An inspired, well-made poem is all muscle, all linked movement and harmonious gestures, efficient and lovely as a snake moving across rocks or blacktop or water before it disappears into tall grass. Break this good poem down, and one can see it as a construct of images, phrases, observations, maybe even statements—gestures which have practical uses and varying levels of energy when taken one at a time. Often these gestures are indeed taken one at a time, in workshops or in classrooms at any level, where “understanding” the poem is a more graspable and thus a more settled-for goal than feeling the poem. Start discussing feeling, and one is in that no-man’s land where the boundaries between one’s private experience of the poem and the intentions of the poem can blur. Language becomes untrustworthy. Perception becomes suspect. It is one thing to watch a snake move and imagine its slipperiness, and another to pick it up with an ungloved hand and then sustain and communicate to someone else the sensations of smooth muscle against the palm–at least in the arena of a workshop or literature class, where the task is to find usable terms and defend a point of view in the midst of peers and teachers. But in private, one might well pick up the snake, find one’s hand and arm moving in a dance with its body and feel the marvelous interlocking of its sinews and scales, the dry smoothness of it, not a slipperiness at all.
My first experience of the quietly electrifying impact a poem can have occurred when I was sitting alone on a dock one summer before my junior year in college. Since then, I have sought ways to honor what can scarcely be described about a well-made and deeply inspired poem–the vatic sureness, the textured play of utterance and silence, the sense of inevitability or urgency from which a poem seems to arise, the resonance some images have, the way the last line reverberates in the reader’s mind and sends her back into the poem again and again only to find each reading richer than the last. In graduate school I was introduced to the work of Gaston Bachelard, the French phenomenologist and philosopher of science who understood reverberation as the operative word for describing the dynamics of literary expression, emphasizing the wealth of association and memory touched off in the reader, often a recognition of something deeply buried within herself, as part of a literary work’s own properties and realm of intentions. Bachelard helped me take seriously the sensations that arise from inspired reading, the literal twinges in the gut that tell me when I have encountered a particularly important image or passage even before my head tells me why it’s important. A few years later, a conversation with my then-colleague James Ragan helped me begin to find a vocabulary for including and then using sensation as a starting point for grasping the whole of a poem, its deft and muscular movement, in a way that might appeal to readers at any level of experience.
Over the years I have played with the notion of a poem’s “center” in so many contexts as a teacher, and thus have made it so deeply my own, that I can no longer determine how much of what I have to say on this matter originates with me or with Jim. But I can say that the basic idea came from him, and that when he introduced it to me, a light went on in my head and has stayed on ever since. Jim said, if I remember correctly, that every poem has a “center,” a line or group of lines, which reveal the heart of the poem but should not be confused with theme or content. Rather, they are lines with a particular sort of energy, almost always a heightened energy, and one way to identify them is to imagine that when the writer drafted these particular lines, she could feel the force and trajectory of the finished poem even if many details still needed to be worked out—that the poem from that time forward held mystery and potential completeness for the writer and would indeed be worth finishing. I loved this. To enter a poem in the skin of the writer, to feel the itch of important lines without quite yet knowing what they meant–this seemed an engaging and intuitively accurate way to be a reader.
I soon discovered that one cannot identify a poem’s center without dwelling within each of a poem’s gestures—each image, each transition, each close-up or wide-angle view—without, in other words, feeling the weave of the entire texture, its larger and smaller variations. This is not the work of intellect or analysis. Imagine being blindfolded, learning the layout of a room by groping your way along its walls and furnishings, letting your sense of touch replace your eyes and yield the landscape of the room in a visceral, intimate way. This is what happens when one reads a poem with the intent of identifying its center. The center derives its energy from how it works in its relation to other moments in the poem. To feel the center of a poem, one has to have felt the significance of all of the poem’s moments, moments of lesser as well as greater intensity that nevertheless are crucial to the poem’s structure and cumulative power. This is what picking up the snake—not the devious Edenic archetype, but the lovely work of nature—is all about.
