Making Better Poems, Part II — with sample annotations

Posted on December 6, 2011


       In my last blog entry, I spent quite a bit of time and space talking about space and time, as well as (importantly) the role of resonant diction and “correspondence” (the tethering of image to whatever is correspondingly human) in making a poem come alive. Somewhere in the midst of that entry (in the mist of that entry) I promised that soon I’d give some examples of craft annotations. Now’s the time; here’s the space.

You’ll remember that the idea behind craft annotations is to learn by close examination and informal analysis just what’s going on inside poems written by others. We hold the pen in our hand as we walk and talk our way through a poem, while trying to pay close attention to just one or two elements of the poet’s craft. We ask ourselves, just how does the poet make this or that transcendence happen on the page? The idea is to become a poetry explorer, and as befits and benefits the role of the explorer, to make discoveries that we can then claim for ourselves – both for our own enlightenment (what are some of the ways in which this poet makes that poem effective?) and for our own use: now how can I employ these elements of craft – these tools from the poet’s tool belt – in order to write better poems?

Here now, in Part II of What We Look for in a Poem at Tupelo Press, I want to do just that. Let’s explore together the way a couple of poets, Robert Hass and Sylvia Plath, handle diction and syntax, and let’s all the while be thinking about whether either or both has successfully mastered the challenges of “correspondence.” The Hass annotation (of “Meditation of Lagunitis”) is my own, and the Plath annotation (of “Letter in November”) is by Christian Gullette, a graduate (like myself) of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. Christian has graciously given me permission to post his entire annotation here.

First, the Hass. I’m turned on by a poem in which the poet engages with a variety of formal tensions, for example, the tension that resides between the evocation of the particular and the abstract (murder is abstract, a hatchet in the forehead is particular, as Thomas Lux puts it), and between the tension implicit in the co-existence of various kinds of diction—clinical, philosophical, archaic, contemporary. Syntax is the key—syntax, which actually motors the diction in collaged or fractured narrative, makes a mix of the particular—embedded within images, and the philosophical—lodged in ideas.

Now, to make some sense of this discussion of diction and syntax, let’s look first at “Meditation at Lagunitas” by Robert Hass from Praise (HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 1979).

Let me say that I’ve always found it helpful when annotating a poem to write the thing out, longhand. There’s no better way to get a tactile feel for what’s going on in a poem. So for argument’s sake, pretend that I’ve written this poem out with a #2 pencil:

Meditation at Lagunitas

All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

I’ll admit that had a love/hate relationship with (to) this poem long before having any idea what it was doing to me (capturing me), and how it was performing the trick. Fascinating now is how Hass actually changes his mind mid-poem, that change triggered by language, as if he, too, fell captive to his own syllabic animation.

Hass begins, tonally, with irony and cynicism (“All the new thinking is about loss / In this it resembles all the old thinking”), and launches into a series of positions that glorify loss—the image of the “clown-faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk of that black birch.” Apart from the evident work of the foreshadowed “black,” most of these positions are merely contemporary cliches. The result is, Hass keeps the reader at a distance with irony. He keeps his images at a distance by insisting on cliches. By keeping the contrast dialed down low, he keeps the speaker at a distance. Distance itself is distanced. But then, Hass weaves in meditation, image and narrative in such a way as to dismantle his own irony and cynicism, and to change his mind and, for that matter, the premise of the poem. So the dramatic conflict of Meditation becomes whether or not to acknowledge the ascendancy of loss and decay.

    He starts to change tone—his mind—when he says to a friend—discovers, really, that “talking this way, everything dissolves: justice, hair, woman, you and I.”  The implication? That any abstract diction (which filled the poem’s first half) keeps us from the luminosity of feeling. Like or not, here Hass is really invoking Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, an entire novel become homage to the sensory fragment.  Those words that follow “talking this way” begin almost immediately to move from the distant and abstract to the intimate and particular. “There was a woman / I made love to and remembered how, holding / her small shoulders in my hands sometimes, / I felt a violent wonder at her presence.” Of a sudden, Hass loves not so much the image as detail, but the detail as image—the sensory detail in which we find a particular part of our formerly hidden selves. Doubtless, Hass pays attention when he reads Homer. His poem turns wine dark by turns, bright-eyed by design.

