In the fourth chapter of Le Degré Zéro de L’Ecriture Roland Barthes proposes a distinction between classical language and modern language. “The economy of classical language,” he says, is “relational, which means that in it words are abstracted as much as possible in the interest of relationships.” The words do not claim any special character in their own behalf: “no word has a density by itself, it is hardly the sign of a thing, but rather the means of conveying a connexion.” In modern language the fixed relations are dissolved, and words are cast upon a new condition; they may do what they will, because they are not obliged to do anything in particular. The object of a modern poem is not to define or qualify relations already conventionally agreed, but to cause “an explosion of words.”
It is easy to think of these modern words as independent objects, discontinuous and magical. Their distinguishing mark is an assertion of presence; they are no longer content to live as neutral signs. It follows that a new sense of Nature is implied. “The interrupted flow of the new poetic language,” Barthes remarks, “initiates a discontinuous Nature, which is revealed only piecemeal.” Nature now becomes “a fragmented space, made of objects solitary and terrible, because the links between them are only potential.” It would be more accurate to say that the links between them are only virtual, or that, in any declared relation, they are arbitrary. If a writer proposes a relation between one thing and another, the only meaning to be drawn from the proposal is that it is congenial to the mind which has made it. The predicament is one of the reasons for the apocalyptic note in modern poetry.
At first sight, it is impertinent to think of these matters when we are reading Mrs. Sexton’s poems. The experiences before and beneath the poems are so dreadful that the question of the poems themselves can hardly be raised. The poetry, it may be felt, does not matter. In Live or Die many poems come from mental hospitals, suicide rooms, and the Valley of the Dolls; their mark is what Dryden somewhere calls “the sad variety of Hell.” As in All My Pretty Ones and To Bedlam and Part Way Back, the poems are seasongs, songs of drowning, hungering for land. Reading poems like “Those Times,” “Wanting to Die,” and “The Addict,” one is almost ashamed to consider, the experiences being what they are, whether the poems are good or not. Notes of rage and despair are sent to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children; and here we are, reading them as if they were poems. One impertinence begets another. It seems outrageous to ask why the terrible experiences, irrefutable as they appear, have not issued in greater poems, if they were to issue in poems at all. Normally, poems are not very good because they have nothing much to report; but Mrs. Sexton has so much to report, her experiences are so harrowing, that the bare recital should be enough.
If the recital is rarely a definitive poem, the reason sometimes is that it is not bare enough. Or the reason may be that modern poetry, if Barthes’s account is anything more than a potent exaggeration, requires inordinate gifts of language. Words, long employed merely to carry messages, are now to set up a magnetic field. They must at least be magnetic, magical, Sibylline. The blunt fact is that Mrs. Sexton, driven by experiences which no man or woman should be asked to bear, needs a language of unlimited finesse, if words are to live up to actions and sufferings. It is not a matter of gypsy phrases or the gift of gab. To negotiate the terror of her experiences, she ought to receive every grace of words, since words are so much of her constructive life. For common purposes her endowment is more than adequate: even for exorbitant purposes it is often enough. But in several poems Mrs. Sexton’s language has the effect of suspending our belief, when belief is nearly all that matters. In “Pain for a Daughter” she describes an occasion on which a horse injured the child’s foot. She says of the child, at home:
Blind with fear, she sits on the toilet,
her foot balanced over the washbasin,
her father, hydrogen peroxide in hand,
performing the rites of the cleansing.
The ritual figure does nothing for the experience, except to make us doubt it. If, urged by the last line, we admit intimations of religious formality, aesthetic distance, or ritual patterns, we cannot put them to any use; because we cannot believe that they have anything to do with the case. Even in more accomplished poems, in “Three Green Windows,” “Mother and Jack and the Rain,” as in memorable poems from the earlier books, like “The Truth the Dead Know,” “For God While Sleeping,” or “The Division of Parts,” the experience has to do what it can with a language not quite strong enough for its need. Johnson said of The Conduct of the Allies that “it operates by the mere weight of facts, with very little assistance from the hand that produced them.” Mrs. Sexton’s early poems are deeply moving, and the recent book has several poems poignant in that way, but they stay in the mind as facts, occasions, incidents, as we hear of death, madness, pain, dire coincidence, and we are almost ready to waive the question of style. “The Addict” is hard to forget, like some incidents in a newspaper, but close attention to the style is not rewarded:
has got to last for years and years.
