Observations on a poem

Every now and again, a poet will ask his audience for thoughts on his poem. This has always struck me as a vaguely indecent proposition. It’s rather as if someone stood before you fully clothed and asked for a commentary on their body. Technically all modesty is preserved, but it’s still a rather awkward request.

My feeling of awkwardness is further compounded by my dogmatic insistence that good poetry conveys something that is beyond the ability of prose. Naturally, I feel inadequate to talk about good poems with mere prose. And when I do talk about poetry with prose it almost seems like an implied insult.

This problem has a simple cure. I try to avoid answering all questions relating to a poem’s interpretation even if the questions come from the poets themselves.

But an occasion has arisen where such tactics will not suffice. In this case, the unfortunate occasion is Joel Dueck’s request for observations on a poem he wrote. Normally, I would ignore such a request for the reasons that I have already elaborated on. But this is not a normal situation.

For one thing, Joel Dueck’s poem was added to the august list of Poem of Week over at The Ethereal Voice. More to the point, a couple of the residents here in the Ethereal Land took Mr. Dueck up on his offer and sent him their observations. I happened to see these replies and as is my habit I offered up some criticism. This has created some pressure on me to put up or shut up, as it were.

Moreover, it was Mr. Dueck’s blog that inspired my essay site and indirectly this site as well. Before my brother showed me Mr. Dueck’s site, I did not believe that a blog could be anything other than useless drivel. But upon reading Mr. Dueck’s inspiring example, I ventured off to make a fool of myself with the rest of the blogging crowd. Given that, I think it would be churlish of me to ignore a simple request from the man.

Since I don’t intend to make a habit of voicing my thoughts on a particular poem to the world, I am going to turn this into a two for one deal. I figure that this would be a good time to explain how I approach a poem. I happen to suspect that there might be one or two people in my audience who are interested in knowing such things.

But enough blather. I have put my analysis of Mr. Dueck’s poem below the fold in order not to scare off those who have no interest in pondering poetry.

When I first approach a poem, I like to shut down my analytical side and just go with whatever my brain wants to impute to the poem. This is a dangerous thing to do because it risks turning the poem into a conversation with one’s self, and that can keep you from hearing what the author has to say. But I have found that I have to take this risk. If my intuitive reading of a poem does not intrigue me, I can never stay interested long enough to figure anything out. So I will start out by explaining my initial intuitive reaction to Mr. Dueck’s poem as best as I can remember it.

Before I start though, I want to stress that many of my intuitive reactions to poetry are not defensible. That is to say, I imagine things that are not mentioned in the poem and sometimes I imagine things that flatly contradict what appears in the poem. Just bear with me, these problems will be dealt with as I start approaching the poem more analytically.

So we start with the first verse of the poem….

Wheeling overhead I hear
the ravens’ voices – which I have compared
to the serpents’ bite: the poison, entering your ear
finds its feeling – by degrees and choices
ending in a fatal pagan rite.

My intuitive understanding of this verse is this: I find myself out in a field with these ravens overhead making cries like crows do when they are calling on their buddies to help them feed. I can’t get away from the sound of their voices. I am feeling trapped and depressed. The words pagan rite make me think of human sacrifice, and the only human that I can see in this field is me. And ravens feed on dead things. It makes me feel as if the ravens are just waiting for me to kill myself. As if they are encouraging me to kill myself. As if they are driving me to it.

Now on to the second verse of the poem….

God! the rider of the storm
is their true master – who have sent us reeling,
diving at our eyes. A countermeasure in the form
of a brazen – symbol of disaster!
we looked up and the demons ceased their cries.

Now I feel that as I am standing on this field a storm is coming on. The ravens are taking energy from the strong winds of the approaching storm as birds often do. The ravens are using that energy to attack me the way that swallows will attack a cat. They are swooping and diving at my eyes. It feels as if the whole universe is arrayed against me. I am being driven out of my mind. Before me I see a cross with a bronze raven on it. As I look up at it….

