Original Criticism

Russell Evatt: On "Fidel in Ohio"

Martìn Espada’s Fidel in Ohio portrays a bus driver politically minded enough to gesture to a complete stranger over something in a “tabloid.”  Perhaps ‘politically minded’ is too strong a characterization for the bus driver, as the driver is merely making a comment.  But the driver is attempting some comment of a political nature it’s just that he has some bad information, is taking the article out of context of the paper in which it is printed.  In so doing, the response is comedic and the poem offers a small specific look at a large overarching wave of problematic thought and transference.   

The poem focuses on a particular state, Ohio, with a particular (though unnamed) bus driver, in order to suggest a representation of the whole.  A bus drivers in Ohio talks, discusses a current event with a random passenger; “The bus driver tore my ticket / and gestured at the tabloid.”  This doesn’t mean all bus drivers talk to patrons though it suggests the casualness by which thought, and for the poem, political thought, is transferred.  The poem operates on this level of inference; showing something about an entire region or state or country’s attitude through one encounter, one person, a bus driver, a stand in for the average citizen, or an entity with which to measure the rest of the citizens.  I am somewhat skeptical of this approach, as it’s akin to the tourist who “loves <insert country>,” a judgment based on the few days they vacationed there.  To this end, my question is whether or not the Midwest via Ohio has been unfairly represented.  For now, I will say the poem has to be located somewhere that is often conceptualized as slower, more spacious, a place where bus drivers might be free to read the tabloids on the steering wheel and make comments to boarding passengers.  But why Ohio?  If we are to read the poem as a synecdoche for the transference of ignorant thought does it matter that this ignorance is grounded in Ohio?  To this end, I see the poem making a sacrifice.  In order to show (as the footnote notes) the “widespread U.S. ignorance about Latin America” it (the poem) must display some of this same type of ignorance by using a common trope of the slow Midwesterner.  The bus driver serves as an entry point into the discussion regarding ignorance but not without revealing some of its own overgeneralizations.

Nothing is added to the conversation by the response of the speaker to the bus driver.  If the speaker gets the joke, they do not attempt to provide the bus driver with the information necessary or instruct the driver in any way.  The speaker’s casual agreement with the statement operates to keep things moving, not cause trouble.  This indifferent response can be seen as a generalized look at attitudes in the U.S. that center around what’s at hand during the moment, i.e. getting on the bus, having the ticket torn, moving down the aisle of the bus—not attempting to correct the confusion or actually come to any realization concerning the original topic.  This portrait provides a framework for discussion of thought which pervades the U.S.  The bus driver’s comment is left uncorrected and shows the passiveness with which incorrect thought is accepted, tolerated, and casually ignored.  The statement reads as comedic, causing the reader to laugh at the exchange.  In this way the poem delivers a kind of misinformation itself to the reader, mirroring the misinformation received by the bus driver.  The comedy in the poem disguises the implications of the larger transference of thought while at the same time providing an entryway into a discussion of that transference.   

Copyright 2007 by Russell Evatt.

Anneliese Harrison on Adrienne Rich

Margaret Atwood

The wreck she is diving into, in the very strong title poem, is the wreck of obsolete myths, particularly myths about men and women. She is journeying to something that is already in the past, in order to discover for herself the reality behind the myth, "the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth." What she finds is part treasure and part corpse, and she also finds that she herself is part of it, a "half-destroyed instrument." As explorer she is detached; she carries a knife to cut her way in, cut structures apart; a camera to record; and the book of myths itself, a book which has hitherto had no place for explorers like herself.

This quest--the quest for something beyond myths, for the truths about men and women, about the "I" and the "You," the He and the She, or more generally (in the references to wars and persecutions of various kinds) about the powerless and the powerful--is presented throughout the book through a sharp, clear style and through metaphors which become their own myths. At their most successful the poems move like dreams, simultaneously revealing and alluding, disguising and concealing. The truth, it seems, is not just what you find when you open a door: it is itself a door, which the poet is always on the verge of going through.

From The New York Times Book Review (1973).