I like them more than I like me.
Stubborn as hell, they won’t let go.
It’s a kind of marriage.
It’s a kind of war
where I plant bombs inside
In moving from one line to the next the poet is merely shifting the scenery of her mind. These are not imaginative relations, seen as with first sight; they are gestures of fancy, the arbitrary association of one figure with another. The comparisons are mechanical; that is, each is good enough until it is replaced by the next, but it does not satisfy attention beyond that attention. When the reader gets the point, there is nothing more to be had.
One poem in Live or Die is indeed a magnetic field. There are magnificent fragments in other poems, especially in “Suicide Note,” but nothing as fully achieved as “To Lose the Earth.” I am not sure that I understand the poem, except as a remarkable gargoyle. Wordsworth writes, in the Essay appended to the Preface to Lyrical Ballads:
There is also a meditative, as well as a human, pathos; an enthusiastic, as well as an ordinary, sorrow; a sadness that has its seat in the depths of reason, to which the mind cannot sink gently of itself—but to which it must descend by treading the steps of thought.
The sadness in “To Lose the Earth” is of this kind, moving down the steps of thought while it explores the possibilities of a second world, built on the ruin of the first. “Assembled tenderness,” one of the motives of Live or Die, is certified in the tension between the two worlds. The question of confessional poetry does not arise.
W. S. MERWIN’S WAY with poetry is given in “The Bones,” from The Drunk in the Furnace and “Lemuel’s Blessing” from The Moving Target. It is a fairly straightforward view of the poet reading the signatures of things. Shall these bones live?
For what? For knowing the sands are here,
And coming to hear them a long time; for giving
Shapes to the sprawled sea, weight to its winds,
And wrecks to plead for its sands.
It is largely the idea of order at Key West or anywhere else. But in “Lemuel’s Blessing” one prayer urges the restriction of self, a stay against the “egotistical sublime”:
But lead me at times beside the still waters;
There when I crouch to drink let me catch a glimpse of your image
Before it is obscured with my own.
Many of the recent poems are attempts to dispose of obstacles; as in “Finally”:
Come. As a man who hears a sound at the gate
Opens the window and puts out the light
The better to see out into the dark,
Look, I put it out.
So the themes are: choice, chance, vacillation, direction, departure.
Perhaps a pattern emerges. Mr. Merwin’s poems have often been dogged by facility, mainly, I think, because it is natural for him to assume a static relation between the mind and its materials. It is significant, for instance, that many of his poems use the idiom of ways and means, as if to imply that they are still available. A short list from The Moving Target includes “avenue of promises,” “turnstile of hesitants,” “the promises of the bridges,” “the crossroads of the world,” “valley of dice,” “milestones of salt,” “stairs of water,” “doors of ice,” “river of bees.” Everything is possible, but nothing is necessary; hence the question of choice, where to go, what to do. In The Moving Target and The Lice these figures would imply the persistence of old continuities, if they were not qualified by tokens of the arbitrariness of things. The sprawled sea holds many signs, but we read them as we will, no particular relation is binding. Time gives no answers, the seasons do not remember. In “The Asians Dying”:
Overhead the seasons rock
They are paper bells
Calling to nothing living.
In “The Wave” the only law is recession. Several poems record the noise of locks closing. “Every morning something different is real.”
