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ALBERT B. CASUGA, a Philippine-born writer, lives in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, where he continues to write poetry, fiction, and criticism after his retirement from teaching and serving as an elected member of his region's school board. He was nominated to the Mississauga Arts Council Literary Awards in 2007. A graduate of the Royal and Pontifical University of St. Thomas (now University of Santo Tomas, Manila. Literature and English, magna cum laude), he taught English and Literature (Criticism, Theory, and Creative Writing) at the Philippines' De La Salle University and San Beda College. He has authored books of poetry, short stories, literary theory and criticism. He has won awards for his works in Canada, the U.S.A., and the Philippines. His latest work, A Theory of Echoes and Other Poems was published February 2009 by the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House. His fiction and poetry were published by online literary journals Asia Writes and Coastal Poems recently. He was a Fellow at the 1972 Silliman University Writers Workshop, Philippines. As a journalist, he worked with the United Press International and wrote an art column for the defunct Philippines Herald.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

PART 6: HOW TO ANALYZE A DIFFICULT POEM

Analyzing A Theory of Echoes: A Practicum
(Click on Figures to Zoom in on Text)



Readers give up quickly on difficult poems. What’s the use? Why waste precious lifetime on it? Given equipment to tackle the proverbial “difficult” poem, the reader might find the effort more rewarding than not trying. When this title poem of my latest selection of poems (A Theory of Echoes and Other Poems, UST Publishing House, Manila, 2009) was published by Philippine Sunday Times former editor Gloria G. Goloy, she said it was “intriguing; therefore, might be worth publishing – give poetry corner visitors something to worry about.” After all, she might as well make the miniscule space for poetry look important, at least more interesting than the ad on piles. The only trouble with the next question – What does it mean? – is the threat of its creating a more annoying case of hemorrhoids.

Brave souls have since then tried figuring out what the poem means, but here would have been my response to Gloria. (Here’s the poem. Analyze it. Be daring.)

A Theory of Echoes

1. Axiom

Echoes shape corridors lean
Leaving them a cipher’s silence
Not unlike the axiom of a day:
All things go up to fall the way
Fractured bird wings fall, violence
Met in the loins of wind.

Lean corridors shape echoes,
Silence ciphering them, leaving
A day axiomed as not what is unlike
The way the fall of things strike:
Violence on the fractured bird wing,
Winds loyned with zodiaqual zeroes.

2. Echo

O THAT A FALL MUST GO GO MUST A FALL THAT O
THE WAY A COMET’S TAIL TAIL A COMET’S WAY


Applying the analytical theory in previous parts of this series, I know that even I would understand my poem, if God would no longer bother.

Sensory-Impressionistic Level

Can the beholder approach it as a physical appearance, and gain an impression of a meaning from its formal structure? (The poem-on-the-page at first blush.)

In “1. Axiom”, the reader will notice that the words in lines 1 to 6 are used again in lines 7 – 12 in the last stanzas; only this time, they are used in reversed order. For instance, line 1” “Echoes shape corridors lean”, line 7 “Lean corridors shape echoes”. They are same words, same images, and both are talking about the same thing. And the reader may conjecture: does this not give the impression of the echo concretized in the structural arrangement of words in the lines?

Taking a look at the rhyming words, the reader would realize that the second stanza’s “way” echoes “day” in the first; violence, silence; wind, lean. The second stanza echoes the first; hence, a concretization of the experience of an echo. Like the progression of a sound that is echoed, lines 1-3 move inward centripetally, and lines 4-6 move outward centrifugally – the sound-echo progression. Of course, stanzas one and two are “echoed” in stanzas three and four. The same thing happens in “2. Echo”, but on a horizontal, linear manner.

Cognitive Level

Continuing the analysis of the poem, the reader should now try to confirm his first impressions on the meaning of the poem from the objective elements used by the artist: its imagery and symbols.

