Suzanne Juhasz

Suzanne Juhasz: On "Olga Poems"

The nature of Levertov's political consciousness is indicated by the fact that these first political poems are an elegy for her sister, a sister who was, indeed, long before Denise Levertov, a political person.

The poems reveal Levertov trying to come to terms with her dead sister—particularly with the relationship that existed between them. Olga, the elder: fierce, passionate, anguished, dedicated, wanting "to change the course of the river" (iii); Denise, the younger: "the little sister / beady-eyed in the bed" (i), watching, following, not understanding, yet loving. The poems are a series of memories (meditations) about Olga, which constantly indicate the fascination of the elder sister for the younger as well as the accompanying disapproval:

 

Everything flows

                            she muttered into my childhood . . .

 

I looked up from my Littlest Bear's cane armchair

and knew the words came from a book

and felt them alien to me

                                        (iii)

 

Many years of such observation allows her to characterize Olga with exquisite insight:

 

. . . dread

was in her, a bloodbeat, it was against the rolling dark

oncoming river she raised bulwarks . . .

                                                           (iii)

 

Black one, incubus—

                she appeared

riding anguish as Tartars ride mares

 

over the stubble of bad years.

                                                (iii)

 

Oh, in your torn stockings, with unwaved hair,

you were trudging after your anguish

over the bare fields, soberly, soberly.

                                                            (v)

 

But it is when she encounters the fact of herself in Olga, Olga in herself, that the poem (which was written over a four-month period, from May to August 1964) draws together.

 

As through a wood, shadows and light between birches,

gliding a moment in open glades, hidden by thickets of holly

 

your life winds in me.

                                    (v)

 

The final sequence of the poem focuses upon Olga's eyes, "the brown gold of pebbles underwater."

 

. . . Even when we were estranged

and my own eyes smarted in pain and anger at the thought of you. 

And by other streams in other countries; anywhere where the light

reaches down through shallows to gold gravel. Olga's

brown eyes.

 

She thinks of the fear in Olga's eyes, wonders how through it all "compassion's candle" kept alight in those eyes. The river that has become in the poem a symbol of the forces of time and history against which Olga had fought, in vain, or so it had always seemed to Denise ("to change, / to change the course of the river!") is now recognized as a part of the poet's life, too; and she wishes that she had understood more fully Olga's whiteness as well as her blackness ("Black one, black one, / there was a white / candle in your heart" [ii]).

 

I cross

 

so many brooks in the world, there is so much light

dancing on so many stones, so many questions my eyes

smart to ask of your eyes, gold brown eyes,

the lashes short but the lids

arched as if carved out of olivewood, eyes with some vision

of festive goodness in back of their hard, or veiled, or shining, unknowable gaze . . .

                                                                                                                            (vi)

 

The poem's message to herself is clear: you can't only watch; you can't only remember; you must allow yourself to participate, to be touched.

Suzanne Juhasz: On "An Egyptian Pulled Glass Bottle in the Shape of a Fish"

The "superior objectivist poem," her "An Egyptian Pulled Glass Bottle in the Shape of a Fish," is a poem appreciating art itself according to criteria that can be applied easily to her own poetry. Uncharacteristically, she begins not with the physical details of the fish-bottle but with the practical and moral situation that led to its making. Her poem is tracing the process of creation itself, so that it leads to the presence of the bottle as its conclusion. "Here we have," she begins, observing the bottle, "thirst," "patience," then "art": "as in a wave held up for us to see / in its essential perpendicularity." Art is thus the result of physical need and the skill of the artist to create what is needed: "So art is but

an expression of our needs," she writes in her essay "Feeling and Precision"; "is feeling, modified by the writer's moral and technological insights." Art demands appreciation, so the poem's first stanza concludes. Then the second and final stanza goes on to appreciate that which the artist has created:

not brittle but

intense—the spectrum, that

    spectacular and nimble animal the fish,

    whose scales turn aside the sun's sword by their polish.

The work of art, to paraphrase, is not false but real; "genuine" is her term in another poem of definition, "Poetry." This bottle is more than something that aids in the alleviation of thirst, it is a fish—a fish created more intensely, more perfectly, more essentially than its living model because it is glass, Perfected by art, this fish is eternal and cannot be destroyed by time: its scales turn aside the sun's sword by their polish. Likewise, the perfect poem is a reflecting and protecting surface.

From Naked and Fiery Forms: Modern American Poetry by Women, A New Tradition. New York: Octagon Books, 1976. Copyright © 1976.

