REVIEW & COMMENTARY
his essay entitled, "Jews and the Invention of Time"
(Midstream, Oct. 2000), Moshe Dann argues that "Jews
are quite literally obsessed with time." Specifically,
he argues, "Imposing time-related boundaries as part
of a system of divine regulations and commandments
the way in which Jews create a sense of holiness in the world
of space. The infusion of time restrictions into events and
actions attaches the presence of God to everything in the
finite world of space
Jews were the first to attribute
significance to time itself, to insist that its measurement
was not arbitrary or utilitarian, but that time gave meaning
to all events
Jews also emphasized historical memory,
imbedding significant events in religious practice. Historical
events take on meaning as they reveal God's plan
In short, for the Jews, time is something to be delimited,
restricted, "historicized", and sanctified. Furthermore,
there is a sense of the tragic in this Jewish notion of time.
As Dann explains, "Time restrictions focus us upon priorities.
We see this so painfully in women who have not given birth
and measure each moment of their life against the clock of
One must try to make the most of
and not waste a single moment."
sense of time as something that stands outside us, but which
is delimited and sanctified by us, suffuses W.D. Snodgrass's
poem, Heart's Needle, and stands in marked contrast to the
sense of time depicted in the principal works of Wallace Stevens.
Before discussing this contrast further, however, I want to
place Snodgrass and Stevens in the broader context of recent
developments in Western culture.
SNODGRASS AND THE "TRAGIC SELF"
I believe that a proper appreciation of the world of "Heart's
Needle" begins with a re-examination of the poet and
critic, Matthew Arnold (1822-1888). It is no accident that
Arnold's magnum opus was entitled, Culture and Anarchy, since
the author was preoccupied with this dichotomy. As J.D. Wilson
observes, Arnold saw and deplored "
spiritual anarchy of the English people, an anarchy which
expressed itself in its hideous sprawling industrial cities,
its loud-voiced assertion of personal liberty, its dismal,
stuffy, and cantankerous forms of Christianity
in collision (collision of parties, of sects, of firms) as
the only way of salvation." (p. xxxiii).
contrast to such disorder-and as an antidote to it---Arnold
an inward spiritual activity, having for
its character increased sweetness, increased light, increased
life, increased sympathy
" (Arnold, p. 64). Arnold
drew a direct connection between this cultural and spiritual
ideal, and the artistic ideal of poetry:
thus making sweetness and light to be characters of perfection,
culture is of like spirit with poetry, follows one law with
poetry..the idea of beauty and of human nature perfect on
all its sides
is the dominant idea of poetry
(p. 54, italics mine).
Wilson points out that Arnold's thesis harks back to the values
of "Beauty, Truth and Goodness" found in Plato.
Arnold was painfully aware that such ideals were, at best,
difficult to realize, and at worst, illusory. Nevertheless,
in his most famous poem, Dover Beach, Arnold urges a passionate
and personal response to the anarchy he sees all about him:
love, let us be true
To one another! For the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
tone-elegaic, importunate, and urgent-is also seen in the
work of W.D. Snodgrass (1926- ), particularly in his magnum
opus, Heart's Needle. In this long poem, the poet struggles
with his unresolved feelings surrounding his divorce, and
the resulting separation from his daughter. At the same time,
Snodgrass places his emotional pain into a larger symbolic
and cultural context-one which, in my view, deals with many
of the concerns Arnold adumbrates in Culture and Anarchy.
Here is a representative passage which, to my ear, picks up
the tone of Dover Beach:
all things, only we
Have power to choose that we should die;
nothing else is free
in this world to refuse it. Yet I,
who say this, could not raise
myself from bed how many days
to the thieving world. Child, I have another wife,
another child. We try to choose our life.
Arnold, Snodgrass's narrator in Heart's Needle sees the world
as blighted and confused-moving "like a diseased heart
packed with ice and snow"-and yet, capable of redemption
through the willed integrity of our loves: we must choose
to be true to one another.
his essay on Snodgrass and "Heart's Needle", William
Heyen implicitly (and in my view, correctly) rejects the common
misclassification of Snodgrass among the "confessional"
school of verse. Heyen notes that Snodgrass's aim is not merely
to express the personal or confessional, but to write poems
"more personal and so more universal" (p. 352, italics
Heyen adds, "The Romantics would not have batted an eye
at this credo, indeed, they felt that to write poetry of social
value, one had to release the stirrings of the universal man
within the self
" (p. 352).
what is this business of the "universal man"? For
Snodgrass, it may be simply that the universal man (or woman)
is one who struggles to find life and meaning in the throes
of death and dissolution-who tries to "choose" his
life, despite the crushing uncertainties of sickness, divorce,
old age, and death. In short, as Heyen suggests, the universal
man is essentially tragic. Heyen notes that "..Inherent
in [Heart's Needle' s] criticism of the way things are is
the ability of the intelligence that informs its lyrics to
accept this reality and to struggle against it
world, for Snodgrass, is a real place-"a reality independent
of human perception" with "universal, if unpleasant,
" (Heyen, p. 366). I would argue that only
within the "tragic" framework can there exist a
universal man struggling in a real world that contains universal
is nothing, for example, in the "post-modern" world
view that remotely would recognize such objective universality.