Mr. Merwin’s poetry is not, then, modern, in Barthes’s stringent sense: he is still looking for a natural syntax in which relations between one thing and another are given; to be discovered, not imposed by will or whim. When he turns from “objects solitary and terrible” it is always to look for a sign, something to live by. Perhaps the objects are still a code, however secret; if so, it may still be possible to break it. Emblems of fulfillment include, in the recent poems, maps, names, stars, song, trumpet, flag, the instinct by which streams find one another. In “Some Last Questions” the poet seeks “a message.” A characteristic gesture is made in “it is March”:
When you look back there is always the past
Even when it has vanished
But when you look forward
With your dirty knuckles and the wingless
Bird on your shoulder
What can you write
Look back in sorrow, then forward in bewilderment. The Lice begins where “For Now” left off in The Moving Target; the new movement is implied in the Fragment of Heraclitus which makes the epigraph of the new book:
All men are deceived by the appearances of things, even Homer himself, who was the wisest man in Greece; for he was deceived by boys catching lice; they said to him, “What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.”
I would add to this a line from “The Widow”: “And you weep wishing you were numbers”; making the obvious point that numbers are fixed relations.
THE APOCALYPTIC NOTE is not new: it was clearly audible in the second half of The Moving Target. But it was not entirely convincing there. It sounded deliberate, almost willful, as if the poet envied Theodore Roethke the reverberation of his vestigial cries. But in The Lice the note is much more powerful, more dramatically sustained by the impression of man as a stranger on this cooling planet. This is a world without syntax, inhabited by a man who thought he had read the signs correctly and now, revising his texts, concludes that he was wrong. The search is renewed:
I pass skins withering in gardens that I see now
Are not familiar
And I have lost even the thread I thought I had.
The journey is begun again, this time without maps; without companions, too. “The Widow,” “Looking East at Night,” and “The Gods” are the words of a man without sodality.
“The Widow” is the central poem in the new collection, and it is very fine. An anthology of departures, it starts from the separation of husk and grain, then urges, by that acknowledgment, a corresponding acknowledgment in our own terms:
There is no season
That requires us.
So, the poet says, we confide in images; a touching version of a predicament which is modern in Barthes’s terms, but now the poet adds the intimacy of need. “Everything that does not need you is real,” Mr. Merwin says, but he does not taunt us. Rather, he prepares us for one relinquishment after another, until the last. What is fine in this poem is the tact with which the persuasive implications of the first figure are led, step by downward step, until the movement is fulfilled. If we knew how this is done, how the meditative pathos is released in that way, by that measure, we would understand something of the mystery of form, how it can be free and legal at the same time.
THE EPIGRAPH to Reasons for Moving is taken from Jorge Luis Borges’s story, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”: “Another believes that, while we are asleep here, we are awake somewhere else, and that thus every man is two men.” In the story this belief is ascribed to a metaphysical school in metaphysical Tlön. Mr. Strand begins his book as if he were paying tribute to Borges by miming his voice. He writes the first poem about poetry, on the fancy that poems are designed to be eaten by dogs. The second poem, “The Accident,” may be read with similar results if it is assumed that the accident happened to a dog or a man. The third, “The Mailman,” is also in Borges’s manner, but it does not quite live up to his gay pursuit of the null. Before the poet has gone very far, care begins to break in, and the decorum is lost. In “The Ghost Ship” Mr. Strand invokes “the sadness of slums” and Borges is abandoned. With “The Kite” we are in daily things, no sign of Tlön or the Orbis Tertius.
In some ways this is a pity. Mr. Strand is as good as other poets with straightforward, delicate poems like “Moontan.” Sometimes he makes odd effects by giving hypotheses exactly the same status as facts. The immediate result is that both worlds are equally sinister. In “The Door” a macabre fancy turns domestic things into demons. In “The Dead” Mr. Strand takes the work of time, deadly enough already, and completes it, deepening the graves. Neutral things are tried again on the same charge and found guilty. Sleep becomes a “deep humus”; clothes are a green and wrinkled sea, overwhelming their victims. Every caress is a menace. Every tree is “sick.” In “Violent Storm” Mr. Strand is a terrorist; sensitive to “the unaccounted for,” he accounts for it by imputing “dubious plans” to the night. The storm is determined to hurl us down “against the flat stones/Of our lives.” The dark “brushes against our eyes.” But the trouble is that a poet who cries wolf must offer more evidence than the cry itself. Mr. Strand asserts menace, but the evidence does not appear. By evidence, I mean, to cite an obvious example, the dramatic proof and conviction of “The Subverted Flower,” where Frost produces the wolf and leaves the cry to us.