Suzanne Juhasz: On "Poetry"

The final version of "Poetry," a poem that began in Poems (1921) as thirty lines, became thirteen lines in Observations (1921), then thirty-eight lines in the Selected Poems of 1935 and the Collected Poems of 1951, is in the Complete Poems of 1967 four lines long.

I, too, dislike it,

            Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in

            it, after all, a place for the genuine.

The irony in this final version is so thick that it bristles. The speaker is, after all, a poet, and her means of making this statement is a poem. So the first line is if nothing else challenging. The result of the second sentence is to offer highest praise: if, in this contemptible art, poetry, there is still a place for the genuine, that genuine in that poem must be rare stuff indeed, Still, one asks when the poem is over: What is she doing with this "perfect contempt" in the first place? Especially since I am woefully bereft of that quality as I read her poem! Is she so superior? Or is she so humble? Or is she laughing at herself for being a poet? Or at me for believing her when she says she dislikes it? Or at me for not knowing I should dislike it? As a piece of rhetoric, the poem is also perfect, in its precision of vocabulary and placement, the movement from "I" to "too" to "dislike" to "reading" to "however" to "perfect contempt" to "discovers" to "after all" to "place" to "genuine" revealing argument and counterargument, process and conclusion, with an economy that is both dazzling and impenetrable.

The longest version begins with the shorter one quoted, plus a comment: "there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle." The remainder of the poem expands the idea. It contains a definition of poets as "literalists of the imagination" (a quotation from William Butler Yeats) and a definition of poems as "imaginary gardens with real toads in them" (a quotation from herself, from the earliest version of the poem!). It includes as well examples of some real toads, "Hands that can grasp, eyes / that can dilate, hair that can rise / if it must," and some discussion of what can turn such facts into poor verse: "When they become so derivative as to become unintelligible."

The longer versions of "Poetry" possess neither "unkempt diction" nor "lapses in logic." If anything, they are too explicit in their explanation of the opening mystery. "Excess is the common substitute for energy," writes Moore, and "Feeling at its deepest—as we all have reason to know—tends to be inarticulate. If it does manage to be articulate, it is likely to seem overcondensed, so that the author is resisted as being enigmatic or disobliging or arrogant." One reason for compression might very well have been that she felt the long versions to be too excessive. But I suspect yet another. A series of examples follows the remark "we / do not admire what / we cannot understand." These are bats, elephants, a wild horse, a tireless wolf, an immovable critic, the baseball fan, the statistician—all subjects of her own poetry. (Who is the "we," one wonders, in the light of the remark on feeling and poetry just quoted? Good readers or poor readers? Which is she?) The poem continues to observe that although these phenomena are important, they have been "dragged into prominence by half-poets." The result has not been poetry. True poets must be "above / innocence and triviality" in presenting such material, and in this way present the genuine (the pulled glass fish bottle, for example). The longer version is characteristically ambivalent about her status as true poet or half poet, but she may have found the inclusion at all of herself as poet to be too daring. In the short version, she overtly functions as reader, not writer, in the action of the poem. The subtlety of the short version is based upon our knowledge that she is nevertheless the author of the poem and we are readers, but all this is covertly expressed and therefore not liable to attack. The poem is well-described by another of her poems: "compressed; firmed by the thrust of the blast / till compact, like a bulwark against fate" ("Like a Bulwark").

From Naked and Fiery Forms: Modern American Poetry by Women, A New Tradition. New York: Octagon Books, 1976.

Suzanne Juhasz: On 657 ("I dwell in Possibility--")

The enclosure experienced in the place of the mind, an enclosure that can mean confinement and internal strife, is established with an architectural vocabulary. Yet those same windows and doors can as well outline the spaciousness that only the imagination can create, reminding us once again of the power that is derived from the cultivation of consciousness. . . .

At first glance this poem may appear not to be about the mind; because although the place where the speaker lives, Possibility, is definitely a house, its chambers are "as the Cedars," its roof "the Gambrels of the Sky." However, it would be wrong to assume that this house is the house of nature. Rather, the poem is explaining that the imagination can be as vast as the subjects of its speculations. The language building this house attests to its figurative construction. Its rooms are not cedars but like cedars--solid, "Impregnable of Eye." Its roof is as high as the sky. The sky has, literally, no gambrels; but if one were to imagine a roof-like sky, then that would be the room of this house.

