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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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Friday, April 19, 2013

"Northwest Passage" by James Pollock -- Poetry Daily, 4/19/2013

from Sailing to Babylon
poem found here

first lines:
When you set out to find your Northwest Passage
and cross to an empty region of the map


narrative verse

The general nature of this poem is that it is a narrative poem: it is telling the story of an expedition to find the Northwest Passage. It comes with a opening note anchoring the poem in The Franklin Expedition. Now, is it important to the poem that the narrative be true? Well, yes and no. No in that the poem works quite well even if the narrative were wholly fictional. And in such a case what would be important, history wise, would be that elements of the described event rang true within the context of a mid-18th-century ship on such a journey; and, even before, that there were enough elements to both establish the scene and its ideational field. [FN] But, here, to this specific poem, I would say 'yes, very important.' Now as to why.

[FN] Unless, of course, you were intentionally creating something out of anachronism and error, but that is another thing altogether. Here, the primary structure is that of historical narrative, so anachronism or gross error would be a great detriment to the poem were they to exist.

But it is false to say this is simply a narrative poem. There is that first word: "When." And this is key to the poem: the rhetorical context has completely shifted: the poem is not telling a story, it is presenting a "when-then" proposition, and the narrative aspect is subservient to that "when-then" rhetoric. Let me say it again: the action of this poem is not to tell a story; the action of the poem is to present a "when-then" idea, and it uses a narrative to present that "when-then" idea.

What is that idea?

you set out to find your Northwest Passage
may you stumble at last upon some band of Inuit (the narrative, surface part of the "when-then")
see how foolish you have been (the non-narrative, resonant part of the "when-then")
For you see, the second most important word in the poem is that ever present "you(r)." This is not a poem about history, this is a poem that pushess into the mythic, into the unconscious, into the resonant. Though, "Pushes" is not the right word there: the poem functions within the mythic. This is what divides aesthetic narrative poetry from the banal: the banal narrative merely tells a story, or tells a story with a moral or an emotional tag. Perhaps the prime example of the former is the work of Robinson Jeffers. The latter is nigh ubiquitous: it is every "I will tell you a story about how my dad and I built this picnic table I am now sitting at so you can see how sad I am that he is dead," dead-puppy narrative. Even, every "let me tell you a story about a single buck walking through the woods so you can see how sad I am that my father is dead" single-metaphor, poem; the reason being that such generally go no further than a surface narrative with a surface equating about whatever death, loss, or publication rejection is making you sad, or whatever emotion. Here, in great effect, everything melds into a single energy, a poem that is about ideas that both are fed by and feed ideas, that does not rely on abutment to connect. (For example, look at "Equine Aubade" two days ago on Poetry Daily (here), which is a tale of horse admiration, but whose metaphor workings rarely survives past their lines.)

The narrative here is a list of elements that very well could have happened on the Franklin Expedition. I don't think any of them could happen to any contemporary "you." With the "you"s, then, every element, then, is moved out of the narrative and into the metaphoric. There needed only be the second person for that to happen. But this moves farther, creates even more energy with the "when-then" structure: there is in this poem a blatant assumption: you will find yourself in this situation, when you do, then, hopefully you will see some Inuit.

And here is where the historical factuality comes into play. What is the word that is missing in the historical epigram (and pretty much the whole of the poem)? Lost. The Franklin expedtion failed, losing all 129 lives in the ice.[FN]

[FN]Here is a link to the wikipedia article. A sentence from it that adds much to the poem: "The combined evidence of all studies suggested that hypothermia, starvation, lead poisoning and disease including scurvy, along with general exposure to a hostile environment whilst lacking adequate clothing and nutrition, killed everyone on the expedition in the years following its last sighting by Europeans in 1845."

But, seriously, is the poem insisting that everyone is going to find themselves in such a position? I read that as no, that the poem is aimed at a specific "you," and that "you" is also present within the poem. If it were not so, the poem would read more flatly, with a kind of empty spot in it where the "you" should be. Rather, this poem all but hinges upon, revolves around who is the "you": it is the third, most important element of the poem, that element that finally gives shape and unity to the whole.

Who is that "you"? A Fool. A fool of epic proportion -- though still of very human proportion. A fool who was blind to reality, and blinded by their own hubris -- and hubris is the correct word, especially in that the hubris here is action against Nature, being, the way of things, the gods. The poem, in its pared down (and thus greatly emptied) paraphrase reads, "you idiots, who dares challenge Nature, I hope before you succumb to you madness, agony, chaos, and, ultimately, death, you get to see some Inuit-on-the-ice, so that you can realize just big of a fool you are." (Note, this is not a idea about rescuing the fool, it is about a fated fool, one irreversibly headed to disaster, and by their own hand. That is critical to experiencing the poem.)

Absolultely wonderful, and wonderfully calculated poem. I could go on with other aspects of rhetoric: especially how the poem is a list, which I think is a brilliant rhetorical choice. One could have told the "when"-tale in straigh narrative. Presenting it as a list, however, creates greater focus on the individual elements. Time, here, is presented almost wholly within the "and"s. There are few, if any, superfluous words. But let's be done with it, except to sum up.

Narrative easily succombs to banality: there are so many traps in narrative for the writer: superfluity, rambling, adherence to "but that is what happened!", failure to attend to rhythm (both poetic and rhetorical -- note here how the poem never lets the reader get bogged down on any one element). As well, a good narrative demands work, and research. Demands writing beyond and narrowing down. And, then, to write a good narrative , there is the demand that the narrative be subordinated to the effect of that poem (be it musical, poetical, or, as here, ideational, or whatever else). And it is not infrequent that I read poems that reek of the unwillingness to the such work. Which is why so many poems fail, and end up shallow, uneventful lines on a page.

Give close attention to how this poem works, how the narrative's purpose is crafted -- is calculated -- to serve the greater purpose of the when-then and fool ideations. Hopefully you see that here, that while the historical reality of the Franklin Expedition does function within the ideation of the poem, that reality, that truth, is subordinate to the modality of the poem as a whole, which is not about truth, but about ideas. There is much to learn from this one.

I cannot resist but point out: by the time I finished the paragraph above starting "Who is that 'you'?" I could not help but thing: once again it is shown that the more aesthetic is a poem, the more the poem is about the aesthetic. Though, I leave it as only a thought, except for this related statement: Calculated: because the poetic joy of a poem lies in the calculation behind the poem. Not in the story, not in the moral. It lies in the poem. That, also, is critically important to all poets and their endeavors.


  1. Hi, just a moment back I was searching for the information On Northwest and now I am here. So much information, really well executed blog. This is really informative and I will for sure refer my friends the same. Thanks

    1. Thanks. And hopefully, when you return, you will find a place where you want to add your own thoughts.

  2. Thank you, Andrew, for this wonderfully incisive and thoughtful response to my poem.

    1. You're welcome. I have enjoyed coming back to the poem every time I do.