani or suggestions that cannot be fully unraveled — but then she walks in beauty like the night? To my young yearning spirit this was astounding: is beauty like the night, or does she walk like the night in beauty? If the latter, how does the night walk? Both are possible, and the comma in the first line is especially unhelpful. If like the night qualifies beauty, is Byron trying to characterize the kind of beauty this girl has? — mysterious, opaque, secretive. Yet it is not a misty night, but a Mediterranean night of cloudless climes and starry skies — so perhaps not perplexing and obscure, but sensual, lovely, relaxed. It could be all of these. If Byron is trying to say she is a dark-skinned beauty, then the first line is a studiously decorative way to avoid saying something simply. On the other hand, if the idea is that she walks in beauty as the Mediterranean night “walks” in beauty — slow, clear, graceful, vivacious, and everything one might associate with this variety of night — then the line gets real power from the daring over-extension of walks to something that we would never consider as walking. The power comes partly from daring to be so close to nonsense. Yet even hearing it for the first time, you never forget she walks in beauty, like the night, and the words walk, beauty, and night are now forever yoked together. This first line doesn’t play nice: it is bold, demanding, imposing — but unfortunately the rest of the poem does play nice, straining to describe pleasingly, and really not adding anything to the power and interest of the first line. Yet for me this first line opened a crack into what poetry could do, and in my youthful generosity I not only overlooked the stale worthlessness of the rest of the poem but even memorized it, in the hope that it might turn out to be good.
This poem, along with other lyrics by Byron (but not his epic and hilarious Don Juan), comes under the category of “passionate friend in youth but not interesting any more.” On many readings, the last 17 lines of the poem could only grate more and more on the sensitive soul, until even the first line would be seen as primarily a rhetorical success and poetically lucky — because if it were more than luck, Byron might have produced at least one more equally interesting line in the remainder of the poem. In this case, there was a trade-off between two kinds of sensitivity: there was the sensitivity that could get swept away by the first line so that the rest of the poem could be forgiven, and the sensitivity that could not forgive the coarse, dishonest triteness of the rest of the poem. While I can no longer react to the poem as I did at 13, at least I can understand my first reaction.
About the same time in my life, I came across this poem in an anthology, and didn’t even have to try to memorize it. It just went right in on first reading and never left:
Slim cunning hands at rest, and cozening eyes-
Under this stone one loved too wildly lies;
How false she was, no granite could declare;
Nor all earth’s flowers, how fair.
It is by Walter de la Mare, one of the great minor English writers of the 20th century who wrote a number of true gems. In contrast to the Byron lyric, this impressed me at once for its concise expression of an ambivalent feeling, and how exquisitely it is developed over four lines of perfectly controlled iambic. Slim cunning hands succinctly evokes refined, effective action, and the unusual application of cunning ( with its older English meanings of knowledge and ability) to hands expresses the kind of person for whom understanding is instinctive, bodily. The at rest implies that in life they were always in motion, while at the same time evoking an image of the speaker remembering the hands while standing at this stone. Cozening eyes is less pregnant as a phrase, but together with slim cunning hands we have in the first line a subject desribed by synecdoche — separated, disintegrated, present yet absent. To begin with the hands already convey long familiarity on the part of the speaker: off the top of your head, how many people’s hands do you know well enough to characterize?
The woman is one loved too wildly: loved once, or still loved now? It is undetermined, as if it doesn’t matter. What matters is the adverbial phrase: what does too wildly mean? Incontrollably jealous, suicidally possessive, shamefully excessive in other ways…? The too carries a hint of regret; the speaker was not free from blame. This first couplet is perfectly balanced with its 4-6, 6-4 syllabic structure, but it does not feel like a completed thought. Lies suggests a double meaning that takes us into the second couplet. No matter how cold granite is, it cannot match the cold fickleness of her heart; or, something as cold and hard as granite could not possibly express her warm, capricious, wandering passion; or, no official utterance such as that on a tombstone would ever be able to mention the truth about her infidelity — it would have to lie. You can feel this line out in many different ways, but in all of them the word granite stands out as something with qualities opposite to the subject’s. Then, when you are expecting the last line to balance the third, instead of a pentameter you get only a tetrameter, where the structure of the clause is a reversal of the structure of line three. The tetrameter is a truncated pentameter; something is missing, incomplete, even unspeakable. All earth’s flowers cannot express her beauty: it was incomparable, yet of the same genre as that of flowers — soft, colorful, vital, of the earth; or, none of the beauty that this earth can produce could come anywhere close to hers, which was more than natural. The delaying of how fair to the end of the poem comes like a sigh. If the speaker no longer loves too wildly, he nonetheless feels an admiration similar to what was felt by the Trojan elders when, seeing Helen on the ramparts towards the end of the bitter war that they knew would finish them and their entire civilization, they murmured that still it was worth it. This fourth line is a despairing affirmation of Eros.
As a teenager who loved to brood on poems, most of this would have been evident to me — together with more intense delight at de la Mare’s mastery of syntactical equilibrium. I rejoiced at the intellectual sharpness of this poem, in contrast to Byron’s, and it was at that time a revelation that one could have a feeling as contradictory as this towards a person. Now, after more than forty years, it seems clear to me that this poem is written from the perspective of much, much later in life. Perhaps it is that slightly archaic word “fair” that suggests the distance of someone long dead and the pang of sudden, unexpected remembrance. Thus, more than a poem about a difficult, lacerating love, this is a poem about time and about the vibrant highlights of living as viewed from a point in life when nothing like this is ever likely to happen again. The rasa of this poem is in the contemplation of love’s fever and wounds from a perspective that is aware of the end: love, insane and messy, vividly remembered but not regretted.