And here my abilities with prose fails me. The emotion evoked in me is more personal and complex then I can easily express. For the sake slapping a label on my emotion I will say that ending of Mr. Dueck’s poem evoked in my mind the memory of times when I felt a sacred peace even as I was experiencing a depression and despair. The word that concisely explains such an experience escapes my limited vocabulary. It is a kind of revelation.

But after I intuitively read Mr. Dueck’s poem my more analytical side kicked in. And right off the bat I was seriously annoyed. It really bugged me that Mr. Dueck used two “I’s” in the first verse and then turn around and used the words “us,” “our,” and “we” in the second verse. It seemed like a disconnect that damaged the force of the poem. It is for such sins that I will often neglect to give a poem another thought.

Yet the ending of poem had a fairly powerful effect on me. It was enough that I willing to ponder the poem a little more.

I started with the imagery that intrigued me. The words “A countermeasure in the form of a brazen – symbol of disaster!” seem to be an obvious reference to this Old Testament story….

They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

The LORD said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.

There are a number of connections that point to the fact that Mr. Dueck had this in mind. First, he is careful to establish the snakelike nature of the “ravens” in the first verse (although this was also done to establish their demonic nature). Second, there is the idea of the countermeasure being a brazen symbol of disaster. And of course, there is the idea of looking up and being saved.

Obviously, this is also Mr. Dueck’s way to reference the crucifixion of Jesus (a connection that the Gospel of John makes quite explicit). This caused me to wonder; why go through the circuitous route of referencing the crucifixion of Jesus through an event in the Old Testament? Why not make a direct and explicit reference to the crucifixion if that is what you wanted to refer to?

My way of approaching this question was to think about what would be lost if a direct reference to Christ’s crucifixion was made instead of taking the long way around through a reference to the bronze serpent. What are the differing associations that spring to mind when we form the mental image of a bronze snake on a pole as opposed to Jesus on a cross?

I think that words “symbol of disaster!” clue us into the key difference. A bronze snake raised up on a pole was a symbol of what was oppressing the people of Israel. But when we think of a man dying on a cross we don’t associate the image with what oppresses us. Rather, we tend to think of the crucifixion as being symbol of the oppressed.

With this thought in mind, I started to ponder on how Christ’s crucifixion could stand as a symbol of disaster. My thoughts went first to the account of Jesus praying in garden and being in so much agony that he sweated blood. I thought of how his disciples could not keep themselves awake to keep him company. I thought of the common Christian belief that this agony represented Satan’s last attempt to get Jesus to turn away from his appointed path.

I thought of how as Jesus was suffering on the cross he called out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” I thought of how those words form beginning of Psalm 22 which begins…

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?

O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, and am not silent.

Later on the psalmist writes…

Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.

Roaring lions tearing their prey
open their mouths wide against me.

I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted away within me.

My strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me [b] in the dust of death.

Dogs have surrounded me;
a band of evil men has encircled me,
they have pierced [c] my hands and my feet.

I can count all my bones;
people stare and gloat over me.

They divide my garments among them
and cast lots for my clothing.

I thought of how Psalm 22 was referenced in the New Testament as a prophecy of Jesus’ suffering. I thought of how the emotional sense of the section above is similar to the emotional sense that Mr. Dueck seems to be trying to achieve in his poem. So I concluded that Mr. Dueck refers to Christ’s crucifixion through the prism of the bronze serpent because he wants you focus on the fact that God turned his back on Jesus as opposed to focusing on his physical sufferings. This is why he wants Christ’s crucifixion is to be seen as a “symbol of disaster” in Mr. Dueck’s poem at the same time he refers to it as a countermeasure.

To put it crassly; for purposes of his poem Mr. Dueck wants you to see Jesus’ crucifixion as a symbol of God’s wrath (or judgment?).