How? Hass layers on descriptive language about the “childhood river,” the “pleasure boat.” And then the girl has a double edge and at first seems (merely) nostalgic, a lost love—any lost love. But then that memory becomes something more, the intangible renders itself tangible when he remembers the bread (“the way her hands dismantled bread”) and remembers her father (“the thing her father said that hurt her, what / she dreamed”). Now, in this new realm of the senses, if we commit ourselves enough to care about the other, the words we use to describe our experience might bridge the chasm between world and thing, time and loss, idea and the word for it. “There are moments when the body is as numinous / as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.”

The tonal change in the poem comes about as a result of memory and the recovery of the feeling that accompanies the senses: what the speaker remembers with respect to things sensory, and his feeling for someone who seemed not to matter to him any longer. Tonal changes, then, which come from those underlying changes in modes of speech. Abstract images (“some tragic falling off from a first world of undivided light”) turn intimate—glimpses of the particular in all its sensuousness: “muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish called pumpkinseed.” Clinical, philosophical, elevated language (“each particular erases the luminous clarity of a general idea”) dives into the cool, colloquial, quotidian muck: “Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings, saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.” Like Hemingway’s screed—in which he extolled the sound of marching feet, the names of towns, the dust on the road and the rivers in the mountains—over the distancing abstractions (“patriotism” and “honor” and such like), Hass chooses to let the particular do the good work of bringing the speaker back to the surface, up from the interior and out into the world where some things, anyway, are ripe for the picking.

Even if at the end of the poem Hass’es vision is provisional, his evocation of the words dressed up in their sounds brings us back to the senses as an almost spiritual moment. I say “almost spiritual,” because even the evocation of blackberries remains rather detached, the one-note Trinity of it still somehow despairing, still almost Dante-esque in the purity of its hopelessness. Henry walks off into the rain. The speaker contents himself with the word but not the taste. And the reader? Hass’s secret sharer? What is there to taste, after all? Either the blackberries fill us up with their lush sound (for we have no texture, no flavor), or leave us with nothing but the word itself, lovely as it is repeated so, and not without a hint of wound.

Now, here’s Christian Gullette’s take on Plath, which he calls “The Effect of Diction on Tone in Plath’s Letter in November.”

Again, let’s begin with the poem itself:

Letter in November

Love, the world
Suddenly turns, turns color. The streetlight
Splits through the rat’s tail
Pods of the laburnum at nine in the morning.
It is the Arctic,

This little black
Circle, with its tawn silk grasses – babies hair.
There is a green in the air,
Soft, delectable.
It cushions me lovingly.

I am flushed and warm.
I think I may be enormous,
I am so stupidly happy,
My Wellingtons
Squelching and squelching through the beautiful red.

This is my property.
Two times a day
I pace it, sniffing
The barbarous holly with its viridian
Scallops, pure iron,

And the wall of the odd corpses.
I love them.
I love them like history.
The apples are golden,
Imagine it —-

My seventy trees
Holding their gold-ruddy balls
In a thick gray death-soup,
Their million
Gold leaves metal and breathless.

O love, O celibate.
Nobody but me
Walks the waist high wet.
The irreplaceable
Golds bleed and deepen, the mouths of Thermopylae.

(Plath, The Collected Poems, Harper Perennial Modern Classics 2008)

Now: Christian Gullette’s annotation:

“In her poem ‘Letter in November,’ Sylvia Plath employs diction in a way that allows her to not only affect the tone of individual lines, but to also make sudden tonal shifts that generate tension between the reader’s expectations and the speaker’s intentions. In ‘Letter in November’ Plath contrasts a scene of natural beauty and domestic tranquility with a stark vision of suffocation and isolation, and she uses diction and tone to accomplish this.