Meg Boerema Gillette On "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers"

Deborah Pope's and Thomas B. Byars's readings of Adrienne Rich's "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" describe the poem as a contest between the individual and the social, between "imagination" and "gender roles and expectation" (Pope), between the "oppressed" and the "oppressor" (Byars). Reading the poem through oppositions, these critics search for the poem's resolution. The question for Pope and Byars seems to be, who wins? Imagination or gender roles? The oppressed or the oppressor? For Pope, the answer is an evasive, Rich fails to "recogniz[e] the fundamental implications of the division." For Byars, the answer is the unforgiving, "Rich's poem itself [is] ineffectual as rebellion, because the means of their rebellion are inscribed in the oppressors language." Ultimately, as these critics argue, "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" fails to resolve the conflict between the individual and the social.

My reading of the poem, however, is that the poem resists those oppositions upon which Pope's and Byars' criticisms depend. I would argue that "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" does not stage a contest between the individual and the social, but rather characterizes them by their interdependence. (The personal in this poem is deeply implicated in the political, and vice versa.) In the central symbols of the poem--the tapestry tigers and the Uncle's wedding band--the individual and social, the personal and the political meet. The tapestry tigers are not just individual artistic expressions; they are politically inflected, engaged in patriarchal chivalry myths (as Byars argues), and--as icons of colonialism (I would add)--suggestive of capitalist regimes of power (notice too they are sewn with an "ivory needle" (line 6)). The personal and the political again meet in the intimacy of "Uncle's wedding band" (line 7). By the physical intimacy of a wedding band and by the familial presence conferred by "*Uncle's* wedding band" (emphasis added), "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" personalizes the presence of patriarchal politics.

The poem's structure also draws the personal into the political and the political into the personal. The parallel syntactical structures of verses one and two suggest the relatedness of their content. Both follow the construction "Aunt Jennifer's," with verse two substituting "tigers prance across the screen" (line 1) with the similar sounding "fingers fluttering though her wool" (line 5). The use of color in the second lines of each verse--"topaz" and "green" (line 2) and "ivory" (line 6)-and the presence of men in the third lines-"the men beneath the tree" (line 3) and "Uncle's wedding band" (line 7) persist in the stanzas' parallelisms. These parallelisms draw associations between the images described. Owing to such parallelisms, the straining "fingers" of the second verse resonate with the energetic "tigers" of first verse. Reading the second stanza back to the first, the weight that "sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer's hand" of its final line (line 8) lends sobriety to the "chivalric certainty" of the final line of the first stanza. Though verse one nominally describes artistic freedom, and verse two nominally describes patriarchal power, the structural affinities between the two verses resist the strict binarizing of rebellion and repression. The final verse of the  poem persists in this destabilization as here rebellion and repression meet in the simultaneity of the fearless tigers and the lifeless aunt:

When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie  Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.  The tigers in the panel that she made  Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid. (lines 9-12)

To condemn "Aunt Jennifer's Tiger's" then, as Byars does, for its rebellion's indebtedness to patriarchal culture is, I would argue, to miss the point. What makes the poem interesting, I think, is the very interplay between rebellion and repression, between the individual and the social, between the personal and the political. To demand a resolution wherein individual expression wholly escapes the social/political, magically rising above patriarchal discourse, seems to me a least a little naive and largely dismissive of the poem's more sophisticated conceptualization of power.

Copyright © 2001 by Meg Boerema Gillette

Ryan Cull: On "Federico's Ghost"

Martin Espada has sought to write a "poetry of advocacy" for "those who do not get the chance to speak." In describing such a poetic project that inherently suggests an inseparable intertwining of his aesthetics and politics, Espada has explained that

I see not only history but personal experience as . . . dynamic rather than. . . sta[tic]. There is a dynamic between oppression and resistance, between victimizer and victim. There is not only struggle but triumph. And seeing that dynamic, that tension, that conflict, that's where I try to go for my poems, that place where those elements meet and combust. For me the essence of expressing our dignity, our defiance, our resiliency, our potential for solidarity is in the family.

Espada's 1990 poem, "Federico's Ghost," is an excellent example of a work that explores the political potential of this kind of familial context, as the innocent idealism of a child initiates the revolutionary action of an oppressed people.

