Bitter Knowledge, by Yannis Ritsos

“Bitter Knowledge” is a poem by the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos (1909-1990). It can be found in the collection “Late into the Night: the Last Poems of Yannis Ritsos”.

Consider reading my analysis of Ritsos’ poem “Maybe, Someday” before this one. These two poems can be read together, and it makes more sense for the other one to come first.

As with any analysis of a poem, we should begin by reading it in its entirety first, and appreciating it as a whole.

Bitter Knowledge
by Yannis Ritsos (translation karlóvasi, 6-30-87)

Stay in this sheltering half-light with folded hands.
There’s nowhere for the lame night-watchman to sit.
The chairs were sold off two weeks ago. Out front,
they’re hosing out some large barrels. Barges
lie beached in the harbor. The newscaster’s voice
carries from across the street. I don’t want to hear.
I sweep the charred moth wings off the table
from the night before, knowing only
that all their weight is in their weightlessness.

Tone

The tone is depressed, wistful and resigned. A number of images point to giving up or feeling powerless: the “folded hands”, the “lame” watchman with nowhere to sit, the charred wings. The images also create a deep feeling of emptiness or lacking purpose: The barrels, being hosed out, empty; The watchman, nowhere to sit; The barges beached on the harbor, inert; The moth wings, discarded, burned, brushed from the table. The images in this constellation all show loss: a loss of purpose or function.

The overall impression created is one of sadness, emptiness, and loss.

Watson’s tone analyzer confirms this reading, identifying sadness and fear as the prevailing moods.

Interpretation

Ritsos is talking about his life as a poet. He is the “lame night-watchman”, powerless as death (“night”) approaches. The “bitter knowledge” of the title concerns his life’s work.

Late into the night of his life, he is reconsidering his contributions, weighing the value of his life’s work. The charred moth wings “from the night before” are the totality of his life’s work: insubstantial, charred, fragile, crumbling at the slightest touch. Their value: nothing, except proving their “weightlessness”.

Ritsos devoted his entire life to poetry. He hoped that he might share the beauty of the world as he saw it, through his poetry. This was his driving passion: to end the loneliness of living in his private world; to bridge the divide between separate beings; to commune with others through his craft. At the end of his life, he came to dismiss his life’s work -sweeping it from the table- as a total failure.

To Live in the Zombie Apocalypse, by Burlee Vang

To Live in the Zombie Apocalypse‘ is a poem by teacher, poet, and filmmaker Burlee Vang.

As with any analysis of a poem, it should start by reading the poem in its entirety (some would say at least twice). Here it is:

To Live in the Zombie Apocalypse
Burlee Vang

The moon will shine for God
knows how long.
As if it still matters. As if someone

is trying to recall a dream.
Believe the brain is a cage of light
& rage. When it shuts off,

something else switches on.
There’s no better reason than now
to lock the doors, the windows.

Turn off the sprinklers
& porch light. Save the books
for fire. In darkness,

we learn to read
what moves along the horizon,
across the periphery of a gun scope—

the flicker of shadows,
the rustling of trash in the body
of cities long emptied.

Not a soul lives
in this house &
this house & this

house. Go on, stiffen
the heart, quicken
the blood. To live

in a world of flesh
& teeth, you must
learn to kill

what you love,
& love what can die.

Setting the Scene

The title is doing a lot of work to situate the reader. Without it, the zombie-apocalypse setting could be missed. The poem could be read as describing the experience of a survivor in a war-zone. There is an overall feeling of disorientation, fear, violence, and animalistic survival in an unraveling society. But the zombie elements, with the exception of the title, are not so pronounced.

The clues are there: words like “brain” and “rage” evoke the zombie mythology, as does “a world of flesh / & teeth”. But these could just as well be interpreted only as evoking our violent natural instincts. The boys in Lord of the Flies could be said to have lived in “a world of flesh and teeth” in this sense.

Sometimes I like having to work a bit to pull the meaning out of a poem. But in this case, I think the poem works better with a title that firmly situates us in the zombie apocalypse setting.

