Many—perhaps most—poets really only struggle with one or two principal themes or questions or concerns throughout their writing life, altering their approach, perhaps coming closer, seeing more clearly, in successive poems. A very few great poets—W. B. Yeats, for instance—have a wider purview.
Still, sometimes early poems come to seem like drafts of, or rehearsals for, later ones, though this implies that the later poems are “better,” which is not necessarily the case: In many instances, poets are wiser, or perhaps sobered, disheartened, by a lifetime’s experiences. Sometimes the late poems attempt answers to the earlier poems’ questions; other times they admit defeat and finally abandon the pursuit of an answer, or of answers in general. But these poems that are versions of one another are remarkable glimpses into how their authors grew, showing where the rhetorical journey begins and where it leads, if not where it ends.
The classic example of poetic recapitulation may in fact be in Yeats, though, as one of the truly major poets of the English language, he had interests, obsessions, and capacities far too varied and wide-ranging to have been stated and revisited in any single pair of poems. But he began in the late nineteenth century with the intention to create a revitalized mythology for Irish culture, and that remained one of his hopes to the end. Indeed, one of his very late poems, the extraordinary “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” is one of the most powerful examples of a revisitation and extension, even closure, of a life’s work in poetry. In it, Yeats bids farewell to and mourns the loss of many of his creations and metaphors, resolving himself to what he discovers is the dark final resting place of all imaginative life: “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart,” yet another of his enduring figures.
The roots of that poem extend everywhere throughout Yeats’s body of work, and we can certainly dig them up in the first poem of his first book, “The Song of the Happy Shepherd.” Yeats was among the last Romantics and the first moderns, passing through the advent of modernism, modernizing to an extent, but never giving up the older world of poetry in which he began. So the poem is full of ruths and sooths, though these old-fashioned words really recall a much older tradition, which the modernizing Yeats wishes to evoke for the poem’s purposes. But Yeats begins and ends his career with poems of mourning for lost realms of imagination. The first one begins by lamenting how “The woods of Arcady are dead, / And over is their antique joy; / Of old the world on dreaming fed; / Grey Truth is now her painted toy.” The same lament is recapitulated in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” in which Yeats asks, “What can I but enumerate old themes?”
He goes on to list a bunch of them, his “circus animals,” and then to grieve how little his work ultimately comes to. There’s “that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose / Through three enchanted islands, allegorical dreams”; and “The Countess Cathleen,” “pity-crazed, had given her soul away, / But masterful Heaven had intervened to save it”; and “Cuchulain [who] fought the ungovernable sea.” Finally, though, despite the enduring dramas he created in poetry, plays, and prose—“masterful images,” he proudly calls them—he feels consigned to admit that art does not change the world, because,
…when all is said
It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.
Players and painted stage took all my love,
And not those things that they were emblems of.
Is there a more beautiful passage about the promise and uselessness of poetry? It’s particularly poignant coming from a poet who wrote some of the finest political poems in the language. Here, Yeats admits, basically, that he is a word-nerd, more obsessed with “the dream itself”—the fantasies, metaphors, images, emblems, and words, the poet’s tools—“And not those things that they were emblems of,” not the world, the people, their violence, love, and hoped-for peace. Finally, he must retreat to poetry: “I must be satisfied with my heart.”
Except that he’s hardly making a new retreat after a lifetime’s battle. The campaign began with Yeats’s early admission that, as Auden would famously say in his elegy for Yeats, “poetry makes nothing happen.” Way back in “The Song of the Happy Shepherd,” Yeats writes,
Of all the many changing things
In dreary dancing past us whirled,
To the cracked tune that Chronos sings,
Words alone are certain good.
Words didn’t save the ancient heroes of long-ago epics: “Where are now the warring kings,” Yeats asks. “An idle word is now their glory,” he answers. In fact he goes further, warning against the futility, at least in terms of changing politics or cheating death, of the poetic career he is beginning, wary of searching “fiercely after truth, / Lest all thy toiling only breeds / New dreams, new dreams; there is no truth / Saving in thine own heart.” Decades later, stuck with his old list of “New dreams, new dreams,” his “circus animals,” he even uses that same word—heart—to name the secret place where poetry begins and ends.
