‘I GOTTA USE WORDS’
by Bob Lane
“Talking does not make the world or even pictures, but talking and pictures participate in making each other and the world as we know them.” Nelson Goodman in Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols has pointed correctly in this statement to the inevitable association between works of art and the language used to talk about those works. In the last century, it was believed that the exclusion of subject matter (landscapes, people, family scenes) from painting would disentangle the image on the canvas (or the words of a poem) from literary associations and clear the way for a direct response of the eye to optical data. The hope was to reduce art to speechlessness. An “Art of the Real” exhibition recently at the Museum of Modern Art described its selection as chunks of raw reality totally liberated from language. “Modern art,” writes one recent critic “has eliminated the verbal correlative from the canvas.” Perhaps. But if a work of today no longer has a verbal correlative, it is because its particular character has been dissolved in a sea of words.
At no time in history have more words been written in defence of art, in explanation of what it “really is,” in defence of its “uniqueness,” in the production of manifestoes of explanation and genesis. To describe a striped canvas and a striped tablecloth in the same terms is to commit an artistic faux pas of great proportion much like the child who, because he didn’t understand the rules of the game, remarked that the emperor was naked. The language of art criticism today is a subtle and abstract means to create the idea of art works in conceptual framework of theories instead of in the perceptual framework of the senses. Recently two young artists in Latin America contrived a Happening that was reported in detail in the press but never took place, so their “work of art” consisted of their own news releases and the resulting interviews, accounts,, and comments. Here the “work of art” was only what was said about it. There was no “picture” only “talking”.
Other “artists” are using nature as a canvas. By rearranging rocks (or grinding up bottles to cover a B.C. Island) and making trenches in the dirt, they hope to show that there is no real distinction between a work of art and natural objects. But, like the child in the “Emperor’s Clothes” this is to function without knowing the rules of the game. “Art” implies artifact. Its Indo European base is from “ar ” which means to join, fit together. Certainly Goodman is right when he says that talking does not make pictures (or by extension any work of art, except, of course, in the obvious way that talking makes, e.g. oral poetry, where the act of talking is the art form) but participates in making them. One need only look at any history of art book to note the way in which words about pictures are used to classify and categorize those pictures. But the pictures are real. The works of art are there in time and space, have an existence of their own carved out of the flux of that time and space. Talking and pictures are married, but form allows the marriage.
In literature, the art form closest to me in terms of training and interest, one finds not only the primacy of words, but also words about words.
“I got to use words when I talk to you”. Perhaps, at least on this point, all literary critics would agree. A simple statement. Yet implicit within it are the very problems about which the critics storm and rave. “I”,, “talk”, “you” or poet, poem and audience these three parts of the poetic experience are the basis of all critical arguments. Where does one place the emphasis? Which is to be considered most carefully? Is each of equal import in the communicative process referred to as the poetic experience? Do we study a poem to investigate the complex maze of the creative mind, or to discern its philosophical statement and place it in the history of ideas, or do we concern ourselves with the emotional impact of the poem on the reader, or are all of these ingredients of the poetic experience?
Most all critical differences of agreement dealt with by our critics come about as a result of shifting the emphasis from or changing the relation among the three: poet, poem and audience. The formalist critics insist upon concentrating on the poem itself, convinced that knowledge of the poet (his life, letters, philosophy, etc.) is of no value in the evaluation and judgment of his poem. The psychoanalytic critics would have us concentrate on the poet in an attempt to probe his psyche to discover what makes him different from the rest of the world of nonpoets. And of course the political critic is interested in examining the poem as a rhetorical device for the control and/or education of the audience. Aristotle,, for example, would have us believe that art serves simply a social function in that through purgation (a purging of emotions as if by an overdose of laxative) or catharsis the human audience will be trained to the higher ideals of the perfect state. Following this notion we find the state subsidized plays where the theaters become hospitals to cure the ills of the tribe. Or in somewhat less pejorative terms the emphasis is on the spiritual regenerative function of tragedy and comedy.
