Harry B. Shaw: On "Gay Chaps at the Bar"

It is ironic that here the Black man utters an expression of doubt in a poem entitled "[Love Note I:] Surely."  Although the multiplicity of possible referents in the poem lends itself to a display of artful ambiguity, the persona can be seen using the lover motif to suggest the relationship between Black people and their country.  The sestet of the sonnet helps to unravel some of the ambiguity of the octave.  Read negatively, in light of the sestet, "surely" becomes an expression of doubt rather than certainty. . . .  [T]he use of "surely" in this poem focuses the sarcasm on that about which the Black man would be most secure.  Surely the country and its democracy could not be thought of by the Black man as "mine"; surely to him country had not been "all honest, lofty as a cloud"; surely he would not be assured of the country's love; and surely the country's eyes were not "ungauzed."

. . . "Love Note II: Flags" continues the motif of the unrequited lover to convey the Black soldier's disillusionment over his country's failure to champion his cause in his war for dignity.  Democracy is alluded to here as a lady whose flag the Black fox-hole soldier carries.   Bitter about being whimsically jilted by the fair lady of democracy, the soldier makes a sarcastic proposition in the octave. . . .

"Dear defiance" suggests the indignation provoked whenever the flag and what it represents are invoked by Black people to champion their cause.   The soldier's disgust is shown by his dragging the flag into the foxhole with him and asking derisively, "Do you mind?"

Other poems about the Black man as soldier-patriot . . . reveal as much about the societal mentality against which Black people struggle as about Black people themselves.  The poems depicting the Black man attempting to be a patriot reveal the tension caused by the attraction and the danger of committing to the American dream.  Indeed the danger is sufficient to transform the Black citizen who would be a patriot into a victim of the larger society.  To be sure, each of the patriots discussed so far has been a victim of racism in the larger society.  The Negro hero, for example, was a victim of racism before as well as after his heroic moment.  Most often, however, Black people who are victims of the larger society are not soldiers or patriots but ordinary citizens of the ghetto.  They share, though, the same flirtation with the American dream as do the would-be patriots.  The notion of being able to obtain the good life--or some aspect of it--provides the lure which eventually traps Black people as victims of society.

Shaw, Harry B.  "Perceptions of Men in the Early Works of Gwendolyn Brooks."  Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960.  Ed. R. Baxter Miller.  Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1986.  136-59.

C. K. Doreski: On "One Art"

The simple sentence of the opening stanza seems to subvert the title, declaring that this poem is not about art; rather, it is concerned with an acquired skill, the "art of losing." Critics anxious to commiserate with poets will find this reading psychologically appealing. Not only does it guarantee numerous opportunities to rehearse this art, but (Bishop suggests through the acceleration of enjambment) supplies materials branded "with the intent / to be lost." This perishable quality simultaneously allows for repeated practice and diminishment, if not extinction, of the pain. The poet offers a primer for the mastery of disaster, couched in the Puritan form of the sermon to others for their moral improvement.

Mindful always of the common auditor, Bishop forces the second stanza to visualize with the philosophical ruminations of the first. Readers learn precisely how to master this art, and are urged to practice, to make it into a virtuous habit: "Lose something every day." A further injunction counsels the reception and approval of that resulting disorder—the "fluster"—produced by haste, undue agitation. Loss, art, master, disaster—the lofty conceptual diction of the first stanza crumbles in the mockery of this near rhyme. The "lost door keys, the hour badly spent" become concrete entities and lost time. The refrain vulgarly collides with "fluster"—to master fluster?—in an uneasy rhyme casting the very tone of the poem into doubt.

Bishop enforces a progressively dynamic, almost uncontrollable, schedule of loss in the third stanza.Then simply shifts the focus to the next lesson. No longer does the homilist tally manageable, sympathetic incidents; the poem has moved beyond them to over- whelming concerns: places, names, and destinations. Each reader must supply concrete examples. The "intent" of the first stanza blossoms into the broader intentions of "where it was you meant / to travel" of the third stanza. Bishop continues to induce specific details from the reader as the pace and range grow. Soon drained of places, names, and travel plans, the reader must struggle to fill the lists. The muted refrain rings hollow as these clustered categories of loss and faster/disaster cacophonize.

After the impersonal professorial tone, the abrupt introduction of the lyric I requires immediate reappraisal of all that comes before this stanza. The homilist's experiential knowledge, suppressed in the first half of the poem, surfaces as the teacher has obviously experienced frustration in the auditor's ability to comprehend these lessons of loss. Bishop draws to the heart of the matter and summons the ultimate parting gift, her mother's watch—an artifact that links the living and dead, recalling a time, expressing a generation—making tangible the feeling of irretrievable loss. Bishop literally lost her mother's time, as the stories "In the Village" and "Gwendolyn," and the poems "Sestina" and "Manners" all demonstrate. Looking beyond autobiography to the truth of this loss, however, Bishop exploits what is, after all, only one more "minor family relic."

