Marjorie Perloff

Marjorie Perloff: On "Man and Wife"

Although the mode of "Man and Wife" is essentially realistic, there are a number of local metaphors. The "rising sun" of line 2 becomes, in the diseased imagination of the poet who fears passion and vitality, an Indian savage in "war paint" who "dyes us red," the pun on "dyes" intensifying the death-in-life existence of the couple. Paradoxically, from the poet's point of view only inert object receive the sun's life-giving warmth: the "gilded bed-posts" of line 3, which evidently have an antique floral motif, are seen as thyrsi, the phallic staffs carried by the Bacchantes in their rites honoring Dionysus. The magnolia blossoms, further reminders that April is the cruelest month, are murderous creatures who set the morning air on fire. And finally, the tirade of the poet's wife bombards his ear like an ocean wave breaking against a rock.

But the condition which causes the poet to see the sun as a feared savage and the white magnolia blossoms as "murderous" is defined by a larger metonymic sequence of alliterating nouns: "Miltown" -- "Mother's bed" -- "Marlborough Street" -- "our magnolia." The first line of the poem looks casual and matter-of-fact until certain connections become apparent. The reference to Miltown, the first and most famous of the tranquilizers that came on the market in the fifties rather than to, say, Equanil or Valium, is not coincidental. For one thing, liquids and nasals ("Tamed by Miltown, we lie on Mother's bed") point up the speaker's torpor and lassitude, but, more importantly, the name Miltown metonymically suggests such terms as Mill town, mill stone, and small town. The poet's state of anxiety is thus immediately seen as somehow representative of a larger American dilemma, of a crisis that occurs in Small Town or Any Town, U.S.A. The image of neurotic fracture is intensified in the second half of the line: the nuptial bed has been replaced by "Mother's bed"; her shadow, as it were, lies between husband and wife. In lines 8-12, moreover, it becomes clear that the poet's wife must act the role of mother to him; for the "fourth time" she has had to hold his hand and drag him home alive.

. . . .

In the second section (lines 8-22), the poet addresses his wife directly. The phrase "Oh my Petite, / clearest of all God's creatures, still all air and nerve" sounds mawkish when detached from the poem, but within the context it defines the speaker's wish to let his wife know that he still admires and loves her even if his love is impotent and destructive. Although she must act the role of Mother to him, he wants to think of her as his "Petite." And now he recalls the night, so different from this "homicidal" one, when he first met her. Again the focus is on setting rather than on emotion. The scene is diametrically opposed to that of Marlborough Street: it is the noisy, hot, alcoholic, left-wing Greenwich Village of Philip Rahv, the editor of Partisan Review. The poet wryly recalls his former self, "hand on glass / and heart in mouth," trying to outdrink the Rahvs and "fainting" at the feet of his future wife, the Southern-born lady intellectual whose "shrill invective" denounced the traditionalism of the Old South.

. . . .

The turn in the final section is quietly ironic: "Now twelve years later, you turn your back." Husband and wife no longer even try to touch. "Sleepless," she holds not him but her pillow to the "hollows" of her unsatisfied body. As in the past, rhetoric is her weapon, but whereas at the Rahvs the attack was good-humored and academic, now on "Mother's bed" life itself is at stake. But this is not to say that the poem is wholly pessimistic. The first water image in the poem -- the image of the ocean wave breaking against the speaker's head -- marks a turning point. The life-giving water rouses the poet from his Miltown-induced lethargy, a lethargy in which he envies the thyrsus-like bed-post, and brings him back to reality.

Marjorie Perloff: On "Paean to Place"

…How good, after all, do the men have it? In one of her late sequences, "Paean to Place," Niedecker imaginatively re-creates her father’s state of mind in the long years of her mother’s illness:

[Perloff cites lines beginning "Anchored here" and ending "of her hair"]

Like the poet, who must "log - in the cupboard, head / in closet," her father is imaged as "anchored," "Roped … in the loop / of [his wife’s] hair," the rope metaphor suggesting that one’s noose is the product, not of external force, but of love itself – in this case, the sexual loop of a woman’s hair, a loop all the more mysterious in that it remains outside the man who sits "beside his shoes."

