(Ed note: Anthony Madrid posts thus far are pretty terrific, yes? I kow you agree so to show your appreciation you should buy his book.
If you were empowered by the gods to travel back into the canon of poetry in English and change or delete one line, which would it be? On occasions, sometimes years apart, I’ve put this query to literary acquaintances, and the winner of this unscientific survey is. . . Percy Shelley’s plaintive cry, “I fall upon the thorns of life. I bleed.” The reason often given, and it’s clear by the swiftness with which this line is proffered that many of my contacts have not heard the question for the first time, is that this line is a blemish on a great poem that has no other bad line, not even a so-so line, but is poetry at its purest and most consummate perfection. The poem, of course, is “Ode to the West Wind.” Actually, I have come to like “I fall upon the thorns of life,” which is thoroughly in tone with the fine succeeding lines, “A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed / One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.” One has to hear and feel the desperate abandon of the whole passage to appreciate the upsweep of canto 5 when the poet becomes a seer of divine power who, “by the incantation of this verse,” trumpets a prophecy to mankind.
But “I bleed” is, admittedly, beyond the pale, over the top. Within the decorum of the poem it reaches too far and the strain of the gasped two words causes an audible snap. How might we improve the line. Substitute “, and need” or “, a seed”? Those are bland enough to not claw at the reader’s taste. I recall the story of Paul Valéry pausing at a bookstore window and reading two pages of verse from an open book. France’s reigning poetic genius, he tries to improve even one word of the text before him, and fails. He goes into the bookstore and finds that the book is Racine’s Ph èdre. No, I am not Paul Valéry, and will not presume to tamper with Shelley any longer.
Another favorite response is (you saw this coming) the last line of the first stanza of Stanley Kunitz’s great poem “Father and Son.” The speaker pursues the phantom figure of his dead father, who never shared the boy’s childhood (and who, we know, took his life while Stanley was in the womb). The boy is lost in “the silence unrolling before me as I came, / The night nailed like an orange to my brow.” The principle is the same as with Shelley: the high quality of the entire poem casts a brighter light on the offending lapse. As it happens, a younger and brasher version of myself asked Kunitz about this line on the occasion of his visit to the University of Michigan . He smiled wanly and gave what I took to be his standard response. Many people had asked him about the line over the years, but now the poem is so well-known, so often anthologized, even (I reminded him) praised as a precursor to the movement of Confessional Poetry, that it was now too late to change it. He looked down and said again in a whisper, “Too late.” Never too late I wanted to reply, but I felt intensely his desire to change the subject.
There is the problem of failed locutions – Matthew Arnold’s “Who prop, thou ask’st, in these bad
days, my mind?” or Wordsworth’s “My drift, I fear, is scarcely obvious”—and the problem of inspired conception, like the examples of Shelley and Kunitz above. James Camp, X. J. Kennedy and Keith Waldrop culled some dismal lines for their anthology Pegasus Descending: A Treasury of the Best Bad Poems in English. Some are priceless, though I miss both in this collection and The Stuffed Owl, edited forty years earlier, the mixed metaphor attacking natural religion in Edward Young’s philosophical poem Night Thoughts: “Lean not upon the earth; / T’will pierce thee to the core.” (Young’s vast reputation in the eighteenth and nineteenth century was destroyed not only by changes in fashion, but by George Eliot’s devastating essay exposing his poem as the maunderings of a sick soul. It’s a rare case of a major reputation substantially deflated by a single critical essay.) Camp, Kennedy, and Waldrop cite Emily Dickinson in their roll call of unfortunate opening lines:
Our lives are Swiss –
So still – so Cool – (#80)
Actually, I like these lines; they perform, like the majority of good or great lines and passages in Dickinson’s work, as risky metaphors that successfully force the reader to make unusual but (on consideration) apt associations. And they work well with the rest of the poem, which extends the Alps metaphor to suggest how a warmer, richer kind of life beckons to us beyond the chilly mountains, a heaven of bliss she italicizes as Italy.
The point about bad lines is that there has to be a discernible gap between the protocol of the whole poem and the offending part. Such protocol came under attack with Modernism, especially with the debate over The Waste Land where readers felt, rightly, that there was no prevailing tone or texture that excluded any line from acceptability. Are the following lines good or bad? Are they essentially in tone with the rest of the poem? These are useless questions.
“You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
“Has it begun to sprout?”
The lines deliberately deface and lampoon the traditional “poetic” textures in lines preceding them (“Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, / A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many.”) and following them (“The Chair she sat in” passage).
Every reader of poetry experiences “Waste Land” moments of disconcert in contemporary poetry, where the offenses against canons of taste become not just prominent but a ruling aesthetic. For me, the primal moment of cognitive dissonance was my first reading of Ashbery’s “The Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers.” The poem opens, notoriously, “Darkness falls like a wet sponge,” a line that would be a touchstone of badness in any poem aspiring to canonical status written before, when?, 1950? The poem is hurled down as a gauntlet, or wet sponge, daring us to pick it up and complain about it, as I am doing here. Ashbery has always said that he is not concerned with whether a poem is good or bad, only in whether it is interesting. As with Eliot, Ashbery’s ghastly simile proposes to extend the boundaries of taste, and of judgment, in part by generating the rest of the poem in the same flagrant manner. Having a verbal genius comparable to Eliot’s, brash and intimidating, Ashbery has seemingly carried the day, a triumph that has nourished debate about poetry ever since—a debate focused so far on the provocations of Language Poetry, the heir to Ashbery’s successful inventions.
I sense that this blog entry is turning into an essay, so I’ll abupt it (to borrow Auden’s adjective-to-verb formulation) and turn to other topics tomorrow, in my final presumption upon your attention.