The word ‘Love’ begins the poem with a tone of intimacy in the form of a letter’s greeting and cleverly draws the  reader into the poem. However, Plath quickly changes the tone, writing, ‘Love, the world / Suddenly turns, turns color.’ The reader knows that the world turns, but it turns predictably. Plath contradicts the reader’s expectation with the adverb ‘Suddenly,’ and the line conveys a jaded tone of resentment. The line also plays off of the poem’s title, implying that the fall colors are a startling and unwelcome arrival that signals something more sinister. Early on in the poem, Plath sets up a contrast between the reader’s imaginative associations with fall as a season of beauty and celebration with the speaker’s foreboding tone. Plath uses diction in the rest of the stanza to emphasize this ominous tone. For example, she writes that ‘The streetlight / Splits through the rat’s tail / Pods of the laburnum at nine in the morning.’ In these lines, Plath uses diction and tone to generate the grey, overcast day in which a streetlight would be visible at nine in the morning. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be morning at all, just a continuation of darkness. Describing the ordinarily brilliantly yellow and lush tendrils of the laburnum tree as ‘rat’s tails’ injects a tone of disgust and the implication that the things growing around the speaker are thriving in filth and garbage. The ‘Pods’ of the flowers imply the sickening fecundity of the rat, an image that will contrast with the ‘babies’ and ‘apples’ later in the poem.

Plath bridges the first and second stanza with diction that shifts the previous tone of revulsion. She writes, ‘It is the Arctic, // This little black / Circle, with its tawn silk grasses – babies hair.’ Plath uses words such as ‘Arctic,’ ‘black Circle,’ and ‘silk grasses’ to create a tone of disillusionment over the barren and fake landscape that is the speaker’s home. She’s abandoned the dumpster teaming with rats for a frozen wasteland in which nothing lives, not even the grass. The ‘silk grasses’ provide an interesting juxtaposition between a phony softness and hard reality. Plath juxtaposes the fake grass with the ‘babies hair’ which generates a contrasting tone of tenderness and joy. In the next line, Plath makes another shift, this time observing that ‘There is a green in the air, / Soft delectable. It cushions me lovingly.’ It’s fall, so the ‘green’ mouthwatering scent wouldn’t likely come from leaves. If Plath uses ‘green’ to imply one of its negative connotations – jealousy, mold, greed, or nausea – it is bolstered by the ironic tone of ‘It cushions me lovingly.’ It’s not love or satisfaction or hope that supports the speaker, but the sense of artifice and opacity. Even the icy Arctic Circle is an opaque ‘black.’

    In the third stanza, Plath’s diction generates a tone that mocks domestics bliss and derides all forms of happiness found in a blissful ignorance. The speaker is ‘flushed and warm,’ ‘enormous,’ and ‘stupidly happy’ diction that not only implies scorn for embracing such ‘ignorance,’ but also reveals a tone of disgust over the gluttony.  By the end of the stanza, Plath injects the foreboding tone, writing ‘My Wellingtons / Squelching and squelching through the beautiful red.’ Plath contrasts the reader’s image of the fallen red leaves with the more ominous knee-high rubber boots under which the red is ‘squelched.’ Here Plath cleverly foreshadows the ‘bleeding’ apples at the end of the poem and uses the word ‘squelched’ to conjure the image of a press in which the life blood or juice is drawn from the fruit.

In the fourth stanza, Plath reinforces the speaker’s resentment of her domestic space, writing ‘This is my property.’ The word ‘property’ denudes any sense of intimacy and personalization in either the house or green space. It is something the speaker is legally attached to, but not emotionally. Given the disturbing impressions of the ‘property,’ there’s a resentment conveyed by the line; that somehow the speaker has been left chained to this. It also contrasts the earlier, mocking tone of domestic bliss. At this point, there’s nothing amusing about the situation. Plath then transforms the speaker into a dog who ‘paces’ and ‘sniffs’ the property ‘Two times a day.’ Here Plath adds a tonal layer of monotony in the speaker’s unvarying, rote habits which are more animalistic than human. In the fourth and fifth stanzas, Plath takes a more severe tone of resentment and condemnation towards ‘the property,’ describing it as bordered by ‘barbarous holly’ whose leaves are ‘pure iron.’ Plath cleverly puns ‘barbarous,’ implying not only the barbed leaves but an uncivilized cruelty that imprisons her in ‘iron.’ There’s a ‘wall of old corpses’ that the speaker loves ‘like history.’ ‘Corpses’ could refer to leafless trees outside, but is an interesting choice since leafless trees are not actually dead. The tone is not hopeful, but sentimental only for what is permanently lost. The ‘property’ offers no promise of happiness or the future, only suffocation and endless reminders of the past.