If you follow the above analysis, it should be obvious as to why God seems to come off as the oppressor in Mr. Dueck’s poem. He is the one who rules the demonic ravens and sends them down to oppress mankind. In a sense, then, God is the oppressor of both Jesus (who was regard by God as sin) and Mr. Dueck. But paradoxically, God is also the provider of the countermeasure.

What I am driving at here is that Mr. Dueck’s second verse is an intentional paradox. I see him trying to develop this paradox on more than one level. But at its root this paradox revolves around God both being the one who oppresses (or judges if you prefer) and the one who saves in the same act.

But I think there is even more going on here than the simple stating of this paradox. I think that Mr. Dueck is attempting to provide an answer to this paradox.

When I say “answer” I do not mean in the sense of responding to an atheist who is trying to get you into a philosophical trap. But rather I mean answering in the sense of expressing your own experiences. Or perhaps I should say; Mr. Dueck is attempting to express an answer to a paradox in poetry because that is the only language that is capable of dealing with paradoxes.

This is where analyzing a poem gets tricky. To say that a poem is handling something that only poetry can handle invites the demand that you prove it. But on the other hand, to conclusively prove that poetry is the only thing capable of handing something is to disprove your very point (if you can follow that thought). Thus, I shall have to content myself with offering up a few pointers and hope that people can see what I am driving at.

My starting point in thinking on this matter was my thought that the line “God! the rider of the storm” was meant to call to your mind the end of the book of Job. If you will recall, this is where God comes in on a storm (or a whirlwind) to answer Job’s complaint.

It is possible that I am wrong in thinking this. I ran a number of other possibilities through my head but none of them seemed to fit. The closest I could come to a plausible alternative explanation was that Mr. Dueck was not referring to anything in particular and he was creating his own imagery.

This is not something that should be dismissed out of hand. With Mr. Dueck, you are often wise to assume that he is creating his own imagery. Based on what little I have read of his work, I think of him as being a poet more along the lines of Mr. Frost as opposed to being someone like Mr. Yeats. So I like to err on the side of caution when I think I see a reference to an outside source in his work. But the story of Job just seems to be too good of a fit for the “God! the rider of the storm” to not be referring to how God arrived to answer Job’s complaint in the book of Job. (Interestingly enough, in his response to Job God makes a point of telling Job that he feeds the ravens.)

After all, the story of Job starts off with God allowing Satan to totally wreck Job’s life in every way imaginable. Some people try to get God off the hook for this by putting all the real blame on Satan. But Job does not look at the situation that way. Nor does God use Satan as an excuse in his response to Job. And as we have already seen, God is the master of the demonic ravens that are the oppressors of the suffering narrator in Mr. Dueck’s poem. It is hard to escape the impression that this parallel is deliberate.

Now all this thinking brought to my mind a question: If this allusion to the book of Job that I am seeing is in fact valid, how does this reference to Job help us understand Mr. Dueck’s poem?

One of the interesting things about Job (at least as it relates to our understanding of Mr. Dueck’s poem) is Job’s repeated demand (wish? desire?) for a mediator who could stand between himself and God. I thought to myself: Given that Mr. Dueck’s poem strongly indicates that he considers Jesus Christ to be the mediator between himself and God, how does Mr. Dueck’s conception of his suffering differ from Job’s? In other words, since Mr. Dueck has what Job wanted, how does their view of the work of the ravens differ?

I think that the answer to this question is that Job perceives the work of the “ravens” to be completely destructive. Job perceives God as allowing him to be destroyed for no reason. Job does not even understand what kind of benefit God gets out of allowing him to suffer. Job’s repeated question is why God even bothered creating him if he had him destined for misery.

In contrast to Job, I think that a close reading of Mr. Dueck’s poem will show that he sees the work of the ravens as being instrumental to his salvation (in the poem at least). This is why I think that Mr. Dueck deliberately blurs the boundaries between the oppressive work of the ravens and the saving work of God in his second verse. When viewed in the totality of the poem, they are one and the same.

