That pleasure can precede understanding in matters of art (and life) ought to be a truism, though judging by much of what passes for criticism it is not. I enjoy the work of Wallace Stevens despite finding some of his poems obstinately opaque after more than 40 years of acquaintance. One way to define a bad poem is that it yields neither pleasure nor understanding, even with time.
David Ferry has a new poem, “Street Scene,” in the fall issue of The Threepenny Review. Typically for him, it involves an observer and a scene, an audience and a stage. The speaker looks out his window and watches the mundane happenings across the street – a man, a dog. There follows a free-floating, italicized fragment:
“That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows”
A red truck joins the man and dog, so the italicized line seems to relate to these subsequent lines:
“… all three of them have
Become, in common, elements of the scene
That I’m observing and so all three of them seem
To understand that they have a common purpose.”
On the side of the truck is the suggestive word “CHARETTE” – French for “cart,” and in English a surge of collaborative effort on a design project, as the speaker seems to be collaborating with the scene outside his window in an effort to find understanding. A blue truck appears – perhaps the red truck with a new color, he thinks. The speaker suspects a purpose, a plot in these random, unimportant events – “they have a common purpose,” “So giving no information about its purpose,” and this:
“Magic. A trick of magic performed by me,
Something that I performed because I saw it.
Or the trick was performed by the unseen hand of the world.”
One thinks of the mad annotator Charles Kinbote in Pale Fire. There’s a second italicized fragment:
“Whereon the stars in secret influence comment”
The italicized lines are, respectively, the third and fourth lines of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 15:
“When I consider every thing that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment.
That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows
Whereon the stars in secret influence comment.
When I perceive that men as plants increase,
Cheered and checked even by the self-same sky:
Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,
And wear their brave state out of memory.
Then the conceit of this inconstant stay,
Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,
Where wasteful time debateth with decay
To change your day of youth to sullied night,
And all in war with Time for love of you,
As he takes from you, I engraft you new.”
As best I can tell, Shakespeare’s and Ferry’s themes share little overlap. Poets are opportunists. Ferry found the selected lines useful in a new context. His concern is epistemology and his speaker may be quite mad. He may be a solipsist, a psychotic or a radical idealist. His powers of perception are Godlike:
“And what became of Mr. Wrenn and his dog?
Hurled down to the Underworld, twisting and turning,
The two of them falling, the dog’s leash fluttering
In the eerie light down there through which they fall.”
That which is no longer perceived is consigned to the Hell of nonexistence. Ferry writes poems built to live with, poems that don’t yield meaning like toothpaste squeezed from a tube.