William Meredith

The Luck of It

From American Poets in 1976, edited by William Heyen (Babbs-Merrill, 1976).

A poet approaches language in the spirit of a woodman who asks pardon of the dryad in a tree before he cuts it down. Words are inhabited by the accumulated experience of the tribe. The average poet adds about as much to the language as he adds to the nitrogen content of his native soil. But he can administer the force that resides in words.

It is the magic inhabiting the-language that he administers, all the lived meaning that the noises have picked up in the days and nights since they were first uttered. He finds ways to revive that total meaning, or a part of it he wants to use, as he makes his verbal artifacts. His very attentive use of a word, associating it with other words used with equal attention (for no word is an island), astonishes us the way we would be astonished to hear a dryad speak pardon out of an oak tree. And as if this were not all elfin enough already, he does the job largely at a subconscious level. His intelligence stands around, half the time, like a big, friendly, stupid apprentice, handing him lopping-shears when he wants the chain saw.

In "Duns Scotus's Oxford," Hopkins demonstrates this magic of association in the tremendous energy of the opening and closing lines. "Towery city and branchy between towers;"-who would have imagined there was all that going on in those six words before they were joined in that sequence? And of Duns Scotus himself, the final line says, "Who fired France for Mary without spot." Kinesis is all, and the energy is in the words rather than in the thinky parts of man's mind.

Both superstition and modesty warn a poet against reduc¨ing his meager knowledge of these forces to theory. A poem I wrote a long time ago has come to seem to me an example of how much luck goes into the job. It was a breakthrough that I seemed at the time simply to stumble on as I went about my fairly methodical and fairly safe wording of experience. It was a poem that carried me into its own experience, demonstrating that simple mystery Frost has put: no surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader. It's a poem called "A View of the Brooklyn Bridge," and I am still incapable of judging it as a poem, so strongly did it imprint itself as a revelation. Set down rationally, revelations sound like hallucination: this bush by the side of the road flared up and a voice spoke out of it-we very rational people feel foolish recounting it. But this is what happened: a series of associations, and the words they inhabited, came to me uninvited but because I was in a state of un-self-centered attention. This is apparently a rare state with me, because in the twenty-five years since then I have averaged about six poems a year. That is apparently as often as the muse can get my attention.
Before I introduce the document, I might say that it had perhaps one forerunner, a longer poem called "Love Letter from an Impossible Land"-a somewhat more willful performance but similar-that I'd written five years earlier, when I was twenty-three. Other than that, I think all the poems I had written before this were primarily rational attempts to word accurately something I thought I understood. This poem, and to a less conscious degree "Love Letter," were irrational acts of surrender to an experience I knew very little about but which I had a sudden sense was being offered to me.

A View of the Brooklyn Bridge

The growing need to be moving around it to see it,
To prevent its freezing, as with sculpture and metaphor,
Finds now skeins, now strokes of the sun in a dark
Crucifixion etching, until you end by caring
What the man's name was who made it,
The way old people care about names and are
Forever seeing resemblances to people now dead.
Of stone and two metals drawn out so
That at every time of day
They speak out of strong resemblances, as:
Wings whirring so that you see only where
Their strokes finish, or: spokes of dissynchronous wheels.

Its pictures and poems could accurately be signed
With the engineer's name, whatever he meant.
These might be called: Tines inflicting a river, justly,
Or (thinking how its cables owe each something
To the horizontal and something to the vertical):
A graph of the odds against
Anyone man's producing a masterpiece.

Yet far from his, the engineer's, at sunrise
And again at sunset when,
Like the likenesses the old see;
Loveliness besets it as haphazard as genes:
Fortunate accidents take the form of cities
At either end; the cities give their poor edges
To the river, the buildings there
The fair color that things have to be.
Oh the paper reeds by a brook
Or the lakes that lie on bayous like a leopard
Are not at more seeming random, or more certain
In their sheen how to stand, than these towns are.