Of course, I’m not simply saying Yeats’s grand conclusion is that poetry is a waste of time. Tired and daunted by old age and oncoming death, Yeats’s late poem is certainly inflected with sad resignation, but it’s a celebration, too, albeit a dark one. Yeats names the dark glory of his poet’s vocation: It is beauty, finally, that the poet pursues, whatever his subjects might have been. The dancing, descending rhythm of the poem’s last two lines is Yeats at his most gorgeous—“I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.” There’s nothing foul about that music—when the final rhyme rings, though it marks the poem’s resigned conclusion, this “heart” does indeed feel like a “start,” a taking-off point, like the command toward the end of “The Song of the Happy Shepherd”: “dream thou!”
Sylvia Plath wrote poems on what she called in her journals “the old father-worship subject” at least three times, rehearsing for her amoral late masterpiece, “Daddy.” Like the statue of “The Colossus,” the image of her father, who died when she was a child, loomed over her art as much as it seems to have loomed over her actual psyche, though that’s for another discussion. In fact, “The Colossus,” Plath’s first masterpiece, is a rewrite of an even earlier poem, “Full Fathom Five,” in which she treats her father-muse with far less vitality and invention, a Poseidon-like figure with “white hair, white beard, far-flung, / A dragnet, rising, falling, as waves / Crest and trough.” She ends this poem longing to join her father-god in the depths: “Father, this thick air is murderous. / I would breathe water.”
By the time “The Colossus” comes to her, in 1959, the father is still god-size and ancient, but here he is somewhat more alive. Plath has had a profound change of mind about the father’s posthumous role in her life. Not only is she no longer waiting for her rescue ship’s “scrape of a keel / On the blank stones of the landing,” but she no longer wishes to join a living, breathing father. By the time of “The Colossus,” the father is not alive: he’s a statue, a symbol, a work of art, and Plath is resigned, comforted, and a bit excited to remain in his unreconcilable presence, huddled in his ear.
But the key change that enables her to write “Daddy” has already taken place, and it’s not the final descent of her mental illness. No, she’s decided to allow the father to exist purely in the realm of imagination, untethered to any biographical person. In fact, she only knew her father in her childhood—he died when she was eight. In her poems, she had been edging toward an increasingly imaginary version of him. This decision is what allows her to finally conscript whatever imagery she likes—most offensively, images, vocabulary, and characters from the Holocaust—to create the father-monster, who is really self-hatred embodied, that makes “Daddy” so unforgettable, so powerful, and so unconscionable.
Let me interject here to say that, after years of ignoring the discussion of the morality of Plath’s use of Holocaust imagery, I’ve finally come around to the opinion that “Daddy” is a truly monstrous poem, though I maintain it is a masterpiece, perhaps the most extraordinary thing Plath ever wrote.
I taught the poem recently in a class about the confessional poets. My students simply couldn’t see Plath’s use of Holocaust imagery as permissible, even though it’s by that very means—taking metaphor far too far—that Plath empowers this wildly over-the-top poem. Of course she wanted to offend her readers, to make them take notice: Slumbering in her father’s ear, spending eternity obsessing over him, hadn’t done the trick, hadn’t quite expressed how big, how self-defining this metaphor-man really was. So, she had to make him into a creature no one could stand, a “Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You.”
And she had to erase the older image, too, saying, “I have always been scared of you, / With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo. / And your neat mustache / And your Aryan eye, bright blue,” as though he had always been Hitler, had always been waiting to destroy her, as though it’s not all of a sudden that she realizes, “I think I may well be a Jew.”
As a Jew whose grandparents came to America fleeing Hitler’s takeover of Austria, I have a hard time not taking this personally, but that’s precisely what’s always drawn me to it: Plath taught herself, in these three poems and others, to make her psyche into mine, to find the metaphor that makes this personal. Again, she’s gone too far, but I can’t help but admire the success of her communication: she’s leapt out of her head, crossed time, cheated death, and pissed me off more than fifty years later. It’s what all poets dream of—sticking around, preserved in the poetry—though few poets would—perhaps none should— go to these lengths to achieve it.