Mr. Strand’s best poems are written when he is somewhat debonair: care, when it comes, comes too heavily. I am not sure that his style can bear the weight of this sad time. To be specific: “The Man in Black” is a poem in five stanzas. The last stanza is the climax, in a common sense, the place where the care spills out; but the care does not issue convincingly from the fancy of the first four stanzas. Feeling breaks in, but it ruins the decorum of a poem which was very engaging so long as care stayed away. The poem ends:
I felt like a fool and stood in his black wake,
shaken and small, and my tears
swung back and forth in the sultry air like chandeliers.
We believe it, or we do not; but belief had nothing to do with the poem up to that point. When the question of belief is raised, it must be answered. In that harsh light the last line must be met on its own ground. So it becomes necessary to ask tedious questions about the justice of the simile; about the sense in which tears, allowed to swing back and forth, are like chandeliers. Clearly the sense is rudimentary. In “The Kite” we read, “The wind cries in his lapels,” and again we believe or we do not. Mr. Strand brings this bother upon himself for no good reason that I can see. Perhaps the epigraph from Borges is the clue. Mr. Strand takes heavily, for the most part, what Borges takes lightly, a Laputan fancy, a gay lark. The previous sentence in Borges’s story may make the point. Another metaphysical school in Tlön believed “that the universe is comparable to those code systems in which not all the symbols have meaning, and in which only that which happens every three hundredth night is true.” There is no question of feeling; the trick is to hold feeling forever in abeyance.
SANDRA HOCHMAN deals with the problems of modern language by buying a plot of ground and keeping them out. The breathless tone of her new book is achieved by banishing the fury and the mire of human veins. The poems imply in their poet a Great Awakening, called Joy:
I inherited joy
The way one inherits a fortune.
Sometimes it is identified with youth, or with love, realized in “parables of trees”: the poems sponsor, by any name, the morality of the right sensation. So their experiences are restricted to those events which invite favorite sensations and favorite words. The plot of ground is Asia, especially Hong Kong; vacation-time, with poems as letters, love letters, postcards home. Recalcitrant experience is not admitted; these are poems for holiday. In “The Love Singer,” Miss Hochman speaks of a man crying joy “in a language that/We had forgotten or never knew”: “syllables dropped like kumquats/ From his tongue.” The whole book oozes feeling, drops kumquats from its tongue. There is a passage of relevant critique in Machado’s Juan de Mairena, where the great teacher tells his pupil to go to the blackboard and write: “The quotidian events which occur on the highways and byways.” Now, he says, render that poetically. The student thinks for a moment and writes: “What goes on in the streets.” The master is pleased. But he would not be pleased with Miss Hochman:
There are people who do not explore the in-
Side of flowers, kissing them,
Resting their own tongues on their petals.
I must tell them. Where will I begin?
I am sure Miss Hochman does indeed “love/Earth, violently, and vegetables,/Stars…” but in these poems she never looks at anything for its own sake nor allows its strangeness to persist. “The charm of the nightingales,” Machado’s Juan says, “lies in the fact that they sing of their own loves and never of ours.” Miss Hochman does not allow this: she never forgets her own feelings in the presence of charming things. She says to everything: be thou me, impetuous one, pretty one, joyful one:
Trumpet our life. Mountains
Breathe, offering burning leaves and trees.
All reptiles celebrate:
Skinks and terrapins
With bright blue tails,
Green snakes and cobras,
Corals and kraits, white
And golden, climb into our mornings.
I am afraid many readers will find these poems offensive, whatever latitude we allow to love letters. They come perhaps, at a particularly bad time; kumquats are scarce everywhere, not only in Vietnam. But times are always dreadful, as Mrs. Sexton’s poems show.
June 6, 1968