And of the rivering vessels so and so
Where the shadow of the bridge rakes them once,
The best you can think is that, come there,
A pilot will know what he's done
When his ship is fingered
Like that Greek boy whose name I now forget
Whose youth was one long study to cut stone;
One day his mallet slipped, some goddess willing
Who only meant to take his afternoon,
So that the marble opened on a girl
Seated at music and wonderfully fleshed
And sinewed under linen, riffling a harp;
At which he knew not that delight alone
The impatient muse intended, but, coupled with it, grief

The harp-strings in particular were so light
And put his chisel down for marvelling on that stone.

It is a poem of associations, isn't it? a gatherer as Robert Frost used to call them. Let me gloss it a little.

I was living near the bridge that winter, and looked at it a lot. In the house where I lived there were two artists who were good talkers and my closest friend was an artist who was a good listener, so I was probably seeing things with freshly peeled eyes. I can't remember where the image of skeins came from-I had to look the word up as I wrote this, but the crucifixion etching was a Rembrandt, I think one I'd seen at the Metropolitan where the wife of one of the painters had a job, I had been more irritated than wondering at my southern grandmother and a French woman I knew who cared about names and were forever seeing resemblances to people now dead. But in the openness of the poem I find no irritation (although I suppose the word forever is gently irritable), rather an affection for the old, for the associative-recollective process that is characteristic of age and of this poem. It seems to have been a kind of grace I was experiencing-an arrogant person in my late twenties-as I followed whither the poem led.
The image of spokes of dissynchronous wheels came into my head from aviation. I was still flying occasionally as a reserve pilot in the Navy, and when you fly propeller planes in formation you adjust the speed of your engine (by adjusting the pitch of your propeller) by looking through the blades of your own propeller at that of the lead plane until the blades appear to be standing still. I wonder what that image conveys, if anything, to a reader who hasn't observed the spokes of dissynchronous wheels or propellers.

When the poem first appeared in a book, I glossed the line about the engineer's name, as follows: "The Brooklyn Bridge was designed by J. A. Roebling who began' the work in 1869 which his son W. A. Roebling completed in 1883"-an impulse of propitiation, perhaps? as if the engineer might be helping me with my job?

With one of the three painters -in particular, the now well-known Canadian Jack Shadbolt, I used to have very rangy talk. The odds against anyone man's producing a masterpiece had been the theme of last night's talk.
The paper reeds by a brook is borrowed I think from Psalms, but I know it came to me from a beautiful setting by Randall Thompson, a colleague at Princeton the year before. The lakes that lie on bayous like a leopard-am I boring you, reader, with all these fingernail clippings?-I had ferried a plane to the west coast that winter by way of Louisiana.

I made up the Greek sculptor and his anecdote, but made up is too willful a verb: the Greek boy and his muse came to me, and the story-his wanting to do something difficult with his mallet, and having it done instead without his effort or even consent-came to me as a story that I did not then understand, a story parallel to something that was happening to me in the fashioning, if I did fashion it, of the poem.

A final gloss, comprehensive of the whole forty-seven lines: the things I hadn't read! Whitman, Hart Crane, none of the poem's ancestors.
The opening up of form that occurred in the poem is something that had happened with me before, but more often from clumsiness or laziness than at the direction of the poem. To this day I feel surer that I'm communicating with the poem if a prosodic pattern declares itself. I have sacred texts about this.

Most of my poetry is metrical, though I have written some free verse, syllabics, etc. One reason I write metrically is very simple: I do this better than I do in the more open forms. But I think I have a more deliberate choice behind it: from first to last most of my poems have dealt with violent or extreme or non-verbal [italics mine] experience. Fitting such experience through a fairly fixed form helps me to more firmly re-create it, and so to come to terms with it, possibly even to partially understand it. The openness of the experience is brought into relation with the structures of the mind. (Thorn Gunn, in a letter, 1970)

This is a fragment from a dialogue between Borges and a writing student at Columbia University (from Borges on Writing, edited by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, Daniel Halpern, and Frank MacShane):

Question: One can read the poets of the past and interpret what is learned into free verse.

Borges: What I fail to understand is why you should begin by attempting something that is so difficult, such as free verse.

Question: But I don't find it difficult.

Borges: Well, I don't know your writing, so I can't really say. It might be that it is easy to write and difficult to read.

