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.