Jonathan Holden

Jonathan Holden: On "Traveling Through the Dark"

In this poem some of the possibilities of voice have been sacrificed for the sake of formal beauty: the prosody is patterned, the lines are in four-stress accentuals and lightly dabbed with touch rhymes. The artifice, like the poem's conscious construction around the word "swerve," is unobtrusive yet constitutes a definite presence in our experience of the poem. The rules of the pattern leave Stafford enough flexibility to sound conversational, yet the poem manages, while sounding conversational, to remind us of poetry, one reason being that the accentual prosody as deployed here by Stafford contains so many buried echoes of traditional prosody. For example, the opening fine consists of exactly ten syllables. Behind the strong-stress rhythm, we hear iambic pentameter. Most poems, in their very opening lines, declare their prosodic intentions in order to set up the reader's expectations so as to play off these expectations later in the poem, for special effects. When we run into other decasyllabic lines later in the poem--lines 7, 10, 14--and hit passages that have iambic phrasing, we begin to hear that the entire poem is playing two different prosodies in counterpoint, yet never obviously enough to seem artificial.

Jonathan Holden: On "Sea Surface Full of Clouds"

In each of the five sections, certain elements of the scene--"chocolate," "umbrellas," "green," "machine," "blooms," and "clouds"--oriented with respect to "the deck"--are held as invariants in a changing light, first a "morning summer" hue, next a "streaked" "breakfast jelly yellow," next a "patterned" "pale silver," then a "mallow morning," and, finally, "The day . . . bowing and voluble." Each "light" projects a different atmosphere. Or, rather, each set of terms introducing the "light" determines another set of terms which, in turn, determines the distinctive ambience of each section, each "scene" an ambience which, though believable, is conspicuously synthetic in much the same way that Eliot, in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," suggests, with his metaphor drawn from chemistry, that "art-emotion" is synthetic. When terms such as "rosy chocolate," "gilt umbrellas," "Paradisal green," "suavity," "perplexed," and "machine" are put together, they so mutually react, so color one another, that they form something new, a combination in which none of them retains its original properties: they form not a mixture but a new compound. Eliot's metaphor is more than satisfactory. It implicitly portrays the poet as a word-scientist conducting, in the laboratory of the poem, an experiment. We know, too, that behind Eliot's metaphor lies the symboliste enthrallment with the synthetic and with the ideal, Mallarmé’s professed intent to synthesize the "flower absent from all bouquets." But if we make the short leap from a chemical metaphor to a mathematical one, we find an analogue which may be as satisfying as Eliot's; we find, in fact, that Eliot's analogy, for all its virtues, has obscured some other illuminating connections. We might think of the invariant structure of "chocolate," "umbrellas," "green," "machine," "blooms," and "clouds" as akin to coefficients in a polynomial, f(x), of the form anxn + an-1xn-1 + . . . + a1x + ao  in which the variable, x, the deck, can assume a different value or "light" in each section, so that each section rather playfully, as if in demonstration, yields a different value for f(x) as each new "light" is substituted for x. In this poem, the "value," instead of being numerical, is aesthetic--a mood, a flavor, a feeling-tone, an intimation of something impalpable yet recognizable; for just as number is a specialized language that has evolved to express quantifiable values, poetry is the specialized language that has evolved to express synthetically otherwise inexpressible aesthetic values and experiences.

We might entertain a different mathematical analogy: the "deck" in each section is analogous to the Cartesian coordinate system in two dimensions; "chocolate," "umbrellas," "green," "machine," "blooms," and "clouds" are points--the vertices of some hexagonal geometrical figure composed of vectors mapped onto the plane. This hexagonal figure seems to change in each section, as the "deck," the axes in each section, are translated or rotated or altered in scale. But actually the polygon remains invariant: only the axes with respect to which the polygon is oriented and scaled are transformed. The poem, like a mathematical demonstration, escorts us through a sequence of linear transformations. Moreover, like a mathematical demonstration, in each of its steps it succeeds through its specialized language, in expressing "something" which, without this language, would have remained inexpressible and, because it was inexpressible, scarcely perceptible at all. It is this issue of "inexpressibility" which should enable us to appreciate fully the analogy between poetry and mathematics and how serious this analogy might be. Without mathematics, how would we describe the orbit of a planet? As "round"? As an "oval" path? How close to looking like a circle? How "eccentric"? Without the quadratic equations that graph an ellipse, we are reduced to clumsy guesses, incredibly crude linguistic approximations. The mathematical formula for the ellipse, on the other hand, can yield us the precise shape. It is the only way to express that shape. Similarly, without mathematics, how would we express the behavior of a falling object? All we could say was that it goes "'faster and faster and faster." But how "fast" does it go "faster"? Only a differential equation can express this precisely and meaningfully. "Acceleration" can be measured only in mathematical terms. Indeed, the entire concept of "acceleration" is meaningful only in mathematical terms.

