Sylvia Plath: Touch and Go
10 January, 2018 ~ ElDynamite ~ Poetry
Touch-And-Go by Sylvia Plath
Sing praise for statuary:
For those anchored attitudes
And staunch stone eyes that stare
Through lichen-lid and passing bird-foot
At some steadfast mark
Beyond the inconstant green
Gallop and flick of light
In this precarious park
Where vivid children twirl
Like colored tops through time
Nor stop to understand
How all their play is touch-and-go:
But, Go! they cry, and the swing
Arcs up to the tall tree tip;
Go! and the merry-go-round
Hauls them round with it.
And I, like the children, caught
In the mortal active verb,
Let my transient eye break a tear
For each quick, flaring game
Of child, leaf and cloud,
While on this same fugue, unmoved,
Those stonier eyes look,
Safe-socketed in rock.
"Touch-And-Go" reveals a contrast between two perspectives on the dynamicism of life: one of naive childlike acceptance, and another that rejects it in favor of the static and unchanging nature of statues. While the narrator holds the latter position, the poem pushes us to embrace the risky former.
The poem presents a view of human dynamicism as an inevitable consequence of our living. It is not that we choose to accept change, it is that we are forced to accept change. This idea is presented through the diction used to describe the children and the narrator. The children are as "tops", that is, forced to spin at the will of a greater power. They do not ride the swing, rather, it actively "arcs up" of its own accord, and the merry-go-round actively "hauls them round". The narrator acknowledges being "caught in the mortal active verb", as an object rather than a subject. They all ultimately have no significant agency, and they all, one way or another, are caught in something else's verb.
This idea is further reinforced by the conception of life as a "fugue". A fugue is a musical piece composed of multiple voices which replicate the same musical pattern at different times. The narrator supposes that the "child, leaf, and cloud" make up these voices, and thus all express the same pattern of life, which is dynamicity and change. Just as the seasons will not stop turning, the "colored tops" will not pause their relentless spinning, and the fugue will continue, with or without the narrator's awareness. Once again, the narrator is "caught", and thus no amount of introspection will change his role. However, we now must explain what role the "unmoved" statues play in the fugue, since by virtue of being static, they cannot be a musical voice.
EYES OF THE PAST
The most notable aspect of the statues in the poem is their eyes. The eyes are "anchored attitudes", and they "stare"-- that is, they make use of a verb that is not "mortal [and] active", as those of the narrator and the children. They are also "staunch" and "safe-socketed", further pushing the concept of immutability. In essence, the statues represent a cross-section of the lives of past people, whose thoughts are ossified and rendered immutable. However, we still feel the presence of their gaze through the societal structures set up to honor them and follow in their paths. Thus, in the fugual comparison, the "unmoved" statues correspond to the clef, or the measure lines, or the beat; ie, they are something against which we compare ourselves as we move through the ordained cycles of life.
From the start, the narrator makes clear that he prefers the static nature of the statues to the "inconstant green" of the park in which life runs its course. This preference is not trivial: the narrator feels endangered by the dynamicism of life. The park is not just dynamic, it is "precarious", implying risk. The active verb is not alive, it is "mortal", implying death. The statues are not only static, they are "safe-socketed", implying safety. It is because the statues are safe and unchanging that the narrator wishes to "sing praise" to them, rather than out of respect for the ideals they represent.
The narrator's desire to seek refuge in the structures of the past can thus be regarded as one of cowardice or fear. However, as is the nature of being spun like a top or being caught as the object of a verb, it is impossible for him to escape the cycles of life, no matter how much he longs for the safety of the statues. The poem proposes that instead of crippling ourselves with such fear, we live naively and freely, like the children in the poem. The children make games of the life they are forced to live; they are "vivid" and "colored", filled with mirth. The fugue is a pattern of symphony and discordance, gain and loss, touch and go; the best we can do in our forced position is to, like the children, accept our position in the progressing melody as it gradually escapes from the security of the statues of the past.
Robert Lowell: The Old Flame
02 January, 2018 ~ ElDynamite ~ Poetry
The Old Flame by Robert Lowell
My old flame, my wife!
Remember our lists of birds?
One morning last summer, I drove
by our house in Maine. It was still
on top of its hill -
Now a red ear of Indian maize
was splashed on the door.
