by Ronald Pies

TIME AND THE TRAGIC in the Poetry of WD Snodgrass and Wallace Stevens


In his essay entitled, "Jews and the Invention of Time" (Midstream, Oct. 2000), Moshe Dann argues that "Jews are quite literally obsessed with time." Specifically, he argues, "Imposing time-related boundaries as part of a system of divine regulations and commandments…is the way in which Jews create a sense of holiness in the world of space. The infusion of time restrictions into events and actions attaches the presence of God to everything in the finite world of space…Jews were the first to attribute significance to time itself, to insist that its measurement was not arbitrary or utilitarian, but that time gave meaning to all events…Jews also emphasized historical memory, imbedding significant events in religious practice. Historical events take on meaning as they reveal God's plan…" In short, for the Jews, time is something to be delimited, restricted, "historicized", and sanctified. Furthermore, there is a sense of the tragic in this Jewish notion of time. As Dann explains, "Time restrictions focus us upon priorities. We see this so painfully in women who have not given birth and measure each moment of their life against the clock of desperation…One must try to make the most of…[time] and not waste a single moment."

This sense of time as something that stands outside us, but which is delimited and sanctified by us, suffuses W.D. Snodgrass's poem, Heart's Needle, and stands in marked contrast to the sense of time depicted in the principal works of Wallace Stevens. Before discussing this contrast further, however, I want to place Snodgrass and Stevens in the broader context of recent developments in Western culture.

I believe that a proper appreciation of the world of "Heart's Needle" begins with a re-examination of the poet and critic, Matthew Arnold (1822-1888). It is no accident that Arnold's magnum opus was entitled, Culture and Anarchy, since the author was preoccupied with this dichotomy. As J.D. Wilson observes, Arnold saw and deplored "…the deep-seated spiritual anarchy of the English people, an anarchy which expressed itself in its hideous sprawling industrial cities, its loud-voiced assertion of personal liberty, its dismal, stuffy, and cantankerous forms of Christianity…its belief in collision (collision of parties, of sects, of firms) as the only way of salvation." (p. xxxiii).

In contrast to such disorder-and as an antidote to it---Arnold evoked "…an inward spiritual activity, having for its character increased sweetness, increased light, increased life, increased sympathy…" (Arnold, p. 64). Arnold drew a direct connection between this cultural and spiritual ideal, and the artistic ideal of poetry:

"In thus making sweetness and light to be characters of perfection, culture is of like spirit with poetry, follows one law with poetry..the idea of beauty and of human nature perfect on all its sides…is the dominant idea of poetry…" (p. 54, italics mine).
Wilson points out that Arnold's thesis harks back to the values of "Beauty, Truth and Goodness" found in Plato. Arnold was painfully aware that such ideals were, at best, difficult to realize, and at worst, illusory. Nevertheless, in his most famous poem, Dover Beach, Arnold urges a passionate and personal response to the anarchy he sees all about him:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! For the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams…
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

This tone-elegaic, importunate, and urgent-is also seen in the work of W.D. Snodgrass (1926- ), particularly in his magnum opus, Heart's Needle. In this long poem, the poet struggles with his unresolved feelings surrounding his divorce, and the resulting separation from his daughter. At the same time, Snodgrass places his emotional pain into a larger symbolic and cultural context-one which, in my view, deals with many of the concerns Arnold adumbrates in Culture and Anarchy. Here is a representative passage which, to my ear, picks up the tone of Dover Beach:

Of all things, only we
Have power to choose that we should die;
nothing else is free
in this world to refuse it. Yet I,
who say this, could not raise
myself from bed how many days
to the thieving world. Child, I have another wife,
another child. We try to choose our life.

Like Arnold, Snodgrass's narrator in Heart's Needle sees the world as blighted and confused-moving "like a diseased heart packed with ice and snow"-and yet, capable of redemption through the willed integrity of our loves: we must choose to be true to one another.

In his essay on Snodgrass and "Heart's Needle", William Heyen implicitly (and in my view, correctly) rejects the common misclassification of Snodgrass among the "confessional" school of verse. Heyen notes that Snodgrass's aim is not merely to express the personal or confessional, but to write poems "more personal and so more universal" (p. 352, italics mine).
Heyen adds, "The Romantics would not have batted an eye at this credo, indeed, they felt that to write poetry of social value, one had to release the stirrings of the universal man within the self…" (p. 352).

But what is this business of the "universal man"? For Snodgrass, it may be simply that the universal man (or woman) is one who struggles to find life and meaning in the throes of death and dissolution-who tries to "choose" his life, despite the crushing uncertainties of sickness, divorce, old age, and death. In short, as Heyen suggests, the universal man is essentially tragic. Heyen notes that "..Inherent in [Heart's Needle' s] criticism of the way things are is the ability of the intelligence that informs its lyrics to accept this reality and to struggle against it…" (p. 361).