One of the features that I find interesting about this poem is the way it continually keeps us off-balance and disoriented. This effect is felt more strongly if we begin from a firm footing and are knocked from it. For this reason, I appreciate the scene-setting work that is done by the title.

Disorientation and Disrupted Expectations Through Line Breaks

The poem uses line breaks to disrupt our expectations and keep us off-balance. Because of this recurring formal element, the reader feels the chaos and confusion of the speaker.

Nothing is certain in this poem. Things change in an instant. We feel disorientation, a need to continually find our footing. We are lost in the confusion of the fight for survival, along with the speaker. This effect is achieved in large part through the judicious use of line breaks.

Consider the first line:

The moon will shine for God

This is most readily interpreted, prior to the line break, as meaning “for the sake of God” -until this interpretation is disrupted in the next line:

knows how long.

Our brain is forced to backtrack, to re-parse the words, and amend the meaning of “for” to indicate duration (God knows how long) instead of a beneficiary (God). This backtracking knocks us slightly off balance and gives a subtle feeling of disorientation, compounded by the certainty of our first interpretation to the doubt of “God knows how long”.

It is also interesting that this backtracking effectively erases “God”, who turns from an entity prior to the line break, to a dead metaphor across the threshold of the line break; in the first line there is a “God”, and in the second line “God” is gone.

A similar effect is achieved by the line

[…] Save the books

which, prior to the line break, means to preserve knowledge. It implies the importance of preserving books, and all with which that is associated: our cultural, social, and intellectual heritage. That line is followed, across the line break, with the words

for fire […]

We are forced to backtrack again to reinterpret the words we have just read. Again, we feel the disorientation as we move across the line break. And again, something important has been lost: the value of books has been destroyed across the threshold of the line break.

The first line showed us God, then erased God across the line break. These lines show us our cultural, social, and intellectual heritage, and then destroy it across the line break.

A similar disorienting effect is achieved with the lines:

we learn to read
what moves along the horizon

In the first line, we are given the suggestion that the survivors will pick up the pieces of their society, to rebuild the intellectual fabric of society, until the line break disrupts this hope: they are learning to survive in their new world, and to kill.

Contrast of Light and Dark

This poem makes great use of sharply contrasting images and, in particular, a contrast between light and dark. In the first stanza we have the glow of the moon. In the second we have the brains described as a “cage of light” that shuts off. The porch-light is turned off. A fire is lit, for just two words, before we return to darkness. Shadows flicker.

I really feel the darkness in this poem, and I think that is in part because it is contrasted so sharply with the images of light that appear earlier: the moon, the fire, the porch-light, the “cage of light” that is the brain.

All the images of light becoming darkness are symbolic of the zombie mythology. Through its use of contrasting light and dark, the poem embodies the transformation of human to zombie.

Final Words

I hope you enjoyed this short look at some of the elements in Burlee Vang’s poem, “To Live in the Zombie Apocalypse”.

I write posts on poetry and craft once a week. Check back soon for more posts like this one.

Thanks for reading.

Starboy, by The Weeknd

“Starboy” is a song by musical artist The Weeknd, and featuring Daft Punk. The genre, I guess, is R&B.

I would like to consider the lyrics as poetry.

I didn’t say R&B is poetry. That’s a boring claim, which says less about R&B or poetry than it does about one’s own conception of the boundaries of poetry. It also subtly implies that the art form’s value depends to some degree on whether we can convince the right authorities that it counts as “Poetry”. That’s a game of definitions to disguise a claim of aesthetics.

But the phrase ‘R&B as poetry’ says something different. It says that R&B lyrics can be viewed with the same critical eye that we take to poetry; That if we treat the lyrics with the same care and attention with which we treat poetry, they will give something back.

If there are stodgy conservatives who reject the claim that R&B lyrics could be considered poetry, for whatever aesthetic reason, then Starboy, by The Weeknd, might be the perfect case study for them. It is meant to have a superficial exterior that affirms prejudices and stereotypes of the lives of celebrity artists.

Here’s the first verse, eight lines.

