In the last post I was describing some of the discussion in our classes during the first two weeks—ending with poems by Lorine Niedecker. Now I’ll add a few words about Denise Levertov and Gerard Manley Hopkins, the next poets we discussed.
In contrast to the way the language in Neidecker’s poems is often very concrete and only concrete, even while there’s a fascinating play of thought, or the way Seamus Heaney mastered from the very beginning of his work the use of words with Old English roots to create the most vivid mental images of the natural and human worlds, in Denise Levertov’s poem, “Stepping Westward,” the use of image-words is more like that of Gwendolyn Brooks in “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till.” That is, the literal images have another meaning, and this second level gives the poem a thoroughgoing symbolic texture. (Not that any of these poets produce no symbolic meaning: they do, of course. The differences in the way they sound—and thus in the way they think and feel—has to do with proportions.)
In “Stepping Westward” Levertov uses lots of literal images: green, ebb, flow, north star, black sky, blue, quilts of cloud, sweet, salt, and so on. But nearly all of them turn into symbols—as we absorb them, they grow from words that point to the physical reality outside language to words that point to ideas in our culture(s), our era, and our heads.
In Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Inversnaid,” the language is very sensuous in terms of how much our mouths do when we say it aloud. The consonants and vowels, like Heaney’s, really work our powers of articulation, and this—the way the English language works—makes the sense impressions, whether of sight or of other senses—especially vivid in our imaginations. That vividness is one of the great pleasures of the English language, and naturally enough it has been one of the primary poetic resources of our language, through all the life of poetry in English.
In Hopkins’s poem, we looked at the rhythms and the sounds, first. The emphatic rhythms of the close-packed speech stresses of lines like “His rollrock highroad roaring down” give more vividness to Hopkins’s description of the small, fast, fast-falling stream in Scotland. The neologisms and very particular existing words, like the tree that is called a “beadbonny ash,” also give the diction of the poem more concreteness, even when we don’t know what physical characteristics the beadbonny ash has. And then after all that hyponymic description (I’m coming to that in a moment), there’s the rhetorical shift to discursive language at the end—as if the fast stream, the “burn,” has now reached the level of the calm lake into which it drains, and the poem, like the lake, has time to think in a more familiar way: with general ideas.
In these lines nature has become an abstraction, a very valuable one in Hopkins’s mind: “wildness.” And “wet” has become an abstraction too. And even the literal image “weeds,” that generic term, becomes symbolic of all of life that grows up on its own. (Presumably in such a place in Scotland, that long ago, there might not have been the annoyance and danger of invasive species of weeds.) The poem was probably written in 1881 or soon thereafter; in America, Henry David Thoreau, who was born in 1817—almost thirty years before Hopkins—had begun to prize wild places by the 1840s, but I don’t imagine that Hopkins could have known of Thoreau. (I’d welcome a correction of my conjecture.) When Thoreau lectured and wrote, his rhetoric was discursive—a plea, a defense, a hope urged on his listeners and his readers. But he was a naturalist with a great appetite for specificity of detail. (Unlike Emerson, who was a general thinker; Thoreau said that taking a walk in the woods with Emerson was very unrewarding, because Emerson’s vision was poor, he didn’t notice things, and he talked all the time.) At the end of his poem, Hopkins comes to something like Thoreau’s rhetoric, but his utterance is first prepared for, through three intensely descriptive stanzas, by his presentation of what we might think of as a nature of words—the word-world that stands in relation to what it names in nature. The thing first (sort of), then the sentiment.
All of it intensified by the eccentric and fine-tuned ear of the poet.
Finally in this post: hyponym. A very useful word and concept. (Etymologically, it is formed from ancient Greek words.) As in hypodermic or hypothermia, the “hypo-” suggests something like “under,” “below.” And a hyponym is in fact an “under-name.” It is a name for something that is more specific, that has less conceptual breadth, than the word above it. So we can make a scale from most general to most specific by going down a list of hyponyms. For example:
(Wikipedia says of the rose: “’American Beauty’ is a hybrid perpetual rose, bred in France in 1875, and originally named ‘Madame Ferdinand Jamin’.”
The English language loves hyponymy. We relish the specificity, the taxonomic clarity, of words in everyday life. It’s well known that in French poetry, for instance, the reader is not likely to be told by the poet what sort of tree, for example, she is supposed to imagine. The tree, its foliage, its leaf, its red autumn leaf, its red maple leaf in autumn, its red Norway Maple leaf in autumn, is, in French, already idealized and thus simplified to “leaf” (la feuille) and it’s not likely to matter (to most French poets of all eras and to most French readers) which tree the leaf came from. What it looks like isn’t the focus; the focus is what it suggests, stands for, symbolizes. But the story of English, a Germanic language, is very different from that of French, a Latinate language. Which is why Shakespeare’s language—most famously—finds no analogous sort of diction in French. And because the languages differ, so too do the overall effects of the play that has been translated from English into French. Or the poem.