The center can occur anywhere in the poem. It can be a phrase or a stanza, or it may reveal its energy in the gap between stanzas. It can be a moment where the poem’s tension is most palpably enacted, where the poem’s time frames or layers interact simultaneously, where the texture of the poem undergoes significant variation, where the poem contradicts itself, or where the poem seems to quicken and gather itself into a passage that acts as a kind of net. The center is where the reader feels most powerfully the sensations of the poem’s theme. And nearly always, the center contains a pivot or surprise that gives the whole poem simultaneous light and darkness, hence considerable range.
I call these moments “dark star” moments, after an image in a beautifully crafted poem by James Tate called “Consumed.” This poem manages, through apparently conventional rhetorical gestures of question and answer, elaboration on that answer and then conclusion, to catapult the reader into a state of uncertainty that is bracing, absolute, and utterly resistant to paraphrase:
Why should you believe in magic,
pretend an interest in astrology
or the tarot? Truth is, you are
free, and what might happen to you
today, nobody knows. And your
personality may undergo a radical
transformation in the next half
hour. So it goes. You are consumed
by your faith in justice, your
hope for a better day, the rightness
of fate, the dreams, the lies,
the taunts. –Nobody gets what he
wants. A dark star passes through
you on your way home from
the grocery: never again are you
the same—an experience which is
impossible to forget, impossible
to share. The longing to be pure
is over. You are the stranger
who gets stranger by the hour.
The poem begins reasonably enough, with a progression of statements which set up an argument against the possibility of solace, of safe illusions. Then it heats up in the third and fourth stanzas as it launches into a list that starts with “faith in justice” and ends bluntly with “taunts.” The list gathers speed as it progresses and ultimately achieves, through its movement towards self-cancellation, a sensation of downward spiraling that slides into the abrupt, oddly punctuated statement, “—Nobody gets what he wants,” which at this point feels both jolting and inevitable. Then comes the poem’s single image, resonant with conflicting energies: “A dark star passes through/you on your way home from/the grocery.” The mysterious arrival of the “dark star” occurs at the end of a mundane trip to the grocery, enacting what the poem has been saying about one’s absolute vulnerability to the unexpected. But also, at a more visceral level, the words “dark” and “star” work against each other to create immediate friction in their simultaneous assertions of darkness and light. Following that passage, then, the poem becomes more outrageous, more unrelenting in its depictions of human vulnerability, returning to its former strategy of making statements, but making them work as a quick succession of hammer blows to set up a no-win situation: the arrival of the “dark star” is “impossible to forget, impossible/to share,” and once the hapless “you” in the poem has been jolted from complacency, there is no turning back or even slowing down in this free-fall towards uncertainty: “You are the stranger/who gets stranger by the hour.”
Because of the provocative leaps between its statements, and because it layers paradox upon paradox, “Consumed” evokes the sensation of being swept into a vortex. For me it creates, with economy and brilliance, a black hole. I can scarcely contemplate a black hole as a palpable phenomenon even though I can feel myself heading into one in this poem, and the image of the “dark star”—also a scarcely graspable physical reality—seems a perfect emblem for such an experience. At many levels then, “A dark star passes through/you on your way home from/the grocery” is a viable center to this poem: it marks a turning point, it offers a significant variation in the poem’s texture as the sole image among rhetorical gestures, and it captures the poem’s self-contradictory energy in an instant, forcing us to experience a deeply interior moment through an image from the most extreme imaginable version of the outer world, the cosmos and its mysterious alchemies. The “dark star,” after all, arises from the universe within, without warning or cause. How bracing. How perverse. The explosive domain of the Existentialists is crystallized in this tiny jewel of a poem.