I think that it is easy to see that God is both the one who commands the oppressive ravens to attack and the one who delivers us from the ravens in Mr. Dueck’s poem. But I think it is a little harder to see how the ravens are part of the salvation. It might seem to run counter to the whole force of the poem.

But one should stop and think about this; do you get the sense from the poem that God wants people to look up? If you have followed my analysis the answer should be obvious. It should also be obvious that in the poem God sends the ravens to cause people to look up just as the Israelites were told to look up as a result of the plague of snakes.

The key to understanding what Mr. Dueck is driving at here is to understand that the line we looked up and the demons ceased their cries refers to more than just deliverance from the ravens. It also refers to a revelation.

Think back to the book of Job. Why does Satan want to wreck Job’s life? Because he wants to prove that Job does not really love God but rather the materialistic things that God provides for him. He argues that if all worldly goods were taken away Job would curse God and die (which I understand to be a reference to suicide or the Pagan rite as Mr. Dueck calls it).

Let us reverse this thought. Let us suppose that Job could go through life completely satisfied with his life and yet never know God. Would this be a benefit to Job? In other words, would it be worth it to Job to go through great pain to experience that which transcends everything else, that from which all else flows?

The answer to this question is a value judgment. But it is a value judgment that can never be made by those who do not know that which transcends the material. That is to say the person who has never experienced God can not make an accuarate determination of how much pain it is worth to come to know Him. One might argue that the answer to this quandary would be for a person to investigate that which transcends.

But if you think about it, that is the reason why the ravens are necessary. Why would people who are satisfied with life “look up”? People who are satisfied do not search.

If you follow what I am saying, you will understand that in Mr. Dueck’s poem, “looking up” is both the frustration of the ravens and the desired end of their master who is the Rider of the Storm. Thus, there is no paradox between God being both the oppressor and rescuer. The goal of both acts is the revelation that is seen when we “look up.”

This is dangerous ground for me, for it is very close to the argument that I was making about despair in my essay “The Aesthetic of Despair.” I always try to be careful when I think I see things that agree with my own views in someone else’s work. It is natural for humans to see agreement even where there is none. I think that this is to be avoided at all costs. It is better to be deaf than to only hear things that you agree with.

But try as I might to play devil’s advocate, I can think of no other explanation of Mr. Dueck’s poem that makes sense.

I should probably stop my analysis of Mr. Dueck’s poem here. There is lots more I could say about his poem, but I don’t think that any of it would really advance anyone’s understanding of Mr. Dueck’s poem.

For example, I could write out in some length why I think Mr. Dueck chose to use ravens as his symbols in this poem. But when I review all my thoughts on the matter I come to a different conclusion depending on whether it is an odd or even numbered day. So I will spare you all the blathering indecision. Besides, neither variant makes much of difference on my overall understanding of the poem.

I could also argue on to some length about why I still think it was a mistake for Mr. Dueck to switch from the singular in the first verse to the plural in the second verse. I think I understand why he did this (in part because it goes with the imagery of the Israeli camp that was overrun with serpents) but I still think that it was a mistake. But even though I could write pages on exploring the pros and cons of this tense switch, it still boils down to an aesthetic judgment. And I don’t think that is worth inflicting on anyone.

Besides, it is late and I need to go to bed.

One Response to “Observations on a poem”

  1. […] _uacct = “UA-1202685-1”; urchinTracker(); Map of the Ethereal Land The Ethereal Voice Front Page – Politics – Money – Knowledge – Art – Food – Fun Masthead About Observations on a poem By Ape Man | October 17, 2007 – 9:27 pm Posted in Category: Front Page, Art Every now and again, a poet will ask his audience for thoughts on his poem. This has always struck me as a vaguely indecent proposition. It’s rather as if someone stood before you fully clothed and asked for a commentary on their body. Technically all modesty is preserved, but it’s still a rather awkward request. My Click Here to continue reading. […]

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