What immediately confronts the reader are the following images” the auditory image of “echoes”; the visual image of “lean corridors”; the synaesthetic image (auditory-visual) of a “cipher’s silence”; the synaesthetic “fall of fractured birdwings” (visual-visceral); the kinaesthetic image of “loined winds”; the synaesthetic “zodiacal zeroes”; the visual image of a “comet’s tail” tailing itself in cyclical motion. What looms as the central image?

It appears to be the “echoes in lean corridors that reverberate into cipher’s silences” – the hollow zeroes, the fall of things.

What does this central structural part mean? The reader may have as many interpretations as he had experiences of echoes in lean corridors that peter out to silences which occasion the fall of things – after the fall, silence. One interpretation may be the experiencing of something “hollow”, some vague feeling of emptiness in things, the death of things that end in silence; but these, too, are extensions of what dies in them; viz., like sounds in echoes are simply the extension of the sounds that made them.

As early as this level of analysis, the reader may already encounter some difficulty in pinpointing the experience being concretized by the author. But he has had some impressions earlier of something being “extended in echoes”; now, he has recognized images which concretize the experience of an echo. But what does echo here objectify? What does it symbolize?

One knows that this image must “symbolize” something because the author could not have simply intended to present the objective experience of an echo. Otherwise, that would be without value. It is the experience that the echo symbolizes which assumes a value.

Therefore, the central image as well as the minor images should now be interpreted in the context that they have been used in the poem. Suffice it to point out that the reader has somehow come to a gestalt of the experience from what has been “imaged.”

In other words, these images should now be interpreted in terms of the poet’s selected “content”. This is the step that comes closest to the recognition of the author’s experience. The poet is not always (unlike this instance) around to tell readers what stimulated his aesthetic experience in the poem. The reader is almost always left alone to determine what this experience is, and, consequently, what the author’s purpose (artistic purposes) was. The purpose must be determined so that the reader can criticize how well the author has utilized his medium (style) to concretize his experience and how well he has arranged and presented his selected details (content) in order to objectify the same experience into a virtual reality which could, on its won, stand as an independent, meaningful, phenomenon.

True, the reader has his own private interpretations. If the author were around, perhaps the reader could ask if his (reader’s) interpretations are valid. Although the experience can be gleaned from the context or situation used and the way the words are used in order to denote and/or connote thoughts and emotions, the present writer is describing the original experience which stimulated the composition of “Theory of Echoes”, so the reader may be able to compare his interpretation with the actual experience of the author.

The following is a transcription of the entry made by the author in his journal. This became the material for this poem.

Entry: Re Miss Andrea Alviar’s Death (September 9, 1970)

My math teacher in high school died today. I don’t know what to feel about this. She’s old, all right—and she must die sooner or later. It is sad how she must go. She won’t even be able to use her math, algebra, geometry, and all her equations to get herself to heaven!


But death is nothing else but an extension of life. Just as living, she had her students as simple echoes of her awesome presence. What is an echo but an extension of sound? And language, echo of thought?

Perhaps her death could be a good material for this mathematical idiom and imagery Cirilo is talking about.
Andrea Alviar comes to mind now as that old, church-going spinster who leaves a void in those corridors of the old Gabaldon building in the La Union High School. How the corridors must reverberate with her throaty voice – axioms coming out of her lips sounded like rules of life.

She is dead now---she has fallen---like a fractured birdwing. The end of everything is the Zodiac and the Zero which is our beginning. – From the Author’s Notebook
.
--o0o--

Notice that many of the key images used by the author in the poem are also used in the journal entry. This entry is nothing but a prose description of the experience the author is concretizing in the poem. The main difference would probably be the economy of expression in the poetic version of the experience.

It was pointed out earlier that a meaning close to this would, nonetheless, have been arrived at if the reader studied the fundamental units of the poem – the words (exuding the images; denoting and connoting thoughts and feelings shaped in figures of thought, speech, and language). Now, to a more educated guess at the poem’s meaning on the Associative Level of analysis.