Marjorie Perloff: On "Sunset Debris"

Marjorie Perloff

"Sunset Debris" [is] a thirty-page text made up entirely of questions. In a 1985 interview with Tom Beckett, Silliman explains:

My idea with Sunset Debris was to explore the social contract between writer and reader. As sender and receiver do not exist in vacuums, any communication involves a relationship, an important dimension of which is always power. In writing as elsewhere, this relationship is asymmetrical--the author gets to do the talking. The reader can shut the book, or consciously reject its thesis, but an actual response is not normally available. As advertisers have known for decades, the process of consuming information is an act of submission. To have read these words is to have had these thoughts, which were not your own.

... It was this aspect of intersubjectivity which caused me to introduce so much explicitly sexual language....Every sentence is supposed to remind the reader of her or his inability to respond.

Every poem is, of course, a "social contract between writer and reader," but what makes "Sunset Debris" distinctive is that, in Wittgensteinian terms, the "psychological I" is replaced by the "metaphysical subject, the limit--not a part of the world" (T #5.641), the limits of the poet's language becoming the limits of his constructed world. In Wittgenstein's words, "solipsism strictly carried out coincides with pure realism" (T #5.64). Consider the prose poem's first forty-four questions:

Can you feel it? Does it hurt? Is this too soft? Do you like it? Is this how you like it? Is it airight? Is he there? Is he breathing? Is it him? Is it near? Is it hard? Is it cold? Does it weigh much? Is it heavy? Do you have to carry it far? Are those hills? Is this where we get off? Which one are you? Are we there yet? Do we need to bring sweaters? Where is the border between blue and green? Has the mail come? Have you come yet? Is it perfect bound? Do you prefer ballpoints? Do you know which insect you most resemble? Is it the red one? Is that your hand? Want to go out? What about dinner? What does it cost? Do you speak English? Has he found his voice yet? Is this anise or is it fennel? Are you high yet? Is your throat sore? Can't you tell dill weed when you see it? Do you smell something burning? Do you hear a ringing sound? Do you hear something whimpering, mewing, crying? Do we get there from here? (AH 11)

"In the language of everyday life," says Wittgenstein in the Tractatus, "it very often happens that the same word signifies in two different ways ... or that two words, which signify in different ways, are apparently applied in the same way in the proposition" (T #3.373). "Sunset Debris" seems to carry this process to its furthest possible limit. The first question--"Can you feel it?"--normally refers to a sensation: can you feel the cold? the pain? the touch of something? The second question, "Does it hurt?" would seem to support that view. But we have no way of knowing what "it" is or whom the poet is addressing as "you," and so, when "it" changes to "this" and we have the sequence:

Do you like it?

Do you like this?

Is this how you like it?

the simple shift from "what" to "how" and the predication relating "this" to "it' produces an erotically charged sexual reference, reinforced by "Is it airight?"

One of the central subjects of the Tractatus is the question of identity, the verb "to be" being endlessly ambiguous. "The word 'is,'" writes Wittgenstein, "appears as the copula, as the sign of equality, and as the sign of existence" (T #3.323). And in the later writings, Wittgenstein poses again and again the question of how it is we know that the "is" in "The rose is red" is different from the "is" in "twice two is four" (see PI #558-561). This conundrum is expressed in the opening passage of "Sunset Debris," in the triad

Is he there?

Is he breathing?

Is it him?

where the seemingly similar constructions signify quite differently: the first demands simple information, the second requires judgment on someone's part, while the third is one of identification--who is "he"?

Throughout the passage, indeed throughout the poem, such syntactic indeterminacy plays with the reader's expectations and forces him/her into submission. Consider the pairs "Has the mail come? Have you come yet?" or "Do you prefer ballpoints? Do you know which insect you most resemble?," where a neutral question suddenly gives way to a very personal and, in the second case, nasty one. Or again, the triad

Do you smell something burning?