On the contrary, even the notion of self is suspect in the
world of post-modernism. This is best seen in the work of
psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan: "Where Freud
that the conflicts of mental life could be resolved, Lacan
saw them as fundamentally irreparable; discord and fracture
cannot be cleared away from the psyche because they are the
psyche." (p. 134). Indeed, for Lacan, "selfhood
is really nothing but a fleeting, unstable, incomplete and
open-ended mess of desires which cannot be fulfilled."
(Ward, p. 136).
is not the world inhabited by Arnold or Snodgrass. The self
may have to struggle with its conflicts and ripe imperfections,
but there is assuredly a self to struggle! And that self has
a core of universal (if conflicted) values against which it
can measure the "thieving world". In Heart's Needle,
this is mirrored in the meticulous order of the poems' rhyme
and meter (Snodgrass himself has pointed out some deviations
from this). As he states in his essay, "Finding a Poem,"
"The stanza I hit on [for Heart's Needle] had a syllable
count which ran 5,7,4,7,6,8,12,9 and rhymes which ran a,b,a,b,c,c,d,d."
(Snodgrass, p. 25). Heyen comments that Snodgrass's verses
are tightly rhymed and are rendered, with some
variation, in accentual syllabics. Underneath the form is
the recognition that there is to be no letting go, no back-sliding
into bathos." (p.355).
short, there is a symmetry between Snodgrass's technical methods
and his poetical ethos-both are bound up in a disciplined
flexibility. The rhyme scheme and meter of Heart's Needle
also speak to a mode of expression that seeks to find something
universal in the sound and structure of poetry. This, I would
argue, is consonant with Snodgrass's sense of the self as
something fundamental and "real": "For I believe
that the only reality which a man can ever surely know is
that self he cannot help being, though he will only know that
self through its interactions with the world around it."
(Snodgrass, p. 32).
Heart's Needle has a peculiarly "tragic" relationship
to time, in the sense described earlier by Moshe Dann. This
sense of time as something that stands outside us and limits
us, but which is also delimited and sanctified by us, suffuses
Snodgrass's poem. I count at least thirty-eight references
to time in this poem (which runs to nearly 20 pages, in the
author's collection, Selected Poems, 1957-1987). We find,
for example, references to winter, late April, turning Fall,
Winter again, Easter, That March, a Fall night, blue July,
Hallowe'en, Spring, this April, and a host of temporally-related
phrases ("Nine months filled your term", "You
took your hour", "You keep my constant time
etc.). Since this is fundamentally a poem about loss-the loss
of a wife and daughter, at the very least-it seems to me we
can best understand the poet's use of time in relation to
loss. It is as if, in the ceremonial recounting and structuring
of time, the poet manages to re-create and even embrace his
lost daughter. Indeed, Snodgrass "
sees life slipping
.", and yet, as in most of his poems, finds
" (Ellman & O'Clair,
1988). As he pushes his daughter on her swing, the poet observes:
though you climb
higher, farther from me, longer
will fall back to me stronger.
Bad penny, pendulum,
you keep my constant time
to bob in blue July
daughter helps keep the poet's time, and by anchoring her
to time ("blue July"), the poet is able to keep
his daughter. In contrast, the stanzas of the poem set in
the museum are those in which the poet is walking "to
kill my time once more/among the enduring and resigned/stuffed
animals" (italics mine). Here, in the museum, time is
frozen, "arrested," and, like the "putty-colored
children curled in jars of alcohol," unchanging. This
is absurd time-time that cannot be sanctified. It is with
almost palpable relief that the poet moves, in the subsequent
and final stanza, back into the world of moving, "Newtonian"
time-the kind of time that can be sanctified because we can
attach meaning to its finite slipping away:
I loved you, they said I'd leave
and find my own affairs.
Well, once again this April, we've
come around to the bears;
punished and cared for, behind bars,
the coons on bread and water
stretch thin black fingers after ours.