The entitled Federico is a "skinny boy" who, like many others of his community, works the tomato fields in an effort to help his family earn a meager living. Whole families, from these school-age boys and girls to the "old women," inhabit these "camps" that are adjacent to the fields of furrows. One can probably assume that the stereotypical vicious circle is in place: children must work because miserably low wagesare only barely overcome by the collective labor of the entire family. But by working, the children, in effect, make themselves unprepared to do anything but continue this existence into the next generation.

Federico, however, is too young to embrace such fatalism, and he chooses to stand "apart," both in his location and in his expression. And it is here, "in his own green row," that he and his "obscene finger" hold his ground as a cropduster plane sprays (and re-sprays) a poisonous pesticide, despite the fact that the fruitpicking had not concluded. There is a certain irony in this moment of violence. Though the cropduster certainly is emblematic of the "growers" all too sovereign power over the lives of these people, the pilot himself is just another employee who is likely not that far out of the working class himself. It is "dusk." Neither the fruitpickers nor the cropduster have finished their day's work, and each are in the other's way. All of which makes the pilot's stupidly vicious act and Federico's defiance even more pathetic. Rather than fighting such working conditions together, they fight each other. And Federico becomes a casualty.

But, as Espada's poem makes clear, this is not where the "story" ends. This, in fact, is just the beginning. By sacrificing himself to martyrdom, Federico becomes stronger in death than he perhaps ever could have been in life. In effect, he is reborn in the emergent political consciousness of the fruitpickers, who eventually recognize who their real enemy is and collectively begin destroying the crop of tomatoes that they had been tending. The grower's "muttering" about "vandal children" and "communists" is ineffectual. Their "threatening to call Immigration" is, of course, not taken seriously, for where else could they get such cheap labor. And their "promising every Sunday off," though perhaps notable as a first concession, does not address any of the fruitpicker's real concerns. So the "smashing of tomatoes" persists.

The final stanza explains why. In a few short days, Federico has been transformed from a murdered "skinny boy" into an empowering myth:

Still tomatoes were picked and squashed in the dark, and the old women in the camp said it was Federico, laboring after sundown to cool the burns on his arms flinging tomatoes at the cropduster that hummed like a mosquito lost in his ear, and kept his soul awake.

The delicious irony of these last lines is that the "old women" are able to claim that Federico in fact is doing now what the growers surely always had wanted. He is continuing to labor even "after sundown." This increased productivity, however, is in the service of showing how to reverse the power relations in the tomato fields. And its effects are almost immediate. Formerly a symbol of the fruitpicker's powerlessness before the grower's omnipotence, the crop-duster is now a mere "mosquito" that reminds them of past acts of injustice. Though these people may still have to work "between the furrows," Federico's presence, in spite of his tragic death, will be an empowering force, never far away.

Copyright 2001 by Ryan Cull.

Marjorie Perloff: On "For The Anniversary of My Death"

What distinguishes a poem like "For the Anniversary of My Death" from the "undecidable" texts of a Beckett on the one hand, as from its modernist predecessors on the other, is the marked authorial control that runs counter to the lipservice paid to "bowing not knowing to what." Far from being a poem of dis-covery, a text whose "echo repeats no sound," "For the Anniversary of My Death" is characterized by a strong sense of closure.

Consider, for example, the stanzaic division. The first stanza (five lines) describes what happens "Every year"; the second (eight lines) refers to "Then" (when I will be dead). The first concentrates on the silence of eternity, beyond "the last fires," the eternity symbolized by the beam of the lightless star. The second recalls, even as does the final stanza of Yeats's "The Stolen Child," what will be lost when death ends the inexorable forward movement of time, when the "strange garment" of life is shed: namely, the love of one woman, the shamelessness of men, the singing of the wren, the falling of rain, and, yes, the "bowing not knowing to what," which is to say, "bowing" to the premonition of death one has in moments of transition, as when a three-day rain comes to an end.