The world, for Snodgrass, is a real place-"a reality independent of human perception" with "universal, if unpleasant, truths…" (Heyen, p. 366). I would argue that only within the "tragic" framework can there exist a universal man struggling in a real world that contains universal truths.

There is nothing, for example, in the "post-modern" world view that remotely would recognize such objective universality. On the contrary, even the notion of self is suspect in the world of post-modernism. This is best seen in the work of psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan: "Where Freud…suggested that the conflicts of mental life could be resolved, Lacan saw them as fundamentally irreparable; discord and fracture cannot be cleared away from the psyche because they are the psyche." (p. 134). Indeed, for Lacan, "selfhood is really nothing but a fleeting, unstable, incomplete and open-ended mess of desires which cannot be fulfilled." (Ward, p. 136).

This is not the world inhabited by Arnold or Snodgrass. The self may have to struggle with its conflicts and ripe imperfections, but there is assuredly a self to struggle! And that self has a core of universal (if conflicted) values against which it can measure the "thieving world". In Heart's Needle, this is mirrored in the meticulous order of the poems' rhyme and meter (Snodgrass himself has pointed out some deviations from this). As he states in his essay, "Finding a Poem," "The stanza I hit on [for Heart's Needle] had a syllable count which ran 5,7,4,7,6,8,12,9 and rhymes which ran a,b,a,b,c,c,d,d." (Snodgrass, p. 25). Heyen comments that Snodgrass's verses "…are tightly rhymed and are rendered, with some variation, in accentual syllabics. Underneath the form is the recognition that there is to be no letting go, no back-sliding into bathos." (p.355).

In short, there is a symmetry between Snodgrass's technical methods and his poetical ethos-both are bound up in a disciplined flexibility. The rhyme scheme and meter of Heart's Needle also speak to a mode of expression that seeks to find something universal in the sound and structure of poetry. This, I would argue, is consonant with Snodgrass's sense of the self as something fundamental and "real": "For I believe that the only reality which a man can ever surely know is that self he cannot help being, though he will only know that self through its interactions with the world around it." (Snodgrass, p. 32).

Heart's Needle has a peculiarly "tragic" relationship to time, in the sense described earlier by Moshe Dann. This sense of time as something that stands outside us and limits us, but which is also delimited and sanctified by us, suffuses Snodgrass's poem. I count at least thirty-eight references to time in this poem (which runs to nearly 20 pages, in the author's collection, Selected Poems, 1957-1987). We find, for example, references to winter, late April, turning Fall, Winter again, Easter, That March, a Fall night, blue July, Hallowe'en, Spring, this April, and a host of temporally-related phrases ("Nine months filled your term", "You took your hour", "You keep my constant time…" etc.). Since this is fundamentally a poem about loss-the loss of a wife and daughter, at the very least-it seems to me we can best understand the poet's use of time in relation to loss. It is as if, in the ceremonial recounting and structuring of time, the poet manages to re-create and even embrace his lost daughter. Indeed, Snodgrass "…sees life slipping away….", and yet, as in most of his poems, finds "…a compensation…" (Ellman & O'Clair, 1988). As he pushes his daughter on her swing, the poet observes:

You, though you climb
higher, farther from me, longer
will fall back to me stronger.
Bad penny, pendulum,
you keep my constant time
to bob in blue July…"

His daughter helps keep the poet's time, and by anchoring her to time ("blue July"), the poet is able to keep his daughter. In contrast, the stanzas of the poem set in the museum are those in which the poet is walking "to kill my time once more/among the enduring and resigned/stuffed animals" (italics mine). Here, in the museum, time is frozen, "arrested," and, like the "putty-colored children curled in jars of alcohol," unchanging. This is absurd time-time that cannot be sanctified. It is with almost palpable relief that the poet moves, in the subsequent and final stanza, back into the world of moving, "Newtonian" time-the kind of time that can be sanctified because we can attach meaning to its finite slipping away:

If I loved you, they said I'd leave
and find my own affairs.
Well, once again this April, we've
come around to the bears;
punished and cared for, behind bars,
the coons on bread and water
stretch thin black fingers after ours.
And you are still my daughter.

