David Wright has sent in a wonderful followup to yesterday's poem (Poem #984) - this would make an interesting theme if anyone else would like to contribute...
(Poem #985) Once by the Pacific
The shattered water made a misty din. Great waves looked over others coming in, And thought of doing something to the shore That water never did to land before. The clouds were low and hairy in the skies, Like locks blown forward in the gleam of eyes. You could not tell, and yet it looked as if The shore was lucky in being backed by cliff, The cliff in being backed by continent; It looked as if a night of dark intent Was coming, and not only a night, an age. Someone had better be prepared for rage. There would be more than ocean-water broken Before God's last 'Put out the Light' was spoken.
Maybe poems come in sets, like waves. At any rate, after pulling out Whitman's "On the Beach at Night" recently, I stumbled on this Robert Frost poem - another 'looking out to sea' poem - in a litcrit book I'm reading: "The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age," by Robert Alter. Alter's observations helped me appreciate Frost, a poet I've felt ambivalent about in the past - the studied folksiness always turned me off a little. The analysis below is his: it is given in the context of his anti- deconstructionist argument that literature is something special - not merely a text but a work and a world of a special type. (I know how it sounds, but he's actually quite a good critic, much less reactionary and pious/pompous than, oh - say - Harold Bloom.) This is quite long, but those who appreciate a good, close reading of a poem should enjoy it. He begins by referring to a statement by poet A.R. Ammons that in every work of literature "a world comes into being about which any statement, however revelatory, is a lessening." ("In all intellectual humilty, a critic should always keep in mind the lessening, though it may be a price often worth paying for the sake of the revelation.") "I will begin with what would be in Ammons' terms the most drastic kind of lessening, a thumbnail paraphrase that is in no way revelatory: the speaker in the poem stands by the Pacific shore watching the waves pounding and thinks apprehensively of the destruction of all things. The paraphrase in a way does no more than describe the stimulus of the poem, since it seems safe to assume that Robert Frost was actually moved to this somber musing by looking at the Pacific breakers. How do such thoughts generate a world in which as readers we powerfully experience a sustained moment of highly distinctive menace, waves raging and apocalypse impending? I say highly distinctive recognizing that each of us will bring to the reading of the poem his or her own literary and personal associations but also assuming that the elaborate structuring of language in these fourteen lines makes them quite different from any other modern apocalyptic poem (Yeats' "Second Coming," the end of T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men," and so forth), whatever the vagaries of our individual readings. Frost's use of rhyming iambic pentameter in a fourteen-line piece indicates that the poem is meant to be taken as a variant of the sonnet. But the rhymes are a sequence of couplets (AA, BB, and so forth), producing no divisions into quatrains or octet and sestet as in the traditional sonnet form. The sense of neat containment, then, generated by the structure of the traditional sonnet is blurred. There may be an underlying tension between the prosodic form of the poem, whether we call it quasisonnet or heroic couplets, and the conspicuously colloquial diction preserved consistently throughout, reflected in the avoidance of the subjunctive after "it looked as if" (using "was," not "were"), and flaunted in phrases like "You could not tell," "the shore was lucky," "someone had better*." The only word in the entire poem that points toward a more literary diction is "intent," a choice dictated not merely by the rhyme but by the need to suggest something vast, vague, and ominous as the spelling out of the apocalypse moves to a climax - moves, moreover, through the only very pronounced enjambment in the poem: "a night of dark intent / Was coming." The colloquial diction is the matrix for a peculiar quality of Frost's poetry here and elsewhere that might be called expressive vagueness, and that is felt, as several critics have observed, in his general fondness for words like "something" and "someone." The use of these words provides an instructive instance of how ordinary language is transmuted as it participates in the world-building of the poem. The source in spoken English for this usage would be an idiom employed in a situation like the following: an angry child says to another child, "Somebody better watch out" - meaning, of course, YOU - or, "I'm going to do something to you" - meaning, whatever I will do will be so terrible that I would rather not say exactly what. The extraordinary effectiveness of the poem is in part the result of transferring these locutions, with their associations of colloquial vehemence, to a cosmic scale while never committing the sin or pretentiousness I have just committed in using a word like "cosmic." Although, as I have indicated, it is not in principle possible to enumerate all the kinds of interconnections that engender the world of a literary