Daily Archives: 1 October 2009

#37 “Roosters” (Elizabeth Bishop)

Elizabeth Bishop’s “Roosters” is probably the longest poem in the Countdown by sheer number of lines (132). And I do remember that I set a 100-line limit for our poems. But the lines in “Roosters” are so short that I figured a foolish consistency would be the hobgoblin of my little mind. It’s probably not our longest poem in terms of word count, and it’s certainly one of the more focussed poems on the whole list.

The poem starts with a literal description of roosters. Whatever town we’re in, it’s a town full of roosters: not a sanitized 21st-century mid-American city, but some place distant enough in time and space from us to have an immediate living relationship with its poultry. The roosters wake the village; they fight; some of the fights end badly.

But the speaker, in the process, gets to thinking about roosters and what they mean in culture. She’s a verbal collector of images of roosters, the way some people collect porcelain pigs, or glass owls, or prints of mushrooms. The stereotypical rooster image, in America, is on a weathervane, even though few of our houses have weathervanes anymore, and fewer of those vanes have roosters. The central cultural depiction of a rooster that she focuses on is from the Bible. It is the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus, and it appears in all three “synoptic” Gospels, as in Matthew 26:75:

And Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly.

In the Latin version of the Bible that was long the standard text for the Catholic Church (and therefore for pre-Reformation art, and for the Vatican City**), “gallus canit” means “the cock crowed,” and “flet Petrus” means “Peter wept.” The poet isn’t showing off; she’s just reading what is written on this work of art (which may well be imaginary; at least; I can’t find it quickly on the Internet).

The climax of the poem is beautifully rendered. Peter denied Jesus. Well, he was human. The fact of his humanity, as symbolized by the rooster (which becomes a kind of metonym for not having superhuman strength) is what, paradoxically, led Jesus to forgive him, and to forgive us all.

Whether you’re Christian or not, the idea that a symbol of weakness can be a reminder of love and strength is a powerful idea. And the weakness of the literally “cocky” roosters subsides in the last part of the poem (its denouement) to become an image of peace. “The cocks are now almost inaudible.” Morning has returned, with immense hope, to the world.

**Edit Saturday 10/3: The “Lateran” (the basilica of St. John Lateran) is in Rome itself, not in the Vatican City. My bad.

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#38 “Directive” (Robert Frost)

Robert Frost’s “Directive” is shot through with what John Keats called “negative capability.” Keats, as we know, praised writers (and by implication readers) of poetry who were “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Keats’s great example was Shakespeare, though he was also obviously thinking of himself. (Keats specifically said that Coleridge lacked negative capability, though I think this is unfair to Coleridge’s best poetry.)

To Keats and Shakespeare and the Coleridge of “Kubla Khan” we can add Robert Frost as a great purveyor of negative capability. What better way to think about a poem called “Directive” where the speaker “only has at heart your getting lost?”

The title “Directive” suggests that the poem is going to lead somewhere, or tell us what to do – no matter what the speaker says about his reliability as a guide. But the directive turns out to be nothing you could actually accomplish in real life. (For one thing, try Google-Mapping “the height / Of country where two village cultures faded / Into each other.”) The journey that the speaker asks us to undertake is basically a guided dream. But it’s to a very specific setting. We must go to a specific imaginary place of the speaker’s choosing. This is not one of those “close your eyes and visualize a special place of your own” exercises. The speaker wants us to go somewhere particular that is very familiar to him, but alien to us.

And as always, the way to follow the speaker is just to imagine the landscape and artifacts in a completely literal way. He is talking about imaginary, but very literal trees. He is talking about literal artifacts and literal houses that used to be.

The landscape becomes magical, but not because it conceals some hidden meaning accessible only to people who are smart about poetry. It becomes magical because the places that we live and imagine in are always real, particular, concrete – indeed, ordinary – places that we fill with adventure. As Marianne Moore called poetry, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”