Such play of simultaneous light and darkness is a condensed form of the tension that gives form and urgency to any literary work. In fiction and drama we look for the tension/resolution dynamic between the protagonist and whatever forces work against her; how that tension is established and then resolved becomes more or less the basis of plot structure. Poems, especially lyric poems, usually work around a brief period of time, sometimes only a moment, to illuminate a certain complexity therein, relying not on a sequence of events or elements, but rather suspending them in a matrix of memory, present event, and reflection in such a way as to reveal new relationships between them. At the end of a work of fiction and drama we usually experience a sense of resolution, but lyric poems leave us with a more open-ended sense of revelation. The poem’s center provides the key to the tension that leads to revelation, indicating the area where the surface is ruffled and the underlying shadows have more noticeable play. The search for a center is especially useful in nudging the reader into the trickier depths of poems that at first appear, unlike Tate’s intentionally disturbing poem, to be neutral or even celebratory.
Here, for example, is a poem by Mary Oliver, whose nature poems risk a lack of tension as they arise from a sensibility that is not ironic, not critical, not humorous, not agendized in any way but is simply, as she has described it, “devotional.”
Beside the Waterfall
the big dog—
Winston by name—
into the leaves—tulips and willows mostly—
beside the white
and dragged out,
into plain sight,
it was scarcely larger
than a rabbit
it was dead.
looked over the
delicate, spotted body and then
the beautiful flower-like head,
breaking it and
breaking it off and
All the while this was happening
it was growing lighter.
When I called to him
Winston merely looked up.
Grizzled around the chin
and with kind eyes,
he, too, if you’re willing,
had a face
like a flower; and then the red sun,
which had been rising all the while anyway,
clear of the trees and dropped its wild, clawed light
The elegance and restraint with which Oliver describes this brutal scene does much to supply the poem’s tension. Only at the end does she allow her voice to reveal something of a reaction when she mentions the sun’s “wild, clawed light,” as though her faithful rendition of details up to this point finally has forced her into an image that conveys the thrust and music of raw feeling. But on the way, there are two areas where the poem quietly heats up, and these qualify as possible “centers.” The first is the fifth stanza, where the language Oliver uses to describe the dog’s act evokes a sense of daintiness and even loveliness: “delicate, spotted body,” “deftly,” and “beautiful flower-like head.” The word “tackled” works in counterpoint to remind us this is real violence, the dark side of nature brought to light and then rendered beautiful through Oliver’s diction and detail. This is the stuff of centers.
But I believe the real center occurs in the poem’s second-to-last stanza, where the dog looks up from his meal “with kind eyes” and the poet sees that “he, too, if you’re willing,/had a face/like a flower….” At that point, the poem gathers all its elements into one intensely visual instant: the flower-faces of both predator and prey, the sun’s red light (of course there’s blood, but it never needs to be mentioned), and the deft reminder that there is nothing evil—nothing, after all, that is not “kind,” even though capable of seemingly dark acts—in this scene. While the first section I mentioned begins to gather them, here is where all the elements of the poem rush together as though through a funnel to become energetically fused, and full of dark light. This moment underscores another dynamic that contributes to the poem’s overall tension, the consummation of this “dark” moment just as the sun crests the horizon at dawn.
James Wright’s well-known poem,“Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” a poem which also seems to celebrate nature, offers an example of yet another way in which a center can be identified as the point of tension.
Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s
Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
This enigmatic yet graspable final line has caused Wright’s poem to be the subject of much debate in classrooms. Has the speaker wasted his life by not spending more time lying in a hammock and observing the natural world so closely? Or have his observations led him into a confrontation of a certain aimlessness to his life, a tendency to lie in hammocks instead of doing other things? There are clues throughout the poem to support both of these interpretations. Someone who sees old droppings as “golden stones” could be speaking from a pleasurably heightened sensitivity to his surroundings and perhaps celebrating a moment of freedom from the noise of the world. But the chicken hawk “looking for home” suggests the possibility that the speaker is himself feeling ungrounded, absent from some sense of home in himself, as he projects this interesting interpretation on a bird in flight. If that image had occurred earlier in the poem, it might have been absorbed and rendered neutral, but here it takes on a higher charge as it provides the closest thing we have to a springboard for the final, startling line. This is a classic example of how epiphany works in a poem, arriving as an outgrowth or a summary of what has come before, but doing so through an associative leap that leaves gaps for the reader to fill in. Upon subsequent readings, she can begin to feel the links of feeling within the poem, the particular resonance of each image or moment as it might relate to that final utterance. This is participatory reading at its best. The poem turns on itself, and the reader is catapulted back to the beginning. A surprising, well-contexted epiphany is almost always the center of any poem that contains one.