And you are still my daughter.
classical pianist Russell Sherman has made the distinction
between linear (chronological) and spatial (psychological)
time. Linear time asserts "
its relentless claims
in behalf of 'reality'
" (p. 163). As accompaniment
in a musical composition, linear time "
fast to its job as timepiece against the reveries and exclamations
of the main voice
" (p. 163, italics mine). Linear
time is "
the underlying grid to our personal chronicle
In contrast, for Sherman, spatial or psychological time
is manipulated by our psychic needs and natures
into various images of timelessness and timeliness. Transient
moments suddenly expand, visions of infinity intervene, notes
and phrases become outlets of fantasy, escape, recollection,
or omen." (p. 161).
believe that Snodgrass, in Heart's Needle and in other poems,
such as April Inventory, is primarily an explorer of linear
time. To be sure, in Heart's Needle, the poet struggles to
hang on to linear time, as his life is turned inside out by
domestic loss and strife-but the rhythm of personal relationships
helps him keep his "constant time." Similarly, in
April Inventory, the loss that accompanies old age ("Though
trees turn bare and girls turn wives
") is partly
assuaged by the poet's own maturing character:
is a value underneath
The gold and silver in my teeth
There is a gentleness survives
That will outspeak and has its reasons
for Snodgrass, "reason," gentleness, and the soul's
inward value help overcome the ravages of time-which remains,
like a constant grid that measures our days, safely "Newtonian."
next want to suggest that time is treated quite differently
in the work of Wallace Stevens, an explorer of Sherman's psychological
STEVENS AND THE FRAGMENTATION OF TIME
Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) presents us with some extraordinary
problems of poetic interpretation-and some striking contrasts
to the work of Arnold and Snodgrass. At his most opaque, Stevens
can sound a bit like some of the "Dadaist" poets
of the early 20th century, as in "Bantams in Pine Woods"
Iffucan of Azcan in caftan
Of tan with henna hackles, halt!
Damned universal cock, as if the sun
Was blackamoor to bear your blazing tail
we find Stevens sounding a bit playful-or at least, playing
with what sound like the "clang associations" (Iffucan,
Azcan, caftan, of tan, etc.). But much of Stevens' work takes
a more sober, if not somber, view of the post-modern world.
Indeed, J. Hillis Miller has argued that the "
of the gods, leaving a barren man in a barren land, is the
basis of all [Wallace] Stevens' thought and poetry."
(Mazzaro, p. 95). Miller goes on to say that "
death of the gods coincides with a radical transformation
in the way man sees the world. What had been a warm home takes
on a look of hardness and emptiness, like the walls, floors,
and banisters of a vacant house. Instead of being intimately
possessed by man, things appear to close themselves within
themselves. They become mute, static presences
for Stevens, we cannot fully trust our own perceptions of
this hard and empty world: "
everything is seen
in the way in which it is seen only because we learned to
see it in that way." (Lavery, 1983). Hence, we cannot
assume that any of our perceptions represent the way things
"really" are. In his poem, On An Old Horn, we find
such a blurring of reality and imagination. Indeed, some of
the poem's are reminiscent of Hieronymous Bosch's fantastic
imagery in his painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights:
bird kept saying that birds had once been men,
Or were to be, animals with men's eyes
Then the bird from his ruddy belly blew
A trumpet round the trees. Could one say that it was
A baby with the tail of a rat?
use of time corresponds with the "psychological time"
described by Sherman; i.e., time as "
by our psychic needs and natures into various images of timelessness
and timeliness." Consider Stevens' well-known poem, Thirteen
Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. In stanza XIII, we find an
explicit temporal confusion: "It was evening all afternoon."
Similarly, in The Idea of Order at Key West, we find "
summer sound/Repeated in a summer without end." In An
Ordinary Evening in New Haven, we find still more temporal
not yet true which he perceives through truth,
Or thinks he does, as he perceives the present,
Or thinks he does
striking still are these passages from "Cuisine Bougeoise":
It is like the season when, after summer,
It is summer and it is not, it is autumn
And it is not, it is day and it is not
"Martial Cadenza," Stevens begins with what seems
like a fairly conventional "naturalistic" description
of the sort one could easily find in a poem by Wordsworth:
this evening I saw again low in the sky
The evening star, at the beginning of winter, the star
That in spring will crown every western horizon..
by the second stanza, this very predictable, "Newtonian"
sense of time is radically altered. Suddenly, the world is
a very "relativistic" place:
was like sudden time in a world without time,
This world, this place, the street in which I was,
Without time: as that which is not has no time,
Is not, or is of what there was
only is there a degradation of Newtonian time in Stevens'
poetry, there is also, as Miller notes, a kind of extrusion
of discrete events from the larger fabric of temporality:
same sequence of events is constantly happening over and over
each moment is born in newness and freedom, with
no connections to the past
If the poet pauses long enough
to write the poem of winter, it will already be part of the
dead past long before he has finished it
W.D Snodgrass writes precisely such a "poem of winter".