The exemplum confounds conventional ideas of the subjective and objective, and demonstrates that loss is grave and universal, but too conventional to be deeply personal. She defers the threat of sentiment by the sweeping rhetorical gesture of "And look!" Her life, no longer a chaos of events, seems orderly and safe as Bishop inventories and schedules her losses: "my last, or / next-to-last, of three loved houses went." Her autobiography assumes an oddly reassuring linearity and predictability as the poem hurtles toward its closure. In spite of approximate knowledge—"my last, or next- to-last"—the end is palpable by its very proximity.

This registry of loss proceeds to the missing "three loved houses." Even that great modifier loved cannot convert these houses into homes. In spite of the wisdom of Bishop's crusade—"Home-made, home-made! But aren't we all?" (see "Crusoe in England")—the expatriot narrating this poem remains homeless.

The narrator, further emboldened by self-knowledge, begins again with "I lost." The scale has tipped; forsaking the personal for "two cities, lovely ones" the poet supplies lineaments and character to these scenic vagaries. Like the child-artist of "Sestina," the speaker approaches the unspecified, the unembraceable, yet concrete, type of loss: "two rivers, a continent," the loss of which suggest the impermanence, the unpossessable nature of the earth itself.

Though there remains a tension between the public and private exempla, that tension is ill-defined and ill-conceived. Bishop has adhered to the standards and expectations of her aesthetic; she has captured knowledge within the language and form of the villanelle. Yet with the displaced utterance delivered sotto voce, Bishop conveys a struggle between growing self-knowledge and her poetic of reticence in this dialogue between the self and the lost. "Even" moors this hierarchy of loss to that always poorly articulated world of extremity—without you, I can't go on, I can't live without you—those contracted conditionals meant to express the inexpressible love between two people. What threatens to emerge is that very thing her rhetoric strives to cloak: the self, naked to the vagaries of language. This ultimate series of I-You dependencies is the final protest against human perishability. Herein lies the true lesson of loss: "—Even losing you." Turning from her common audience, Bishop allows the parenthetically ensnared qualities to create a caesura: "(the joking voice, a gesture / I love)." Readers participate in the auditory and visual recall of pleasure (not pain) reduced to this synecdoche for the severed other. The positive qualities of this ultimate sacrifice displace the irritations and categorizations that came before in the poem. The situation challenges not the pupils but the master herself. In the almost processional resignation of "I shan’t have lied. It's evident" rests the captive wisdom of the poem. In the extended refrain—

the art of losing’s not too hard to master  though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

—readers see that parenthetical cure for the only true disaster. This encapsulated lesson is for the master alone; unlike the free, gestural "And look!" designed to deflect attention from the self, the parenthetical injunction maps a course for only one. The poet knows that only knowledge, not wisdom, can be shared. Like the child in "Sestina," the adult must also make something of absence. Her reward is the knowledge with which to write. In this rare command—"(Write it!)"—Bishop distinguishes herself from even Stevens’s "Snow Man," who is "nothing himself," emerging as she does in this dramatic echo of William Carlos Williams’s "Say It!"

The formal constraints of the sestina and villanelle freed Bishop to work with personal material without inducing the maudlin self-despairing tone she despised. The most forbidding and private sorrows, monumentalized in art, oddly affirm human dignity, emotion, and care.

from Elizabeth Bishop: The Restraints of Language. Copyright © 1993 by Oxford UP

Robert Faggen: On "After Apple-Picking"

"After Apple-Picking," one of Frost's greatest lyrics, blends the myth of the Fall with consequences of modern science. The "two-pointed ladder" figures as both the instrument and the technology of tropism toward "heaven" that ultimately leads to the oneiric hell of uncertainty and of waste and struggle. Order, progress, and the harvest of knowledge are as much a part of the inextricable order of the garden as the great tree upon which we sway precariously:

[lines 1-6]

In such a casual phrase as "there may be two or three / Apples I didn't pick upon some bough" we feel the speaker's indifference toward perfection. The rest of the poem moves away from heaven, which has been the theological place of perfection, to meditation on exhaustion from contemplation of the world's immense ungraspability, its superfecundity and waste.

