Apr 30, 2015


I read a funny one the other day, about ambiguity in poetry. I don't remember where I saw this little piece on the beauty of poetry, that it lies in nearly infinite ambiguity, and I couldn't find it again. But I remember the opening spot-on. The writer quoted the first line of a Wallace Stevens's poem "The Snow Man," which Yvor Winters considered one of the greats of the language. The line goes, "One must have a mind of winter..." The writer thought this a beautiful line because to him it is nearly infinitely ambiguous. It can mean just about anything to anybody. But the line isn't ambiguous or open to endless personal interpretation in the least. Certainly, the line is open to endless application in individual lives, in the mind of each person reflecting on Stevens's idea, as all writing is, but it has one clear and obvious meaning. The poem is about human interaction with the world, and in context the line is meant to point out that a human would have to be something wholly other than a human to feel and know the natural world, which gives us so little direct knowledge of itself to us that it seems like ice and snow. Now, what that "message" or "point" or "communication" might mean in your life is for you to decide. But the meaning of the line and nearly every word in the poem is perfectly clear. It was amusing to see a writer defending that rusted ol' saw that the ambiguity of poetry is what makes it beautiful and great by offering a line that's as clear as glass.

Feb 26, 2015

Philip Levine

The American poet Philip Levine died this month. He was a graduate student of Yvor Winters's in the last years of Winters's life in the mid-1960s. Levine was published all over the place during his career. I read his work often in The New Yorker over several decades. I like some of Levine's "poems," if poems they are. He claimed that he wrote a lot of his poetry in syllabic verse, verse that has the same number of accented syllables in each line (and as many unaccented syllables as the poet wishes) in each variable stanza. To my moderately practiced reading eye and ear, I have seen syllabic verse, Levine's included, too often devolve into nothing distinguishable as verse at all. Levine, in my judgment, almost always wrote prose broken up into lines, what I call "prosetry." He wrote mostly descriptive poetry that was vaguely melancholy in the way of the modern artist. A lot of his work was "prosetic musing," a ubiquitous sort of poem that meanders about from topic to topic by association: "look at this, look at that, this happened, then that happened," and so on -- until the poet runs out of gas, which seems to the only acceptable kind of ending to this sort of prosetry, to run out of gas and roll slowly to a stop with two tires on the shoulder. I was naturally drawn to Levine's work because, as he did, I grew up in the Detroit area. His descriptions of various events and places of his early life are occasionally interesting, but nothing significant. He could turn a nice phrase a few times in every musing, but that was about it, which might be plenty for anyone. I never saw any influence of Winters in his work (except that claim about syllabics, which Winters was interested in as an experimental verse form) or read anything that helped me understand what he got from Winters.