I’m tryna put you in the worst mood, ah
P1 cleaner than your church shoes, ah
Milli point two just to hurt you, ah
All red Lamb’ just to tease you, ah
None of these toys on lease too, ah
Made your whole year in a week too, yah
Main bitch out your league too, ah
Side bitch out of your league too, ah

We might start by noticing the rhymes. Ignoring the obvious “ah”, we’ve got rhymes on the end of every line, with mood/shoes/you/too. But there’s also the slant rhymes on worst/church/hurt and tease/lease/week/league. (As it turns out, the rhyme on church/hurt might be the most significant, though we’ll have to wait to see why).

But let’s think about the content. It looks very much like shallow braggadocio. He is posturing. He brags about his sports cars (his P1 McLaren and his red Lamborghini), his stockpile of money, his income, and his multiple sexual partners (who he doesn’t seem to respect a great deal).

Allow me to suggest there is a deeper meaning here. Yes, I am serious. We should look more closely, in particular, at the second line.

P1 cleaner than your church shoes, ah

This is an odd comparison to make. He hasn’t chosen to focus on the cost of the car, its performance, its speed or its power, but its cleanliness. And of all things, he has compared it to church shoes. Cleanliness connotes devotion, and is also associated with moral purity. To make this comparison is not just say that his car is clean, but to imply that the other person’s shoes are at least a little bit dirty -that their church shoes have been neglected. The subtext is admonition for a failure of religious devotion.

We might also wonder: who is this person whose church shoes are being criticised? Who is the Weeknd talking to in this way? It is a strange thing to pick on someone’s church shoes. Not everyone goes to church. The speaker must know this person enough to know that they will be cut by a criticism of their religious devotion. Indeed, the speaker does know this person very well. Because he’s talking about himself. This is a song about internal conflict. It is about someone suffering under the surface of their celebrity, because they have sacrificed their religious identity for fame.

Not convinced? Let’s move to the pre-chorus.

House so empty, need a centerpiece
20 racks a table cut from ebony
Cut that ivory into skinny pieces
Then she clean it with her face man I love my baby
You talking money, need a hearing aid
You talking bout me, I don’t see the shade
Switch up my style, I take any lane
I switch up my cup, I kill any pain

First of all, I love how well this works on both levels. This section, too, can be read straightforwardly as superficial bragging. It uses the language of drugs and wealth to construct a perfect veneer of shallowness. Unless we look closer, we could easily miss it -that’s actually the point. But the moment we exert any kind of critical pressure, it falls away.

House so empty, need a centerpiece

Okay, so he has a big house. But what an odd way to brag about it. One doesn’t usually brag about a house by calling it empty, or saying that you need a centerpiece. That line drives at the essence of the song. It is about his own emptiness, his own need. And there is the question of whether “centerpiece” was used for its homophonic double meaning, “center peace”.

You talking money, need a hearing aid
You talking bout me, I don’t see the shade

One part of his conscience struggles with the other. The “starboy” is responding to accusations that he has sacrificed his religious identity for fame. He can’t refute that charge, but instead makes an admission: he is blind and deaf to the concerns of his religious self.

The following two lines make this more clear.

Switch up my style, I take any lane
I switch up my cup, I kill any pain

Here, the “starboy” aspect of his self says he is willing to do whatever it takes to be famous. To “take any lane”. Even though he knows, ultimately, that it won’t make him happy. He ends the pre-chorus by admitting, in no uncertain terms, that he is in pain.

We get to the chorus, when his religious-self responds to the starboy-self.

Look what you’ve done
I’m a motherfuckin’ starboy

He is, of course, blaming himself. The tone is most clearly accusatory, not congratulatory. It is derisive. to be a “motherfuckin’ starboy” is not presented as commendable. It is contemptible.

By repeating the title in the chorus here, it is invested with the energy of the song, making it stand as a symbol for the artist’s conflicted self. The “starboy” is a celebrity with all the superficial trappings of fame, but is suffering from spiritual emptiness. This theme is enacted perfectly by the form -superficial on the surface, but hiding something else below. The shallow, materialistic bragging hides his spiritual emptiness and his pain.

Give the song a listen, with this interpretation in mind.