Can we ever really deny this function of art? Something does happen to a person as the result of experiencing Hamlet or The Seventh Seal, somehow one is different as result of the experience, one has been impressed, purged, changed as a result of the intellectual, emotional power of the experience; has achieved a new insight into the nature of man and his relationship with the universe, with whatever gods there may be, has come closer to an awareness of what it means to be a mortal human being filled with passions, desires, ego, and overwhelming self-concern, who is attempting to carve some meaning out of life as he continues his walk toward the grave. Poetry helps to supply this much sought meaning, this non scientific truth concerning the nature of things which helps to bind humans together in an appreciation of the wonder of life.
One must never forget the importance of life itself, however, as teacher, as a force which shapes and changes the human sensibility. To my knowledge it is impossible to have a satisfactory love affair with a poem. Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony are, unfortunately, not enjoyable on an empty stomach which demands to be fed. Being absolutely physically exhausted as a result of physical labour can produce an almost cathartic effect itself: in the very tiredness of one’s body is the gnawing yet needed feeling of being alive. To fight, to love, to fear, to know pain, concern, wonder and awe these are the lessons of life which are prerequisites to a love of poetry. (Commonplaces?
Obvious truisms? Yes. But I am positive that many of my associates do not realize in their bones the depth of these truths.) In any event, to appreciate poetry as an integral part of life, one must become a part of the creative poetic experience. In a sense every reader, insomuch as he is creative, recreates the work of art which he is perusing. To the creative reader, the moment of insight has value insofar as he is able to relate it to the body of his previous experience, his previous attitudes, his perception of reality and his outlook on life. Integrating what one reads with one’s beliefs about self, about man, about the world values is a process that must be unique to each individual, and is, therefore, a creative act.
A few years ago, I attended, with a small group of friends, a production of Christopher Fry’s The Dark is Light Enough. The Countess was played by an exceptionally able and excellent actress (Elizabeth Officer) and the overall production was extremely impressive and thought provoking. I recall that upon leaving the theater each member of the party expressed the feeling that a profound emotional experience had been lived. A few minutes later, over refreshments, we began the inevitable critical attempt at explaining exactly what had happened to produce this cathartic effect. A strange thing happened: the emotional and intellectual complexity of the experience began to disappear as the critical attempt at understanding it progressed. Each member of the group became more and more interested in impressing the others with his acuteness of perception, with his ability to compare and contrast the work we had just experienced with possible sources, trends, philosophical ideas, and as a representative work of theater, etc. Each was using the play as a springboard from which to begin his own dialogue concerning the nature of art and the nature of life. Interesting discussions? Yes. Important to an understanding of the play? Probably. Valuable to the experience of the play? No. It became more and more apparent that the whole (the experience of the play) was not to be divided into segments, discussed, distorted and then reassembled. The critical (amateurish perhaps, but no different in kind from any critical study) dissection was interesting in and for itself, could be judged on the basis of its own internal consistencies and depth of insight, but was, finally, completely divorced from the total effect of the play, and in fact tended to destroy the wholeness of the experience produced by the play.
Critical theories grow from the same soil as did this remembered discussion. Each man is attempting to explain the nature of the feeling he experiences when confronted with a work of art. Each man is interested also in developing his own dialogue, in verbalizing his own understanding of the nature of things by reference to an individual work of art as his springboard. His criticism will by necessity reflect his previous experiences, attitudes, and his perception of reality. The work under his attention lends itself to such discussion because it is timeless, unchanging and ordered as compared to the experiences of life which are so often flowing, ephemeral, unordered, and meaningless.
