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A site for exploration and discussion about verse, poetics, the aesthetic, and creative writing in general.

Because there is a profound difference between writing something to be read and writing something worth reading; and in that difference might beauty be found.

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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

"Learning to Live With Stone" by Kelly Cherry -- Poetry Daily, 4/9/13

from The Life and Death of Poetry
poem found here

first lines:

A shore of washed stones
A sky the color of stone 


poetic unity, and internal contradiction

trivial edits, and reformatting to the newer style: 9/9/13

Look at line 5, which says, in this little poem's most deeply profound voice, "There is nothing." And yet, the sentence can't even make it to its period without giving you things that are most definitely there, including a very active and (what with the oppositional nouns being "sea" and "land") very large something. Not at all a nothing; not at all something that you would miss if you weren't really looking. And, if you have read more than 100 poems in your life, a something that is usually brought up so as to intimate very much a something (if intimate it softly), as with Arnold's quiet irony:

Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back,

And then, there it is again in lines 9-10: "There is nothing / Here between us but stone." I am still perplexed: the poem yet insists there is nothing there -- even though the opposite was just stated. When I can't bring the conflict into agreement, I come to the only conclusion: the poem is at odds with itself. 

Now, line 10's "stone" does bring us back up to lines 1-4, where there is stone all over the place, every noun associated with stone: stone sky, stone water, stone land, stone face and heart. But are any of those things that one would think of as being "between"? Definitely not sky, water, or land. Nor face, nor heart, when it comes to it, unless in some way one of the people of the "us" is holding the stony heart or face between them. But that idea is nowhere to be found in the poem, so the poem is, again, at odds with itself.

Then the last four lines brings us back to stone. So, in the end, you have a poem with this structure:
              lines 1-4: stone
              lines 6-8: not at all stone
              lines 10-14: stone

And what with the rain and the sea's "taking back," it's not only not stone, but the very opposite of stone.

So, let's ask the question: How do the two "there is nothing here" phrases work within the poem?

First, they do not work "with" the central part. They are directly at odds with the central part. So, within the idea of the unified poem, they are standing in no small part as correctives to the central part:
              no matter what you read there is only stone
              NOT stone!
              NOT stone!
              most absolutely NOT stone!
              despite what you just read, THERE IS ONLY STONE
Doesn't quite work, does it.

In fact, the purpose of the "nothing" lines is to assert an idea that the rest of the poem fails to establish. The ideas in the final lines (bed, step, carve) work only to their intended end if the "nothing" idea is previously established. And, since the previous series of lines, lines going stone, stone, stone, not-stone, not-stone, not-stone are unable to pull of the feat, the poem has to revert to overt statement, telling the reader, as though they were two crib notes inserted into the poem, what the reader is supposed to be getting out of the poem. So, in essence, the full weight of the poem is carried in two lines, lines which are overt statements of meaning, lines which are meant to function despite the rest of the poem. In fact, lines which do not even need the rest of the poem to function.

Makes for a mostly empty poem. In fact, let's edit:

There is nothing here between us but stone.

That's a nifty idea for a poem there. 

Take a look at H.D.'s "Oread," another shoreline poem with an "us" (though optimistic in tenor):

Whirl up, sea—
Whirl your pointed pines. 
Splash your great pines 
On our rocks. 
Hurl your green over us— 
Cover us with your pools of fir.

Not a single abstract statement. And, specifically, successful because it throws, overtly, all the work of ideation onto the image-words in the lines. Yes, the speaker is using verbs to create the idea, but the verbs themselves are also part of the scene, inherent to the over-arching idea of the sea. Everything comes out of the sea; nothing is abstractly overlaid upon it. 

(I know you want to say "show don't tell" here, but don't. Yes, it does go to the point, but that phrase is really a false crutch for writers. How it is used in normal creative writing conversation is, in truth, counter to the idea of the aesthetic. So I'll stay away from it for now, a least until I find fruitful means to its explanation.)

