This essay first appeared in the original print edition of Mentor & Muse: Essays from Poets to Poets.
August 30, 2010
As a student, I often heard that the music of a good poem ought to be inseparable from the poem’s meaning. I had no idea, however, what that meant, though I could play like I understood it. I could talk about prosody with some fluency, nodding occasionally toward the neat fit of form and function in certain classic poems. But when it came to my own work—or when it came to discussing the work of most other writers—I was, for many years, unable to separate words from their most reductive meanings. Then I saw Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant A Clockwork Orange, and I began to think about poetry in an entirely new way.
There is a well-known scene in that movie during which a woman is attacked by a gang of sex-hungry young men. As she is dragged across the screen, abused, and violated, a song plays in the background. It’s nothing like the screeching of Hitchcock’s Psycho shower scene, nor is it like the slightly discordant music that plays during the tense moments in John Carpenter’s Halloween. Rather, Kubrick offers us a cheerful bit of Beethoven, played lightly on what sounds like an electric piano. In other equally disconcerting moments, he offers “Singin’ in the Rain,” conjuring with it images of love, of the grand movie musicals of the past, of Fred Astaire. The more I thought about it, the more I understood the power of his music to throw the visual scenes of violence and terror into a sort of stark relief. Moreover, the music seemed to accuse me, the viewer, of finding pleasure in misery, of participating in the violence, if passively, from my seat in the dark theater.
And, as I walked home that night, I began to think not about Kubrick’s spooky dystopian England but about my very favorite American poet, Emily Dickinson. In particular, I found myself considering her poem #465:
I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air—
Between the Heaves of Storm—
The Eyes around—had wrung them dry—
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset—when the King
Be witnessed—in the Room—
I willed my Keepsakes—Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable—and then it was
There interposed a Fly—
With Blue—uncertain stumbling Buzz—
Between the light—and me—
And then the Windows failed—and then
I could not see to see—1
In the past, I’d considered the poem delightfully ambiguous. What, I wondered, does that fly represent? Is it a stand-in for Emerson’s God-in-nature, a sort of representative of the transcendental romantic universe, a universe the recently deceased speaker fails entirely to understand? Or is the fly a darker symbol, suggestive of Beelzebub, the lord of the flies? Or perhaps Dickinson had more prosaic ideas; perhaps the fly is merely attracted to the dead meat of the speaker, which is to say that we receive neither God nor Satan when we die. We receive only the prospect of decay.
Of course, the strength of the poem is that it means all three, and more, simultaneously. The poem doesn’t make a prescriptive argument; instead, it holds within it at least three conflicting points of view, all of them vitally important to the speaker.
Walking home from the theater, however, I thought not about the literal meaning of Dickinson’s words but about the suggested meaning of her rhythm and rhyme. The poem, I knew, was written in hymn meter (also known as common meter), in lines of alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, rhyming xaxa. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I figured, I was meant to recognize the origins of the poem’s music in the church or, more particularly, in songs whose purpose is to praise God.
And now I saw an additional power in the poem I’d failed to notice before: that the theological ambivalence of the literal sense of the poem—is there a God at all? Dickinson seems to ask—is directly undercut by the hymnlike music of the poem. Or, put another way, Dickinson seems intent on asking us to think of her ambivalence as a kind of prayer, or to throw her doubts into the pure white light of the faith the poem’s music suggests.
Since then, I’ve been fascinated by the often perverse meanings various rhythms create. I have even begun to play games. What, I wondered, would happen if I translated Dickinson’s poem from hymn meter into a series of anapests?
As I died a loud fly was exploring
the old room that was still as the air
after storm clouds pass crashing and roaring, etc.
Or what about trochees?
Fly, oh fly, I heard you buzz—but
Dying should be silent!
Keepsakes I have tossed away for
God’s still absent judgment
Or as, heaven forbid, a limerick:
A fly made a noisy first entry,
then flew between sunlight and me.
I thought God might save
my dull soul from the grave.
But, alas, he has not. I can’t see!
Of course, no matter how hard I try to stay true to the poem’s literal meaning, it is utterly destroyed—though sometimes to comic effect. The “meanings” of the anapests or trochees have nothing to do with the subject of Dickinson’s masterpiece. Neither do they undercut it in interesting ways. They are, instead, merely inappropriate. And the limerick? It is, I think, impossible to write a serious limerick. Not matter how hard I try, it comes out winkingly sad, ironically and hiply tragic, incapable of producing real tears, except as the result of its enormous incompetence.
Or, take, instead, the sestina or the villanelle. With their constant repetition of the same words and lines, these forms seem directly suited to laying open the obsessive mind, the mind working through a problem again and again, the speaker meditating on a complex notion. But is it possible to write a narrative sestina? A villanelle that tells a story? It is, I suppose, but it isn’t easy. Nevertheless, many of the best poems in the English language—Anne Bradstreet’s poems to her lost grandchildren, Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning,” Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” among them—employ a sort of music that to great effect undercuts any literal reading of the words.
And this has led to a writing exercise that, at least for me, has produced some pretty good results: try to write a good poem in which the music of the poem—the rhythm, the rhyme, the sounds of the words—works in the opposite direction of the superficial meaning of the poem. If you are writing an elegy, see what happens if you couch your words in a form that, superficially, seems unrelated to it. If you are writing about a happy memory, compose it in the uncertainties of nervous slant rhyme. If you are writing an elegy, try anapests. And if, like Emily Dickinson, you are writing a poem filled with cosmic doubt at the possible absence of God, compose it in hymn meter.
This Was the Model to Which I Held
This was the model to which I held:
a bee in its hole like a gasp
in my throat. Silence or dirge
as the petals unclasped,
dusted with blush at their folds.
This was the standard—I’d speak no word
when, after your long death, a thrill of bees
thrummed into the air, the chord
of their wings blaring flowers out.
This was my theory—I had no other—
the yard like a harlot, but you
still dead. Spring was a terror
of sensuous things—in my throat, a song
where a stinger hurt, where quiet belonged.2
- Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Back Bay Books, 1976), 223–24.
- Kevin Prufer, The Finger Bone (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2002), 65.
Image Credit: The fascicle of Emily Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—” is from The Emily Dickinson Archive.
Kevin Prufer is the author of, among others, How He Loved Them (Four Way Books, 2018), Churches (2014), In a Beautiful Country (2011), and National Anthem (2008) He’s also co-editor of New European Poets (Graywolf Press, 2008), Literary Publishing in the 21st Century (Milkweed Editions, 2016), and Into English: Poems, Translations, Commentaries (Graywolf Press, 2017). Among Prufer’s awards and honors are four Pushcart prizes and multiple Best American Poetry selections, numerous awards from the Poetry Society of America, the Prairie Schooner/Strousse Award, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lannan Foundation.