Author: Joseph Fraser

“The Turnpike” by Daniel Tobin

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Notice the epigraph from Donne’s “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.”

“The Turnpike” By Daniel Tobin

…an expansion,

Like gold to airy thinness beat…

You away, and me on the Peter Pan
heading home from my own required remove,
I’m drawn by the window’s broad reflection,
the traffic passing along it like a nerve—

an endless charge of cars inside the pane:
the voltage of the real; though as they go
sliding down its long, ethereal sheen
where the solid world softens into flow

they take on the ghostly substance of a dream
or, rather, what we picture dreams to be
since when we’re in them they are what we seem,
and cause us joy or pain as vividly

as the lives we think we live between the lines
that imprint us and we pass between.
Here, the world inverts.  Shades materialize
and cars speeding left expand a breach

that transports into doubles on the right,
and those in transit opposite condense
their mirror selves in a second teeming flight
as if our lightship bus could break such bonds

and matter shatter. Like all things physical
it’s a conjure of parts and energies,
a neverland of haunts inside the skull,
though saying so won’t prevent this child’s cries

from jolting with their needful disturbance,
or the aging woman across the aisle
from leaning in her slackened, palpable face—
comically, mildly—till the infant calms.

If, as scientists say, we are like hurled stones,
as bounded and bound, dear, by material,
and that our minds resolve into a mist
we thinly feel to be the actual,

then who’s to say the rock is not the air
it hurtles through, observed from deeper in,
not above. So you and I circuit there,
firing the inexhaustible engine.


Indifference to Suffering in “Musée des Beaux Arts”

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Think about how controversial the claim this poem (and perhaps the painting too) is making—that we are indifferent to that suffering that surrounds us every day, that we often refuse to help those who are in dire need. I think that for most people this is a pretty counterintuitive (and maybe even offensive?) idea. After all, if you saw someone drowning, hopefully you would not “[turn] away / Quite leisurely from the disaster.”

But think about the metaphorical implications of the poem. I know that if I’m being honest with myself, there are things that often impact me more emotionally on a day-to-day basis (e.g. a fight with a friend, a bad test score) than larger social problems like homelessness or hunger that occur every day around us.

And when we expand to the preventable tragedies throughout the world, our societal indifference to suffering can be almost unbearable. Thousands of children in sub-Saharan Africa die from neglected tropical diseases; many of these deaths could be prevented if wealthier individuals in the “first world” donated more to charity. Our foreign policy has played a role in perpetuating the horrendous famine in Yemen where 85,000 children have died, yet it is barely covered in the news and not really a political issue in the United States. Look at these startling images of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Myanmar who are the victims of genocidal violence so brutal that hundreds of thousands of people have had to flee to neighboring Bangladesh where they have settled in the largest refugee settlement in the world (Many in the United States have not even heard of the Rohingya.):

The implicit lesson of the poem, I think, is that instead of turning away from “the disaster,” we should face it.

Ekphrasis in Reverse

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In class, we touched a little upon ekphrastic poetry, or poetry that vividly describes art. One thing some people were wondering about was the “direction” of the problem, that is, why poets write about painters but painters don’t depict poems.

But William Carlos Williams actually provides us of an example of what a painter depicting a poem looks like. His friend Charles Demuth painted “I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold” based on Williams’s “The Great Figure.” Below is the poem, then the painting.

“The Great Figure”

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.
“I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold”
This got me thinking that in a way Bruegel’s depiction is also an example of so-called reverse ekphrasis. We only know about the myth of Icarus because of Ovid/other Greek and Latin poets. What Bruegel was depicting, then–and transforming into his own artistic vision–was poetry.

Robert Frost, Universality, and What it Means to be “The American Poet”

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In her post, Urbana brought up how “Frost reverses the traditional meaning of white as a symbol innocence and purity to imply death.” I agree with this, but I think we should dig further into the fundamental “whiteness” of Frost’s project, and what this means for his purported universality as The American Poet. Consider this recasting of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by African-American poet Thylias Moss:

