Both one thing and another?

One of the things about poetry that most puzzles literal-minded people is that one set of words can mean two or more things. A description of snow falling can be a description of death or of sleep or, just possibly, a  description of snow falling.

 

faceoff

 

Going to the Snape Poetry Festival earlier this month got me thinking about this a good deal, particularly because of listening to an American poet, Paula Bohince, reading, interpreting and explaining what she liked about the poem “Sandpiper” by another female American poet, Elizabeth Bishop.

 

I found myself interested but uneasy. Here’s the poem:

 

SANDPIPER

 

The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.

The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.

– Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains.

The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.
His beak is focussed; he is preoccupied,

looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.

 

Western Sandpiper, Cattle Point, Uplands, Near Victoria, British Columbia

 

Now clearly this is a very good poem, with vivid and accurate language, well-organised and thought-provoking, if only to find me American support for spelling FOCUSSED, which my American-dominated spellcheck thinks is wrong. There are lines here which are memorable for the beauty of the image and/or the words like the last two lines or “he stares at the dragging grains”, which is not only vivid but reproduces the sound of a spent wave hissing back over coarse sand.

 

In reading it before Paula Bohince expounded, I suspected there was a half-hidden agenda to it but didn’t know what. I was seriously bothered by the words “a student of Blake”, which interrupted clear and vivid description with what seemed to be a crossword-puzzle-maker’s clue. Paula Bohince especially liked those words, explaining they referred to Blake’s “To see a world in a grain of sand”, which makes plenty of sense; but I still think this is an awkward break and a too clever insert which will distract most readers from the picture that’s been building up.

 

By the way, as a European birdwatcher, I was also slightly bothered that the sandpipers I knew rarely fed on sandy shores, but judging by online photos of American sandpipers, some of their sandpiper species do.

 

Paula Bohince talked about Elizabeth Bishop’s approach to writing poetry and interpreted the poem from start to finish as the poet describing herself writing poetry. That does make sense: in particular, it would be downright silly to describe a bird as being “obsessed” (“Poor bird, he is obsessed!”) in his or her pursuit of a successful feeding strategy without which (s)he would die. It leaves me uneasy, though, because at the end of Paula Bohince’s talk there seemed to be nothing left of the sandpiper. It was a kind of disrespect.

 

Maybe what leaves me uneasy is more in Paula Bohince’s mind than the poem, though I am unhappy about that line “Poor bird, he is obsessed”.

 

Now let me try putting in this light two of my own poems that seem to be attempting something similar – “Watershed” and “Underwater”.

 

WATERSHED

Did you see, there where the cloud broke
Between the high grey ridges an angled cleft
Roughly in line with the uneven river
Which might be a pass? A great bird soared over it
Now nothing shows but cloud and the warning of rain.

The broken impatient river carved the way
We leave the many-angled rocks behind
And the last twisted tree, the last glimpse of a roof;
And the hidden ravens call in the grey mist.
With cunning and husbanded strength
We drag from the circle of sweat to the circle of icy wind
Recovering from a slip is hard
Recovering from the task impossible.

There is never a point where you can say “that’s it”
No throne or light or monument
Only the slope is inconsistent
The shattered smoothing rocks lie in no order
There is no river
These barren pools are the only water

And then the ghost of a trickle
A few thin fingers feeling
Trying to come together, the hiss and sparkle:
We have passed the watershed
We have seen the birth
Of a new river.
Somewhere there is a new land
But it is hidden and the mist rolls in.

There is no warning
No sign, no new music
Just the realisation and the standing still
The dropping, blocking hills
The unknown, long suspected
Alien valley ahead
But half-familiar, like a dream
The hidden end
You feel you ought to remember.

The descent from the murderous heights
To the soft valley is always more dangerous
Than the struggling up:
The sight of meadows and bushes can lead like a mirage
To the eggshell-crushing fall
And the way to the low glittering lake
May be many miles round.

But at least the first task of the explorer
Seems to have been fulfilled
To show what he wanted to explore
Was there at all.
America is found
Mars glows dully but more clear
In the dark waters, something moves after all
Down the strange valley our suspected
Alive waters fall.