Associative Level

Concluding the analysis of the poem “A Theory of Echoes,” the reader should find a confirmation of his interpretation of the poem’s meaning (gleaned from the imagery and symbolic system) in the context of the poem’s content as well as in the structural composition of its objective elements.
Since there was a sui generis “revelation” of the stimulating experience behind the poem given by this writer earlier, the appreciator should not find the determination of the meaning and purpose difficult.

Nevertheless, the reader may blot that out of his mind; he may assume that such is not available on a silver platter. His reaction to the poem per se need not be delimited by this “revelation.” The stimulus being itself another experience contra-distinguished from the virtual reality of the composed poem, the reader should, therefore, not conclude that the stimulus is the poem. There is no necessary one-to-one correspondence. This makes it possible for the reader to see through and beyond the ambiguities of the poem (assuming the composition possesses such “richness”). Such is, after all, the plenitude of appreciation – earning meaning from the formal “being” of the work of art.

In the poem, there is a concretization of a state of feeling and thought about the “axiom of echoes and the fall of things” in terms of a series of assertions through the objective point of view of a reflecting witness. What is this state of feeling and thought? That “all things go up to fall the way fractured birdwings fall,” like the way “echoes leave lean corridors with the silence of ciphers (zeroes).” The axiom of life: All men die; after death, silence. But why echoes?

The assertive context --- (more figurative and symbolic here than literal – the constructing elements are abstract and universal concepts, consistent to the nature of an assertion) --- equates the cyclic progression of echoes with the rise and fall of things. It seeks, therefore, to explain the “fall of things” in terms of echoes as extensions of sound; that the fall is an extension of a rise and vice versa, or that the fall is a prelude to the rise.

This is the Oriental mystique of the cyclical conception of reality, further concretized in “2. Echo” as a comet tailing its tail in moving through the Zodiac, the perpetual animation of things within a sphere which is algebraically symbolized in the cipher, the mathematical zero. Both concepts – echoes and the life-death phenomena – are ultimately or primordially based on the fundamental structure of things – the atomic universes: electrons centrifugally orbiting around nuclei.

Is the above context derivable from the words and their peculiar “axes of selection and combination”?
From a verbal standpoint, “2. Echo” presents a plainer use of tonal elements to suggest the meaning of the content. The fore and aft use of “O” in the first line suggests the sound-echo phenomenon. Too, it is an orthographic symbolization of the comet’s path, the echo’s path. The predominance of the long sounds in “way”, “tail” is onomatopoeic: the sound is extended by virtue by virtue of its phonemic duration. Even in the first twelve lines, “1. Axiom”, this tonal quality obtains. Rhyme in the poem fulfills a structural function more than a contextual purpose. As an organizing element, it forms the structures that “mirror” each other in the echoes. (See discussion in sensory-impressionistic level, supra.)

Is the basic trochaic tetrameter rhythm helpful in shaping up a meaning? If the context talks about the regularity of things on an axiomatic level, therefore, rigid and routinary, would this rhythm bring this out? It would, if the four beats in the poetic line are simulations of regularity and uniformity. The even-ness of the four beats bespeaks the phenomenal symmetry talked about in the context of the poem. A pentameter (odd in number; i.e., five beats) would not lend itself to this regularity. Robert Frost used the tetrameter in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” to concretize the routine in the life of the persona who pauses from his life’s humdrum but is jolted by his horse into proceeding with his daily “promises to keep”. The tetrameter in “Theory of Echoes” serves this same purpose. A dimetre would probably have been more apt save for the nature of the content used.

The rhythm, it appears, serves a distinct structural purpose. It presents graphically the contrapuntal relationship of the lines and the stanzas; viz., lines 1, 2, 3 mirror lines 10, 11, 12; lines 4, 5, 6 mirror lines 7, 8, 9 rhythmically. Line 1 is reversed in Line 7; 2 in 8; 3 in 9; 4 in 10; 5 in 11; and 6 in 12. (See accompanying figures above.)