The center of a poem may be identified differently by different readers. When I ask students to look for a center, I am really asking them to roll up their sleeves and plunge their hands in up to the elbows, feel the interaction between the poem’s elements and then defend their choices articulately. If they argue with one another, if they disagree with my own choice, it’s all to the good as long as the exercise has encouraged them to read the poem energetically and with a reasonable degree of accuracy.
It is often tempting, for example, to identify a favorite image or stanza as the center, so here I reiterate that the center is defined by its relationship to all the other moments in the poem, whereas an especially resonant image derives its energy partly from the friction or connection between elements within it, but partly also from the associations it touches off in the reader’s mind. To a certain degree we all bring our own daydreaming selves into another’s poem, and this is a fruitful and legitimate way to live with poems. Bachelard maintains that poems arise from reverie, a state of mind that is at once alert and “in repose,” subconscious but not in the repressive Freudian sense, rich with memory and association, and that the poet’s reverie touches off a similar state of mind in the reader. This, I think, is sacred space, a personal dialogue between reader and poem, and it should not be violated by the injunction to explain or interpret a poem to someone else’s satisfaction. Still, anyone who teaches poetry to inexperienced readers knows that the poem’s own space can be violated by too subjective a reading, and that a well-made poem gives all the necessary clues to someone who knows how to look for them. To seek the center is to learn to recognize those clues with greater ease. To acknowledge the other hot spots, the other points for pause and reflection, is to honor the more personal dialectic between poem and reader. If the search for a poem’s center involves a discussion of both kinds of response, so much the better.
While most centers can be characterized at least in part by their heightened energy, as they have in the three poems discussed (i.e., a highly charged image, a forceful gathering of a poem’s elements, and provocative juxtaposition), occasionally a center manifests itself more gently, without visible exertion of energy. In the center of the following poem by William Stafford, the language becomes a little more discursive, a shade less concrete, than it is elsewhere in the poem.
Traveling Through the Dark
Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.
By the glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.
My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.
The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.
I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—
then pushed her over the edge into the river.
It is tempting to zero in on that fawn “waiting, /alive, still, never to be born,” an image that throbs in its implications of simultaneous life and death. But to my surprise, two other areas of the poem engage me even more, even though they essentially are bits of narrative, or stage-direction: “Beside that mountain road I hesitated” and “around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.” In both these lines, the speaker is gathering himself at the threshold of his difficult decision, and I find myself caught up in the tautness of the moment. The whole poem, after all, is about striking a balance between two kinds of compassion, one tender and one dutiful; in the second passage, especially, the poem holds all its values in suspension, as in the moment before a judge’s renders his verdict. In this brief narrative, the end of the fourth stanza marks what would be identified in fiction as the crisis or turning point, after which the speaker’s final gesture, dramatic as it is, nevertheless is part of that moment’s outcome, or resolution.
To conclude, I offer one of my long-time favorites, an early poem by Adrienne Rich. Unlike the other poems we’ve examined, “The Loser” adheres strictly albeit gracefully to a fixed form: rhymed iambic tetrameter couplets within its six-line stanzas, and two distinct sections of equal length, each of which works as a complete poem on its own.
A man thinks of the woman he once loved; first,
after her wedding, and then nearly a decade later.
I kissed you, bride and lost, and went
home from that bourgeois sacrament,
your cheek still tasting cold upon
my lips that gave you benison
with all the swagger that they knew—
as losers somehow learn to do.
Your wedding made my eyes ache; soon
the world would be worse off for one
more golden apple dropped to ground
without the least protesting sound,
and you would windfall lie, and we
forget your shimmer on the tree.
Beauty is always wasted: if
not Mignon’s song sung to the deaf,
at all events to the unmoved.
A face like yours cannot be loved
long or seriously enough.