Robert Hayden offers a particularly poignant example of a rehearsal, or rehashing, of an early poem answered and completed by a late one. Hayden’s fundamental subject is alienation. His poems almost always narrate experiences of not belonging; his speakers look around and recognize that they are different from those they see, that they are misunderstood by others whom they themselves also misunderstand. Of course, this is a metaphor for the condition of being black in America, for the legacy of slavery, which engendered a lasting subjugation of one race by another in more and less overt ways. But, more broadly, Hayden’s alienated poetry describes the overall strangeness and isolation of being human, of feeling at equal removes from one’s inner and outer experiences, equally cut off from the self and the world, because both finally elude the grasp of words and hands. Hayden is, at heart, a Romantic poet of aloneness.
While Hayden wrote many poems, such as “Runagate Runagate” and “Middle Passage,” that movingly inhabit historical characters and moments in an effort to make the horrors of slavery press upon the present, the theme of alienation is woven throughout his poems, no matter the outward subject. Plagued by poor vision, Hayden wore thick, thick glasses, and his poems are always conscious of a heavy pane—like a diving helmet or a space mask, as in the two poems I’m about to discuss—separating the self and the world.
Hayden opens his fairly thin Collected Poems—which is actually his own selection of what he wished to preserve, omitting early books and many scattered poems—with a taught poem called “The Diver,” in which a swimmer “Swiftly descended / into canyon of cold / nightgreen emptiness” toward “the dead ship,” a wreck filled with “the ectoplasmic / swirl of garments, / drowned instruments / of buoyancy, / drunken shoes.” This diver’s view narrows, burrows, specifies, admitting only what is nearby, occluded by the “fogs of water.”
“The Diver” actually begins by disorienting the reader grammatically:
Sank through easeful
creatures flashed and
One could read this opening as a continuation of a sentence started in the title—“The Diver / Sank...”—but I prefer not to. Hayden is careful with his pronouns in this poem, using them sparingly. The word I is used only three times in the poem, though it is a first-person narrative. I like to think Hayden is strategically withholding the subject of the first sentence (and of those that follow) in order to place the reader at the center of the poem’s descent: Without an I to start the sentence, the reader, looking outward, becomes the poem’s speaker, seeing everything but him-, or herself, barred from self-description, from the inner vision enabled by an I, permitted only what’s ahead.
The book ends with a long late masterpiece, “[American Journal],” which comprises the imaginary notes taken by an extraterrestrial sent to Earth to observe and report back to his superiors, “The Counselors.” Hayden’s alien is equally awestruck and dismayed by his subject, the people of America; like the diver’s blindered, zoomed-in undersea vision, the alien’s satellite view prevents him from really being able to see or comprehend what’s before his eyes, though he does try to get close, gathering heaps of detail, such as “parades fireworks displays video spectacles / much grandiloquence much buying and selling.” These kinds of observations don’t finally add up to a whole he can relate to. He finds himself confronted with “an organism that changes even as i / examine it fact and fantasy never twice the / same so many variables.”
Hayden’s alien wonders to himself how to describe “the americans this baffling / multi people,” finding his subject beyond the grasp of his language. So too does the diver, who attempts but does not succeed at description of “livid gesturings, / eldritch hide and / … laughing / faces.”
Imagine these two poems as the beginning and end of a journey. It’s as if, in the years between the diver’s hazy exploration and the alien’s admission of the indescribability of the other, experience not only confirmed Hayden’s sense of the distance and distortion separating the self from the world, but led him to perceive, at least poetically, that the distance had increased. It’s as though the greater one’s familiarity with oneself and with the world, the more distinct and irreconcilable they become.
These two poems represent not only the development of how a poet treats his subject matter, but also how, formally, he renders it: “The Diver,” with its three- and four-word lines, its bare, suggestive descriptions, its hidden pronouns, is the work of a poet for whom too much language risks obscuring what the words refer to. The long, verbose, speechy lines of “[American Journal]” indicate a poet now anxious that his words are not enough to adequately describe anything. But a kind of sad wisdom has been gained: In fact, words are not sufficient to bridge inner and outer lives; the promise of the dive is ultimately thwarted.
If “The Diver” asks a question—why he ultimately “strove against the / canceling arms that / suddenly surrounded / me”; why, when, at last, he reached his goal, the ship, the ostensible truth of his journey, he felt he had to flee—the reason is not simply the diver’s “Reflex of life-wish.” “[American Journal]” reaches a darker, more final conclusion—its speaker is faced with “some thing essence / quiddity i cannot penetrate or name.” He is simply too far out of his element (and, more tragically, that appropriate “element” is also unknown, unreachable), neither of the water nor of the earth, too alien to understand. Hayden’s whole body of work can be read as the journey toward a more precise understanding of what— and why—he cannot understand.