Final Words

Thanks for reading. I hope you liked this post and found it interesting. I update this site regularly (once a week), so check back soon. Also, you should check out the other posts. There are articles on craft, and more poetry analysis.

Thanks.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening is a poem by Robert Frost, and one of the more famous poems in the English language. I would like to take a look at some of its interesting elements.

First, as in any analysis of a poem, it’s better to begin by looking at the poem in its entirety, and appreciating it as a whole (some would say you have to start by reading it at least twice, since you must first grasp the whole in order to appreciate the individual lines in light of the whole). Here it is:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Rhythm and Rhyme, and Acoustic Correspondence

The poem is written in iambic tetrameter. It has chain-rhymed quatrains -a form that is known in Persian as a Rubaiyat. It’s difficult to pull off in English, because it strains linguistic resources. It is a demanding form -four rhyming lines spread across four quatrains and linking them together- and poor execution will result in rhymes that seem forced or obvious. Frost pulls it off well, with language that seems natural and appropriate.

The rhyme scheme looks like this:

A
A
B
A

B
B
C
B

C
C
D
C

D
D
D
D

That’s not the extent to which Frost is playing with sound. At a first pass, we might notice only the end-rhymes. But there are more interesting effects occurring here.

As I read the first stanza, the recurring /h/ in each line is deliberate, as is the recurring /w/, and the internal rhyme with /ill/ in lines 2 through 4. Each of these sounds establishes a subtle corrspondence, perhaps just below our conscious awareness. I map the sound correspondence in the following way, with ‘x’ representing “unused” syllables, acoustic effects bracketed with ‘/’ marks, and leaving the end rhymes as A and B:

/h/w/xxxxxA

/h/h/xxx/ill/xA

/h/(w/ill)/xxxxxB

(The second syllable of the third line is bracketed because it creates a correspondence between two sounds in a single syllable.)

By the time we finish the third line, we have already heard a pair of /w/, a triplet of /h/, and a pair of /ill/. Here is the denouement of the first stanza: every single one of these sounds recurs in the final line, which is dense with acoustic correspondence, and thereby invested with the energy of the previous lines. Even if we don’t know why, we feel the line as powerful and satisfying.

I map the first stanza this way:

/h/w/xxxxxA

/h/h/xxx/ill/xA

/h/(w/ill)/xxxxxB

x/w/h/w/ill/x/w/A

Visualized out this way, we can see why the line feels so powerful -it is loaded with correspondence to the previously established patterns, satisfying our subconscious urge to see those sound pairs recur. The final line effectively ties the whole stanza together, linking it through acoustic correspondence with nearly every syllable.

Sensory density and psychological fidelity

This is a powerful poem in terms of sensory density. We can feel the cold, the snow falling, the wind. We can hear the wind, the “sweep” of “downy flake”, the bells of the little horse. We can see the evening woods. The frozen lake. And so on. It is rich with sensory experiences. But for all its sensory density, the poem is remarkably internal, closely tracking the mental state of the speaker. It feels psychologically real.

It begins with the speaker wondering “whose woods these are”. There is a feeling of being lost, a feeling subtly accentuated by the inversion of the expected “whose woods are these” to “who woods these are”, which puts us slightly off-balance (as the speaker is). We then feel the movement of the speaker’s thought process -from being lost, to tentatively located- in the space of the first line, when we hear the words “I think I know”. The poem moves quickly, and we are swept up in the thought process of the speaker. Perhaps without our conscious awareness, the speaker’s thought process develops further, not explicitly, but implied by their perception of the woods: the woods are no longer “these” woods but “his woods” (the unknown man who lives in the village). The speaker becomes gradually more confident in a way that feels psychologically real.

Limitations on Human Beings, Finding Our Purpose

This is poem is largely about the perceptual limitations of thinking beings. (At a deeper level, it is about our inability to grasp the “truth” of existence in a grand sense). The first stanza embodies this theme, shifting between a feeling of being lost, then tentatively placed, then slightly more assuredly located in space; it enacts the struggle to find one’s place.