Do you hear a ringing sound?

Do you hear something whimpering, mewing, crying?

where the questions are deceptively parallel: the first doesn't necessarily implicate the "you" at all, the second implies that there's something wrong with "you" (i.e., "you hear things!"), and the third implies that someone--you?--is failing to show concern for a lost cat, or a cat in distress.

So far as I can tell, not one of the approximately three thousand questions of "Sunset Debris" is repeated, except for the penultimate one "Can you feel it?"--which takes us back to the beginning. Silliman's prose poem is an extraordinary tour de force: it takes ordinary language and everyday events--eating, working, talking, making love--and, by means of the seemingly simple rhetorical device of turning statement into question, creates a verbal vortex that becomes increasingly explosive as the reader becomes increasingly disoriented:

Is it time to think time? Do the words time? How many times? Is it locatable? Has it a space? Does it have a secret? When will you tell it? Are you anxious? Are you ready? Is it simply because you do it? (AH 38)

Since the questions remain entirely uncontextualized, the "you" continually shifting from self to lover to friend to reader--a reader who cannot know what language game is being played. "How is it," asks the poet on the last page, "[that) with all this language there is still this thing so vast that we have no name for it, even if we sense it as a thing we have seen?" (AH 40). And neither he nor the reader can formulate an answer. There are, it seems, no more romantic sunsets, only "sunset debris." As for the poem's readers, "Is not communication an act of violence? Is not writing an act of privacy?" (AH 34).

Marjorie Perloff: On "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World"

… Wilbur’s laundry-as-angel metaphor strikes me as no more than an elaborate contrivance, characterized by its curious inattention to the "things of this world" of the poet’s title. "The incident," writes May Swenson, "is so common that everyone has seen it, and … the analogy is … fitting in each of its details: a shirt is white, it is empty of body, but floats or flies, therefore has life (an angel)." But if, as Wilbur himself explains it, the scene is outside the upper-story window of an apartment building, in front of which "the first laundry of the day is being yanked across the sky," the reality would be that the sheets and shirts would probably be covered with specks of dust, grit, maybe even with a trace or two of bird droppings. At best, those sheets seen (if seen at all) from Manhattan high-rise windows in the fifties, billowing over the fire escapes under the newly-installed television aerials, would surely be a bit on the grungy side.

But of course the awakening poet might not notice this because the laundry is certainly not his concern; the poet, after all, is represented as having been asleep when it was hung out to dry. … [W]oman is she who only dreams of better detergents – a dream, by the way, the affluent fifties were in the process of satisfying – whereas man dreams idealistically (and hence hopelessly) of "clear dances done in the sight of heaven," dances that might allow him to escape, at least momentarily, "the punctual rape of every blessed day."

"Punctual rape": it is the alarm clock going off, violating one’s delightful daydreams, even as Donne’s "busie old foole, unruly Sunne" intrudes, through windows and curtains, on the sleeping lovers in "The Sunne Rising." But in Wilbur’s poem the intruding daylight is not chided, evidently because to be alive, however difficult, is to be blessed. The metaphor will not withstand much scrutiny, for here, as in the case of the laundry metaphor, the drive is to get beyond the image that serves as vehicle as quickly as possible, so as to talk about the relation of soul to body, spirit to matter – those great poetic topoi introduced by the Augustine-derived title, "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World." The actual "things of this world," in 1956, are studiously avoided. The poem refers to "rosy hands in the rising steam" – no doubt, as Eberhart remarks, al allusion to Homer’s "rosy-fingered dawn" – but where were the real hands of those laundresses, hands that Eliot, half a century earlier, had envisioned as "listing dingy shades in a thousand furnished rooms"?

