Thursday, March 19, 2009

Merwin's "Dusk in Winter"

W.S. Merwin’s five-line poem “Dusk in Winter” (from The Lice, 1967), contains qualities that helped make Merwin so influential at early mid-career: extreme compression, syntactical and syllabic balance, and a sense of mystery that is enigmatic yet evocative.

Dusk in Winter

The sun sets in the cold without friends
Without reproaches after all it has done for us
It goes down believing in nothing
When it has gone I hear the stream running after it
It has brought its flute it is a long way

The poem focuses on the moment of sundown beside a stream. But though the atmosphere of the poem is one of stillness, of acute observation, the description is not static. The poem’s speaker asserts that the sun “goes down believing in nothing,” then he “hear[s] the stream running after it,” ending with the notion that the stream has to go “a long way” in its journey. As a complement to that tension between stasis and movement, the poem uses a carefully structured system of syllabic and syntactic patterns to suggest the steady movement of sun and stream and the speaker’s view of that landscape as one that is in equilibrium.

The poem’s first line contains nine syllables, and is composed of three grammatical parts: a phrase that delivers the subject and verb, “The sun sets,” followed by two prepositional phrases: “in the cold without friends.” Each phrase in the sentence contains three syllables, and the slight pause we are aware of between discrete phrases of this sort gives each syntactical unit equal weight, creating a sense of balance in the line, and introducing a pattern that might serve as a signal to the careful reader. Line two begins with a five syllable phrase (“without reproaches”), which tends to lend the phrase extra emphasis since the pattern of “threes” has been broken, somewhat the same effect as if an iambic metrical pattern had been varied. “Without friends” in the previous line had set up the personification of the sun, and “without reproaches” takes the personification further, suggesting that because the sun has done so much for the earth it has no need for any regret, and justifying the emphasis that results from the syllabic pattern having been shifted. The rest of line two breaks naturally into two four syllable chunks: “after all it \ has done for us,” and is followed by a line that re-establishes the pattern of threes that was present in the first line (“it goes down \ believing \ in nothing”). Thus line three is a mirror image of the poem’s first line, again suggesting balance and harmony.

The syntax of these first three lines is so balanced as to play against the syllabic pattern that is at work. Given that Merwin eschews punctuation in his poems, it is often possible to read them in the light of more than one syntactical possibility. That holds true in the first three lines of this poem. Two readings are possible: the first two lines could be read as one sentence (“The sun sets in the cold without friends / without reproaches [,] after all it has done for us[.]”), line three then being a sentence by itself (“It goes down believing in nothing[.]”). Or, the lines could be read this way: “The sun sets in the cold without friends / without reproaches[.] After all it has done for us / it goes down believing in nothing[.]” I find the second reading more satisfying and more likely as the one intended, both for the better syntactical balance it creates, since the two sentences are exactly the same length in their syllable counts, and for its implication that the sun believes “in nothing” despite the fact that it has been so beneficent to the earth during its daily arc: it does what it does because it is the sun, not because it cares for humanity. And read this way, the poem exhibits a kind of reverse echo in its syllabic pattern, since we first have three three-syllable units followed by one comprised of five syllables, then two four-syllable units followed by the same three/three pattern that opened the poem, each of these collective units being composed of sentences that are of the same length. These units do not perfectly mirror each other but they strongly suggest intention on Merwin’s part, a way of establishing a pattern and then reversing it to achieve a different kind of music.

Line four is a complete sentence (“When it is gone \ I hear the stream \ running after it [.]”) and breaks nicely into two four syllable units followed by one consisting of five syllables. Again, that pattern is easy to discern because of the way the sentence is constructed and the white noise between discrete pieces: prepositional phrase followed by subject, verb, and object, followed by a participial phrase. The two units of four are also emphasized as such because every word in them is monosyllabic, contrasted with the two two-syllable words that occur in the five-syllable unit, which tend to emphasize the movement of the stream that they describe. Each of the poem’s first two sentences contains fourteen syllables, and this one contains thirteen, again suggesting that Merwin is consciously striving for a sense of balance in sentence length while working to construct syllabic units that set up patterns only to vary them. Hearing such patterns, the reader comes to anticipate what variations might be wrought with them, creating a type of tension (through “attention” on the reader’s part) that stands apart from the poem’s allusive imagery and metaphor. It is also interesting to note the implication in this line’s opening phrase (“When it is gone”) that the speaker could not hear the stream until the sun was gone. While there was light, his attention was focused on the things he could see—the primary sense. But in the almost-dark, he must re-focus on what he can hear, and what he senses is that the stream is “running after” the sun, suggesting that each of them is alive, never in stasis, whether in relation to the earth or of it.

The poem’s last line reads as two sentences, each containing five syllables (“It has brought its flute[.] It is a long way[.]”) These sentences are delivered in the same declarative, unaffected tone as is employed throughout the poem, but because they achieve this syllabic equity, they beautifully enact the song that the speaker suggests in the trope of the stream’s having “brought its flute” on the “long way” that it must travel. The two phrases that describe the stream’s song are in perfect equilibrium with each other, and again the use of strictly monosyllabic words in this last line and the fact that the poem ends with the spondee (“long way”) suggest that the motion of the stream is steady, unhurried, constant. We even hear repetition and harmony in the parallel structures of the two sentences, the music of the “It has…” and “It is…” phrases.