text, I would point here to the four salient aspects of the poem which, together with the expressive vagueness of something/someone, combine to produce the distinctive mood and tone of this version of apocalypse. These are: the chiasm and synesthesia of the first line (more of which in a moment), the pervasive personification of natural forces, the prominence of looking, and the allusions to the first chapter of Genesis. A formal element of a literary text may contribute significantly to the building of a world through its placement, through repetition, through the rhetorical emphasis it gets, or through any combination of the three. Thus, zeugma and catalogs help define the world of 'The Rape of the Lock' because they are repeated so frequently, with such inventive variations; and on the smaller scale of "Once by the Pacific," that is true of personification and the reiterated verb "looked." On the other hand, the first line features two spectacular rhetorical devices that do not occur again in the poem, but because they form the archway through which we enter into the world of the poem, they play an important part in determining our vision of that world. The line is symmetrical (two nouns, two modifiers, joined by the verb "made" at the midpoint of the line) in the form we call chiastic: ABBA (shattered/water/misty/din). The formal crossover of the chiasm reinforces a crossover between different sensory realms in the imagery (that is, synesthesia): the din is "misty," though mist logically belongs to sight and touch, not sound; and the water is "shattered," as though it were hard and solid, not quite a synesthetic image but coming close in its transgression of the borders between different physical states. This coupling of chiasm and synesthesia begins the poem with a terrific sense of the violent interfusion of opposing spheres, solid and liquid, sight and sound, land and sea, and that interfusion is the precondition for the poem's apprehension of apocalypse. The violent mixing of realms is a reversal of one of the organizing thematic features of Genesis 1: there, creation begins with the spirit of the Lord hovering over the face of the formless waters, and it proceeds through an ordered sequence of acts of separation, between the upper and the lower waters, between sea and dry land, between night and day. The allusion becomes explicit only at the end of the poem, but it is prepared for at the beginning. As befits a reversal of the work of the anthropomorphic God of the Bible, the force of destruction pulsing through the breakers is personified and felt throughout as a malevolent will: "Great waves looked over others coming in, / And thought of doing something to the shore*." Perhaps the pronounced personification somehow justifies the rather strange image of the clouds as locks of hair, though I am not so sure of that. In any case, the active "looked" of the personified waves is disturbingly reflected by the impersonal "it looked as if," twice stated, which betokens the looking of the observer at the appearance of those looking waves, that cliff, that descending night. What I called the mnemonic power of the literary work, * here operates more visibly within the limits of fourteen lines. The mind shuttles back and forth among the three occurrences of "looked," finds itself in a world of menacing appearances behind which there lurks some kind of baleful presence endowed with will. *..God's 'Put out the Light' in the last line of "Once by the Pacific" is, or course, a canceling of the divine 'Let there be Light' in Genesis 1, and, as we noted, makes explicit the intimations of an undoing of biblical creation earlier in the poem. Because literary traditions repeatedly recapitulates itself, allusions may be layered, and I suspect that is true here. A reversal of Genesis, running the reel back, as it were, from seventh day to chaos and void, presides over the conclusion of Pope's Duciad: Lo! thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restor'd; Light dies before thy uncreated word; Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall; And Univeral Darkness buries All. (IV:653-656) 'Put out the Light' is also exactly the sentence Othello says, twice, in the brief soliloquy just before he murders Desdemona. Are we intended at the end of Frost's poem to recall Shakespeare's image of a dark man enraged with jealousy about to destroy the beautiful woman he passionately loves? There is no way of knowing whether Frost meant that echo to be heard, but the very possibility of its presence suggests how the accumulate d images, themes, and actual verbal formulations of literary tradition become charged particles in the mind of the writer (and "mind" is surely more than what is conscious and intentional) and of the reader." -David [Martin adds: One other device that particularly struck me when I read the poem was the unusual use of 'if' as an end-rhyme; this is doubly emphasised, not just by the rhyme but by its unexpectedness. That this is deliberate can be inferred from its pivotal position in the centre of the poem - indeed, if one makes the almost invited comparison of the poem's structure to that of a wave, the 'if' marks the point at which the wave, having reached its point of maximum advance, breaks on the shore and retreats, leaving an ominous brooding silence that is merely a waiting for the wave to come. ]