Kenneth Burke, for example, who is undoubtedly, a brilliant, vibrant, vital and concerned critic, has produced several books which are insightful, interesting, sometimes brilliant works in which he constantly suggests that human relations should be analyzed with respect to the leads discovered by a study of drama. His basic interests are not in literature but rather in producing a theoretical terminology which will handle any written work, be it drama, philosophy, poem, novel or Time magazine. As Aristotle had his six elements of tragedy (plot as act, character as agent, thought as purpose, melody and diction as agency, and spectacle as scene); as Ben Jonson had his “poem poesy and poet”; as Emerson had his “cause, operation, and effect”; as Ferguson had his “purpose, passion, and perception”; so Burke has his pentad of the five key terms of dramatism: act, scene, agent, agency, purpose, which are offered as tools to discover “the basic forms of thought which, in accordance with the nature of the world as all men necessarily experience it, are exemplified in the attributing of motives”. His book Grammar of Motives is dedicated to showing how these five terms can unlock the motivational and purposive reasons and meanings in “metaphysical structures, in legal judgements, in poetry and fiction, in political and scientific works, in news and in bits of gossip offered at random”. He does a brilliant job of applying his terms to a vast number of writings including philosophers, poets and legislators. The immediate value of the terms to literature is, however, limited. For example, when looking at the lines by Wordsworth:
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
and comparing them with the haunting lines of Wallace Stevens:
You like it under the trees in autumn,
Because everything is half dead.
The wind moves like a cripple among the leaves
And repeats words without meaning.
In the same way, you were happy in spring,
With the half colors of quarter things,
The slightly brighter sky, the melting clouds,
The single bird, the obscure moon –
The obscure moon lighting an obscure world
Of things that would never be quite expressed,
Where you yourself were never quite yourself
And did not want nor have to be,
one would say that the agent scene had changed. That is, in the Wordsworth poem the emphasis is on the scene and its power to influence the agent (poet) while in the Stevens’ lines the emphasis is on the agent and his ability or power to influence to scenic condition. Or again, in the first, one finds the internalizing of an external purposive scene while in the second, one finds the externalizing of an internal scene. Intellectually a sound observation, I submit. And yet does it really tell us much about the poems and our relation with them? Is the haunting beauty of Stevens’ lines explained by the awareness of the shifting agent scene ratio?
Where does all this lead? Are we left with simply an impressionistic antenna with which to sense the power of a work of art? Yes. But the reception is not determined; the reception can be increased by the use of the many tools critical and educational which our culture has available for us. Not too long ago in the classroom a college freshman insisted that the poem “Spring and Fall” by Hopkins was a “bad” poem and that memorization of it was, at the least, immoral. Further questioning produced the fact that she did not understand the poem at all. The “paraphrasable content” of even the last two lines: ‘Tis the blight man was born for,/ It is Margaret you mourn for/ had escaped her understanding. Obviously, it was ridiculous for the girl to make a value judgment about a poem which she did not understand at all. But that’s where education and criticism are helpful. By discussing the many ingredients of a poem: (meter, diction, syntax, paraphrasable content, participation in a genre, relation to a tradition) a notion of its meaning will begin to emerge. Intellectually one will understand the poem and the tools of criticism will have been invaluable in that understanding. Yet, until one can relate the poem to a set of perceptions about the nature of reality which are true because they have been lived, only then can the poem have meaning to the individual. And when life and art can be united in the sensibility of one mind each becomes more meaningful and the resultant intellectual/emotional experience can truly be considered transcendent.
But then, “I got to use words when I talk to you”.
ASPECTS OF THE NOVEL
The three writers who have most influenced my own take on fiction are Joseph Conrad in his foreword to “The Nigger of the Narcissus”; E. M. Forster in his little book “Aspects of the Novel”; and Kenneth Burke. Here is Forster:
“Let us define a plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. “The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The time is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again: “The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.” This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development. It suspends the time. It moves as far away from the story as its limitations will allow. Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say “and then?” If it is in a plot we ask “why?” That is the fundamental difference between these two aspects of the novel. A plot cannot be told to a gaping audience of cave-men or to a tyrannical sultan or to their modern descendant the movie-public. They can only be kept awake by “and then—and then—” They can only supply curiosity. But a plot demands intelligence and memory also.
Curiosity is one of the lowest of the human faculties. You will have noticed in daily life that when people are inquisitive they nearly always have bad memories and are usually stupid at bottom. The man who begins by asking you how many brothers and sisters you have is never a sympathetic character and if you meet him in a year’s time he will probably ask you how many brothers and sisters you have, his mouth again sagging open, his eyes still bulging from his head. It is difficult to be friends with such a man, and for two inquisitive people to be friends must be impossible. Curiosity by itself takes us a very little way, nor does it take us far into the novel—only as far as the story. If we would grasp the plot we must add intelligence and memory.
