The Great Mistakes: Teaching Flawed Poems
Tony Hoagland | October/November 1991
One of my favorite poems by Wallace Stevens, one of my favorite poets, is "A Postcard from the Volcano." Aside from its wonderfully intriguing title, the economy, grace, and drama of its opening stanzas is a model of the poetic fast break:
Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once
As quick as foxes on the hill;
And that in autumn, when the grapes
Made sharp air sharper by their smell,
These had a being, breathing frost...
Years ago, I learned some very useful lyric maneuvers by memorizing the poem. The fugue-like rhetorical refrain Stevens employs so frequently and so effectively in his poetry allows him to rebegin the poem several times, advancing and developing new content in a way that is both dramatic and lyric. Also, midway through the poem, there is a pivot of pure music, a melodious shift in tone which frees the poem from its first discursive voice while emotionally opening it up:
The spring clouds blow
Above the shuttered mansion-house
....and the windy sky
Cries out a literate despair.
In saying this poem for friends and students, I learned something of the pleasure of recitation. So many who were intimidated by the popular, misbegotten image of Stevens as a dry, intellectual, "difficult" poet were pleased and surprised at his concreteness and clarity, his musical playfulness, his sweet gravity.
In the process of memorizing, and in the act of reciting the poem, I encountered some instructive difficulties. The first two-thirds of the poem were always easy to recall, but I often found myself faking the final third, dropping a line, or disarranging it. It seemed to dissolve into its own grand sonorousness. It is one of those swelling, "opulent" finales fairly common-and often successful-in Stevens' work. Here are the last three stanzas:
Children, still weaving budded aureoles,
Will speak our speech and never know,
Will say of the mansion that it seems
As if he that lived there left behind
A spirit storming in blank walls,
A dirty house in a gutted world
A tatter of shadows peaked to white
Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun.
Musically, the conclusion is gorgeous, but more obscure and less concrete than what precedes. It also seems to depart from the established theme of the preceding verses. The subject, up till this midway point (to oversimplify and isolate, necessarily), has been absence, as seen from the odd perspective of the long-vanished. The mood has been one of dignity and melancholy. Yet the last two stanzas have the children recognizing a certain rage and pollution from the previous occupant of the house, a residue of angry, glorious presence (musically, to me, the sound here is of clashing cymbals). The material, rich, authoritative, and gorgeous as it sounds, seems inconsistent with the other materials of the poem. The end of the poem claims the inerradicability of the spirit-a thesis quite opposite of its own introductory acceptance of extinction.
Now I don't doubt that the artistic perfection of the poem can be defended, and well-defended, by an ingenious critic, on several grounds. For example, the thematic integrity of the last three stanzas could be argued on a psychological basis-the speaker's calm meditation upon absence might be said to naturally give way to a reactive vision of resentful survivorship. But to me, these closing stanzas-the last in particular- seem theatrical. They bully and overwhelm the reader, while masking a relative obscurity of content. This inflatedness is the more obvious in contrast to the excellence that precedes-the crisp, austere, and melancholy opening. One thinks of "The Snow Man," a similar poem in many ways, which does fulfill itself thematically as well as musically.
I would like to emphasize that my judgment comes from my experience, not my analysis of the poem.
When memorizing, "A Postcard from the Volcano" I found that the ending was much more difficult to recall. Wallace Stevens, the great canoe maker, has not flexed the firm ribbing of content sufficiently to fill the skin of sound. And at some point in my intimate experience of the poem, I decided that Stevens was simply doing his best to patch the thing up, and get it into the water. The poem is not perfect. The poem is not perfect, the poem is not perfect. Even if I'm right, my admiration for the poem is undiminished. I contend that the poem is still quite wonderful, and that, in fact, the recognition of its flaws was of real benefit to me.
We commonly are introduced to great poems as examples of perfection, as totally realized works of genius. Criticism is founded on a faith in the realized harmony and wholeness of such works. When we teach, we teach that assumption. When the freshman literature student says, "Chekhov is such a tedious Russian. Nothing happens in this dumb story," we send him back to read it again. And again- and to write about what he can find, in the faith that to explicate is to enhance appreciation.
But wouldn't it be as much a revelation to students, as it was for me, to observe that a great poem may nonetheless be flawed? Or that a flawed poem may nonetheless be great? For a young (or old) would-be writer of poems to understand that poems have crooks, crannies, patched places, gaps in content, lapses in sound? That even the greats did what they could on a given Tuesday morning is heartening news about the human labor of art.
Furthermore, the observation of such "glitches" in even great work is a way of teaching students autonomy- teaching them to trust their own eyes and ears, and taste. Though inexperienced, their instincts are potentially as good as Helen Vendler's or Peter Stitt's. They themselves can tell when a stanza is boring, or coy, or lamed, or somehow just "off," or derivative, or when "nobody is home" in a poem. Even the emperor of ice cream must sometimes have to stand naked.
For my second example of a great, "flawed," poem, I wish to consider a famous piece by Philip Larkin. Larkin's collection The Less Deceived takes its title from the poem "Deceptions." The occasion for the poem is the reading of an historical account of a rape in Victorian London. The poem is addressed to the victim, and undertakes the difficulties of consolation. On a more general level, it deals with that perennial Larkin subject, Desire. The poem is brief and so may be quoted entirely:
Even so distant, I can taste the grief,
Bitter and sharp with stalks, he made you gulp.
The sun's occasional print, the brisk brief
Worry of wheels along the street outside
Where bridal London bows the other way,
And light, unanswerable and tall and wide,
Forbids the scar to heal, and drives
Shame out of hiding. All the unhurried day
Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.