What about “zodiaqual zeroes”? Apparently absent in the earlier arrangement of words in line 6, these words are actually conclusions of the details which have been asserted in the first eleven lines. Since the context is assertive, it has to conclude in a general observation. All the images, symbols (the structural parts) lead to this general observation of their being details or particulars of the zodiacal zero. Why “zodiaqual”? The medieval version “hardens” the concept of something being “echoed”. The reversion to the medieval spelling is more than a reversion in time. It is also a reversion in spirit. Why does the author revert only as far back as the Medieval Age? This is because the root of the present language is Chaucerian (medieval).

Exploring the objective elements further, the reader notes that the tercets used are actually sestets, where the first two stanzas actually unify into a sestet; the final two unifying into the same structure. The “a-b-c” of the first is “c-b-a” of the second; the “d-e-f”of the third is “f-e-d” of the fourth. The a-b-c-c-b-a combination is reversed structurally in d-e-f-f-e-d. Ergo, the “theory of echoes.”

The structural parts, obviously, are aptly selected (echoes, corridors, silence, ciphers, fractured birdwings, fall, violence, loins of wind, zodiacal zeroes, comet’s tail) and logically combined. A final consideration of the words as fundamental units of meaning in the poem will prove this beyond cavil.
The poem’s meaning depends upon an array of metaphysical conceits which should succeed in making the objective correlative “echoes” an unmistakable symbol for the “fall of things”. To achieve this, the author used personified echoes shaping up corridors that are left “dumb”, if nostalgic, in silence. “Fractured birdwings” are those things alive and free – as birds are free – which meets violence in the “loins of wind” and get outraged. Why loins of wind? The conceit personifies the violence in “wind”. This is the life principle incarnated.

Then, in the last two stanzas, there is a semantic inversion among the key concepts. Now, it is “silence ciphering echoes” (is it the petering out of an echo that defines silence or is it silence that accentuates the echo?); “lean corridors shape echoes” (the reverberation is a travel in time and in space; the memories travel in time and space); echoes and silence define the day, not the axiom that defines the day – “A day is axiomed as not what is unlike/ The way the fall of things strike” (a day is always the day for dying – each day is a reckoning with the cipherhood of all men; each death a returning to the root where the beginning and the end are one in the zodiacal zero).

In “2. Echo”, a fall must always go the way a comet’s tail goes; it tails its nucleus at its beginning until it vanishes into the zodiac having eaten itself out. This is the stillness of Mao Ch’iang and Li Chi of the old Chinese legend when these two attractive women get swallowed by a tiger only to become themselves the tiger – nothing becomes everything; and everything is nothing. Observe the paradox which informs the content of the poem.

In brief, “A Theory of Echoes” is an assertion of the experience of death as the extension of life; echoes the extension fo sound; language the extension of silence.

Having defined the experience and recognized the poem’s meaning, the student may now deduce the artist’s purpose. It is the artist’s achievement in the fulfillment of this purpose which should now be criticized (under the canons of literary criticism).

Questions like the following may, however, still remain in the minds of the appreciator:

Why did the author use abstract concepts to “concretize” his experience? Is this not a violation of the function of words to “image” an otherwise abstract aesthetic experience? How well has the author emotionalized his aesthetic experience in terms of the structural parts he utilized? Are these parts appropriate for his experience? Are the contextual and structural elements adequate in concretizing the experience? Does the technique serve the artistic purpose of concretizing the experience? Are there traditional literary devices used by the poet in the poem? Are these devices necessary for the achievement of the artistic purpose?

These are proper materials considered in the criticism of the poem as a literary work of work.

(Next in the series: Literary Criticism (of Style and Technique) and Literary Evaluation of Literature as a Humanistic Discipline.)

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