The fifth and sixth stanzas contain diction that changes the tone yet again:

The apples are golden,
Imagine it –

My seventy trees
Holding their gold-ruddy balls
In a thick grey death soup,
Their million
Gold leaves metal and breathless.

Plath begins the tonal transition by switching from the discussion of ‘corpses’ and ‘history’ to an invocation of beauty and life, commanding the reader to imagine it. The lines are hopeful and full of awe. The reader enters the orchard of ‘seventy trees’ filled with their bounty, appearing to offer them to the speaker as they ‘hold’ the apples. The use of a vague word like ‘balls’ to describe the apples robs them of their beauty, and allows for a subtle tonal shift towards a feeling of apprehension. Plath uses the opportunity to make her most severe tonal shift, contrasting the bucolic diction with a ‘thick grey death soup’ of fog or overcast sky. Plath has now returned to the earlier ominous tone, likening herself with the apples struggling to survive under the pall of imminent destruction. Just as the ‘property’ cages and suffocates the speaker, the apple trees’ leaves, like the holly, imprison them in ‘metal’ and are ‘breathless’ and inanimate. In the final stanza, Plath returns full circle to the first word of the poem, crying out in a plaintive and impassioned tone, ‘O love, O celibate.’ The use of ‘celibate’ compliments the barrenness earlier in the poem, and implies the futility of attempting to continue on into the future. In the final two lines of the poem, Plath uses diction to generate her most pessimistic tone, observing ‘The irreplaceable / Golds bleed and deepen, the mouths of Thermopylae.’ These golden apples somehow do not regenerate; they ‘bleed’ and symbolize the way in which the speaker feels a similar draining of her identity and drive to live.  The speaker’s domestic landscape and role as caretaker offers no triumphant overcoming, just as the Greeks will make a valiant, but ultimately doomed stand at ‘Thermopylae.’ The tone lacks any pride in the sacrifice for the greater good or future generations, but rather implies a grim tone of resignation and despair.”

With huge thanks to Christian Gullette for permitting us to explore Plath right along with him in this deeply thoughtful, attentive and vivid take on “Letter in November,” know we’ll be looking at other sample annotations in the next few blog posts.

For now, a final note on the challenges of making poems. The writer, committed to words, is held by the laws that govern language. For one thing, the words must be heard or read, and this takes time. We do not know how the story or the poem ends until we’ve read to the end (of the novel, of the story, of the poem), and the writer must keep our interest alive from stanza to stanza or page to page until we get there. The novelist who would empty the work of plot altogether, like Samuel Beckett in The Unnamable or in a wholly different way, W.G. Sebald in The Rings of Saturn, has to draw desperately on all of the resources of invention to keep the words moving from line to line. The poet, like T.S. Eliot and all influenced thereafter, who would abolish the usual connectives of traditional verse, must make sure that those fragmentary images are sufficiently charged with, let’s call it “correspondence,” so that they hold the interest of the reader and fuse together into one imaginative whole.

Whether language is bound to the world of meanings is, I suppose, arguable (though I have no qualifications for making the argument that it is not). To the extent that language is, in fact, bound to the world of meanings, whether it’s bound in a way that always involves some sequence in time (even if, in the case of Hass, that sequence is somewhat fractured, somewhat collaged) is, again I suppose, also arguable–and again, I’m not qualified to have that argument. I am, however, qualified to say that I’m drawn to language that is bound—however tenuously—to the world of meanings, and bound to it in a way that suggests—however tenuously—some sequence in time.

I’d like to leave you here with some words from Stephen Dobyns (from his essay “Writing the Reader’s Life” taken from Poets Teaching Poets: Self and the World, ed. Gregory Orr and Ellen Bryant Voigt, U. Mich. Pres 1996):

In much poetry what is important is the lyric moment, a sort of crescendo when the emotional world of the writer joins with the emotional world of the reader. The primary function of narrative in poetry is to set up these moments. We are more interested in these moments than we are in the story.

Suggestion: Let’s accept as a working hypothesis that much poetry these days consists of some blend of lyric and narrative content. So, find a poem you admire that has both lyric and (no matter how thinly sketched) narrative content. Locate that lyric moment within that poem. See if you can identify how the poet “set up” that moment. Reminder: we don’t have a clue what we think until we write it down.

Posted in: Poetry