The classical pianist Russell Sherman has made the distinction between linear (chronological) and spatial (psychological) time. Linear time asserts "…its relentless claims in behalf of 'reality'…" (p. 163). As accompaniment in a musical composition, linear time "…must hold fast to its job as timepiece against the reveries and exclamations of the main voice…" (p. 163, italics mine). Linear time is "…the underlying grid to our personal chronicle…". In contrast, for Sherman, spatial or psychological time
"…is manipulated by our psychic needs and natures into various images of timelessness and timeliness. Transient moments suddenly expand, visions of infinity intervene, notes and phrases become outlets of fantasy, escape, recollection, or omen." (p. 161).

I believe that Snodgrass, in Heart's Needle and in other poems, such as April Inventory, is primarily an explorer of linear time. To be sure, in Heart's Needle, the poet struggles to hang on to linear time, as his life is turned inside out by domestic loss and strife-but the rhythm of personal relationships helps him keep his "constant time." Similarly, in April Inventory, the loss that accompanies old age ("Though trees turn bare and girls turn wives…") is partly assuaged by the poet's own maturing character:

There is a value underneath
The gold and silver in my teeth…
There is a gentleness survives
That will outspeak and has its reasons…"

Indeed, for Snodgrass, "reason," gentleness, and the soul's inward value help overcome the ravages of time-which remains, like a constant grid that measures our days, safely "Newtonian."

I next want to suggest that time is treated quite differently in the work of Wallace Stevens, an explorer of Sherman's psychological time.

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) presents us with some extraordinary problems of poetic interpretation-and some striking contrasts to the work of Arnold and Snodgrass. At his most opaque, Stevens can sound a bit like some of the "Dadaist" poets of the early 20th century, as in "Bantams in Pine Woods" (1922):

Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan
Of tan with henna hackles, halt!
Damned universal cock, as if the sun
Was blackamoor to bear your blazing tail…

Here, we find Stevens sounding a bit playful-or at least, playing with what sound like the "clang associations" (Iffucan, Azcan, caftan, of tan, etc.). But much of Stevens' work takes a more sober, if not somber, view of the post-modern world. Indeed, J. Hillis Miller has argued that the "…evaporation of the gods, leaving a barren man in a barren land, is the basis of all [Wallace] Stevens' thought and poetry." (Mazzaro, p. 95). Miller goes on to say that "…the death of the gods coincides with a radical transformation in the way man sees the world. What had been a warm home takes on a look of hardness and emptiness, like the walls, floors, and banisters of a vacant house. Instead of being intimately possessed by man, things appear to close themselves within themselves. They become mute, static presences…" (op cit).

Furthermore, for Stevens, we cannot fully trust our own perceptions of this hard and empty world: "…everything is seen in the way in which it is seen only because we learned to see it in that way." (Lavery, 1983). Hence, we cannot assume that any of our perceptions represent the way things "really" are. In his poem, On An Old Horn, we find such a blurring of reality and imagination. Indeed, some of the poem's are reminiscent of Hieronymous Bosch's fantastic imagery in his painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights:

The bird kept saying that birds had once been men,
Or were to be, animals with men's eyes…
Then the bird from his ruddy belly blew
A trumpet round the trees. Could one say that it was
A baby with the tail of a rat?…

Stevens' use of time corresponds with the "psychological time" described by Sherman; i.e., time as "…manipulated by our psychic needs and natures into various images of timelessness and timeliness." Consider Stevens' well-known poem, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. In stanza XIII, we find an explicit temporal confusion: "It was evening all afternoon." Similarly, in The Idea of Order at Key West, we find "…a summer sound/Repeated in a summer without end." In An Ordinary Evening in New Haven, we find still more temporal confusion:

"Things not yet true which he perceives through truth,
Or thinks he does, as he perceives the present,
Or thinks he does…"

More striking still are these passages from "Cuisine Bougeoise":
It is like the season when, after summer,
It is summer and it is not, it is autumn
And it is not, it is day and it is not…

In "Martial Cadenza," Stevens begins with what seems like a fairly conventional "naturalistic" description of the sort one could easily find in a poem by Wordsworth:

Only this evening I saw again low in the sky
The evening star, at the beginning of winter, the star
That in spring will crown every western horizon..

But by the second stanza, this very predictable, "Newtonian" sense of time is radically altered. Suddenly, the world is a very "relativistic" place:

It was like sudden time in a world without time,
This world, this place, the street in which I was,
Without time: as that which is not has no time,
Is not, or is of what there was…

Not only is there a degradation of Newtonian time in Stevens' poetry, there is also, as Miller notes, a kind of extrusion of discrete events from the larger fabric of temporality:

"…the same sequence of events is constantly happening over and over again…each moment is born in newness and freedom, with no connections to the past…If the poet pauses long enough to write the poem of winter, it will already be part of the dead past long before he has finished it…" (pp. 100-102).

