Dickinson’s Nerves, Frost’s Woods: Poetry in the Shadow of the Past by William Logan

Logan identifies the job of the poetry critic as one of contextualising, i.e. as far as he is able, to place the poem into the environment in which it was created. A writer of poetry does not necessarily consider how readers in years to come may interpret his words, but that does not negate the basic requirement of critics who must see that “a poem is a historical artefact, no less an artefact than a Renaissance slipper or a marble fragment of the Acropolis. History interprets the artefact, and on occasion the artefact interprets history” (2). The promotional material claims that Logan reconciles history and poetry to provide new ways of reading poets ranging from Shakespeare and Shelley to Lowell and Heaney. This is a huge statement.

Logan suggests that most of the poems we know are so familiar to us that we have forgotten how to read them. “Critics should try to see poems from the inside, to get down into the muck of the poem’s invention – and, of course, into the muck of its language…I want to argue that facts lying outside the poem are often crucial to its inner working” (2 – 3), as is normal practice with art which is embedded in the world from which it is made. Long settled in anthologies, memorised by some or read to death by others, a poem can live in its own shadow, can become so encrusted with criticism it can no longer be seen plain.

Logan’s Notes toward an Introduction (7) are significant in that he is not “asking for some impossibly pure criticism that would trap the poem in amber, only a recognition of the subtle ways the past of a poem lies within the present.” He goes on that “Poems are stained with history, their making rooted in history; and it does them no favours to suppress history or pretend it doesn’t exist…Poems are a language already penetrated by centuries of use, a language particular to the quirks, happenstance, and defective personality of the poet” (Notes).

In summary, Logan argues that facts lying outside the poem are often crucial to its understanding, from which follows his call to read a poem in context. He makes the obvious point that balance is necessary as knowledge of the circumstances is not knowledge of the poem. He looks for a balance by pairing off certain poems to show how they sometimes affirm or respond to one another. Logan shows that criticism cannot just root blindly among the words of the poem but must live partly in a lost world, in the shadow of the poet’s life and the shadow of the age. He pairs poems to demonstrate his thesis.

The first chapter in which there was friendly competition between the two poets, is called by Logan Shelley’s Wrinkled Lip, Smith’s Gigantic Leg. Shelley’s poem Ozymandias is set against Horace Smith’s On a Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt with the inscription inserted below. Both poems chose to write about a giant statue buried in the sand, reputed to be of Pharaoh Ramses II. Smith’s title was in capital letters and unhappily emphasizes a part of the anatomy that has no poetic connotations whatsoever. “A disembodied granite arm has pathos, a granite leg nothing but bathos” (Logan, 21). Smith’s famous leg suffers by comparison with Shelley’s subtlety “Where [his] ‘legs of stone’ seem oddly majestic, Smith’s solitary ‘gigantic leg’ is anticlimactic and ridiculous” (21).

Why choose two poems written at the same time on an identical subject if not to show that contextual variables, such as perception, drive, and innate abilities can produce vastly different results? People see things in very different ways, writers as well as readers.

Logan then considers Robert Frost’s The Draft Horse and Richard Wilbur’s The Ride, Robert Lowell’s Skunk Hour paired with Seamus Heaney’s The Skunk, Henry Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha and Lewis Carroll’s Hiawatha Photographing, (now there’s a pairing!), Keats’s On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer and Donald Justice’s Henry James by the Pacific, Shakespeare’s Rotten Weeds (Sonnet 2) with the same author’s Deep Trenches, Ezra Pound’s In a Station of the Metro and William Carlos Williams’s The Red Wheelbarrow, until finally we get to Dickinson’s Nerves paired with Robert Frost’s Woods.

Some of these combinations appear at first glance to be bizarre. Henry Longfellow’s poem The Song of Hiawatha was written as an earnest attempt to spread knowledge of and explain the cultural beliefs of a particular Indian tribe. However, the pronounced rhythm of his verse spawned a host of parodies, the most notable of which is Lewis Carroll’s Hiawatha Photographing. Serious critiques of Longfellow’s work are many but do not appear in Logan’s chapter. He prefers to educate his readers in the parodying element only. In terms of substantiating his thesis I find this treatment distracting.

But Dickinson and Frost – what of them?

Logan is on firmer ground here. Dickinson is a slippery fish and an understanding of her poetry is not easy to establish. “With her eccentricities, her catastrophic reserve, her niggling and unearthly brilliance, Dickinson was the oddest of odd ducks – her strange manner taxed the patience of acquaintances” (246). It becomes a matter of identifying a range of potential meanings knowing that the real meaning is embedded in that range – most likely. Her poem “After great pain, a formal feeling comes” begins with syntax reversed. One cannot argue with this – the construction of the first line retains its resistant energy and maintains the meter. As the poem develops we witness ceremonious nerves, stiff hearts, mechanical feet grown and so on all creating a benumbed state of grief, perhaps summed up by metaphors like “Quartz contentment, like a stone” and “hour of Lead’.

That’s one of those possible explanations of the poem. As Logan points out, what we know of Dickinson through others is filtered by prejudice and fading memories, while much of what we know from her is confused, ambiguous, perhaps equally unreliable. One meaning radiates its suggestive alternatives, or two readings lie superimposed and entangled. The central idea could be anything of two, three or even four alternatives. Given all this struggle to unmask her, “it is surprising how raw the emotions remain. In her refusal of recollection and tranquillity, the poems resist consolation – their furies lie just beneath the surface, sometimes not even that deep” (266).

Dickinson is a poet that is very difficult to contextualise. A writer is forced through lack of more than a basic knowledge of her home life to focus on the personality of the poet when she chooses to reveal it. Even then what she tells is as likely to be false as it is to be true.

With Robert Frost we find a poet who knows how to establish a context with an efficiency of words. Logan uses the poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” as the basis of his analysis of Frost’s poetry. He points out in particular the closing repetition of “And miles to go before I sleep”. “It displays, perhaps, the fatigue, the reluctance, the beaten-down condition of the traveller – he has surrendered to the demands of the world he has almost forsaken” (290). The rest of the chapter is disappointing. While I can accept that Frost’s poems are an excellent mirror of the reader’s ambivalence (291), I would have preferred to read more of his poetry. Logan’s thesis, however, was to examine the context in which the poem was written. This is an odd chapter. There is much about Derry, Frost’s failure as a farmer and his inherent laziness; however, the conditions of the thesis are met in the agricultural nature of the verse. It’s a pity that the presentation has become lack lustre.

Maybe it’s not too far out there to suppose that this book came out of a tying-up of unused ‘butt-ends’ of a distinguished career. Maybe the final chapter suffers through authorial lack of interest. Whether the book has value as a progression of a particular line of thought may have its critics. The thesis that Logan proposed at the beginning of the book does garner some support to allow its acceptance as a useful theme to follow. While there is speculation about its usefulness to Logan’s thesis, this should not be allowed to overturn the judgment that this is a valuable addition to a professional library. Recommended.

Dickinson’s Nerves, Frost’s Woods: Poetry in the Shadow of the Past

(2018)

by William Logan

Columbia University Press

ISBN: 9780231186148

416pp; $69.00

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