Marjorie Perloff: On "On Seeing Larry Rivers' Washington Crossing the Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art"

In certain cases, when O'Hara worked very closely with a particular painter, the poem absorbed the spirit of the painting thoroughly enough to become independent. This is true, I think, of "On Seeing Larry Rivers' Washington Crossing The Delaware at the Museum of Modern Art." Rivers explains what he was trying to do in this particular painting in an interview with O'Hara forHorizon (1959):

... what could be dopier than a painting dedicated to a national cliché--Washington Crossing the Delaware. The last painting that dealt with George and the rebels is hanging in the Met and was painted by a coarse German nineteenth-century academician who really loved Napoleon more than anyone and thought crossing a river on a late December afternoon was just another excuse for a general to assume a heroic, slightly tragic pose.... What I saw in the crossing was quite different. I saw the moment as nerve-wracking and uncomfortable. I couldn't picture anyone getting into a chilly river around Christmas time with anything resembling hand-on-chest heroics.

"What was the reaction when George was shown?" O'Hara asks. "About the same reaction," Rivers replies, "as when the Dadaists introduced a toilet seat as a piece of sculpture in a Dada show in Zurich. Except that the public wasn't upset--the painters were. One painter, Gandy Brodie, who was quite forceful, called me a phony. In the bar where I can usually be found, a lot of painters laughed."

O'Hara himself, however, understood the Rivers painting perfectly. His poem, written in 1955, treats Washington's Crossing of the Delaware with similar irreverence and amused contempt:

Now that our hero has come back to us in his white pants and we know his nose trembling like a flag under fire,  we see the calm cold river is supporting  our forces, the beautiful history.

The next four stanzas continue to stress the absurdity of what O'Hara, like Rivers, presumably regards as a nonevent, the "crossing by water in winter to a shore / other than that the bridge reaches for." Here the silly rhyme underscores the bathos of what is meant by our "beautiful history" (note that the crossing takes place in a "misty glare"); and the poem ends with a satiric address to George, culminating in the pun on "general":

Don't shoot until, the white of freedom glinting on your gun barrel, you see the general fear.

Although O'Hara's poem is especially witty if read in conjunction with Rivers's painting, it can be read quite independently as a pastiche on a Major Event in American History, an ironic vision of the "Dear father of our country," with "his nose / trembling like a flag under fire."

O'Hara's poetic response to the painting of Larry Rivers, like his lyric celebrations of Grace Hartigan, suggests that he was really more at home with painting that retains at least some figuration than with pure abstraction.

From Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters. Copyright © 1977 by Marjorie Perloff.

Marjorie Perloff: On "A Step Away from Them" (1998)

In this famous "lunch poem," public events, political or otherwise, obviously play much less of a role than in Ginsberg's "America." Indeed, the poem's oppositionality would seem to be all on the level of rhetoric. For Wilbur's highly crafted stanzas, O'Hara substitutes a nervous, short, tautly suspended free-verse line; for Wilbur's studied impersonality, O'Hara substitutes the intimate address, whether to a friend or to himself, he describes in "Personism"; and for Wilbur's elaborately contrived metaphor, his "I" substitutes persons, places, and objects that are palpable, real, and closely observed.

The poet's lunch-hour walk, presumably from his workplace, the Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues in the direction of Times Square, is full of enticing sights and sounds: cabs hum, laborers in hard hats (whose "dirty / glistening torsos" the gay poet subliminally desires) are eating sandwiches and drinking Coca-Cola, the skirts of girls in high heels (the then proverbial office uniform) "flip" and "blow up over / grates," the myriad cut-rate jewelry shops on 6th Avenue try to outdo each other with "bargains in wristwatches," the huge Chesterfield ad above Times Square blows smoke at the cigarette-friendly pedestrian, a black man, hanging out in a doorway makes eyes at a blonde chorus girl walking by, and the Puerto Ricans on the Avenue are enough to make it, by the poet's dadaesque reasoning, "beautiful and warm." Pleasurable, too, are the absurd contradictions representative of New York life: the "Negro ... with a toothpick, langorously agitating," the "neon in daylight" and "lightbulbs in daylight," the lunchspots with incongruous names like "Juliet's Corner" that serve cheeseburgers and chocolate malteds, the ladies with poodles who wear fox furs even on the hottest summer day, and so on.