Old Glory with thirteen stripes
hung on a pole. The clapboard
was old-red schoolhouse red.
Inside, a new landlord,
a new wife, a new broom!
Atlantic seaboard antique shop
pewter and plunder
shone in each room.
A new frontier!
No running next door
now to phone the sheriff
for his taxi to Bath
and the State Liquor Store!
No one saw your ghostly
stare through the window
the scarf at his throat.
Health to the new people,
health to their flag, to their old
restored house on the hill!
Everything had been swept bare,
furnished, garnished and aired.
Everything's changed for the best -
how quivering and fierce we were,
there snowbound together,
simmering like wasps
in our tent of books!
Poor ghost, old love, speak
with your old voice
of flaming insight
that kept us awake all night.
In one bed and apart,
we heard the plow
groaning up hill -
a red light, then a blue,
as it tossed off the snow
to the side of the road.
This poem discusses societal changes that were once unthinkable, and how the narrator comes to terms with these changes and the conservatism that his wife idealized.
Societal change is central to the poem, which concerns Maine, a traditionally very white state. First, it presents the notion of new racial assimilation into the American ideal: "Now a read ear of Indian maize was splashed on the door", representing a society in which nonwhites can also live, and "Old Glory with thirteen stripes hung on a pole", representing the persistence of the old American ideal.
This contrast between change and persistence continues throughout the poem. The control, the labor, and the tools of the market have changed: "a new landlord, a new wife, a new broom". However, the people still idealize the work of their American forefathers. They polish antiques (memories of the past) of the "Atlantic seaboard", which is geographically similar to the first thirteen colonies. In the sixth stanza, they restore the old houses, while at the same time sweeping them bare and replacing the interior with what is new.
The wife is presented as a conservative force who theorized against societal change. Her "imaginary lover", that is, her conception of the ideal person, "tighten[ed] the scarf at his throat", representing disgust and rejection, during the changes wrought while the couple were absent. Her ideals are "fierce", her insight "flaming"; when coupled with the comparison to a wasp, it is made clear that her ideas are threatening rather than friendly. Finally, the designation of "snowbound" implies a degree of being limited in sight and openness (we will discuss snow more later).
However, at the same time, this conservatism is presented as theory only, unable to impede the forces of progress. In the end, "no one saw [her] ghostly imaginary lover", and the wife herself is reduced to a "poor ghost", an abandoned "old love".
The narrator recognizes three things: first, he was never truly able to share the beliefs of his wife; second, the changes being wrought are good; third, he will be unable to participate in this new society.
The narrator's separation from his wife is made clear both in the past and in the present. The existence of the wife's imaginary lover means that the narrator could not serve that ideal, and the implication of "in one bed and apart" is manifest. His acknowledgement of the changes ties into this rejection of his wife's ideals. He observes that the house is still "on top of its hill", that is, still representing the old American ideal of a "city on a hill", then also quite directly says that "everything's changed for the best". Furthermore, he actively hopes for the best for the "new people" and "their flag" and "their old restored house", tying into his final realization of being unable to participate in this new world. It is not clear why the narrator feels alienated: perhaps it is because he cannot adapt, or perhaps because he is too old, but regardless, that he nonetheless wishes the best future for a people not identical to him validates the narrator's goodheartedness.
While the narrator does nostalgically recall his wife's old tirades of "flaming insight", he is clear that his wife's ideals are no longer applicable in this new world. He persists in referring to her with phrases representing abandonment: "old flame", "poor ghost", "old love".
Snow is the focus of the final stanza, and finalizes the notion of change and progress. The plow, representing societal machinery, moves slowly uphill-- towards the American ideal of the "city on a hill". It experiences both hesitation in a red light, then acceptance in the blue light. Its only obstacle on its path to the ideal is the snow on the road, and from this, we can conclude that snow represents coagulation, ossification, and a lack of progress. This further validates the presentation of the wife as "snowbound" indicating a misguided conservatism.
The narrator sees a changing society, and wonders what effects will arise. However, he is comforted by the observation that the old American ideal, the "city on a hill", the Old Glory, are still being upheld by the new people. The American ideal will continue, and change can be a part of it.