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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

"Our Lady of Ash Wednesday" by Joe Hall -- Verse Daily, 6/23/2013

from The Devotional Poems (Black Ocean)
poem found here

first lines:

A third virgin carved from horn and
this horn slowly beginning to branch


a note on the grammar inherent to a poem

There's a very interesting -- and rather nifty, if I may dare the word -- moment in this poem, in the last two lines. The first couple of times I read the poem, I kept stumbling at the end of the second-to-last line and misreading the move to the third, expecting "Mary, Saint" to be opening up a new clause. And it is a quite natural impulse, as the first part of the line, up to the dash, has no verb. So I am expecting a verb to appear after the dash. But "Mary, Saint shake me useless" is grammatically counter to the poem. Without a comma after "Saint," "Mary, Saint" lists two people; and, of course, they are two names for the same person. There needs to be a comma after "Saint" if "Saint" is going to be a second name for Mary in the clause "Mary, Saint, shake me useless."

Then I looked closer at the poem and noticed the use of capitalization to mark new sentences. "Shake" is capitalized, so the last line is an independent sentence. And the second to last line is then to be read as a verbless phrase, that begins and ends on that line. So the correct reading of the end of the poem was made clear, once I figured it out.

Here's the question: is it ok to have a moment that will naturally cause the reader to misread a line or phrase or whatever, forcing them to stop and figure out how to read it correctly?

The answer is most definitely yes. There is no rule in writing that says writing has to be easy. And there is absolutely no rule in writing that says the reader has to be able to get it on the first go. Such a rule would make for only very simple texts. In fact, in aesthetic literature, the first reading is only ever a preperatory reading. It is the second reading where the text can truly come alive, for then you know the whole of the text, and you can let the whole of the text inform each moment of the text. And that includes issues of grammar and semantics, as here.

When I think about it, it might be safe to say there are two rules regarding situations where the nature of the poem creates difficulties on the first reading.

  1. The reader has to be able to figure out how to correctly read the line.

Which seems obvious, so there's also:

  1. The poem must speak to the reader not only how to read the line, but also assure the reader that it is correct, leaving little or no doubt in the reader's mind that they are correct.

Immediate qualification: this does not mean that there can be no ambiguity in poetry. Of course, that also is obvious, because if there was no ambiguity in poetry, metaphor could not exist in poetry. What I am talking about is where the reader is reading something wrong, and is tripping over the text, intuitively knowing there is something wrong with their reading.

Looking at "Our Lady of Ash Wednesday," why the inherent grammar of the poem is successful lies in two elements of the poem. First, in that it is clearly established in the poem -- and without variance -- that a capitalized word means the beginning of a new sentence. (Yes, line 11 is a verbless sentence; but, it is still a sentence.) Second, something which emphatically assures the reader the first point is correct, is that every other line in the poem is enjambed (excepting, of course, the turns from 10-11 and 11-12). And there is no ambiguity there either. As such, the poem not only tells the reader how to read the poem, but assures the reader that that is the correct way.

You don't want your readers ever going "I guess it is supposed to be read this way." You want it to be clear to the reader, once they figure it out. (Again, here not speaking about such as intentional ambiguity.) And the reason lies not only in the reader's reception. If it is ever that the reader can only get to "I guess," rather than "This is what I think and believe," then you're poem is wobbly. It needs to be tightened. Simply, it's not as successful a poem as it could be. Which is, actually, the point of it all.

I recently read a quotation something in the nature of this: "Not everything can be made to be good; but everything can be made to be as good as it can be." That latter half is actually where sophistication and skill develops. As it is said in the fitness world: it's the last two reps, the two that kill you, where all the goodness happens. All the reps before were simply getting you there.


Speaking of wobbly, let's also look at lines 7-9, particularly "and my body."

The "and" in that phrase is the third "and" in the series, so there is no reason not to read "my body" as the fourth element in the list (or fifth element, depending on if you count "legs" and "thighs" as two different things). Except "what is pulled between . . . my body" makes no sense. So is it to be read that the "and my body" turns toward a sort-of-new thought, linking rather to the livestockphrase in a way that the "and" might be better capitalized? I.e.:

with what is pulled between her legs
her thighs and his hands and
your hands And my body
before the livestock's impassive eyes

That makes sense within the poem. But, I think the pulling is supposed to be "before the livestock's eyes" as well. If not, "impassive" would really have no point. Semantically, the list is being pulled apart by the two anchoring energies to either end.[FN]

[FN] Of course, inherent to everything I say is my reading of the poem. (Something I should make overt every once in a while, in soft reminder.)

Yet, really, the wobbliness starts earlier, at "his hands": and I believe it is the "his hands" that are doing the pulling. This tells me the list should be read not merely as ducks in a row but as expanding the scene, starting with being focused on the afterbirth then moving out through hands to the body and then to the watching livestock. Which is a fairly cool verbal effect, except using only "ands" to do the work doesn't quite seem to pull it off. All is needed is a "then":

with what is pulled between her legs
her thighs and then his hands and
your hands and my body
before the livestock's impassive eyes

That break-that-is-not-a-complete-break disrupts the flow of "and"s just enough to alert the reader that what they are reading is no longer just a list but a movement out, a list that is modifying itself as it goes. Yes, technically, in a prose work this might not be able pass muster because it is stretching the stability of the sentence somewhat. But, within this poem, within the grammar as defined by this poem, within the semantics as defined by this poem, I think it works quite well.

[FN] I should write out what some of you might have already seen: that simply capitalizing the "And" before "my body" might work too. It also creates a break-that-is-not-a-complete-break, and permits both the full list and the spread of the energies out of the list toward both the opening and closing moments. But I think the "then" works better.

But I want to make sure I focused on the right thing: really my point here is not to "make a correction." At most, it's a tweak. Indeed, within a larger context, say within the containing book The Devotional Poems, Hall's use of "and"s might be elsewhere established, just as his use of capital letters are established through the context of this single poem. (And there is also basic considerations of idiom.) Really what I want to point out is the effect of the technique, the use of an inserted word to control the flow of the list so as to create a graceful turn from a the list of things into a more sophisticated movement of focus.

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