The image of the ladder will evoke that of Jacob's dream as well as Emerson's more metaphysical use of that ladder in "Experience." We also see the ladder failing as a human construct by which to transcend nature. The opening line of Frost's poem enforces a sense of physicality—"two-pointed" and "sticking through a tree." The latter phrase sounds sexually suggestive, as does the "long scythe" in "Mowing." Unlike Jacob's, this ladder is a human construct that rests and depends on the tree and is left to nature as an artifact of human effort. And the speaker's oncoming dream is not of angels but, rather, of the details of apples and of labor. If anything is retained in the allusion to Jacob, it is the sense of an impending struggle.

In Lyric Time Sharon Cameron has pointed out that the speaker's dreaming, begun before the event of the poem, appears to begin again during the poem and announces its recommencement sometime after the poem. I will add to this observation that Frost is repeating the strange mixture of fact, dream, labor, and knowledge found in "Mowing"—"The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows"—reminding us of the inescapable limits of consciousness. In "The Koine of Myth," Northrop Frye describes the way human types persist, and he specifically addresses the figure of the ladder. The ladder, he observes, began to break down as a metaphor after the eighteenth century as a construct that symbolized the path from God to earth, the scala (Latin for ladder), or chain of being. In moving between dream and objectivity, the ladder and the human laborer sway precariously on the verge of disintegration. As Frye observed: "Within the limitations of human life, the most highly developed types are those whose lives have become, as we say, a legend, that is, lives no longer contemplating a vision of objective revelation or imprisoned within a subjective dream." In Frost, to use Frye's terms, action and awareness continually clash with each other in a way that ultimately prohibits the establishing of a lasting mythos. "Essence" is inextricably tied to matter and to sleep, "the scent of apples" and " drowsing off." The sensuous pull of the earth overcomes the speaker:

[lines 8-17]

Though claiming some mystery in "the strangeness" he "got from looking through a pane of glass," the speaker reminds us that this looking glass is but a temporary instrument and inextricable part of the fluidity from which it came: a drinking trough used for bodily rather than spiritual sustenance. It both enables and distorts sight. If the faces God as Job did in the theophany or as Jacob did after wrestling at Peniel, it is an overwhelming and immediate physical manifestation of the facts of growth, "stem end and blossom end," as well as the "flecks of russet" and not the Pauline promise of seeing God spiritually face to face in the future. His dreams are not of angels or of heaven but of the troubling abundance and waste of apples that are beyond his "picking," expressing the physical "ache" of his foot, his sensuous desire to touch. Moreover, the preponderance of first-person pronouns expresses an ego inspired and burdened by its own desire:

[lines 18-29]

The obsession with the physical and sensuous approaches a literalism by which the speaker seems to transfer his anxieties of exhaustion to the apples, so many thousands of which are beyond the control of his selection. "Magnified apples" merges both the oneiric world of human desire and the scientific world of instrumental examination. Close examination of nature in its great plurality and in its waste ultimately diminishes the significance of the observer. At once he sees ,the massive abundance and waste of nature, which overwhelm his own desire:

[lines 30-36]

The largeness implied by "ten thousand thousand" and "earth" along with the diminished sense of human control parallels the grandeur Darwin attributes to natural selection in contrast to man's selection. . . .

If man is a laborer, Darwin tells us, then nature is a far greater one. Our "view" is "imperfect." The laborer of "After Apple-Picking" works in a state that is a continual confusion of dream and knowledge, between the human idea of nature and its elusive reality always on the verge of transformation. A consciousness of a limited view and of a larger process of selection to which we are subjected is the darker fruit of our own knowledge. And what are wasted apples for humans who select for beauty and perfection become food for a hibernating woodchuck or further the spread of apple seeds.

The apple tree evokes the loss and displacement of the Fall—the Tree of Knowledge. But it also becomes the dominant metaphor of life and death in the new scripture of Darwin. Darwin's Tree of Life represents both nature's diversity as well as the common descent and destiny of all living creatures including man. In his emphasis on survival no creature or branch is given certain privilege in the hierarchy; no future is certain. It is therefore not surprising that, after considering , the apples ''as of no worth," the apple picker wonders about the relation of his own "sleep," a metaphor for loss of control and death in our self-consciousness, to that of another creature, "the woodchuck," for whom sleep hibernation is at least protection against the environment:

[lines 37-42]

The apple picker, however, turns to another creature at the end of his labor only in hope of finding a way out of his troubling isolation and fears—and there may be no way out of what he can "describe." He persists on the ladder, somehow failing to accept the biology of sleep (and the purpose of dreaming to keep us asleep), while other creatures have gone. The gerund in the tide expresses the perpetual refusal to submit, as does the gerund in "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." Just in the final line expresses a diminished sense of "human sleep," a diminished sense of the labor, knowledge, and aspiration by which our species once thought itself elect.


From Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Copyright © 1997 by The University of Michigan