Slums, years, have buried you. I would not dare
Console you if I could. What can be said,
Except that suffering is exact, but where
Desire takes charge, readings will grow erratic?
For you would hardly care
That you were the less deceived, out on that bed,
Than he was, stumbling up the breathless stair
To burst into fulfillment's desolate attic.
The particular lines which I find problematic are in the meditative passage in the second stanza:
I would not dare
Console you if I could. What can be said,
Except that suffering is exact, but where
Desire takes charge, readings will grow erratic?
The passage is, of course, crucial to the poem. It is the moment of truth, when the poet turns away from image-making, and marshals his response. And of course, it sounds exactly "right": brave, intelligent, and sad, it seems to neatly distill and organize the issues of the poem, and to make the complex clear. Passages like this, says a friend, are like the attempt to juggle bowling balls gracefully-and with feeling. But do these abstraction-juggling lines really clarify? For me, the numerous abstract terms of the passage, and the complex construction which relates them, create some confusion-some of it skillfully deliberate, some unintentional. Everything depends upon how those abstractions, controlled by the syntax of the sentence, modify each other, and upon how neatly they connect to the dramatic foreground of the poem. These clauses, despite their air of certainty, in fact, go together inexactly. Consequently, there is a certain unintended vagueness in the relation of the abstract passage to the rest of the poem.
Let us proceed to proof. The first clause introduces the first several terms of the poetic equation, "suffering" and "exactness." The "but" with which the next clause begins implies a contradictory relation between what precedes and what follows. The idea that suffering is exact is syntactically counterposed to the declaration that "where desire takes charge, readings will grow erratic."
The problems really arise in the second half of this equation, where Larkin's use of the word "readings" suddenly opens the poem to a whole new perspective: whose "erratic readings" is he speaking of! To begin with, his own. Suddenly the writer is implicated in the business of desire, and suddenly the discourse is moved to a semiotic level. The writer is pleading an inability to interpret the event in a way that is not exploitative and disrespectful of the sufferer's experience. He disqualifies himself as an interpreter of suffering, unworthy of the task of consolation.
This is a fine, honest, and confirmable complication. But the very generality of abstractions (which is why we like them), when added to the construction of the sentence, creates a problem in specific application. The final clause, "readings will grow erratic," which interestingly and skillfully links the writer to the rapist, also syntactically implies that the rapist (whose Desire took charge) is a would-be "reader" of suffering. But he is not; more exactly, to follow the metaphor, he is the author of the suffering. The different vectors of abstraction, shooting about like rayguns, interfere with each other. The passage, with its abundance of abstraction, complicates itself imperfectly. In our effort to align the poet's formulation with the narrative, the reader experiences a slight blurriness of vision, as if the reader were not quite smart enough to put the pieces together.
Larkin goes on to skillfully resolve the poem, emotionally completing his gesture of consolation with his narration, while discrediting the "victory" of the unscrupulous minion of desire. But the murky abstract passage continues to float, slightly skewed, mid-poem. I would add that upon reading it again and again, the ('reading" metaphor comes to seem somewhat artificial, unnaturally imposed. The clutter, the awkwardness, may be slight; the "murkiness" I hope I am identifying may be slight-clearly this well-respected poem can be read effectively. I merely am claiming that the meditation here is less than ideal in terms of bear-trap logical efficiency. The obscurities may be slight, but they are real.
I realize that in "criticizing" these poems in this way, I am advancing an aesthetic which is perfectionistic, which demands absolute signification-an aesthetic which is itself problematic, and even inappropriate for evaluating some kinds of poetry. It might be argued that the multiple resonances, the ambiguity of these Larkin lines, enrich the poem by enlarging the number of possible readings. It might be said that such interpretive "slipperiness" in poetry is one of its values. Words float and emphasis shifts as syntax unfolds. We rely on the linearity of language in one moment, and upon its retroactive qualities in the next. Poetry is the art of having things two ways at once. Many poets would insist that it is exactly such "openness" to interpretation which makes poetry poetry.
But it was Stevens who said, "The poem must resist the intelligence/almost successfully," and if the elusive Stevens applied that standard to himself, it is even more appropriate to Larkin, in whose work the desire to be perfectly lucid is evident everywhere.
Finally, by way of evidence, a former teacher,1 who teaches "Deceptions" in his British poetry course, tells me that his students are regularly troubled by this passage of the poem, and that, furthermore, the original Larkin manuscript shows that the poet struggled a good deal, with pencil and eraser, over these very lines. Here are some of Larkin's manuscript alternatives to the passage in question:
What can be said
Except that suffering scalds deceit and where
Illusion scatters, pain is most emphatic?
All to be said
To suffering ghost or substance is that these
In that long scald pretense is frozen out...
What Larkin came up with eventually, by my reading, was a compromise between clarity and lyricism, precisely the sort of compromise that poets must regularly make in the writing process, sacrificing one virtue in favor of another.
Larkin, like Stevens, really needs no one to defend him. His achievement is secure enough. What can be gained from recognizing such poetic "flaws," and from studying them in the classroom, is a self-reliant open-mindedness to our encounters with the page. They can serve as a reminder of the open-endedness of creation, to which our careful, respectful, and critical reading is one end. But not the final end.
Tony Hoagland has published essays and poems in Passages North, Cimarron Review, and Crazy Horse. His chapbook of poems, History of Desire, was published by Moon Pony Press. He teaches at St. Mary's College in Moraga, California.
- Thanks to Professor Roger Brown of the University of Arizona.