Daily Archives: 13 October 2009

#28 “Snow” (Louis MacNeice)

Louis MacNeice’s “Snow” is not about love, or death, or animals, or children. Nor is about faith, nor is it about music or language itself. It’s about snow and roses, for sure; but it is also about how odd existence is when you think about it. In that way, it shares a theme with our other two Countdown entries for today, and with many other more elaborate poems we have read this semester.

The tiniest of unlikely contrasts leads to the poetic “moment” of this poem: how odd it is to be inside on a freezing day, with summer flowers just inches away from the snow.

But as great as the idea is in the poem, the execution of that idea enhances it greatly. The poem is in three four-line stanzas. The lines have an unprescribed number of syllables. Their true meter is “accentual””: that is, they seem to have about five strong “beats” or stresses to a line. How many stresses you hear depends on your choices when you read the lines aloud. But since only the stresses “count” in making up a line, the lines vary greatly, and beautifully, in rhythm. And they vary in syllable count from ten (the fourth line, if you read “world” as one syllable) to fifteen (the eleventh line). The poem is a riot of language, of “the drunkenness of things being various.”

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#29 untitled (“A narrow Fellow,” Emily Dickinson)

“Ophidiophobia,” it’s called: the fear of snakes. I’m not sure that the speaker of Emily Dickinson’s untitled poem that starts “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” is an ophidiophobe, exactly. But the phrase “Zero at the Bone” has entered the English language for something that scares you on a deeper level than goose pimples.

One of my favorite details in the poem is the image of the “Boy” thinking he sees a whiplash in the lawn. (Presumably, in a world where horses and their drivers were commonplace, you might see bits of whiplash lying around here and there, much as you see bits of tire tread on the Interstate today.)

The picture is so vivid: you see something skinny and interesting on the ground. You try to pick it up – and it wriggles away. Oh boy, are you glad you didn’t touch it. What if you’d managed to pick it up?

I think this poem is exceptionally fine, even though I don’t share its central phobia. I find snakes more intriguing than horrifying. But even if you are a bona fide herpetophile, the emotional force of the poem is clear, and easy to empathize with.

There are many things in the animal world that we can identify with, and we have seen some of them in the Countdown: cats and birds in particular seem to inspire poets to think about what is noble, or sometimes foolish, in the human condition.

But then there are animals that obviously have minds of their own but move (literally) in ways that we can’t empathize with in the least. And such animals make the world a lonelier, and a stranger, place. Someone once said of Emily Dickinson that she “made the world a little harder to see.” She does that here.

A brief note on form in the poem: these stanzas are fairly ordinary songlike stanzas rhyming XAXA (where “X” is a line that doesn’t participate in any rhyme). The dashes and the odd capitals are Dickinson’s signature style; they come directly from her handwriting. And she insisted on them. This was one of the few poems printed during her lifetime, and she remarked on how the printer had messed it up by changing the punctuation.

#30 “Memorabilia” (Robert Browning)

“Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,” begins Robert Browning’s short poem “Memorabilia.” Percy Shelley was a Romantic poet, a close friend of John Keats. Shelley was a generation older than Browning, and died when Browning was 10 years old; plus they moved in different social realms. If Browning ever saw Shelley, it wasn’t very plain or for very long.

When I was a child, I met a man who had known Gandhi – not that that’s very interesting in itself, but that it’s an example of the experience described in the poem. That someone from a history book had basically hung out with the person who was standing in front of me, beaming at my childish ways, was slightly incredible.

The only thing that holds together our “six-degrees” chain links to the past is memory. Those memories die with us, to be sustained (if at all) by a more tenuous set of hearsay memories in the next generation. After a while, what we know of history is a tiny thread of links that ignore the wide range of ephemeral experiences that pass into oblivion.

That’s the connection between the first and second halves of this poem. It’s not so much a metaphor, even, as an association between two experiences: the link to the past with the person who’d talked with Shelley, and the link to the moor in the form of a feather. Sometimes a huge happening in our lives survives only as – well, as a feather, as a ticket stub, as a bottle cap, as a postcard.

Once again, poetry works to capture something we probably didn’t know we needed a name for.