The syntactic pattern that Merwin employs in “Dusk in Winter” (three sentences of almost equal length, followed by two of exactly equal length), conveys a sense of balance and cohesion that complements the speaker’s vision of the events in the natural world on which the poem focuses. And the poem’s use of syllabic patterns and variations on those patterns establishes a layer of tension that keeps the reader engaged and anticipatory. It is difficult to imagine a five line poem that is able to imply more than this one, and in such subtle ways.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Elizabeth Bishop's "The End of March"

Elizabeth Bishop's great poem "The End of March" (from which, of course, the title of this blog is taken) reflects both her fascination with and affection for the natural world and her acknowledgement of the aesthetic and artistic choices that determined the shape of her life's work.

The poem begins with the speaker (along with the dedicatees of the poem, John Malcolm Brinnin and Bill Read) walking on a New England beach on a forbiddingly cold day. Bishop uses minimalist descriptions to ironically convey the size and sweep of the landscape:

Everything was withdrawn as far as possible,
indrawn: the tide far out, the ocean shrunken,
seabirds in ones or twos.
The rackety, icy, offshore wind
numbed our faces on one side;
disrupted the formation
of a lone flight of Canada geese;
and blew back the low, inaudible rollers
in upright, steely mist.

The sense of isolation, of vulnerability before the wind, and of the "shrunken" ocean render the beach a wide-open stage on which the three human actors all but disappear.

Then, as so often happens in a Bishop poem, an animal appears, or at least the trail the animal has left.

...we followed
a track of big dog-prints (so big
they were more like lion-prints). Then we came on
lengths and lengths, endless, of wet white string,
looping up to the tide-line, down to the water,
over and over. Finally, they did end:
a thick white snarl, man-size, awash,
rising on every wave, a sodden ghost,
falling back, sodden, giving up the ghost....
A kite string?--but no kite.

And, as again so often occurs in Bishop's work, the animal is imbued with an almost magical element--a dog as big as a lion, whose track leads to the mysterious "snarl" of string that, though "man-size" and ghostly, puts the speaker in mind of a kite string, a thing associated with airiness and leisure. Surely few activities are less associated with work and productivity than kite-flying. So at this point, not quite halfway through the poem, emerges the tension between work and play, acceptance of responsibility and the possibilities inherent in freedom that Bishop revisits over and over in her work. The kite, though apparently free from the effects of gravity, is in reality rooted to the earth by its thin tether, and, in fact, could not fly without the tension that tether provides.

What follows is the speaker's description of the perfect place in which to enjoy a kind of ideal freedom.

I wanted to get as far as my proto-dream house,
my crypto-dream house, that crooked box
set up on pilings, shingled green,
a sort of artichoke of a house, but greener....

The description is vivid but laced with affectionate humor, the house being one she has seen often enough to hold in memory, to adorn with flourishes only the imagination could provide. And what solace might the house provide?

I'd like to retire there and do nothing,
or nothing much, forever, in two bare rooms:
look through binoculars, read boring books,
old, long, long books, and write down useless notes,
talk to myself, and, foggy days,
watch the droplets slipping, heavy with light.

After a lifetime of wandering--New England, New York, Key West, Brazil, and elsewhere--here is Bishop's understandable wish to settle down, to imagine a home furnished with the few necessaries the poet/artist needs. The description of the house proceeds for several more lines, with the speaker asserting that "There must be a stove" since "there is a chimney, / askew, but braced with wires, / and electricity, possibly." In the "must be" and "possibly" we hear the longing, the desire for the just-right setup, all of the basic elements that a "crypto-dream house" could provide. But almost immediately, the poem pulls itself back to the reality suggested by its title: "A light to read by--perfect! But--impossible. / And that day the wind was much too cold / even to get that far, / and of course the house was boarded up." Of course the house is still boarded up for the season; of course the travelers on the lonely beach aren't even able to make it within sight of the house--cold finality, perhaps tinged with regret.

But in its closing lines the poem offers an insight of clarifying beauty and affirmation.

On the way back our faces froze on the other side.
The sun came out for just a minute.
For just a minute, set in their bezels of sand,
the drab, damp, scattered stones
were multi-colored,
and all those high enough threw out long shadows,
individual shadows, then pulled them in again.
They could have been teasing the lion sun,
except that now he was behind them
--a sun who'd walked the beach the last low tide,
making those big, majestic paw prints,
who perhaps had batted a kite out of the sky to play with.

Here is Bishop's habit of turning to the everyday for consolation, making jewelry out of the humble stones, then conflating the earlier images of the "lion" and the all-but-absent sun so that the poem can end with the metaphor of play. The brief journey on the beach becomes a meditation on a lifetime of choices, and though the reflection is tinged with regret, it can end with affirmation. The making of the poem takes precedence, and though this poem's title suggests termination, or limited possibilities, it can find its way to suggesting the joy inherent in creation. Even out of its element, the kite represents the possibility of a fresh start, a new poem woven from the fabric of missed chances and irrevocable outcomes.