This theme is further reinforced as our attention is shifted to other characters. The unknown man who “will not see” what is happening, or the little horse who “must think it queer”. The speaker, the horse, and the unknown man are all presented in terms of their psychological limitations: what they cannot see, or cannot understand, or are struggling to know.

In the final stanza, we get the sense that the speaker will not keep his “promises”. He wants to sleep, but he has miles to go. The repetition of this final line suggests an ongoing task; the poem ends not with finality, but by propelling the speaker towards the “miles to go”, for which we have no suggestion of a resolution.

The speaker’s “sleep”, in this case, seems to represent death. His “promises” are those owed to his fellow beings, represented by the village outside of the woods. The never-ending task of a thinking being is to find their purpose among their fellow beings (as the speaker first begins by trying to find his place) and this task is not done until we’re dead. It is ultimately a poem about searching for meaning in life. But it is a search that can have no resolution.

This should not be interpreted as a depressing poem. Frost says the woods are “lovely, dark and deep”. The implication here is that our being lost in the dark woods of life, of trying to find our purpose, is actually a lovely thing.

On the topic of the darkness of this poem, it does enact suicidal thoughts; the speaker looks at the woods and wants to “sleep”. Some part of him wants death. But this isn’t the focal point of the poem, or its resolution. Ultimately, the speaker continues trudging on, because of “promises” owed to his fellow beings; he will continue searching for his purpose in the dark.

Oxford Comma

Let me make take this opportunity to make a plea for the Oxford comma. Consider this line from Frost:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

Here, the absence of an Oxford comma means that this line should be read not as listing three qualities of the woods -“lovely”, “dark”, and “deep”- but rather, an entirely different meaning: the loveliness of the woods consists in their being “dark and deep”. And further, if we take this line metaphorically, Frost is saying that the loveliness of life consists in not knowing our purpose -that the beauty comes from our endless search to find meaning in the darkness. Alternatively, we might read this line as suggesting the loveliness offered by the sleep of death -dark and deep- and embodying the speaker’s suicidal thoughts. Or both at the same time. It is a powerful line.

However, if for some tragic reason we stopped using the Oxford comma, we wouldn’t know how to read this line, because we wouldn’t have a mark to distinguish these two possible readings (if the Oxford comma was optional, then we wouldn’t know whether the line simply had an omitted comma). English would lose some of its expressive capacity and would be, to that extent, broken.

The argument for dropping the Oxford comma seems to be that, in certain cases, it is obvious from the context that the items are meant to be read as a list (for example, “the three fruits were an apple, an orange and a banana”). This is a bad argument. We might just as well omit the period from sentences that close a paragraph. Besides, that usage looks jarring to people who respect the Oxford comma. We will understand your meaning, probably, but you also needlessly risk causing annoyance and giving the impression that you don’t care about language.

Don’t break English. Use the Oxford comma.

Santa Claus

Finally, just for fun, let us just consider that this poem might really just be about Santa Claus.

Who is this strange man who has stopped in someone else’s woods at night, on a snowy evening? What are all these promises he has to keep? Why so many miles to travel?

The “darkest evening of the year” would be the 21st of December. But perhaps Frost has taken some liberties here. “The fourth darkest evening of the year” doesn’t quite fit in the established meter, and isn’t quite as neat.

The harness bells evoke a reindeer, and the animal appears in a stanza rhyming on queer/near/year. Is “reindeer” being playfully implied by rhyme?

The opening stanza introduces our speaker, and it rhymes on know/though/snow. Playfully implying “ho-ho-ho” through rhyme?

Well, read the poem again for yourself and see if that interpretation makes any sense:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Final words

Thanks for reading. I hope you liked this post.

Yannis Ritsos, “Maybe, Someday”

“Maybe, Someday” is a poem by the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos. Before we do any analysis, we should read the poem in its entirety:

“Maybe, Someday” by Yannis Ritsos (translated by Edmund Keeley):

I want to show you these rose clouds in the night.
But you don’t see. It’s night – what can one see?

Now, I have no choice but to see with your eyes, he said,
so I’m not alone, so you’re not alone. And really,
there’s nothing over there where I pointed.