Interpretation of a Poem by Frost

A young black girl stopped by the woods,
so young she knew only one man: Jim Crow
but she wasn’t allowed to call him Mister.
The woods were his and she respected his boundaries
even in the absence of fence.
Of course she delighted in the filling up
of his woods, she so accustomed to emptiness,
to being taken at face value.
This face, her face eternally the brown
of declining autumn, watches snow inter the grass,
cling to bark making it seem indecisive
about race preference, a fast-to-melt idealism.
With the grass covered, black and white are the only options,
polarity is the only reality; corners aren’t neutral
but are on edge.
She shakes off snow, defiance wasted
on the limited audience of horse.
The snow does not hypnotize her as it wants to,
as the blond sun does in making too many prefer daylight.
She has promises to keep,
the promise that she bear Jim no bastards,
the promise that she ride the horse only as long
as it is willing to accept riders,
the promise that she bear Jim no bastards,
the promise to her face that it not be mistaken as shadow,
and miles to go, more than the distance from Africa to Andover,
more than the distance from black to white
before she sleeps with Jim.
                While Frost’s darkness should be celebrated, his whiteness as represented by the snow in “Stopping by Woods” is an abiding source of harm in his poems. In Thylias Moss’s “Interpretation of a Poem by Frost,” she interrogates the universality of Frost’s project by reimagining the subject of the popular poem as a young black girl. Where many see the beauty of America in the imagery of snow, Moss sees the toxic force of whiteness. When the naïve subject of Moss’s poem stops in the woods, she is “so young that she [knows] only one man: Jim Crow.” so “of course she [delights] in the filling up / of his woods”. Moss’s identity-focused recasting of Frost’s poem questions whether the speaker of “Stopping by Woods”—presumably a white male—can really represent all of America. Upon scrutiny, Frost’s poem’s proposition that the experience of white Americans can be universal is “a fast to melt idealism,” but her critique goes further, for the apparent inclusivity of Frost’s poem “[makes] it seem indecisive / about race preference. This seeming indifference allows for whiteness to attempt to “hypnotize” African-Americans, for “the blond sun” of art to attempt to “make too many prefer daylight.” For Moss, the woods of Jim Crow are really Frost’s woods—which are in turn his poems—so by writing her interpretation she has violated “the promise that she bear [Frost] no bastards.”


Emily Dickinson and the Em Dash

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One thing I always find challenging about Dickinson’s poetry is her affinity for the em dash. How exactly does the saturation of em dashes augment the meaning of a particular poem? Sometimes when I read I feel as if they aren’t particularly meaningful, just a stylistic tick. But this has to be wrong, considering she is probably one of the three most famous poets in American literary history. That is, the dashes have to be intentional, or at least add some meaning to the poem-right?

I haven’t done the work to confirm this, but a teacher once told me that the first editor of Dickinson’s poetry removed all of the em dashes. Try removing the dashes (in the anthology they kind of look more similar to en dashes, in fairness, but in the PoFo edition they look more like em dashes) from a poem like “Because I could not stop for Death” and see how it changes the experience of reading the poem. Pretty different, right? I think the caesuras in this particular poem create a really interesting tension. I mean, in some sense, to die is to stop–to stop loving, to stop living, to stop breathing. So you might think it makes sense that we stop along our now-centuries-dead narrator as we read. But the whole point of the poem is that she couldn’t stop for death, and yet the reader stops–and stops–and stops when reading the poem. A challenging and interesting choice, in my opinion.

(Also a good example, like Walt Whitman, of poets breaking “rules” and being remembered for doing so.)

God’s Grandeur

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In contrast to the minimalism of a poem like Wordsworth’s “A Slumber Did my Spirit Seal,” “God’s Grandeur” really goes all in with intricate sound and syntax. Notice the syntactic symbolism in line 5: in the clause “Generations have trod, have trod, have trod”; the threefold repetition of the predicate mirrors the futile toil that generation after generation after generation had to endure. Hopkins also adds some nice internal rhymes that take on this role of syntactic symbolism in the next line–“And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil.” Because “seared,” “bleared,” and “smeared” are in such close proximity to each other, when read aloud, the line starts to smudge smear together, as the words are so similar to each other. The sonic effect here symbolizes the actual scene it describes, where the speaker’s natural surroundings are smeared with the industrialization’s physical and spiritual pollutants. Also alliteration just dominates this piece: (“shares man’s smell: the soil”), (“shining from shook”), (“ooze of oil”) ( “gathers to a greatness”). This effect in particular is not very subtle, similar perhaps to how the grandeur of god is not very subtle. Anyway, I’ll quickly return to Wordsworth’s piece just to note that I think heavy alliteration/sonic effects does not always make a poem good, just as minimalism does not always make a poem good. The form has to interact with the content (it normally reflects the content, though when it contradicts it that can be an interesting effect too) such that it augments the poem’s meaning.

The Pathology of Thinking?

