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Thursday, April 4, 2013

"What Befalls You" by Ethel Rackin -- Verse Daily, 4/4/13

from The Forever Notes
poem found here

First lines:
I could no longer stand the trees
when a stand of them began to blossom.


poetic structure

— reformatted Mar. 8, 2015

There is something very worth pointing out in this poem. Notice the apparent contradiction that arises in line 3: The first two lines are about trees beginning to blossom. Not a summer image. And yet line 3 states "summer."

But is this a contradiction? Yes, but only up until line 5, and "fall." At that point, the words of the poem reveal an overarching structure. As I read it:
        lines 1-2 = Spring
        lines 3-4 = Summer
        line 5 = Fall
        lines 6-7 = Winter
And, then, the last two lines, which are the end of the year, a kind of summing statement. (I believe it can also be read in a sense that lines 5-7 are Fall, and 8-9 are Winter & the end of the year combined. This idea and the previous rather blur together; I don't think the poem requires fixing on either.)

What is worth pointing out is that there is no need for the word "Spring" in the poem. Just as there is no need for the word "Winter." In truth, if Ms. Rackin did not wish it, she could have also left out "Fall" and "Summer." All that was need, all that is ever needed, is (1) wording enough to speak to the reader the structure of the poem; and (2) for the poem to actually have and support that worded structure. You do not need to spell things out for your reader: the 'things' need only be present ideationally. In fact, the more you spell it out, the 'easier,' and, usually, the less interesting, the poem gets. Generating ideas is far more interesting, far more sophisticated, and far more enjoyable, than having the ideas simply laid out before you.

The second point there sounds rather obvious, but it is not. I have seen plenty of poems that establish a structure with the ideas generated, but fail to follow that ideational structure with the actual structure of the poem. (Or vice versa.) It is not enough to say "Well, the ideas establish the structure, so you are supposed to overlay that structure on the poem." In such a case the poem is at odds with itself. Not a good thing: it is clumsiness, a failure to pay attention, a failure to generate poetic unity. It results only in a lesser poem. The ideas and the structure must work together. (And, need I say, it is always best when they are both working.)


To be honest, for all the above, I don't think the poem succeeds wholly. It's a little loose (and occasionally trite) in the words chosen, by my reading. For example, it took a number of readings for me to realize that the first line was not about the moment the trees blossomed (which is the natural reading of the sentence), but meant to say:
       I could no longer stand the trees;
       then, a stand of them began to blossom.


  1. This is one observation.. and I beleive is falacious.

    The quite obvious meaning of the movement through the poem is that the author is from future springs..looking back first to summer, and then travelling on through 'fall' to work out the changes.. and the sadness of the loss of a perceived perfection.

    1. I am not sure how what you are seeing is different, structurally, than what I am seeing. I see a movement through the four seasons: spring ("blossom"), summer, fall, winter ("severe season").

      Now if you are speaking about how you interpret the whole of the poem, then I think you have a valid reading. Though, myself, I see "years" in "years of cancelling fog" as moving the metaphor out, into a broader context: so it not speaking so much as one event as it is a lifetime, say. Except, of course, there is then the first line, "I could no longer," which says to me the 'story' of the poem does not begin in spring or end in winter, but is a longer story, of many cycles, of many beginnings and endings.

      But, then, perhaps what I am seeing is what you are seeing but in different words?