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Poetry in Review: Clarity, Seeing, & Listening in The Silken Tent

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She is as in a field of silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To every thing on earth the compass round,
And only by one's going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.

 

I imagine the subject of Frost’s sonnet to be an upper-class woman who believes herself to be extraordinarily free, while in fact an absolute subject of the systems that define and constrain her subjectivity. Though thinking herself as soaring independently, she is the product of the systems that buoy her. Though lovely, she is chained, and will not be free- because it is by the very chains that bind her that she is given flight.

 

Though very ordinary, Frost's sonnet is moving; it's gently thrilling, and quietly impassioned. The heart is pulled forward like the tent on its strings, in the pull of Frost’s emotional gravity.

 

It’s very clear that Frost is a brilliant mind with an at-ease, localized consciousness that allows him to truly enter the aesthetic phenomena that surround him in his everyday life. He is not thoughtlessly reifying the condition of language.

 

Sometimes, while reading poetry, I cull strong, aesthetic, and sensual language from the verse into ‘clouds’ of language that form a portrait of the author’s palette of signifiers. This is especially effective with writing such as like couture perfume or clothing advertisements, Plath, Lawrence Durell, and Henry Miller. I drop blocks of text filed under different authors into a .pages file called ‘words’, that includes blocks of language from Wikipedia entries about clouds on Neptune, to different authors, to speech patterns specific to a certain person or place that I'm writing for or about.

 

The best authors though, are capable of using words in such a way that their meaning isn’t predicated on either their denotation or their innate sonic and sensory properties, so much as it is on the relation between other words in the poetry. This would be the case with Robert Frost. His language is ‘plain’, but relationships between words like pinnacle and sureness, countless and silken ties, that far surpasses poetry as sonic collage- and forms an orchestral, and comprehensively considered construction, that is strong, clear, and sculptural. Like color, a words is defined by being with, and not being, other words- the ‘innate’ properties of color and language shift in relation, like notes in a scale. E and F may screech together, while E and C sound bright and round.

 

Tthis sonnet’s use of rounded vowel sounds, consonance and assonance, and ‘round’ words, so to speak (language that are balanced in their syllables and have an even proportion of vowels and consonants), gives the verse clarity, luminosity, and transparency, like tinted air, a blown-glass orb, or, as the subject of the poem- a length of silk inflated with wind and made round by it’s constraints.

 

You can characterize different languages with adjectives- French is ‘fluid’, German ‘stony’, etc. These properties often stem from the number of syllables per word, and the common adjectives and consonants that are used. French, for example, commonly uses rising iambs (two-syllable words that are one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable) which make it an inherently sonnet-y language. But really a language is what its speakers make it, and a person or society can only be what it can express. Frost creates an English that is airy, luminous, and clear- democratic, and without great pretense or self-reflexivity. Like his peaceful and localized consciousness, this presence and lack of self-centeredness is what allows him to see, and to speak, with such beauty. I really feel that he opened my eyes to the possibility of being and soothed my mind with this poem.

 

You can contrast this ‘externality’ and ability to ‘see’ with other modernists like E. E. Cummings (arguably using a somewhat anarchical syntax) or Ezra Pound (a known fascist supporter, whose obsession with formalism is arguably parallel to the ‘objective’ dictates of fascist governments), whose obsession with the facet of form that is style, made their poetry very self-reflexive, and arguably, at times, lacking in contemporary, real, or concrete content. It is trapped in the mirror-space of the literary. rather than engaging with the space of lived experience.

 

I still can’t say that I’m wild and crazy about the form of the sonnet, generally- I feel that the combination of the iamb and pentameter sound didactic and authoritarian, rather than emotional or ‘natural’ to speech. They feel like they represent the endless drone of ‘objective knowledge’, like a closed system is committed to protecting itself from even dialectic engagement.