This house is "Possibility," the imagination. Dwelling there, the lady of the manor makes not cakes but poetry. Possibility becomes associated with poetry in stanza one, when it is contrasted with its opposite--not impossibility, but prose. Thus, the occupation of she who lives in the mind, the spreading wide her narrow hands "to gather Paradise," may be interpreted as the creation of poetry. Paradise is the farthest space conceivable, and the mind can expand to include it. When this happens, because of the power of the imagination, the "housewife" can be a poet.

From The Undiscovered Continent: Emily Dickinson and the Space of the Mind. Indiana University Press, 1983. Copyright © 1983 by Suzanne Juhasz.

Suzanne Juhasz: On 341 ("After great pain, a formal feeling comes--")

Lack of feeling, or various forms of "death," occasions the metaphoric transfers which interweave in "After great pain" to measure the effect of pain on the mind and body and, in consequence, to tell us something about the nature of pain itself.

Crucial is the poem's structure of "analogical progression" (Weisbuch's term): that is, a movement typological rather than linear, since each analogy, set in apposition to a central idea, proceeds only in that it further defines. Here a series of analogies for the "formal feeling" which comes after great pain call upon a range of external situations, intricately interrelated by metaphor. The feeling is internal, mental, but Dickinson uses words associated with the body, with nature, with society, and with physical death, as well with the mind, to shape and articulate both its sensation and significance.

First Dickinson outlines the feeling by describing the body's manifestation of it: nerves, heart, feet. In each instance, however, figurative language expands the experiential nexus. The nerves are personified; they "sit ceremonious." A social definition of formal--marked by form or ceremony--is called into play; the image may evoke a scene of ladies at tea. However, immediately they are compared to tombs. Formal meaning stiff or rigid; formal marking another kind of ceremony--that of death; more definitions are added. Now all ceremonies are suspect. And that is the point. Formal behavior, because it relies on predetermined patterns, because it proceeds by rote, is mindless.

Next we see the heart. It is stiff. Stiff is another definition for formal, here specifically denoting lack of feeling; for the heart can no longer tell how much time has elapsed between its present condition and when the great pain occurred: "Yesterday, or Centuries before?"

Then the feet. They move mechanically: formal meaning highly organized, also stiff, also devoid of thought, moving by rote--a kind of death. Their path, be it "Of Ground, or Air, or Ought," is wooden and regardless. Both nouns and objects describing the route of the feet, in their juxtaposition of concrete and abstract, indicate that this path is as conceptual as it is physical, and that the feet, like nerves and heart, function synecdochically for the person--especially, for the person's mind. Ought is a path taken by the mind: that of duty—a formal gesture. The conjunction of Wooden and regardless gives dimension to thought--or rather, to the lack of it. A final metaphor and analogy complete the stanza. "A Quartz contentment, like a stone," further describes the wooden way, but it is as well in apposition to "a formal feeling," like all of the images thus far. Contentment follows from regardless and Ought, while Quartz parallels Wooden and mechanical; each harkens back to stiff, ceremonious, and Tombs; all are aspects offormal. In the phrase "Quartz contentment" the concrete and abstract vocabularies are dramatically joined: two versions of rigidity, of formality, inform one another. The quartz is stiff and symmetrical--shaped in a formal pattern. With regardless, Ought, and mechanical to precede contentment, we recognize in that seemingly benign term the kind of formality with which the poem has been dealing throughout: the death-like impotence that marks it in other poems as a primary symptom of despair. We recall "A perfect--paralyzing Bliss--/Contented as Despair--," and the stone eye "that knows--it cannot see." The concluding analogy, "like a stone," comes as no surprise. A quartz contentment is a stony contentment, but the introduction of the word stone more directly yokes Tombs and consequently death to the image.

A formal feeling, then, is stiff, rigid, cold, conforming to patterns with no thought producing them, contented because of the absence of awareness, vitality, sensation, life. "Formal feeling" is really an oxymoron, for the feeling of no feeling.

The last stanza is introduced by a summarizing metaphor--"This is the Hour of Lead" --summarizing in that Hour and Lead hook on to the chain of epithets that have been defining formal in an increasingly ominous way. Lead is as heavy, dark, solid and inanimate as tomb--like nerves, stiff hearts, mechanical feet, wooden ways, and quartz contentment. Hour is the present tense of a mind that questions its understanding of time, that proceeds by rote, according to ought rather than insight, that has grown in its contentment, regardless. The "Hour of Lead" equals "a formal feeling": with its successive parallelism the poem comes full circle here, for the circle has outlined meaning.

