Daily Archives: 1 September 2009

#61: “Himalayan Balsam” (Anne Stevenson)

If “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things” is one of the plainest poems we’ll deal with this semester, Anne Stevenson’s “Himalayan Balsam” is one of the most ornate and difficult. Verbally difficult, I would argue: once one gets past some of the initial verbal difficulties, the poem is not hard to think about, and once one accepts that it’s not going to lead in a linear direction, it’s easy to enjoy. You just have to go where the poem leads, from one association to the next.

Great poetry can include characteristics that would get really low grades on composition papers. “Himalayan Balsam” has some of them: unclear transitions, off-topic digressions, run-on sentences. The poem alternates between love and death (remember, according to Emily Dickinson, the great poetic themes). “It’s not … that death / creates love. More that love knows death.” Why would the speaker have thought that death created love? And how does love know death? Do these ideas jibe with your understanding of either love or death? And how do the verbal illustrations of these ideas (flowers, spiders, young dead animals, housework, cathedrals) speak to love or death – do they extend your knowledge of these things, or do they stretch too far?

“Himalayan Balsam” isn’t afraid to follow its ideas and images wherever they lead. In a sentence from John Keats that I will return to often this semester, Stevenson is possessed of “Negative Capability, […] capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” In fact, the closing turn of the poem, where the lover “says ‘yes’ to the coming winter and a summoning odour of balsam” is a kind of poetic embodiment of negative capability – shown, not told – that is far different from anything a social or natural scientist, or a philosopher, might say about the problems of love and death.

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#62: “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things” (Robert Frost)

We can dwell on details and difficulties in class discussion; in these blog posts, I’ve found I should concentrate on (a) showing, telling, and defending what’s so great about the poem at hand; and (b) raising some questions that you might look at in your comments.

So, to #62, Robert Frost’s “Need of Being Versed in Country Things”. Robert Frost will appear several times in our Countdown. Partly this is because his poems fit my requirements so well: many are short, vivid, beautifully written, universally themed, and need no esoteric knowledge to understand.

“The Need of Being Versed in Country Things” does require us to know what a house and barn might look like, and what some common elements of American farmsteads are. But most of us have seen such farmsteads, even if only from the interstate. And it’s a safe bet that most of us can imagine a building that is abandoned, destroyed, or ruined.

The poem is one of great beauty, great simplicity, and great starkness. Its central question is one that Frost asks in a number of poems. One might call it the “meaning of life” question, except that it’s not reducible to such a simplistic paraphrase. Here, it’s a “meaning of country things” question. In the country things vanish and other things replace them.

Doesn’t that happen in the city too? Doesn’t it happen in civilization? Perhaps we try to do too much explaining, in civilization. Nature tears things down, and they vanish utterly. (Nature tears down natural things as well as artificial things.) When something is destroyed, something else grows in its place.

Is there a consciousness behind all this destruction and renewal? Or is consciousness, is tragedy, something imposed on nature by people who aren’t “versed in country things?”

The pre-eminent beauty of this poem, among many, for me, is the utter plainness of the language. That plainness comes out in the poem’s most abstract moment: “the sigh we sigh / From too much dwelling on what has been.” It comes out too in the concrete moments in the poem, where I don’t detect even the ghost of a metaphor: “the fence post carried a strand of wire.” There are huge philosophical ideas in the poem, but it doesn’t stop to philosophize. It just shows things, in the way that Archibald MacLeish demanded of poetry. For all the torment of consciousness, MacLeish might say, a pump handle and a fence post.