Only the stars crowded together in the night, tired,
like those people coming back in a truck from a picnic,
disappointed, hungry, nobody singing,
with wilted wildflowers in their sweaty palms.

But I’m going to insist on seeing and showing you, he said,
because if you too don’t see, it will be as if I hadn’t –
I’ll insist at least on not seeing with your eyes –
and maybe someday, from a different direction, we’ll meet.

Tone

The tone is wistful. We sense loneliness and a desire for human connection. The poem ends with a slight glimmer of hope but a prevailing feeling of resignation, sadness, and doubt.

The IBM Watson tone analyzer confirms this tonal analysis (I’m not averse to automated analysis of poetry): According to Watson, Sadness is the only likely emotion -by a wide margin- and the language style is tentative.

Interpretation

I read this poem as expressing the author’s drive to write poetry, which is, for Ritsos, fundamentally about forging human connections. The action of the poem unfolds internally, dramatizing an interplay of emotions and competing impulses, as Ritsos’ urge to share his private vision runs up against the intractable divide that separates us from each other.

Ritsos uses a series of images to symbolize the inner turmoil of wanting to express the inexpressible, and of being painfully aware of the limitations of language and the gulf that divides us.

The “he” in the poem I take to be a stand-in for Ritsos, writing about himself in the third person.

Narrative Structure

The poem is a complete story with a three act structure. It tells the story of how Ritsos is driven to write poetry, but conflicted because of the impossibility of the task; He wants to express his vision, but he is acutely aware of the limitations of language.

Components of the narrative structure in “Maybe, Someday”:

  • Motivation: showing the “rose clouds”.
  • Conflict: “It’s night”. (So the rose clouds can’t be shared).
  • First plot-point: “I have no choice but to see with your eyes”. (Decision to give up).
  • Rising action: third stanza, as Ritsos’ negative emotions accumulate.
  • Climax: “wilted wildflowers”, echoing the “rose” from his original vision, and symbolizing its loss.
  • Second plot-point: “I’m going to insist on seeing and showing you.” (Decision to commit to showing the rose clouds).
  • Falling action and conclusion: “[…] maybe someday, from a different direction, we’ll meet.”

Detailed Analysis

When we hear the words “rose clouds” we might picture clouds in the sunrise taking on a pink hue. But Ritsos is not speaking literally. After all, it is night, so the rose clouds aren’t really there, and Ritsos admits as much: “there’s nothing over there where I pointed”. The rose clouds are a symbol for Ritsos’ private vision -something beautiful he has seen. The “rose” here stands for beauty, or at the very least something worth sharing, and may also stand for love; the “clouds” convey some combination of heaven, spirituality, nebulosity, or being beyond reach.

Ritsos has witnessed some sort of hidden, special, or unreachable beauty that he is compelled to express to someone that he cares about. The rose clouds could stand for the sublime, but they needn’t -they are something that he wants to share.

Ritsos goal is to share what he has seen:

“I want to show you these rose clouds in the night.”

But the person with whom he would like to share can’t see. Ritsos laments,

“But you don’t see. It’s night – what can one see?”

The darkness of night stands for the intractable divide that separates our distinct perceptions of the world, preventing us from seeing the world as others do. Preventing Ritsos, in this case, from sharing the rose clouds.

Ritsos would like to bridge that divide with his poetry. By the end of the poem, he will make a commitment to that endeavor. But not before he gives up. This occurs in the second stanza:

“Now, I have no choice but to see with your eyes, he said,”

He confesses, “there’s nothing over there where I pointed”, thereby abandoning his vision. (And also reinforcing, in case it was not clear enough, that the vision he has seen exists in his own mind, not in the natural world). He has done this because he believes -at this moment in the poem- that abandoning his private vision will allow him to connect with other people, instead of distancing himself by living in his own private world:

“so I’m not alone, so you’re not alone.”

Ritsos implies that by giving up on his vision, he can be together with other people -not by connecting them to his private world, but instead by joining with them in the ordinary world of the “night”, without the rose clouds. In the third stanza, we see Ritsos’ emotional reaction to abandoning his vision. When he looks at the sky he sees:

Only the stars crowded together in the night, tired,
like those people coming back in a truck from a picnic,
disappointed, hungry, nobody singing,
with wilted wildflowers in their sweaty palms.

