John Taggart on "Mantis"
The question that matters for reading "Mantis" and Zukofsky's own twisting interpretation of the poem is: what form should that take? "That" being five or six thoughts' reflection (pulse's witness) of what was happening without transitions, the actual twisting of many and diverse thoughts (the coincidence of the mantis lost in the subway, the growing oppression of the poor), the contents of "the simultaneous,/ The diaphanous, historical/ In one head." That is, what shape best fits or suits them, what shape do they in themselves define? Zukofsky's answer is the sestina with its repeated end words that wind the lines around themselves as continuously as the mind winds the sensorium's information.
It may be objected that this choice forgets to mention the villanelle, which, with only two rhymes and several repetitions of the first and third lines, would also allow for the suggestion of simultaneous winding motion. To this, Zukofsky might reply that repetition, after all, is static; the first and third lines are not twisting or weaving; they simply reappear throughout the poem, each time the words of the lines in identical order with their first occurrence. The end words of the first stanza in a sestina, in comparison, are in motion (transformation), which then forces the poem as a whole to be "moving." So "leaves," the end word for the first line of Zukofsky's sestina, occurs on the second line in the second stanza, on the fourth line in the third stanza, the fifth line of the fourth stanza, the third line of the fifth stanza, the sixth line of the sixth stanza, not repeating again in the first line position until the three-line coda stanza. Too, the use of the end words in other than end positions, e.g., "it" in the third stanza, carries the poem's motion even closer to the originating "thoughts' torsion."
Other repeating French forms, the rondeau or the rondel, might be mentioned. Yet they share the villanelle's static countermotion and, besides, almost always imply a playfulness that is out of keeping with the seriousness of the "poor's helplessness/ The poor's separateness/ Bringing self-disgust." That the sestina is in concert with the poet's seriousness is made clear by Karl Shapiro, a poet whose own practice obviously and radically differs from Zukofsky's, in his reflection on the form:
The sestina seems not necessarily to be a mere curious exercise or virtuoso showpiece, but at least ideally to be a form designed to encourage and express a meditation or reverie upon certain thoughts or images. If such an obsessive vision or reverie-like impulse does not in fact exist or come into existence as the poem is written, the six key words will seem unmotivated and the whole poem will turn out to be an academic exercise. The sestina would seem to require the poet's deepest love and conviction, involve his deepest impressions as these take on a rather obsessive quality.... [my italics]
The poet's deepest love and conviction equal an attitude of sincerity. The choice of the form or shape of the sestina for "Mantis" manifests something more than the passive recognition of what sort of form many thoughts' torsion outlined.
And as Leslie Fiedler realizes in an essay on Dante's sestina that begins "Al poco gior no e al gran cerchio dombra"--the model, as several references in the interpretation indicate, for "Mantis"--the great sestinas of literature remain faithful to the metaphysical implications of the form itself.
It is only too easy to make the sestina an embodiment of ingenuity rather than necessity, to give the impression that the word at each line ending is sought and prepared for, a prize rather than a trap. On the contrary, the successful sestina must make it seem that each mono-rhyme is seven times fled and seven times submitted to; that the poet is ridden by a passion which forces him back on the six obsessive words, turn and twist as he may. [my italics]
The question remains whether Zukofsky actually fulfills the sestina shape "sincerely," i.e., as a force and not wicker-work. The poem's source is the coincidence of Zukofsky seeing the mantis with begging eyes, which then flies at his chest as he stands at a subway station. In the act of seeing the mantis, the poet--without transitions--immediately has several thoughts' reflection, one on another, which connect the mantis' desperate situation with that of the poor. The combination of his multiple reflection and his interest in stating the creature's ungainliness lead him to choose the sestina as a suitable form for this collective. The question may now be sub-divided and rephrased: is this situation and its attendant associations described, "written" with adequate care for detail, is Zukofsky's complex emotion as reported in his interpretation--surprise, curiosity toward the creature, sadness toward the condition of the poor, outrage at those responsible for that condition, resolution to help the mantis and the poor--, is all of this "emotion" sufficiently objectified?