He begins Heart's Needle with the lines, "Child of my
winter," and then pins this time to explicit events in
the real world, such as the Korean War ("
new fallen soldiers froze/In Asia's steep ravines
Snodgrass's narrator is not afraid of time's "melt down"
or eternal recurrence or evanescence. If anything, he is afraid
that time will slow down, or stop entirely, as when he enters
the museum display of "enduring and resigned stuffed
animals". Perhaps, for Snodgrass, this would mean that
the poet himself has become enduring and resigned, part of
"Nature Morte". Miller suggests that Stevens, too,
is afraid that time will "freeze into dead fixity"
(p. 102). But the solution for Stevens is to write
poetry of flickering mobility, a poetry in which each phrase
moves so rapidly it has beginning and ending at once."
Miller notes that "
as the oscillations between
imagination and reality get more and more rapid
all solidity disappears
a glimpse of the nothingness which underlies all existence."
It is as if Stevens looked at the post-classical universe
and had a reaction similar to that of Pascal: "I am terrified
by the eternal silence of these infinite spaces." Indeed,
in Opus Posthumous, Stevens describes feeling "
and alone in a solitude, like children without parents, in
a home that seemed deserted
"(Miller, p. 95). The
poetic world he creates, in response to this, comes close
to an absurd or surreal one, in which boundaries give way
to quandaries, and solids sublimate into vapors-all in the
blink of an eye.
truly tragic world-view may not be possible for Stevens, since
the tragic is intimately associated with linear time. The
essence of the tragic is that we "only go around once",
and hence, are forced to make excruciating and final choices.
the same sequence of events is constantly
happening over and over again
" in Stevens' poetry,
no single event can ever carry the gravitas that tragedy demands.
Because, for Stevens, "
each moment is born in newness
and freedom, with no connections to the past
the causal links between intention and action are always subject
to rupture. Hence, there is always the possibility that any
given human decision will be undone or nullified. There is
also the possibility that a spiritual or existential "defeat"
at this moment will be reversed in the next.
this is not to say that Stevens describes an entirely meaningless
world. Stevens is no nihilist. Rather, in his more abstruse
works, he seems to say that the poet, by mirroring the paradoxes
and fluidity of time, brings some kind of order to the world-if
only in "flawed words and stubborn sounds" (The
Poems of Our Climate).
work, to be sure, is not always fixed to the world of the
surreal. Thus, in Peter Quince at the Clavier, we find language
more reminiscent of Yeats than of the Dadaists:
is momentary in the mind-
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.
The body dies; the body's beauty lives.
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing
in "A Postcard from the Volcano", Stevens is nearly
elegiac in his sense of time gone by, along with its human
Children picking up our bones
never know that these were once
As quick as foxes on the hill
when Stevens writes of "
a dirty house in a gutted
world/a tatter of shadows peaked to white" ("A Postcard
from the Volcano"), it is tempting to see this as his
vision of the post-modern world-as an abandoned child in "a
home that seemed deserted". This is not the world inhabited
by Snodgrass in "Heart's Needle". There, the landscape
may be rutted, but not gutted. For Snodgrass, the "child"
has not yet been abandoned--though she has been separated
from her father. And time still exists as the framework within
which the poet might put things right.
Miller JH: Wallace Stevens' poetry of being. In: Mazzaro J
(editor): Modern American Poetry. New York, David McKay Co.,
Heyen W: Fishing the swamp: The poetry of W.D. Snodgrass.
In: Mazzaro J (editor): Modern American Poetry. New York,
David McKay Co., 1970.
Arnold M: Culture and Anarchy. Edited by JD Wilson. Cambridge,
Cambridge University Press, 1969.
Snoddgrass WD: In Radical Pursuit. New York, Harper and Row,
Snodgrass WD: Selected Poems: 1957-1987.New York, Soho, 1987.
Dann M: Jews and the invention of time. Midstream. XXXXVI
(Sept/Oct 2000), pp. 16-17.
Lavery D: The more than rational distortion in the poetry
of Wallace Stevens. The Wallace Stevens Journal 8:1-7, 1983.
Ward: Postmodernism. London, Teach Yourself Books, 1997.
Williams O, Honig e: Major American Poets. Mentor, 1962.
Sherman R: Piano Pieces. New York, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux,
Pies is a physician and poet who has published in The Literary
Review, The Comstock Review, Mediphors, and other literary
journals and anthologies. He is the author of the chapbook,
Riding Down Dark (Nightshade Press) and a book on comparative
religious ethics (The Ethics of the Sages, Jason Aronson).
Dr. Pies and his wife Nancy live in Lexington, MA.