Elizabeth Bishop’s career is bookended by a pair of poems about squares. Or, more accurately, about a pair of flat, two-dimensional surfaces on which three-dimensional lives are typically depicted or reflected, though some imagining is necessary for that third dimension to be unlocked. “The Map,” the first poem in North & South, Bishop’s debut, is an unusual fantasy that unfolds on a world map. “Sonnet,” the final poem in the “New Poems” section of Bishop’s The Complete Poems 1927–1979, and published in the New Yorker in 1979, shortly after she died, is about a series of objects, the last of which is a mirror, though there are no people standing before it; its culminating action, such as it is, proceeds from close-up observation of the kind of trick of light that all of us see but few of us bother to notice—a realm that is Bishop’s particular province. In fact, there are no people in either of these poems, perhaps a state that Bishop found comforting: left alone with the precision of her thinking, the exquisite estrangement of her vision.
Bishop, a lifelong traveler and a kind of perpetual orphan, was always seeking other places, elsewheres, escapes. Her work attests to the feeling of never being at home anywhere; like Robert Hayden, Bishop was a poet whose essential notion of the human experience was one of distance—from the self, from others—and language, which, trying and largely failing to collapse the distance between words and their referents, was the perfect figure for that feeling.
Bishop and Hayden were, by far, the most reserved poets of their ostentatious, exhibitionist generation, which included, loosely, Lowell and Sexton. “The Map” shares a strategy with “The Diver”: both poems play tricks with pronouns, disorient the reader, make subjects of what in other cases would be objects. The wanderlust in Bishop’s eyes brings the map to life, gives it agency of its own. Though the specter of the “map-makers” looms in the background, Bishop’s map seems to make its own decisions, has its own needs and motivations: “does the land lean down to lift the sea from under, / drawing it unperturbed around itself?” It quickly becomes hard to tell whether she is more interested in these places as they exist off the map, or simply in the places drawn on the map itself, an imaginary playground. “Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?” She wonders. She bestows the same kind of playful sentience on the inanimate objects that populate “Sonnet,” like “the compass needle / wobbling and wavering, / undecided.” Indecision, an uncertainty about what to do next, or the wish to remain between decisions, always characterizes her poems.
In one of my favorite moments in twentieth-century poetry, Bishop conflates depiction, description, location, making a drawing and the text upon it seem capable of editing the actual world:
The names of seashore towns run out to sea,
the names of cities cross the neighboring mountains
—the printer here experiencing the same excitement
as when emotion too far exceeds its cause.
One imagines the names of those seaside towns getting a bit wet at the ends, or perhaps hovering above the sea like clouds gathering moisture before a storm. And perhaps the tallest mountain peaks scrape against the letters in the names of the nearby cities. Bishop built an aesthetic around the idea that emotion almost always “too far exceeds its cause.” Most of her poems transpire in an emotionally flat world, where people, when they speak for themselves, make mountains out of molehills, say more than others need to know.
She found her power in holding back, in not saying, emphasizing what couldn’t or shouldn’t be said. The map holds ambition in reserve, keeps people where they belong, where they’re stuck, while letting them imagine they might leave. This is what happens at the end of “Sonnet,” too: the “rainbow-bird” is really nothing, the reflected light from the mirror bevel dancing around the room. It does what people can’t, or don’t, or won’t, “flying wherever / it feels like, gay!”
What is more real here, the map or the world it depicts? The “empty mirror” and the room it’s in, or the bird of light that escapes the earthbound world and its rules? Bishop’s poems always wish that the answer would be the latter, and acknowledge that it is the former. It’s why she lets the fish go at the end of that famous poem, why her greatest losses must be contained in strict musical repetition in “One Art.” She felt deeply that poetry was the way beyond the limits of life, not to immortality like some other poets, but to experience. Poetry, with its map that makes the names of cities into actual landmarks, with flecks of light that can fill the human wish for freedom, is her best answer. It may be the only place where what we can have and what we want can calmly coexist. Why else would we read it, or “Write it?”
This essay originally appeared in the fall-winter 2015 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2015 by the Academy of American Poets. To receive American Poets, become a member online.