The poem's first stanza begins with a startled recognition of something that is totally out of place; hence the surprised, exclamatory naming: Mantis! praying mantis! A logical sequence is then set up with "since" (logical and causal: since you have done this, I will do that). But the sequence is left seemingly incomplete in the first stanza. Since the mantis' wings' leaves and terrified eyes beg the poet to take it up: "it," by lines position, would seem to refer to the parenthetical thoughts' torsion. If this is the case, Zukofsky would be depicting the mantis begging him to take up what he alone can be expected to be conscious of, the contents of his own forgetting and remembering head. Or, following the interpretation ("That this thoughts' torsion/ Is really a sestina"): the mantis urges the poet to take up the sestina, save it from the ravages of inattention or misuse.
Such readings are torturous and silly. I prefer "it" as referring back to the mantis itself, thoughts' torsion being a parallel (correlative, an aside as in drama) speech from Zukofsky's "conscience" as a distinct third person voice saying "within" him "Look, take it up, save it!", an admonishment to himself. The logical-causal expectation aroused by "since" is gone through with, though not in the anticipated orderly fashion; since the mantis begs and since the poet can't bear to look at it or touch it, the mantis may be rescued by an anonymous nearby "You"--"You can"--. But no one sees "you"--the mantis--lost in the cars' drafts on the lit subway stone. There will be no rescue of "you" by a non-seeing (or caring) "You." The poet, alone, is forced to return, despite himself, to what he alone has apparently cared to see, the mantis. The upper case-lower case you distinction returns in the third stanza with the "You" indicating those, collective singular, surrounding the mantis and the poet--the public crowd--, while the "you" is once more the mantis, now being asked by the poet where the newsboy as representative of the crowd would put "him."
Another series of questions, in the second stanza, precedes this, which--from the poet to the mantis--serve to identify the mantis with the poor by their shared position (the stone) and, by extension, shared emotions of terror, being lost and "not seen" by those of the public crowd around them. ("The mantis, then,/ Is a small incident of one's physical vision/ Which is the poor's helplessness/ The poor's separateness.") The stanza ends with what Zukofsky's interpretation accurately describes as "pun, fact, banality." The shops' crowds--the public crowd(s)--are a-jam and offer no food or any attention to the mantis or, by association, to the poor.
The first line of the third stanza returns to the multiple references of "it." What even the newsboy sees is "it" as the mantis and "No use, papers make money, makes stone, stone,/ Banks", i.e., even the crowd's representative is somehow aware that the economic system will not alter itself, that the poor will continue as they are. The newsboy says it, the mantis, is harmless, a painfully unconscious pun revealing his real non-sight in relation to the double reference of "it." Then "You?": are You, the crowd, harmless? And: where will he, its representative, put the mantis? For there are no safe places as the spinning syntax of "here, here's" indicates in ending one "thought" and instantly turning to another in the smallest of spaces. Here=the subway station; here's news=perhaps the newsboy's papers, their characteristically inaccurate and superficial reporting, as opposed to the lover-poet's, is too poor to save the poor; they offer no information which their readers could reliably use as a basis for positive action. The poem's reader's own remembering head then recalls, from the second stanza, "the poor/ ... who rising from the news may trample you--". In their anger with the unreal or unreliable news, the poor may trample a mantis; there is no shelter for it or for any of the separate poor when "the times" have made the massed poor sightless in their rage with a condition that continues "steadying lost."