There is a steady accumulation of emotional imagery imposed on the stars. Of course it is not the stars that feel this way, but Ritsos. A feeling of disappointment, hunger, sadness, and “wilting wildflowers”. Ritsos’ personification of the stars illustrates his disappointment at abandoning his vision. He is dissatisfied with life, unhappy, sees nothing worth singing about. The “wilted wildflowers”, the final image in this accumulation of symbolism, calls us back to the “rose” of the beginning. It is echoic of the central metaphor of the rose clouds; The thing wilting is his vision. This is the climax in a growing feeling of disappointment, sadness, and emotional hunger, all deriving from abandoning the rose clouds.

In reaction to his own emotional downturn of the third stanza -and to the wilting of the wildflowers- Ritsos commits, in the fourth stanza, to sharing his vision:

“I’m going to insist on seeing and showing you”.

He has made his commitment to share the rose clouds.

This poem is fundamentally about connecting with other people. It opens and closes with a desire to share something with another person. The vehicle for that sharing is poetry.

In the final stanza, Ritsos comes to a realization about loneliness: the connection he sought with other people in the second stanza (by abandoning the rose clouds) was a false one. Ritsos says,

“maybe someday, from a different direction, we’ll meet.”

To say “we will meet” is to imply that they have not yet met (and will not, until he successfully shows the rose clouds). The implication is that you cannot meet someone by abandoning your private vision, by pretending to see with their eyes. For two people to really meet, they must connect in the realm of deeper shared visions. In Ritsos’ terms, you must learn to show a rose cloud in the night. This is the aim of his poetry. To forge a bridge between people, so that we can share our disparate visions, and finally meet.

At the close of the poem, Ritsos is confined to a state of loneliness and separation from others. He is alone in his seeing; the “rose clouds” still exist in his vision alone. But he is committed at least to trying to share what he has seen, trying to show the rose clouds in the night. It could be that the task is impossible. After all: “It’s night – what can one see?” But Ritsos has not given up all hope. He thinks that it could possibly be done, “maybe, someday”.

Is it possible to share rose clouds in the night? Maybe, as readers of poetry, it’s up to us.

Final Words

I hope you liked this poetry analysis. Please feel free to leave comments, questions, suggestions, etc. in the comment section.

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In a Station of the Metro

In a Station of the Metro is an imagist poem by Ezra Pound published in 1913. The poem displays precise technical execution, like a finely tuned machine. But the elements are difficult to see at first, hidden behind a superficially simple structure. In this analysis, I want to focus mostly on the technical execution of the poem, and its use of expertly deployed acoustic effects to achieve the intended effect on the reader.

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

First Impressions

The poem has an unmistakably somber tone, even though we may not, at a first pass, be able to say precisely why. The content of the poem seems to be just the description of a moment in a subway station, when the people appear to look (somehow) like petals stuck to a branch.

By comparing human beings to petals, Pound is suggesting something about the brevity of human life. This moment in the subway station is not just an observation about visual similarities (if it is even that); It is an existential moment that occurs in the subway station: a realization of the transitory nature of life. Pound’s poem works to enact the depth of that existential realization.

Brevity of experience is one of the key features of this poem. The entirety of the poem’s structure works to enact this momentariness, and the fleeting nature of experience. Pound deploys rhythmical, grammatical, semantic, and acoustic effects to freeze time at this exact moment in the subway. He builds a static moment in the mind of the reader.

Denotation, connotation, symbolism, etc.

I won’t spend too much time on connotation, symbolism, or etymological association. But I would like to point out a few things. “Apparition” is an odd word here. One of its senses is “spirit” or “ghost”, a meaning which imbues the poem with a sort of spiritual sentiment, and invokes the idea of death. It also means the appearance of something. But it feels also insubstantial and ephemeral; to call it an “apparition” suggests also that it could vanish at any moment.

The color “black” connotes death and darkness. The image of petals that have fallen similarly connotes death or the fleeting nature of life -the change of seasons, and in human terms, life and death. So the images all work together to suggest a feeling of life’s brevity.