Almost, we seem to hold it off.
Well, you are tougher than I thought.
Now when the wash with ice hangs taut
this morning of St. Valentine,
I see you strip the squeaking line,
your body weighed against the load,
and all my groans can do no good.
Because you are still beautiful,
though squared and stiffened by the pull
of what nine windy years have done.
You have three daughters, lost a son.
I see all your intelligence
flung into that unwearied stance.
My envy is of no avail.
I turn my head and wish him well
who chafed your beauty into use
and lives forever in a house
lit by the friction of your mind.
You stagger in against the wind.
I can never read those final lines without feeling a quiet welling of joy. By then, this tribute has passed from an appreciation of the woman’s “shimmer on the tree,” and the regret that her beauty is to be “wasted” to an acknowledgement of the seasoned, generative light of her “mind,” which in this context includes her way of being, a beauty of character, that takes on a burnished quality against the grayness of that February day and the larger grayness of “nine windy years” of labor and loss. The final stanza evokes multiple layers of “friction,” to use Rich’s word, in its reference to the husband’s having “chafed your beauty into use,” and the gesture of “stagger[ing] in against the wind,” as well as in the lovely image of “a house lit by the friction of your mind.” All the tensions of the poem come into play in this final stanza—the pull of time, of weather, of labor, of marriage as a kind of erasure—only to highlight the enduring, magnified “shimmer” this woman now takes in the speaker’s eyes. Certainly then, the final stanza is a viable center to the poem. And it is interesting to note that the form gets roughed up a bit in that stanza, the rhymes having turned to off-rhymes and thus creating subtle variation and tension in the poem’s established music just where the content addresses tension through diction and image.
There are other points in this poem where off-rhyme occurs—the third and fourth lines of the first stanza, the first two lines of the second stanza, the whole third stanza, the last two lines of the fourth stanza, and the last two lines of the fifth stanza.. Given Rich’s obvious skill in choreographing the dance between form and content, I suggest that these areas indicate other hot spots in the poem which might be considered as smaller centers, or preparatory centers. The last two lines of the first section, for example, where “enough” and “off” create a particularly aggressive off-rhyme, provide the high-energy point of that section. “Mind” and “wind” do the same sort of work at the end of the second section. Variations of form often occur at “dark star” moments in formal poems such as Rich’s, and investigation of these moments can add moisture to the dry discussions that sometimes ensue over fixed forms.
At this point I hope it is safe to observe that, ultimately, a poem’s center does not always have to be relentlessly pursued and pinned down as long as the search has helped tune the reader in to the poem’s greater and lesser frequencies. I often change my mind with the Rich poem, sometimes deciding on two centers and sometimes on one. Does that matter? The fact remains that “a dark star” has passed through me by the time I have finished reading this poem and that I am able, unlike the “you” in Tate’s poem, to articulate and “share” the experience. While the Tate poem dazzled me by introducing the notion of “darkness” to the phenomenon of a star, Rich’s poem leaves me warmed by the generative beauty of this woman who has been “squared and stiffened,” who has lost her conventional “light” and now glows contrary to all expectation.
And I have that wonderful line, “a house lit by the friction of your mind,” to keep in a corner of my own mind and pull forth like a talisman as I contemplate the possibilities of poetry as well as the possibilities of love. This, after all, is what lyric poems give us–brief enactments of a mind at work, acts of consciousness heightened by the impulse towards insight or revelation or equilibrium after some thought or event has “chafed” against it. The centers of poems bring us right up to those points of friction, and touching them allows us first to borrow, and then be filled with, their kindled light.
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie, translated by Daniel Russell, Boston: Beacon Press, l971.
James Tate, The Oblivion Ha-Ha, Boston: Little, Brown, & Company, l970.
Mary Oliver, White Pine, New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., l994.
A. Poulin, Jr., ed., Contemporary American Poetry, Sixth Edition, Boston: Houghton, Mifflin Company, l996.
Adrienne Rich, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., l963.
From Library of Small Happiness (3: A Taos Press, 2016), Leslie Ullman