But the poem is not over yet, because for all of the lack of a sense of time that accompanies the formal feeling, the poem, like "It ceased to hurt me," is concerned with temporal progression, from pain to the formal feeling to whatever succeeds it. Its first word is "After"; its concluding lines return from the stasis of the formal feeling to the process in which it is located. As the poem begins by setting out the past--what precedes the action of the poem--so its final analogy projects the poem into the future, what will hopefully (unless the formal feeling is truly death-dealing) follow: "Remembered, if outlived,/ As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow--/First—Chill--then Stupor--then the letting go--." In this poem, too, time is a frame that holds the subject in place, through which one can study it.

Sharon Cameron's reading of these lines is excellent, noting as it does how the images themselves embody the temporal progression described.

The image with which the poem concludes ... is more complex because of its susceptibility to transformation, its capacity to exist as ice, snow, and finally as the melting that reduces these crystals to water. The poem's last line is an undoing of the spell of stasis. Because it is not another, different expression of hardness but implies a definite progression away from it by retracing the steps that comprise its history, we know that the "letting go--" is not a letting go of life, is not death, but is rather the more colloquial "letting go" of feeling, an unleashing of the ability to experience it again. To connect the stages of the analogy to the stages of the poem: "Chill--" precedes the poem, "Stupor--" preoccupies it, and "the letting go--" exists on the far side of its ending.

In "After great pain," a dazzling demonstration of her analogical method, Dickinson is like a juggler: the balls she suspends in air so that their shapes and colors enrich one another to create the meaning of the whole are versions of "formal," taken from all manner of experiences in the world beyond the mind. The shape that they make as they circle in the air becomes, however, that of a mental experience: lack of feeling, a formal feeling. This poem is Dickinson's most intense and most precise definition of a condition that appears throughout her poetry on mental experience. This particular version of formal feeling comes after great pain; it is the self-protective response of the mind to a severe internal wound. . . .

From The Undiscovered Continent: Emily Dickinson and the Space of the Mind. (Indiana University Press, 1983.) Copyright © 1983 by Suzanne Juhasz.

Suzanne Juhasz: On "The Colossus"

Even in a poem like "The Colossus," in which the poet is exploring a very private, very personal experience, her relationship with her dead father whom she both adores and hates because he died, because he is dead and still influences her life, she needs at this point in her career to generalize even mythicize the experience to control it and therefore to write about it. (From later poems on the theme, such as "Daddy," we get a clearer picture of the devastating strength of, her emotions. But in this poem they are modulated by their symbolic form.)

The father is seen as a great but broken statue, a ruin from some former time: "O father, all by yourself / You are pithy and historical as the Roman Forum." The poet is laboring, as she has been for thirty years, she says, to get him "put together entirely / Pieced, glued, and properly jointed"—to bring him back to life or to put him into perspective, either way means freeing herself from his power. Plath’s characteristic irony (yet another method of distancing) is here directed upon herself :

Scaling little ladders with gluepots and pails of lysol

I crawl like an ant in morning

Over the weedy acres of your brow

To mend the immense skull plates and clear

The bald, white tumuli of your eyes.

This strange scene is put into its "proper" context: "A blue sky out of the Oresteia / Arches above us." There is again the mockery: we are like some characters out of a Greek drama, not real people at all; but there is also the epic dimension that the vision gives to these actors. The poet is not only Sylvia Plath, she is a type of Electra, the daughter who avenged the murder of her father, Agamemnon. They become more than themselves when identified with the devoted daughter/dead father archetype. Finally, the very setting itself helps to supply the story:

Nights, I squat in the cornucopia

Of your left ear, Out of the wind,

 

Counting the red stars and those of plum-color.

The sun rises under the pillar of your tongue.

My hours are married to shadow.

No longer do I listen for the scrape of a keel

On the blank stones of the landing.

The scene, being a symbolic construction, is meant to be translated into a psychological and emotional vocabulary: I am yoked, dedicated to death, observes the protagonist. The giant statue is mythic and larger than life, but in being so it is also the past—it is irrevocably dead and cannot be reconstructed. But it has become her only home. She lives in its shadow and views the living world from its perspective. Her own life, as she sees it, is therefore a living death.

From Naked and Fiery Forms: Modern American Poetry by Women, a New Tradition. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976. Copyright © 1976.