 

I don’t want to analyse this poem in the round here or this would be an impossibly long post, but there is an obvious extended metaphor. The poem is a realistic description of a climber or hill-walker ascending a pass to reach the watershed and it actually draws extensively on two real climbs, one in Torridon in the Western Scottish Highlands and the other in the English Lake District (Black Sail Pass). But it’s also about any adventure, any risk-taking, any exploration. There’s plenty of detailed description of rocks, rivulets and so on, but to reinforce the exploration theme I’ve made the climber unaware of what’s beyond the watershed, so (s)he obviously wasn’t carrying a decent map!

 

Nonetheless, the whole thing could be a poetic description of a climb and nothing else until that last verse (from “At least the first task of the explorer”), about which I have reservations though a poetry magazine must have been happy because it was selected for an anthology. In that last verse I talk not of mountains and fells but of America and Mars. The analogy becomes clear. Was that a mistake? At least by this final shift I avoid the weakness of “Poor bird, he is obsessed” – the point at which what the poet wants to say about herself (if Bohince is right) clashes with what can truthfully be said of the bird.

 

UNDERWATER

When you slip under
The long lying line of waves
Strange shapes will come
Silently propelled by waft of flipper
Or sinuous pulsing of a streamlined torso
And some maybe you knew and had forgotten
Dirt shovelled over the well has been removed
Remember the time before you broke the surface
Gasped, fumbled, burrowed
And survived by stratagem?

Now you return to them
Learning to be like a fish
Wander and linger
Here where the pearly nautilus waves unchanging
Here with the ammonite and plesiosaur
And where squat fish that never see the sunlight
Thread through great feathery banks of frond
Of hidden sting and jaw

Do you rise up towards the scattered sunlight
The crushing waves, the inconsistent wind,
The seabird that will fly to a rocky island
Drawing life from the depths, their crowded night?

When you are playing with the waves
Will you remember
Here on the fine-grained shore (maybe imagine)
Beneath the corals and the painted fish
Down with the vents, the eyeless creatures
Some heavy hidden box
That had an answer,
Where you will return?
Will you return?

 

This is more complicated because there are at least three associated half-hidden meanings. The sea can stand for death, time or the unconscious. The poem is much less realistic than “Watershed” and it would be difficult for someone to read it and think it was just about underwater exploration, though there are bits that describe underwater habitats pretty accurately –

And where squat fish that never see the sunlight
Thread through great feathery banks of frond
Of hidden sting and jaw

(which could certainly be a deep-sea, ocean-bed habitat) or

Here on the fine-grained shore (maybe imagine)
Beneath the corals and the painted fish
Down with the vents, the eyeless creatures

(which describes a sandy shore, shallow tropical waters and the ocean bed). But this ocean contains long-extinct creatures side by side with surviving ones, suggesting something either dreamlike or timeless. There is a kind of subtext which says, “Beneath the water surface you change into something else and time as you have known it vanishes. In the deepest places there are dangers but also something valuable. The life of things above the surface depends on life beneath the surface (the fish-eating seabird). Humans travel between the different levels, rather as we evolved to leave the sea and live on land (the last five lines of the first verse).

 

It seems to me to work and one reason is that I didn’t pretend to be talking about real seas. If I’d done that, some things I wanted to say would have disrupted the metaphor.

 

There’s a lot more to think about here…

 

 

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Snow of Winter for me, though I have experienced, symbolises the wait, a wait to enter, to be born. While Autumn is the great harvest at life’s closing moments. For me it is about what water means and does for life, and in snow it is waiting, waiting to travel new song-lines, paths, and ways as the seasons change over time. For me it’s about being conceived.

    Back to continue reading some more of the post later.

    Reply
  2. Many thanks, Sean.

    The folk memory of those who live in northern temperate to sub-arctic areas associates snow with play but also death. It could be a killer. In Hertfordshire near where I came from is a village called Cold Christmas. It’s on a ridge and probably was cut off.

    That autumn is about renewal as much as death is very much in my mind and Keats’ Ode to Autumn is full of images of birth and renewal.

    Reply

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