All of the faces are equated with the petals, just as the petals are shown to have fallen from the tree, only to be stuck, for a moment, on a wet branch. The petals, being stuck to a wet branch, are understood to have adhered because of the moisture -a necessarily impermanent and fragile state. This again complements the momentariness of the experience.

As the petals are in the process of falling; we are in the process of dying. The comparison between ourselves and the petals invites us to reflect on our existence as transitory.

The poem is about a subway station. A subway is a fitting image for the transitory nature of life, representing, as it does, going from one place to another. The subway stop is a pause in the transition, as the petals on a tree branch are paused in transition. These images work in concert to support the same central theme of the poem: a brief pause in a transitory experience. All of the technical elements of the poem enact that theme.

Grammar

The poem has no verb. This complements the feeling of momentariness. To use a verb is to imply an action occurring over time, which would, in the mind of the reader, create the effect of passing time. Pound avoids the impression of passing time by removing all verbs.

Rhythm

Control of the reader’s focus in this poem is achieved largely by rhythmical effects. Pound has built an accentual-syllabic rhythm that freezes time just as the poem comes to a close. In order to feel the effects of rhythmical variation, the reader must first sense the established rhythm. This poem begins by establishing a fast rhythm, and then moving to a rhythm that grinds to a halt.

We can use scansion to analyze the rhythm. The rhythm of the first line scans like this:

uuu/uuu/uuu/

It is firmly established in the mind of the reader. And it is fast. When it slows down, we will really feel the contrast.

The rhythm of the second line scans like this:

/uu///

The break in rhythm draws attention to “petals”, making that word pop from the line. Over the next three syllables, we are eagerly awaiting the rhythm to be re-established. It comes, when expected, on “wet”. But the following two stressed syllables massively disrupt our rhythmic expectations.

The rhythm has ground to a halt, just as the syntax comes to a close with a period; there is a rhythmic freezing of the whole moment just as the meaning is established semantically. This effect on the reader could not have been achieved without perfect concert between syntactic arrangement and rhythmic arrangement.

Rhyme, assonance, consonance

Pound uses acoustic effects to similarly project the reader’s attention towards the close of the poem, where time freezes.

There is the rhyme on crowd/bough. There is the alliteration on black/bough. There is the consonance of the /k/ on crowd/black. All of these effects draw the reader’s ear towards the close of the poem, making us feel even more strongly the freezing of time that occurs at this moment.

There are also acoustic effects deployed to make the faces disappear into the crowd. The stressed syllables in the line occur within the words “apparition”, “faces”, and “crowd”. The soft fricatives and approximant of the first two stressed syllables create a subtle correspondence between “face” and “apparition”, whereas the dual plosives of “crowd” make that word emerge from the line. We subconsciously lose sight of the individual faces in place of the crowd, which takes our focus.

An internal rhyme is used to assist rhythm in the second line. Petals/wet provides a subtle boost to the rhythm, pushing us forwards into the final three syllables, and allowing us to feel the slowing of rhythm more acutely.

Pitch-profile

Tone is complemented subconsciously with a descending pitch-profile in both lines. In the first line, the pitch-profile is comprised of the vowels /ɪ/, /ei/, /aʊ/, creating a subtly-depressed tone on the first line, with a peak in the middle. The second line begins at a slightly lower tone than the first, and again creates a depressed-tone by way of a descending pitch-profile, with no peaks: /ɛ/, /ɛ/, /æ/, /aʊ/.

Both lines have descending pitch-profiles, creating an unmistakably somber tone, though we feel it more strongly in the second line, because of the clustered stresses. As with the rest of the technical elements of this poem, the pitch-profile is structured to point towards the end of the poem, reaching its lowest point on “bough”.

Conclusion

In a Station of the Metro is a masterpiece of precise technical execution that deploys rhythmic, syntactic, acoustic, and semantic effects to create the impression of a transitory moment frozen in time. The petals on the branch, and the subway stop itself, are both symbolic of the transitory nature of our lives. The poem enacts momentariness with its formal elements.