In the fourth stanza the poet overcomes his fear to allow the mantis to light upon his chest, an item of his shame and of the poor who laugh at his fright: shame at his non-caring for the creature itself and as an emblem of the separate poor (as opposed to the laughing mass). The mantis is described through three images: spectre, strawberry, a stone that "leads"--as a sign--lost children through the close paths left by men. What do these mythic images (see Zukofsky's interpretation for these lines), compacted by alliteration, signify? Possibly, that the mantis as sign is part spiritual entity, part sweet and infrequently obtainable fruit; it is as a delicious fruit to the lost, a delightful succor, and a reminder as spirit that men, like thorns in the paths they leave, can kill, that other men are in fact dangerous.
Notice that "(once men)" in the fifth stanza's first line functions similarly to "(thoughts' torsion)"; both are, while in the line removed by the parenthesis from the line's development of the poem's larger on-going movement. These removals register the poet's onlooking consciousness of the composition process without greatly disturbing the lines' motion. The poet is in the poem as actor-speaker and as the reflective maker of the poem itself. If, according to myth, the mantis was killed by thorns that were once men, the poet asks who can possibly save "you" now, "what male love bring a fly, be lost/ Within your mouth, prophetess harmless to leaves/ And hands, faked flower"? That is, not only who can save you--if no persons, as another mantis--"care", but also who, in view of your devouring love, could want to? These questions, though,--as indicated by the dash following "flower" in the fourth line--are false; for the "myth is: dead, bones, it / Was assembled, apes wing in wind." The answer to the poets questions are given by himself back to the mantis that is told he will not be saved, will not be killed either by mythic thorn-men, but will "die, touch, beg, of the poor." Zukofsky's use of "of the poor" is unclear, particularly for "die" and "touch." Going back to the previous line, it is "on stone" that this will happen to the mantis. He will die on the subway platform's stone, die of the poor's inattention--caused by their despairing anger with the news of banks and money that are "beyond" them--(and the inattention of the shops' public crowd, those with at least some money) in spite of the mantis being near enough to touch them, in spite of "her" begging eyes.
The sixth stanza's first line connects back with the fifth by a number of close associations: "android" with "apes," "loving beggar" with "love" and "beg" from separate lines, "dive" with the likely outcome of apes winging in the wind, "poor" with--as printed--"poor" immediately above it on the preceding stanzas last line. And the connections function beyond the formally desirable binding of the poem, which in itself is again only wickerwork, to what the poet now requests of the mantis: to attempt to restore the sight of the poor ("Save it!") by sacrificing itself before them. The connection between the two stanzas must hold if the sacrifice is to count for anything: if the mantis is to die of the inattention of the poor as given in the fifth stanza, then the poet's request really does ask sacrifice by the mantis.
In the interpretation's language, the mantis can start history. In exchange for such sacrifice, the poet affords the mantis a magical speech:
Say, I am old as the globe, the moon, it
Is my old shoe, yours, be free as the leaves.
Reading it, the reader's own however intuitional head remembers Zukofsky's "poets measure by means of words, whose effect as offshoot of nature may (or should) be that the strength of suggestion can never be accounted for completely."' Perhaps the exchange is fair, as fair as it ever could be. What the mantis gains is passionate oration as
... speech, language, utterance, tongue moved for a time to sound; barring confusion as the push of this animalcule--as against that--curving a lobe of itself around food particle or dust; or a humane red showing thru a translucent film of cells of one life, or the sallow green of another--follicles hairing views--spectra. Or they see as eyelashes flicker; or come out one by one, air without hairs, eyes--round, unfringed. [my italics]
And to alter the direction of another statement by Zukofsky, the mantis is given a measured order of words moving to a visual end, a product of the poet's love, that demonstrates loving compassion for the poor (from the mantis, from the poet) so that they may see with round, unfringed eyes. The poet's hope is their restored sight, restored from the non-sight of the newspaper will permit them to see themselves, each other, as they are, the separate individual poor. With that seeing, there is a chance of truly being saved, by each other, and not by the banks.
What remains after the joint exhortation of the mantis and the poet to the poor to be as free as the leaves is a three-line coda, which is the
only thing that can sum up the
jumble of order in the lines weaving
'thought,' pulsations, running commentary, one upon the other,
itself a jumble of order
as far as poetic
sequence is concerned:
the poor's strength
the new world.