Another aesthetic example, should you want something longer, is William Carlos Williams' "By the Road to the Contagious Hospital" (here). Though statements there occasionally become abstract (as with "One by one objects are defined"), they serve to feed the development of metaphoricity, not to define it. These poems (H.D.'s and Williams') are unified. Everything in the poems work to the experiential end of the poem in concert with everything else in the poem; and nothing ever has to stand out and give definition to the reader.


  1. Wow. I've never encountered such a total misreading of a poem, and it's a very clear and simple poem.

    1. May I ask, as an honest question: how, in your reading of the poem, do you deal with the "there is nothing there" lines (when there is something there)?

    2. There is nothing here (not "there") "between us." There is only coldness and blankness, as of a stone. Without communication and affection, the speaker of the poem observes, the only freedom is "to carve," i.e., to make art.

    3. Up front, to avoid misinterpretation, let me just say my voice here is wholly exploratory. Hopefully you'll hear that and join in. If I use a lot of words (probably too many), it is only to avoid stumbling blocks in communication. It ended up longer than permitted, so I have to break it in two.

      Yes, I see that that is the central idea of the poem: "There is nothing but stone between us. Carve." My comments, however, are not on the meaning of the poem, but on the making of the poem, on the success of the poem as presented. So the issue for me is not what is the central idea of the poem, but how well does the poem work.

      First, with what I speak to above, there is to me an obvious problem in the words of the central stanza (I'll write it out without line breaks): "There is nothing here, twisted roots, sea taking the land back. Sea wrack and rain." (Problem with that first comma, but we'll ignore it.) The thought begins "there is nothing here" and yet immedately continues by listing things. There very much is something there. "Sea taking the land back" is very much something, and "Sea wrack and rain" is hugely something. So the phrase introducing the list -- "there is nothing here" -- is immediately contradicted by the text of the poem. Thus I say that the repeated phrase "there is nothing here" is meant to function as I describe above: "even though I am going to tell you things that very much are here, you are to read it as though there is nothing here." That is cueing the reader to read against the poem itself, which is not only not good writing, but writing that acknowledges it is trying to cover up for its own errors.

      But that issue is for me actually part of a greater issue: What is the point and purpose of those central lines? Or, even, the opening stanza? Do they even at all work well within the poem, especially in that the central idea of the poem is "There is nothing here between us but stone. Carve." How does "Sea wrack / and rain" engage either "there is nothing between us" or "carve"? How does "a sky the color of stone" function with the idea of "between"?

      Indeed, how does not the statement "Sea wrack / and rain" directly contradict the central idea of the poem that "There is nothing here between us but stone" in that stone is cold and dead and sea wrack is alive and violent -- especially with "rain" which is an idea that is most naturally linked with life, renewal, cleansing, even in its more violent forms. With "Sea wrack / and rain" there is something put in the picture that is not stone: even if it is not a positive, even if it is all kinds of negative energies in the relationship, it is still absolutely not stone. I don't see how "Sea wrack / and rain" or "roots" generate ideas like as you describe it: "coldness and blankness." There is nothing in that central stanza that is blank -- which is why I say the poem has to state out loud, both before and after it, "there is nothing between us but stone."

      So my issue is not with the central idea of the poem, but with the construction of the poem. The central idea is a good one: "There is nothing between us but stone. Carve." (And I really like you carrying into the poem the idea of "make art" -- so much so that if I were writing this poem, and it was still in early draft and you said that to me, I would be rewriting the poem to get that idea more firmly within it.)

    4. But, that central idea, I have to say, is a difficult one. Greatly so for that word "between": because that is a hard idea to construct: "two people with nothing between them but stone." Much of the weakness of this poem for me is that very little of the nouns in the poem are things that can even be "between": cliff, sea wrack, shore, sky -- none of that really generate or fit with the idea of "between."

      (Remember, I'm exploring here. And as such I'm rather focussing more on writing than on reading.)

      Still, take that central idea: "There is nothing between us but stone. Carve." It seems to me there is two obvious directions that the writer needs to go with it. One, to create the experience/idea of "there is nothing between us but stone"; two, to create the experience/idea of the want (and perhaps need) to "carve." Both these are present in the poem. The former is in the first three stanzas; the latter is in the last two stanzas. Though, you should readily be able to see a difference between the two groupings: the first half (mostly) attempts to generate an idea; the second half moves to direct statement. The poem would definitely be much more interesting to me if both sides tried to generate the idea and avoided direct statement. And it is almost always the case that generating ideas is far more interesting than stating them.