Intelligence first. The intelligent novel-reader, unlike the inquisitive one who just runs his eye over a new fact, mentally picks it up. He sees it from two points of view: isolated, and related to the other facts that he has read on previous pages. Probably he does not understand it, but he does not expect to do so yet awhile. The facts in a highly organized novel (like The Egoist) are often of the nature of cross-correspondences and the ideal spectator cannot expect to view them properly until he is sitting up on a hill at the end. This element of surprise or mystery—the detective element as it is sometimes rather emptily called—is of great importance in a plot. It occurs through a suspension of the time-sequence; a mystery is a pocket in time, and it occurs crudely, as in “Why did the queen die?” and more subtly in half-explained gestures and words, the true meaning of which only dawns pages ahead. Mystery is essential to a plot, and cannot be appreciated without intelligence. To the curious it is just another “and then—” To appreciate a mystery, part of the mind must be left behind, brooding, while the other part goes marching on.” [pages 86-87]
Preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus by Joseph Conrad
A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justification in every line. And art itself may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect. It is an attempt to find in its forms, in its colors, in its light, in its shadows, in the aspects of matter and in the facts of life what of each is fundamental, what is enduring and essential–their one illuminating and convincing quality–the very truth of their existence. The artist, then, like the thinker or the scientist, seeks the truth and makes his appeal. Impressed by the aspect of the world the thinker plunges into ideas, the scientist into facts–whence, presently, emerging they make their appeal to those qualities of our being that fit us best for the hazardous enterprise of living. They speak authoritatively to our common-sense, to our intelligence, to our desire of peace or to our desire of unrest; not seldom to our prejudices, sometimes to our fears, often to our egoism–but always to our credulity. And their words are heard with reverence, for their concern is with weighty matters: with the cultivation of our minds and the proper care of our bodies, with the attainment of our ambitions, with the perfection of the means and the glorification of our precious aims.
It is otherwise with the artist.
Confronted by the same enigmatical spectacle the artist descends within himself, and in that lonely region of stress and strife, if he be deserving and fortunate, he finds the terms of his appeal. His appeal is made to our less obvious capacities: to that part of our nature which, because of the warlike conditions of existence, is necessarily kept out of sight within the more resisting and hard qualities–like the vulnerable body within a steel armor. His appeal is less loud, more profound, less distinct, more stirring–and sooner forgotten. Yet its effect endures forever. The changing wisdom of successive generations discards ideas, questions facts, demolishes theories. But the artist appeals to that part of our being which is not dependent on wisdom; to that in us which is a gift and not an acquisition–and, therefore, more permanently enduring. He speaks to our capacity for delight and wonder, to the sense of mystery surrounding our lives; to our sense of pity, and beauty, and pain; to the latent feeling of fellowship with all creation–and to the subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity that knits together the loneliness of innumerable hearts, to the solidarity in dreams, in joy, in sorrow, in aspirations, in illusions, in hope, in fear, which binds men to each other, which binds together all humanity–the dead to the living and the living to the unborn.
It is only some such train of thought, or rather of feeling, that can in a measure explain the aim of the attempt, made in the tale which follows, to present an unrestful episode in the obscure lives of a few individuals out of all the disregarded multitude of the bewildered, the simple and the voiceless. For, if any part of truth dwells in the belief confessed above, it becomes evident that there is not a place of splendor or a dark corner of the earth that does not deserve, if only a passing glance of wonder and pity. The motive then, may be held to justify the matter of the work; but this preface, which is simply an avowal of endeavor, cannot end here–for the avowal is not yet complete.