Auden ("He thanks God daily / that he was born and bred / a British Pharisee," he says of himself elsewhere) talks about the problem as if the devices of prosody were our servants:

The poet who writes "free" verse is like Robinson Crusoe on his desert island: he must do all his cooking, laundry and darning for himself. In a few exceptional cases, this manly independence produces something original and impressive, but more often the result is squalor--dirty sheets on the unmade bed and empty bottles on the unswept floor. (The Dyer's Hand)

But the fourth of these texts is the one I need most, and states the other half of what has to be a dialectic. Randall Jarrell, in his extraordinary appreciation called "Some Lines from Whitman," says:

The enormous and apparent advantages of form, of omission and selection, of the highest degree of organization, are accompanied by important disadvantages. . . . If we compare Whitman with that very beautiful poet Alfred Tennyson, the most skillful of all Whitman's contemporaries, we are at once aware of how limiting Tennyson's forms have been; of how much Tennyson has had to leave out. . . . Whitman's poems represent his world and himself much more satisfactorily than Tennyson's do his. In the past a few poets have both formed and represented, each in the highest degree; but in modern times what controlling, organizing, selecting poet has created a world with as much in it as Whitman's, a world that so plainly is the world? (Poetry and the Age)

And in the luck of the poem there is one other element: will the poem work as well for the reader as it works for the muse and her scribe? Can you step back from the poem and see what is there, having been present when all its bright ambience burned and taken down what the unearthly voice said?
In the magazine where some of my favorite poems have appeared, for more than twenty years, a poem that I thought well enough of to place at the front of my selected poems was read this way:

William Meredith's volume is prefaced by an elegantly thoughtful foreword in which he tells us that although he may not have kept the most promising poems, he has kept the ones "that try to say things I am still trying to find ways to say, poems that engage mysteries I still pluck at the hems of. . . . As the patriotic sailor was heard to say, staring out at- the mid-Atlantic, it makes you feel kinda humble and kinda proud. Meredith's poetry has all the virtues: decency, reverence, gravity, quiet curiosity, and there is something very depressing about it, as of poetry soft at the center.

The reviewer then quoted only the middle stanza of the opening poem.

Winter Verse for His Sister

Moonlight washes the west side of the house
As clean as bone, it carpets like a lawn
The stubbled field tilting eastward
Where there is no sign yet of dawn.
The moon is an angel with a bright light sent
To surprise me once before I die
With the real aspect of things.
It holds the light steady and makes no comment.

Practicing for death I have lately gone
To that other house
Where our parents did most of their dying,
Embracing and not embracing their conditions.
Our father built bookcases and little by little stopped reading.
Our mother cooked proud meals for common mouths.
Kindly, they raised two children. We raked their leaves
And cut their grass, we ate and drank with them.
Reconciliation was our long work, not all of it joyful.

Now outside my own house at a cold hour
I watch the noncommittal angel lower
The steady lantern that's worn these clapboards thin
In a wash of moonlight, while men slept within,
Accepting and not accepting their conditions,
And the fingers of trees plied a deep carpet of decay
On the gravel web underneath the field,
And the field tilting always toward day.

His comment went on, and I have to confess that I think it's witty, though to this day I have been unable to find a revision of the poem-without betraying what I feel is its discovered language-that will make the metaphors of that second stanza less vulnerable to misfeeling:

What kind of a meal are you cooking? Oh, I think a proud meal tonight. How do you raise your children? Kindly, thank you. It's all too beautiful and shaming to be true, establishing the poet as such a splendid understander, knower and forgiver that a slightly self-congratulatory atmosphere hangs over this poem and the whole volume.

In general, a poet tries to make misreading and mistaking of feeling impossible, by the same attention that he pays to exact rendering of the experience he is being initiated into. Clearly he is not always lucky in both phases of his intuitive work, and there is always somebody waiting at the third stage who can say with critical detachment, Meredith is no Whitman or Tennyson. But what an ordinary poet congratulates himself on is, I suppose, being a good scribe, taking the things down as the tongue declares them. And, of course, the luck of being chosen by the tongue in the first place.