      But let's focus on the first part: "There is nothing between us but stone." To me an rather difficult concept. How do you get stone between two people? I think the source of much of the problem with the poem is that it tries to do it through landscape images, which immediately is problematic in that landscape is not exactly "between" anything. (How can a shoreline ever generate the idea of "between"?) But what if it was a mountain between them? Two people in different valleys? Or, perhaps a stone wall, too tall to see over. Perhaps almost to tall to speak across without shouting. There is the myth, what is it with mulberries . . . . . found it. Pyramis and Thisbe (here's Bullfinch's telling). That would be an interesting idea, would it not, with two people who cannot reach each other because of a stone wall, and (bringing in your art idea) can only carve their beings and relationship into the wall, so that there is on each side of the wall two ever growing, ever changing bas-reliefs of love and communication and seeking? (If you yourself write, it would be a very interesting thing to try. I bet it would make for a fascinating movie.)

      Of course, that idea is going in the direction of stone as obstacle. Stone as condition of the relationship, that is very difficult. In the moment, I don't really see how it could be done but with many lines that focus on the idea of "us" (the other missing element of the poem, the flip side of the "between" idea).

      Though, to be honest I am not sure whether that is the "stone" that is meant by "Learning to Live with Stone." Because of the bleak imagery, I get the idea that the intent is that stone is meant to be stillness, emptiness. But that also conflicts with the idea of the positive of the closing lines. So perhaps that is yet another ideational problem. Is "stone" meant to be simply an obstacle? Or is stone meant to carry the idea of deadness, stillness, inanimateness? Is "carve" meant to be a statement of creating relationships? Or is it meant to be a statement of "well, this is all that there is to do; there is no relationship, there is only "carve." Because of the ideational problems with the poem, I am not 100% which way to go with it.

    5. But I'm straying. What really I wanted to point to was that this poem does not generate in the first half of the poem, with the words chosen, the idea of "there is nothing here between us but stone" (whether stone is obstacle or deadness). There are stones, yes, but they are either underfoot, overhead, or the walls of a cliff -- not exactly "between." When it is applied to a person, the poem abandons creative ideation and goes to direct statement: "Stony face, stone heart." (Yes, "face" and "cliff" have a connection -- but it is but a thread's connection in the greater context.) And then, despite the assertion of "there is nothing between us here but stone" -- and that "here" cannot be ignored -- the poem moves on to describing a world that is the exact opposite of stone: twisted roots (not dead driftwood), the sea reclaiming the land, storms and rain. All very much alive; very much not stone. (And, again, not at all "between.")

      So my issue with the poem is not finding in the poem the central idea. That is firmly enough established. My issue with the poem is that the ideas that are being used to generate the idea of "there is nothing here between us but stone" don't actually generate that idea, in fact generate opposing if not contradictory ideas. So the poem is mostly at odds with itself. Because of that, it is forced into repeating "there is nothing here" and into using direct statements like "stony face" and the final lines, to tell the reader how to read the poem despite the poem.

      Which to me is unfortunate. For, as I said in the post, "There is nothing between us but stone. Carve." is a wonderful idea for a creative endeavor.

      (You know, there is an interesting idea to follow in what I say above about focusing on "us" having to do with that you can not generate ideas by describing thing A or thing B nearly as well as you can describing the energies that pass between A and B. But I'll save that for another time.)

      So, what do you think? Can the poem be saved, or is there an inherent weakness in the poem because of the want to describe landscape instead of something "between"? I understand the want to use landscape to generate ideas of stoniness, but does it at all work when the middle of the poem is filled with violence and action? Even, does the opening lines work as well as they could if the poem could avoid using the word "stone"? All points of exploration. I would love to hear your ideas -- either from the writing side or from the reading side.

    6. The poem is highly unified, musical, and moving. You are talking to yourself.

    7. And if you are satisfied with your reading of the poem, then I have no issue with it. Still, thank you for your comments. (And no, I'm not.)