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“Where but to think is to be full of sorrow”: such a line from “Ode to a Nightingale” might give you pause, or just make you laugh. How can thinking itself, which is so essential to being a functional human being, make one “full of sorrow?”  But I don’t think the speaker’s view of life here is as crazy as it first appears. His view of life is not entirely different than the view of Theravada Buddhism, the oldest/most conservative “branch” of Buddhist theology. The First Noble Truth (basically the starting point of Buddhist theology), is frequently translated to “All life is suffering,” which is not so different than the speaker’s view of life in which is dominated by

The weariness, the fever, and the fret
         Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs.


(It’s worth noting that some translate the Pali dukkha to unsatisfactoriness or some variant instead of suffering, but you get the idea). Still, in the Buddhist tradition, impermanence and desire are generally responsible for our suffering, which are ideas that “Ode to a Nightingale” also clearly illustrates. But what about thinking? In general, we suffer because of our cognitive appraisal of events, and when we inhabit our thoughts. We think a sad thought; then we are sad. We think what a shitty day we are having because of a bad grade or something someone said; then we are having a shitty day (and so too with happy thoughts.) Theravada Buddhism has developed mindfulness meditation to deal with this, where you basically try and be aware of every thought that pops into your head. (Which sounds easy but is really really hard. But once you do it a lot you can start to observe how subtle thoughts inform your emotions in ways you never noticed or thought about before.)

This whole post has been sort of a tangent. But I thought it’s interesting to situate the speaker’s bleak view of life in the context of world traditions. And it’s interesting to consider how Keats concludes art is the best way to cope with suffering, whereas Buddhism argues it’s insight into the nature of reality and following the Eightfold Path (some rules which I’m not going to go into here.) Why I find this interesting is basically because whereas Theravada Buddhism argues for not letting thoughts determine your state of mind, in some ways what Keats is arguing for–art–is the apotheosis of human thought…how can you make a poem like “Ode to a Nightingale” or any other artistic masterpiece without thinking?  But then again, according to Keats, perhaps the whole point is for poetry to be like music–to be like a bird’s song–to be like the absence of thought.

“The Destruction of Sennacherib” and the tone of Christian Poetry

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After reading Lord Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib,” I thought about its tonal similarity to Donne’s “Death, Be Not Proud.” In “The Destruction of Sennacherib,” Byron describes how the Assyrians failed to take Jerusalem, presumably because the Jews had the help of God. In the last couple of the poem, the speaker proclaims: “And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword / Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord.” I feel like there is some arrogance here that is pretty similar to how Donne’s speaker is bragging about being better than death. For me, the assuredness and almost sarcastic tone of these poems is a little jarring.

Compare the two poems above to Marvell’s “The Coronet,” where the speaker feels (or at least seems to feel) real uneasiness about his own pride as an artist and how that affects his relationship to Christianity. I think the difference in tone–whether Christianity (or religion more broadly) is empowering or a source of anxiety for the speaker–is an interesting motif to track as we continue to read.

A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal

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What I really enjoyed about this poem is its use of minimalism. Think of an artist like Swift–the absurd and vivid caricatures he uses that find an intersection between the comic and grotesque, and now compare that to what Wordsworth is doing here. With Swift I almost feel as if I’m experiencing sensory overload; this poem insists on so much about life, death, and love with only two stanzas, eight lines, and few images. The last image, how the female persona in the poem (potentially Lucy, as Haley previously discussed), “Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course, / With rocks, and stones, and trees” seems so poignant and real to me because of its use of such simple language. I mean, the last line, for instance, is a fragment that could pretty easily be composed by an elementary schooler. But the artfulness of how the clause is used–and its emotional gravitas in this sentence–is the mark of someone who really knows their craft. I also think the shift from more saturated figurative language in the beginning of the poem (e.g. “a slumber did my spirit seal”) to the language of  “With rocks, and stones, and trees” is really well done. One last point: the caesuras in the last line–the use of commas that make us slow down when reading aloud as if slowing to the finality of death–is also really artful.

A Sonnet About Forgetting

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Baptism, refrain


Every child plunged in obsidian,

The Lethe bubbles, steams, evaporates;

Ablutions visit each meridian.

The creek of the hospital cot abates

Along with the blue cheeks and bloody lungs

That filled like crimson reservoirs in Hell,

The corpses stacked like torn books. Tired tongues

Do not speak of 1918. They yell—

These new voices shriek: the dangers in health!

The serum stronger than any prayer,

Tears children from their friends, parents from wealth.

Lucifer’s motrin! Citizens beware!

The gun, the soldier, the slug to forget;

A child, no vaccine, the past’s cruel debt.