But, as James E. B. Breslin noted in his excellent essay on O'Hara, the poet seems to be "a step away," not only from the dead friends (Bunny Lang, John Latouche, Jackson Pollock) he will memorialize later in the poem, but from all the persons and objects in his field of vision. "Sensations," writes Breslin, "disappear almost as soon as they are presented. Objects and people ... remain alien to a poet who can never fully possess them." For Breslin, the poet's malaise, his inability to hold on to things, to move toward any kind of transcendence beyond the fleeting, evanescent moment is largely a function of O'Hara's unique psychological make-up. But since, as Breslin himself suggests, O'Hara's fabled "openness is an admitted act of contrivance and duplicity," we might consider the role culture plays in its formation.

Consider, to begin with, the repeated metonymic displacements of specific metaphors. New York's yellow cabs are compared to bees ("hum-colored"), but their color relates them to the laborers' "yellow helmets," worn to "protect them from failing / bricks, I guess." Yellow helmets, yellow jackets: the poem's brilliance is to connect these disparate items and yet to leave the import of the connection hanging. Is the tentative explanation ("I guess") about "falling bricks" tongue-in-cheek or serious? In the same vein, "skirts" are no sooner seen "flipping / above heels" in the hot air than they are described as "blow[ing] up over / grates," (perhaps an allusion to Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch), even as the sign high up in Times Square "blows smoke over my head." "Blow," for O'Hara, always has sexual connotations, but "blow up," soon to be the title of Antonioni's great film, also points to the vocabulary of nuclear crisis omnipresent in the public discourse of these years. The muted and intermittent sounds of skirts flipping, smoke blowing, cabs stirring up the air, and cats playing in the sawdust give way to the moment when "Everything / suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of / a Thursday." Here sound is illogically related to time: gridlock in the streets, an absolutely ordinary event in midtown Manhattan, somehow makes the poet look up at the big clock above Times Square and have the surreal sense that time is coming to a stop. The connection is momentary (rather like an air-raid siren going off), but it changes the pedestrian's mood. At 12:40, at any rate, lunch hour has passed the halfway point, and now thoughts of the dead come to the fore--or were they already there in the reference to the "sawdust" in which the cats play? The pronoun "I" shifts to the impersonal "one"; "neon in daylight" is no longer such a pleasure, revealing as it does the "magazines with nudes / and the posters for BULLFIGHT," and the mortuary-like "Manhattan Storage Warehouse / which they'll soon tear down," the reference to the armory in the next line linking death with war.

By this time, the "great pleasure" of the poet's lunch hour has been occluded by anxiety. Not the fear of anything in particular: O'Hara's New York is still a long way from the crime and drug-ridden Manhattan of the nineties. On the contrary, the poet's anxiety seems to stem from the sheer glut of sensation: so many new and colorful things to see--new movies starring Giulietta Masina, new Balanchine ballets for Edwin Denby to write about, new editions of Reverdy poems, new buildings going up all over town. Colorful, moreover, is now. associated with persons of color: the poet, exoticizing the Other, takes pleasure in the "click" between the "langurously agitating Negro" and "blonde chorus girl" (a sly parody of the scare question being asked with regularity in the wake of the Desegregation Act of 1954, "Would you want your daughter to marry a Nigra?"), and he observes playfully that "There are several Puerto Ricans on the avenue today, which / makes it beautiful and warm." Yet--and here the contrast replicates the juxtapositions found in Look or Colliers--for every exotic sight and delightful sensation, there are falling bricks, bullfights, blow outs, armories, mortuaries, and, as the name Juliet's Corner suggests, tombs. In this context, ironically, the actual death references in the poem ("First / Bunny died") function almost as overkill.