Fiction–if it at all aspires to be art–appeals to temperament. And in truth it must be, like painting, like music, like all art, the appeal of one temperament to all the other innumerable temperaments whose subtle and resistless power endows passing events with their true meaning, and creates the moral, the emotional atmosphere of the place and time. Such an appeal to be effective must be an impression conveyed through the senses; and, in fact, it cannot be made in any other way, because temperament, whether individual or collective, is not amenable to persuasion. All art, therefore, appeals primarily to the senses, and the artistic aim when expressing itself in written words must also make its appeal through the senses, if its high desire is to reach the secret spring of responsive emotions. It must strenuously aspire to the plasticity of sculpture, to the color of painting, and to the magic suggestiveness of music–which is the art of arts. And it is only through complete, unswerving devotion to the perfect blending of form and substance; it is only through an unremitting never-discouraged care for the shape and ring of sentences that an approach can be made to plasticity, to color, and that the light of magic suggestiveness may be brought to play for an evanescent instant over the commonplace surface of words: of the old, old words, worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage.
The sincere endeavor to accomplish that creative task, to go as far on that road as his strength will carry him, to go undeterred by faltering, weariness or reproach, is the only valid justification for the worker in prose. And if his conscience is clear, his answer to those who in the fullness of a wisdom which looks for immediate profit, demand specifically to be edified, consoled, amused; who demand to be promptly improved, or encouraged, or frightened, or shocked, or charmed, must run thus:–My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel–it is, before all, to make you see. That–and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm–all you demand–and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.
To snatch in a moment of courage, from the remorseless rush of time, a passing phase of life, is only the beginning of the task. The task approached in tenderness and faith is to hold up unquestioningly, without choice and without fear, the rescued fragment before all eyes in the light of a sincere mood. It is to show its vibration, its color, its form; and through its movement, its form, and its color, reveal the substance of its truth-disclose its inspiring secret: the stress and passion within the core of each convincing moment. In a single-minded attempt of that kind, if one be deserving and fortunate, one may perchance attain to such clearness of sincerity that at last the presented vision of regret or pity, of terror or birth, shall awaken in the hearts of the beholders that feeling of unavoidable solidarity; of the solidarity in mysterious origin, in toil, in joy, in hope, in uncertain fate, which binds men to each other and all mankind to the visible world.
It is evident that he who, rightly or wrongly, holds by the convictions expressed above cannot be faithful to any one of the temporary formulas of his craft. The enduring part of them–the truth which each only imperfectly veils–should abide with him as the most precious of his possessions, but they all: Realism, Romanticism, Naturalism, even the unofficial sentimentalism (which like the poor, is exceedingly difficult to get rid of), all these gods must, after a short period of fellowship, abandon him–even on the very threshold of the temple–to the stammerings of his conscience and to the outspoken consciousness of the difficulties of his work. In that uneasy solitude the supreme cry of Art for Art itself, loses the exciting ring of its apparent immorality. It sounds far off. It has ceased to be a cry, and is heard only as a whisper, often incomprehensible, but at times and faintly encouraging.
Sometimes, stretched at ease in the shade of a roadside tree, we watch the begin to wonder motions of a laborer in a distant field, and after a time, movements of his languidly as to what the fellow may be at. We watch the body, the waving of his arms, we see him bend down, stand up, hesitate, begin again. It may add to the charm of an idle hour to be told the purpose of his exertions. If we know he is trying to lift a stone, to dig a ditch, to uproot a stump, we look with a more real interest at his efforts; we are disposed to condone the jar of his agitation upon the restfulness of the landscape; and even, if in a brotherly frame of mind, we may -bring ourselves to forgive his failure. We understood his object, and, after all, the fellow has tried, and perhaps he had not the strength–and perhaps he had not the knowledge. We forgive, go on our way–and forget.
And so it is with the workman of art. Art is long and life is short, and success is very far off. And thus, doubtful of strength to travel so far, we talk a little about the aim–the aim of art, which, like life itself, is inspiring, difficult–obscured by mists. It is not in the clear logic of a triumphant conclusion; it is not in the unveiling of one of those heartless secrets which are called the Laws of Nature. It is not less great, but only more difficult.