Is there an analogous "something" that can be expressed precisely--be measured--only by means of the specialized terms of poetry? I think so. And I think that the mysteriously impalpable moods and changes of light synthesized in each section of "Sea Surface Full of Clouds"--moods which, though seemingly ineffable, we recognize through the language of the poem--demonstrate the specialized capacity of poetic language, like mathematical language, to measure accurately and thereby to find names for areas of experience which would otherwise have eluded us. But even as I suggest this, I am poignantly aware that I cannot prove it. The poem must serve as its own demonstration. Either the reader is overcome with recognition of what had hitherto seemed insufficiently expressed, or the reader is left cold. Auden puts rather neatly this "inexpressibility" theorem of poetry, linking it with the very function of poetry itself, in the prologue to The Sea and the Mirror:

Well, who in his own backyard Has not opened his heart to the smiling 

Secret he cannot quote?

Which goes to show that the Bard 

Was sober when he wrote

Pope put a similar idea into somewhat more modest terms: "True wit is Nature to advantage dressed, / What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed." One can attempt to explicate each section of "Sea Surface Full of Clouds," to apply "interpretation" as a means of convincing the skeptical reader that there is "something" recognizable being measured and named by each section, "something" which might be mutually acknowledged with a nod or perhaps a sharp intake of breath or a bristling of the pores--by a frisson. But if the poem cannot accomplish this by itself--if it cannot be its own demonstration--extrinsic attempts at demonstration will never suffice, but will remain prime targets, ludicrous sitting ducks, to be coolly picked off by the poststructuralist critics. And so I will leave "Sea Surface Full of Clouds" undisturbed, trusting that it is its own sufficient testimony.

From Style and Authenticity in Postmodern Poetry. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986. Copyright © 1986 by the Curators of the University of Missouri.

Jonathan Holden: On 258 ("There's a certain Slant of light")

We might first note that, beautiful as the poem is, the satisfactions which it affords us are not primarily visual. Even though it is focused outward on a natural scene, it does not mention a single color or describe a single form. Are we looking at woods, a lawn, a grove, fields, hills? Is there snow on the ground? We are not sure. What is the weather? Is it a bleakly clear, hard, dry afternoon? Or does the sun break through the clouds in one brief, poignant slant? Is it early to mid afternoon, or later? Does the sunlight fade because of sunset or because of cloud cover? My guess--which is only intuitive and based upon my memories of growing up in northern New Jersey--is that it is not sunset, that the day is mostly cloudy, very forlorn, that around three in the afternoon the sun appears through a rift in the stratus, infinitely tantalizing, melancholy, like the reminder of some other life, some other season, some other realm (perhaps heavenly) than the claustral, futureless gray of winter. But this is pure guesswork, without a shred of textual backing.

Despite its visual vagueness, however, the poem does in many ways resemble a painting. Its attention is directed outward at a landscape, not at the author/speaker herself or some other human protagonist. It is true that the implied author constitutes a definite presence in this poem--a more pronounced presence than we feel a painter has in a typical landscape painting--but she never refers to herself as taking action. She does not walk to a window. She does not pour a cup of tea. She does not sigh or weep. She simply looks.

Where, then, is that action which distinguishes literature from painting and without which neither this nor any poem can successfully compete with a good painting? Obviously it is in the scene itself, and it is made possible by the fact that, although the poem has the feel of a painting, the duration over which it scans its landscape is longer than the instantaneous "duration" captured in a painting. Within this duration, "When it comes ... When it goes," different events take place, events whose source is not human. Indeed, the protagonist of the poem is the landscape itself, whose "Slant of light" does things ("oppresses," "comes," "goes"), a landscape which "listens" and whose "Shadows--hold their breath." The poem, then, is, in addition to its other implications, very much about time. It presents, to borrow Wordsworth's expression, a "spot of time."

From Style and Authenticity in Postmodern Poetry. Copyright © 1986 by the Curators of the University of Missouri.