[A noiseless, patient spider,]
A noiseless, patient spider,
I mark’d where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them; ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.
I found this short entry on the blog for the journal ENTASIS; it appears the folks at ENTASIS got this particular bit from a piece in the Times this past summer. Got a laugh out of it—and, for that matter, will know better how to field this question going forward. Sounds just like Mr. Eliot, eh?
So, what is your poem about?
[The] frustration [associated with that question] has little if anything to do with the supposed stormy temperaments of poets. It rather derives, at least partly, from the fact that the question, simple as it may appear, is one that in fact has no satisfactory answer.
In “The Well Wrought Urn”—that well-known and well-wrought book of literary criticism—Cleanth Brooks described what he called ‘the heresy of paraphrase.’ The main idea—that efforts at paraphrasing poetry into prose fail in ways that parallel attempts for prose do not—was not new. It has been generally agreed upon since Aristotle. This skeptical thesis was championed in the first half of the 20th century by the New Critics as well as by their guiding spirit, T.S. Eliot, who, when asked to interpret the line ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree in the cool of the day…’ from his poem “Ash Wednesday,” responded, ‘It means ‘”Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree in the cool of the day.”’
It was the grammarian in me that was first magnetized by Wolahan’s “Argument in Optative.” It is the poem itself that expresses an optative mood: given the fact that it must do so without English verbs in optative, and given the fact that our setting is a building site, not a lover’s bed or sepulcher, this is no small achievement.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Wolahan’s construction is deft. Consider how she skirts attributions this close to ‘pathetic fallacy’ stuff:
[. . .] the illuminated building/golden and empty, its construction stalled as/all movement in this area is stalled [. . .]
[. . .] a whitening of the sky/in a winter sunset, its hollowed-out stories, structural posts [. . .]
and the powerful ‘There is also blue/mixed in the white, diluted but careful sense/of girders uniting a canyon dispersed/over river water.’ Of course, it is the general suggestion of human correspondence to the site (read: human involvement in its ‘construction,’ be the worker foreman or poet) that gives the poem a special poignancy—but such a correspondence is never too overt. Even the speaker’s interjection in line 21 is coolly balanced.
Having done a bit of personal study of Latin and Greek, I’ve always been covetous of true ‘subjunctives,’ ‘optatives,’ and two-word phrases that translate into whole English sentences. I like that Wolahan seems to be working through what a true optative in English might look like; that it might not be a verb-based structure at all; that it may involve a hovering smoke that is both insubstantial and ‘loosened and caught/in the wind [. . .].’ Thus the feeling of ‘if only’—unless it is iterated as ‘if only x, oh, if only z’—might only be honestly ‘felt’ through a gentle management like the speaker’s in “Argument in Optative”—as quickly as ‘lack’ enters, it is marigold, ‘winging out,’ pale, and ‘something else.’
Friends: if you haven’t had the opportunity to read it already, we thought you might like this—Helen Vendler’s compelling critique of The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth- Century American Poetry.