To arrest, for the space of a breath, the hands busy about the work of the earth, and compel men entranced by the sight of distant goals to glance for a moment at the surrounding vision of form and color, of sunshine and shadows; to make them pause for a look, for a sigh, for a smile–such is the aim, difficult and evanescent, and reserved only for a few to achieve. But sometimes, by the deserving and the fortunate, even that task is accomplished And when it is accomplished–behold!–all the truth of life is there: a moment of vision, a sigh, a smile–and the return to an eternal rest.
— Joseph Conrad
Meaning is a tough one. I deal with the meaning of meaning in class almost every day. What does that poem mean? What does that story mean? Does it mean just what the teacher says it means? I continue to use this section from Bob’s bible book in class. I find it helps.
Three possibilities present themselves for consideration and discussion: 1. intention, 2. text, 3. interpretation. The meaning, argue some, is to be found in the intention of the author. If we could only know what the author intended then we could know what the story means, or, we could then measure the intention against the accomplishment. This approach is seen in the “let’s call the author” approach to literary criticism. “If anybody knows what’s going on it’s bound to be the author.” This approach would have us study history, psychology, biography and anthropology in order to understand texts. The New Critics reminded us that the text itself is important, although they emphasized it to the exclusion of all else. Authorial intention, they argued, is difficult if not impossible to ascertain, while the artifact itself, the text, is present to be studied. Reader response critics point out that meaning resides in the mind/brain of the reader. Everyone has sat in a literature class and wondered if there was indeed any answer to the problem of multiple interpretation other than the cynical one of giving the teacher what you think she wants.
Here is a record of such a debate centering around a modern and brief poem. “Aren’t you just reading that into the poem?” Very often the English teacher cannot prove the validity of his/her interpretation, try as s/he might to build a logical case: the design s/he has just traced out in the webwork of a poem’s connotations and reverberations (perfectly logical in her eyes) begins to waver as students fire at him with alternative connections, last year’s high school teacher’s equally logical structure, and antagonistic literary critics (“Well, if you’re so hot why haven’t you published?”). As the design melts back into a flow of possible meanings, the teacher stammers his/her appeals to justice, then to mercy, but the class has passed sentence: ring-binders snap shut like so many hungry alligators, and the students march off to physics where issues are clear. The teacher exiles herself to an hour of solitary confinement in her office.
Below is a record of a similar trial, with some concluding judgements. The bone of contention is a poem by Robert Frost:
Dust of Snow
The way the crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
The first testimony took place in the classroom of Norbert Artzt, who had written the poem on the blackboard, and proceeded to reveal its perfectly logical pattern. Here is part of his report (printed in College English, April 1971):
“What is on the board?” I ask again.
Someone says “words.”
We have taken the first step. “What do these words do?”
“They make a statement.” …
I digress. “Is the statement a complete one?”…
The answers come. They are seeing the words.
“In what time of year does the thing take place? Is winter a time
of life and growth? What about snow? What about dust?”…
The young man with the long hair is in a frenzy. “The bird is
scattering dust on the poet’s head. He is burying him. Good grief!
He is burying him.”
Everyone feels the chill. They are cold now. They are afraid.
Winter, dust, crow, snow, hemlock tree- the images are coalescing.
The deep structure of the poem is emerging in their heads.
Suddenly the momentum stops.
“But why?” someone asks. “Why if the man gets a premonition
of death does his mood change for the better?”
We move back to “the way”. I ask how the bird shakes the snow
down on the man, why he does it….
The bird is drying his wings or landing or taking off. The bird is
indifferent to the man walking beneath him. I ask what this bird’s
indifferent act might mean in the context of the experience. Some-
one suggests that the meaning may lie in the man’s feeling about
what has happened. The man recognizes that nature is indifferent
to the life of any particular man.
I ask again what the thing on the board has said. The long-haired
boy speaks. He is a genius. He will burn down the White House
some day. “The poet has realized through this experience that
death is inevitable and incalculable. It can come at any time, any
place, to anyone. The poet knows he’s wasting his time in regret,
wasting life.” The boy becomes prophetic; his name is Jeremy. “The
poet has had an epiphany. That is why his mood changes.”