Does the language "mock the poet with its absences"? Not really, or at least its mockery seems to take place only on the surface. The first line quickly gives the game away: since there is obviously no way to know on what day of the year one will die, the phrase "without knowing it" strikes a rather self-important note. This is the language, not of dream or of mysterious Otherness, but of calculation: the setting up of a hypothetical situation that brings the time/eternity paradox into sharp relief. Again, the reference to "death" as the moment when "the last fires will wave to me" seems to me the very opposite of "spare" (a word regularly applied to Merwin's poetry by his admirers); it is a gestural, a decorative metaphor reminiscent of Dylan Thomas rather than René Char. Indeed, lines 2-5, with their heavy alliteration and assonance, their repetition and slow, stately movement, have the authentic Thomas ring:

When the last fires will wave to me And the silence will set out Tireless traveller Like the beam of a lightless star

The language of the second stanza is increasingly abstract, conceptual, formulaic, recalling, as Bloom points out, the conservative rhetoric of poets like Longfellow or MacLeish. To call life "a strange garment," to define one's humanity in terms of "the love of one woman" and the need to wrestle with "the shamelessness of men"--such locutions have the accent of the Sunday sermon rather than the surrealist lyric. Given this context, the "bowing not knowing to what" in the unpunctuated last line is a predictable closural device: it points us back to the title with its recognition that one of the days now lived through will, one year, be the day of the poet's death.

The poem's closure is reflected in its formal verse structure. Merwin's heavily endstopped lines, each followed by a brief rest or hush, are lightly stressed, anapests predominating as in

Like the beam of a lightless star


And bowing not knowing to what

but in many lines the pattern is complicated by an initial trochee:

Every year without knowing it Tireless traveller Hearing the wren sing.

Syntactic parallelism--"And the silence will set out," "And the love of one woman," "And,the shamelessness of men"--provides a further ordering principle. And although the stress count ranges between two and five (and syllable count between five and thirteen), the lines are organized tightly by qualitative sound repetition: Merwin's patterning is extremely intricate, as in the alliteration of t's, r's, and l's in "Tireless traveller," the assonance and consonance in "Find myself in life," and the internal eye rhyme in "And bowing not knowing to what."

"For the Anniversary of My Death" is thus a very elegant, wellmade poem; it has a finish that would be the envy of any number of poets, and its theme is certainly universal--just mysterious enough to arrest the reader's attention, yet just natural enough (this is the way we all feel about death sometimes) to have broad appeal.

By Marjorie Perloff. From W.S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson and Ed Folsom. Copyright © 1987 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

David Lehman on: "They Only Dream of America

… Shoptaw’s allegorical interpretation of "They Dream Only of America" is a bit like the symbol-hunting of the New Criticism at its most exasperating. It is not that the interpretation is wrong: it is that the poem gives rise to any number of competing narratives, which the reader may be prompted to provide. The poem can be read less tendentiously and less fancifully as an allegory about growing up; as in a particularly eerie kind of fairy tale, there is an emphasis on clues and signs, only here the horror of imprisonment is matched by that of the promised liberation. But I prefer to read the poem as precisely a truncated narrative lacking a key, a dream that haunts the waking person because it exists only in fragments whose relation to one another remains mysterious. The strangeness of the adverb in the line,

"please," he asked willingly,

is not easily explained and that is one of its virtues. And if one notices that

"This honey is delicious Though it burns the throat"

is metaphorically a taste of brandy, and if one learns that this was something Martory said in all innocence at breakfast one morning, one still has not explained the effect of trembling significance these lines achieve.

From David Lehman, The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 157-158.

Frank O'Hara's: A Step Away From Them

The structure of this poem may look random, the details--Coca-Cola signs, hours of the day, objects seen in store windows--are seemingly trivial, but in O'Hara's imaginative reconstruction of New York City, everything is there for a purpose. We might note, to begin with, that the speaker's thought processes constantly return to images of life, vitality, animation, motion. From the "hum-colored / cabs" to the skirts "flipping / above heels," everything is in motion. Even the sign above Times Square "blows smoke over my head, and higher / the waterfall pours lightly."

But what particularly delights the poet is the paradox of heat and motion: no matter how hot the New York streets, their life force remains intact:

                                            . . .A  Negro stands in a doorway with a  toothpick, languorously agitating.  A blonde chorus girl clicks: he  smiles and rubs his chin....

At this point, "everything suddenly honks," and the moment ("12:40 of / a Thursday") is endowed with radiance.

