The Luck of It
From American Poets in 1976, edited by William Heyen (Babbs-Merrill,
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
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
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
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
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 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.