Counter-testimony came from Laurence Perrine – after reading Artzt’s report he wrote, in The Explicator, March, 1972:
“The way” in which a crow shakes down dust of snow on Frost’s
speaker is left unspecified, thus permitting several possibilities. I
can see them chiefly as four: Beautifully, animatedly, cheerily, and
humorously. First the poem presents a scene of visual beauty, black
etched against white, the movement of the scattered snow
counterpoint against the immobility of the evergreen tree. Second,
the action of the crow presents a bit of life and animation in a
scene otherwise frozen and without life. Third, the scattering of the
snow on the speaker is almost an acknowledgment of his presence,
a greeting, a communication between the two living actors in the
scene. Fourth, the snow’s falling on the speaker suggests a touch of
humor, as if the sly crow were playing a practical joke on him. The
beauty of the action, its evidence of life, its suggestion of a greeting
and the touch of humor in it combines to lighten the mood of the
Recounting a very simple incident, Frost strove to give it an
utter simplicity of form and language. His one sentence poem has
only one word with as many as two syllables.
Two additional points. First, the fact that the crow’s action saved
only part of a day the speaker “had rued” does not imply that his
sorrow was too pervasive. He may have made a social blunder, for
instance, and his wife may have spoken sharply to him; but he is
hardly mourning his wife’s death or the loss of a child.
Nevertheless, the point of the poem lies in the discrepancy between
the smallness of the crow’s action and the extent of its effect: it is
this that tells us most about the sensitivity of the speaker, his
responsiveness to beauty and life, and his love of nature.
To judge this case, what voice could be more authoritative than Robert Frost’s? In the film Lover’s Quarrel With the World (1963) he states:
There’s a little poem of mine, an old one. It goes like this. (He
recites “Dust of Snow”.) See now. Let’s look at that fair and square.
(He recites it again, more slowly.) And someone says to
me,”Very sinister poem!” And I said, “Sinister?” “Yes, the crow, the
crow is a black bird.” And I said, “The crow figures all sorts of
ways, but all right , I don’t argue. And what more?” “The hemlock
tree.” And I said, “Yes?” And he said, “but Socrates, Socrates –
death of Socrates.” Well you get surprises in this world. I never
thought of that. I live with hemlock trees, and it’s not the weed that
Socrates drank at all. And it’s all wrong with the tree. I’m partly
just as much from the city as the country. But I’m a little more
country than city. And I know what a hemlock tree is.
Yet there is a higher appeal. Here is Auden:
One sign that a book has literary value is that it can be read in a
number of different ways. Vice versa, the proof that pornography
has no literary value is that, if one attempts to read it in any other
way than as a sexual stimulus, to read it, say, as a psychological
case-history of the author’s sexual fantasies, one is bored to tears.
Though a work of literature can be read in a number of ways, this
number is finite and can be arranged in a hierarchical order; some
readings are obviously “truer” than others, some obviously false,
and some like reading a novel backwards, absurd. That is why,
for a desert island, one would choose a good dictionary rather than
the greatest literary masterpiece imaginable for, in relation to its
readers, a dictionary is absolutely passive and may legitimately be
read in an infinite number of ways.
Need Frost be aware of this hierarchy? In fact, need he be aware of fairly basic implications of his poem? We often need others to help us grasp the meaning(s) of our own dreams. Often the creative work functions as an “other” to the one creating it.
But in case the issue seems to be resolving or dissolving into valid subjective realities, here’s a new confrontation, revealed by a broader context. After the appearance of Perrine’s attack on him, Artzt (author of the first article) wrote to Jeremy for moral support. Jeremy was then at a Federal Correction Institute for burning draft cards and a draft office. His reply:
What really craps me out is that guys like you and Mr. P. take these
things so seriously. Both of you ought to take a long walk in the
What matters in this world is action. When words turn into action
you have poetry. When they sit on the page or in the classroom you
I’ll tell you what you can do for me – you can stop the war. When
the murders are done with, write me again and tell me what you did
to stop the killing. from Reading the Bible . . . by Bob the Marine