Just as the Negro's languorous agitation forces the observer to pay special attention, so he finds "great pleasure" in the conjunction of opposites of "neon in daylight" or in the absurd tableau of the lady unseasonably wearing foxes, who "puts her poodle / in a cab." Such unexpected juxtapositions are pleasurable because they allow the poet, who remains essentially "A Step Away from Them," from the blondes, Puerto Ricans, and laborers on the Avenue, to create new patterns in space, new compositions of color, texture, and light.

But the vibrancy of the lunch hour would not seem special if the poet did not remember, near the end of the poem, those of his friends--Bunny, John Latouche, and Jackson Pollock--who can no longer perceive it. The faint undertone of death, captured in the final image of the Manhattan Storage Warehouse, soon to be torn down, qualifies the poet's response and heightens his awareness of being alive. The poem has, in short, been moving all along to the central recognition of the affinity of life and death, to the perception that death is, as it was for Wallace Stevens, the mother of beauty. The poet's knowledge that he is only "A Step Away from Them," from the fate his artist friends have met, makes the final glass of papaya juice and the awareness that his "heart"--a book of Reverdy's poems--is in his pocket especially precious and poignant. Death, in short, is always in the background, but the trick is to keep oneself on top of it, to counter despair by participating as fully as possible in the stream of life.

Of course "A Step Away from Them" would be spoiled if it included any statement as bald, abstract, and pretentious as the one I have just made, and indeed the only place in the poem where O'Hara is perhaps guilty of such a lapse is in the question, "But is the / earth as full as life was full, of them?," a question which did not need to be asked because its answer was already implicit in the poem's network of images....

Kevin Stein: On "The Day Lady Died"

The tone at the opening of the poem is giddy and excited. After all, this is a somewhat glib speaker who is readying himself for dinner at the home of someone he doesn't know, who can smart-aleckly refer to the "poets / of Ghana," who is prone to "stroll" and "casually ask" for cigarettes, and who can "practically" go "to sleep with quandariness" over the simple decision of what book to buy a friend. This is not a speaker burdened with metaphysical deliberations about the meaning of life.

Even when he sees the "NEW YORK POST with her face on it," he refuses to break into discourse on the brevity of human life, "thinking," instead, in visual and sensory images. He recalls an instance when he heard Billie Holiday sing so sweetly that life itself seemed to halt in deathly pause while "everyone and I stopped breathing." Up to this point, he had offered the reader an ontological account of selfhood based largely on a narrative retelling of the way the individual fragments of his day melded into a mysteriously unified whole. But at this juncture, where anticipation and profound loss meet head on, the collision results in image, scene, a moment of experience which itself is of ultimate value. The present moment and the remembered one do not require metaphysical rumination in order to clarify them. That kind of deliberation has preceded the poem onto the page: the understanding that life is unpredictable and crass, capable of imparting immense pleasure and equally formidable pain. Although O'Hara may very well have agreed with the Heraclitean conception of a universe forever in the process of change, he would never use Heraclitus's fragments as poetic epigraphs (as Eliot did) or allow such thinking to impose an overtly philosophical structure on his work. O'Hara has already decided on these epistemological and ontological issues before the poem began. And more importantly, they were first of all personal values, which naturally (but secondarily) gave form to artistic values.

From "Everything the Opposite" in Frank O'Hara: To Be True to a City. Ed. Jim Elledge. University of Michigan Press, 1990.

Anthony Libby on: "Why I Am Not a Painter"

Appropriately, "Why I Am Not a Painter"--which in fact suggests that he is--contains no visual images at all, though it describes the development of a painting. As in Pollock, what replaces image is not so much plot, though the poem does tell a story and imply an argument, as the movement of the individual line, frequently circling back on itself to create the duration as well as the depth and texture of a particular experience.

From "O’Hara on the Silver Range," Contemporary Literature (1976).

Criticism of A Letter From Phyllis Wheatly

The poem which Hayden described as a ‘psychogram,’ is an epistolary form of a dramatic monologue in which the former slave writes to her friend Obour during a visit to London in 1773. With wry humor she relates her encounter with a young chimney-sweep who, observing her dark skin, asks, 'Does you, M’lady, sweep chimneys too?' She also notes the hissing scorn of 'would-be Wits' who 'murmur of the Yankee Pedlar/ and his Cannibal Mockingbird', a phenomenon she refers to as the 'Serpent' in idyllic England's Eden.