Ironically, W.D Snodgrass writes precisely such a "poem of winter". He begins Heart's Needle with the lines, "Child of my winter," and then pins this time to explicit events in the real world, such as the Korean War ("…When the new fallen soldiers froze/In Asia's steep ravines…"). Snodgrass's narrator is not afraid of time's "melt down" or eternal recurrence or evanescence. If anything, he is afraid that time will slow down, or stop entirely, as when he enters the museum display of "enduring and resigned stuffed animals". Perhaps, for Snodgrass, this would mean that the poet himself has become enduring and resigned, part of "Nature Morte". Miller suggests that Stevens, too, is afraid that time will "freeze into dead fixity" (p. 102). But the solution for Stevens is to write

"…a poetry of flickering mobility, a poetry in which each phrase moves so rapidly it has beginning and ending at once." (p. 105).
Miller notes that "…as the oscillations between imagination and reality get more and more rapid…the poem evaporates altogether…all solidity disappears…[providing] a glimpse of the nothingness which underlies all existence." (p. 107).
It is as if Stevens looked at the post-classical universe and had a reaction similar to that of Pascal: "I am terrified by the eternal silence of these infinite spaces." Indeed, in Opus Posthumous, Stevens describes feeling "…dispossessed and alone in a solitude, like children without parents, in a home that seemed deserted…"(Miller, p. 95). The poetic world he creates, in response to this, comes close to an absurd or surreal one, in which boundaries give way to quandaries, and solids sublimate into vapors-all in the blink of an eye.

A truly tragic world-view may not be possible for Stevens, since the tragic is intimately associated with linear time. The essence of the tragic is that we "only go around once", and hence, are forced to make excruciating and final choices.
Because "…the same sequence of events is constantly happening over and over again…" in Stevens' poetry, no single event can ever carry the gravitas that tragedy demands. Because, for Stevens, "…each moment is born in newness and freedom, with no connections to the past…", the causal links between intention and action are always subject to rupture. Hence, there is always the possibility that any given human decision will be undone or nullified. There is also the possibility that a spiritual or existential "defeat" at this moment will be reversed in the next.

But this is not to say that Stevens describes an entirely meaningless world. Stevens is no nihilist. Rather, in his more abstruse works, he seems to say that the poet, by mirroring the paradoxes and fluidity of time, brings some kind of order to the world-if only in "flawed words and stubborn sounds" (The Poems of Our Climate).

Stevens' work, to be sure, is not always fixed to the world of the surreal. Thus, in Peter Quince at the Clavier, we find language more reminiscent of Yeats than of the Dadaists:

"Beauty is momentary in the mind-
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.
The body dies; the body's beauty lives.
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing…"

And in "A Postcard from the Volcano", Stevens is nearly elegiac in his sense of time gone by, along with its human incarnations:
Children picking up our bones

Will never know that these were once
As quick as foxes on the hill…

Still, when Stevens writes of "…a dirty house in a gutted world/a tatter of shadows peaked to white" ("A Postcard from the Volcano"), it is tempting to see this as his vision of the post-modern world-as an abandoned child in "a home that seemed deserted". This is not the world inhabited by Snodgrass in "Heart's Needle". There, the landscape may be rutted, but not gutted. For Snodgrass, the "child" has not yet been abandoned--though she has been separated from her father. And time still exists as the framework within which the poet might put things right.

Miller JH: Wallace Stevens' poetry of being. In: Mazzaro J (editor): Modern American Poetry. New York, David McKay Co., 1970.
Heyen W: Fishing the swamp: The poetry of W.D. Snodgrass. In: Mazzaro J (editor): Modern American Poetry. New York, David McKay Co., 1970.
Arnold M: Culture and Anarchy. Edited by JD Wilson. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1969.
Snoddgrass WD: In Radical Pursuit. New York, Harper and Row, 1975.
Snodgrass WD: Selected Poems: 1957-1987.New York, Soho, 1987.
Dann M: Jews and the invention of time. Midstream. XXXXVI (Sept/Oct 2000), pp. 16-17.
Lavery D: The more than rational distortion in the poetry of Wallace Stevens. The Wallace Stevens Journal 8:1-7, 1983.
Ward: Postmodernism. London, Teach Yourself Books, 1997.
Williams O, Honig e: Major American Poets. Mentor, 1962.
Sherman R: Piano Pieces. New York, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1997.

Ronald Pies is a physician and poet who has published in The Literary Review, The Comstock Review, Mediphors, and other literary journals and anthologies. He is the author of the chapbook, Riding Down Dark (Nightshade Press) and a book on comparative religious ethics (The Ethics of the Sages, Jason Aronson). Dr. Pies and his wife Nancy live in Lexington, MA.


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