The "glass of papaya juice" of the penultimate lines sums it up nicely. Papaya, now sold in every large city supermarket, was a new commodity in the fifties; the recent Puerto Rican émigrés (who, for O'Hara, make it "beautiful and warm") were opening juice bars all over Manhattan. Papaya juice was considered not only exotic but healthful, the idea of drinking fruit and vegetable drinks that are good for you being itself a novelty in this period. The juice bar O'Hara frequents on the way "back to work" makes a wonderful contrast to the hamburger joint where he had lunch. Cheeseburger & malted: this all-American meal, soon to be marketed around the globe by McDonald's, gives way to the glass of papaya juice--a new "foreign" import. But the juice the poet ingests is also contrasted to the heart which is in "my pocket" and which is "Poems by Pierre Reverdy." The heart is not in the body where it belongs but in a book, placed externally, in the poet's pocket. And again it is a foreign vintage.

In the postwar economy of the late fifties, such new foreign imports created an enticing world of jouissance. But what is behind all those pleasurable "neon in daylight" surfaces and desirable "dirty/ glistening torsos" that attract the poet? For O'Hara, there is no anchor, even as the heart is no longer the anchor of the self. If, as a slightly later poem begins, "Khrushchev is coming on the right day!", "right" refers absurdly, not to any possible political rationale, but, with wonderfully absurd logic, to the fact that the September weather is so invigorating, with its "cool graced light" and gusty winds, and the poet so ecstatic in his new love affair with Vincent Warren, that surely it must be a good day for Khrushchev's visit! The public sphere thus becomes a cartoon backdrop against which the poet's "real" life unfolds. And yet that life, as we see in "Khrushchev" as in "A Step Away from Them," is everywhere imbricated with race and gender politics, with thoughts of dispersal ("New York seems blinding and my tie is blowing up the street / I wish it would blow off ") and death. Apolitical? Intentionally, yes, but very much itself a construction of the postwar moment.

From Poetry On & Off the Page: Essays for Emergent Occasions. Copyright © 1998 by Marjorie Perloff.

Marjorie Perloff: On "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....

From Contemporary Literature (1973).

Marjorie Perloff: On "The Waste Land"

It is against this background that we must reconsider the Eliot-Pound collaboration on The Waste Land. For despite all the stylistic changes that Pound brought about in Eliot's long poem, changes that have recently been submitted to careful study--the thematic strains of the original Waste Land are not significantly altered in the final version. Indeed, one might argue that Pound's excisions and revisions made Eliot's central themes and symbols more prominent than they would otherwise have been, buried as they were under the weight of such satirical intrusions as "He Do the Police in Different Voices" (Part 1) or the Popean couplets about Fresca at her toilet at the beginning of Part II 1.37

Consider what happens to "Death by Water," which Pound reduced from ninety-two lines to ten. The first section, written in quatrains rhyming abab, introduces a parodic version of Ulysses in the person of a foolish sailor on shore leave, regaling his cronies in the public bars, who are "Staggering, or limping with a comic gonorrhea," with stories of the "much seen and much endured." In the margin of the manuscript, Pound wrote, "Bad--but cant attack until I get typescript." The second section, written in rather slack Tennysonian blank verse, is the dramatic monologue of the sailor, telling of a fishing expedition from the Dry Salvages north to the Outer Banks of Nova Scotia. Even as the sailor meditates on the significance of a mysterious Sirens' song heard one night on watch (lines 65-72), a song that makes him question the relationship of reality to dream, the ship hits an iceberg and is destroyed. After this ending ("And if Another knows, I know I know not, / Who only knows that there is no more noise now"--) comes the "Phlebas the Phoenician" lyric, which is the only part of the original that remains in the finished poem.

Pound seems to have decided that the long account of the sailor's voyage was an unnecessary digression. But when Eliot wrote from London, "Perhaps better omit Phlebas also???" Pound replied, "I DO advise keeping Phlebas. In fact I more'n advise. Phlebas is an integral part of the poem; the card pack introduces him, the drowned phoen. sailor. And he is needed ABSOLOOTLY where he is. Must stay in." Pound understood, in other words, that "Death by Water" is the essential link between the Madame Sosostris passage and the following lines near the end of Part V:

Damyata: The boat responded

Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar

The sea was calm, your heart would have responded

Gaily, when invited, beating obedient

To controlling hands

 

                                    I sat upon the shore 

Fishing, with the arid plain behind me 

Shall I at least set my lands in order?

 

Phlebas' "death by water" is the necessary prelude to the hints of rebirth contained in these lines, whereas the actual sea voyage, as described in the cancelled narrative portion, is irrelevant to the poem's life-in-death theme. Curiously, then, Pound seems to have understood Eliot's purpose better than did Eliot himself.

In discussing Pound's "operation upon The Waste Land," Eliot notes:

I have sometimes tried to perform the same sort of maieutic task; and I know that one of the temptations against which I have to be on guard, is trying to re-write somebody's poem in the way I should have written it myself if I had wanted to write that poem. Pound never did that: he tried first to understand what one was attempting to do, and then tried to help one do it in one's own way.

This is an important distinction. Pound did not try to transform The Waste Land into the sort of city poem he himself might have written. Rather, he helped Eliot to write it in his own way. "What the Thunder Said," for example, is left virtually untouched by Pound, for here Eliot discovered his quest theme and brought it to a swift and dramatic conclusion.

In assessing Pound's response to The Waste Land, critics invariably cite the famous letter to Eliot (24 December 1921) in which Pound says: "Complimenti, you bitch. I am wracked by the seven jealousies, and cogitating an excuse for always exuding my deformative secretions in my own stuff, and never getting an outline. I go into nacre and objets d'art." But the fact is that, despite these self-depreciating words, Pound knew well enough that The Waste Land, like "Gerontion," was not his sort of poem. As Eliot himself observes, after thanking Pound for "helping one to do it in one's own way," "There did come a point, of course, at which difference of outlook and belief became too wide."

From The Poetics of Indeterminacy: Rimbaud to Cage. Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1981.

Marjorie Perloff: On "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower, Book I"

In one of the last poetry readings he was able to give, at Wellesley in 1956, Williams read "Asphodel, that Greeny Flower." Lowell movingly recalls the hush that fell over the enormous audience when the now-famous poet, "one whole side partly paralysed, his voice just audible," read this "triumph of simple confession". . . .

Like "Paterson, Five," "Asphodel" marks a return to tradition, in this case the pastoral love poem in which the penitent husband makes amends to his long-suffering wife. No more snatches of documentary prose, no Cubist or Surrealist superpositions or dislocations. The poem is stately and consistent, an autobiographical lyric in the Romantic tradition.

"Asphodel, that Greeny Flower" can be regarded as a garland for the fifties. But the Williams who speaks to the poets of our own generation is, I think, less the loving, apologetic husband of "Asphodel" or the aspiring American bard of Paterson than he is a Voyager to Pagany, to the Paris of the twenties; he is the poet as passionate defender of the faith that "to engage roses / becomes a geometry."

From The Poetics of Indeterminacy. Copyright © 1981 by Marjorie Perloff.

Marjorie Perloff: On "This is Just to Say"

Stanzas to see - it is interesting that Williams himself never quite understood the workings of his own prosody. Thus when, in an interview of 1950, John W. Gerber asked the poet what it is that makes "This Is Just To Say" a poem, Williams replied, "In the first place, it metrically absolutely regular. . . .So, dogmatically speaking, it has to be a poem because it goes that way, don't you see!" But the. . .stanzas exhibit no regularity of stress or of syllable count; indeed, except for lines 2 and 5 (each an iamb) and lines 8 and 9 (each an amphibrach), no two lines have the same metrical form. What then can Williams mean when he says, "It's metrically absolutely regular"? Again, he mistakes sight for sound: on the page, the three little quatrains look alike; they have roughly the same physical shape. It is typography rather than any kind of phonemic recurrence that provides directions for the speaking voice (or for the eye that reads the lines silently) and that teases out the poem's meanings.

From The Dance of the intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition. Copyright © 1985 by Cambridge University Press.

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