As a summary, the coda is complexly addressed to the mantis and to the poor. The mantis is again urged to fly upon the poor, whose armies' strength will arise like leaves from a stone on stone accretion (cf. the second line of the third stanza) to build the new world "in your eyes."
Fly, mantis, on the poor, arise like leaves
The armies of the poor, strength: stone on stone
And build the new world in your eyes, Save it!
I cite the coda entire to emphasize the complexity of the poet's appeal ("a jumble of order"), and especially the final "Save it!" For with this the reader is referred back to the third line of the first stanza where "it" is read as a pronoun for the mantis; now, in the coda, "it" may again refer to the mantis, which the poet wishes the new world-building armies of the poor to save; but there is the additional reference, gathered from the shared stone, of all the separate poor. The two references co-exist in "it" somewhat separately. The point is that, while separate, both references are at once within "it": the saving is an interdependent act by the mantis and the arisen armies of the poor, who now see beyond the newspaper generalities to real particulars (individuals) and presumably act upon their vision: first the mantis saves the poor by forcing them to sight, which then permits them to see the mantis' plight and save it.
This paraphrase no more than prepares for questions of rhythm and style. While it, along with the poet's own interpretation, does indicate that Zukofsky faithfully attends to the shape of his several thoughts' torsion in choosing the sestina for the poem's form, it may be claimed that "Mantis" is merely another instance of inherited form writing. That is: if Zukofsky had been listening to himself and writing in accord with what he heard, why was he not content to let the poem's form (shape) reveal itself as it moved toward its own completion?
Zukofsky's interpretation, in response, makes it clear that he has listened, is conscious of himself, the equivalent of Charles Olson's breath-registering. As evidence:
Thoughts'--two or three or five or
Six thoughts' reflection (pulse's witness) of what was happening
All immediate, not moved by any transition
Feeling this, what should be the form
Which the ungainliness already suggested
la battaglia delli diversi pensieri . . .
The actual twisting
Of many and diverse thoughts
What form should that take?
Typically, or so Olson would have us believe, the non-projectivist or closed poet begins with the form and ends with a poem determined by the form; his actual subject, in effect, is the form itself; what the closed poet "expresses" is himself as the possessor of literary acumen; he is an illusionist reproducer of items of past --what may come to be known as tradition-writing; he can, after all, produce recognizable "literature."
Zukofsky, though, begins with his poem's originating thoughts (and even before them, with what his eyes see, i.e., "a small incident of one's physical vision"), reflects on what they define, and then proceeds to select a form in accord with his many and diverse thoughts' cumulative shape definition, the sestina. His position is analogous to the projectivist poet who finds to his surprise (alarm?) that what his listening directs him toward is a sonnet. There is a certain degree of admirable courage in Zukofsky's resolve to stick with the sestina as "the only/ Form that will include the most pertinent subject of our day--/ The poor--." Zukofsky is conscious, awake: for there is no demand that he cite the objection contained in Williams' "--Our world will not stand it,/ the implications of a too regular form" in his interpretation. And as Olson comments from the context of his projective verse essay: "is it not the PLAY of a mind we are after, is not that that shows whether a mind is there at all?" Active and sympathetic consciousness, in respect to the seriousness of Zukofsky's subject, may be substituted for Olson's play. The point is that an audience does want to know a mind is there--as opposed to a form filling tradition-alert automaton--as some indication of the poet's love, of his sincerity, That a mind is active in the poem's shape (surface) can be seen from Zukofsky's treatment of rhythm in "Mantis."
Given the poet's convoluted thoughts and a recalcitrantly convolute form, what should the sound-shape, the belleza, be to fulfill and not just fill the sestina and the "pledge" of the sincere poet's love? It should participate in and be, in effect, a growing definition of that convolution. As such a definition and as the product of a pattern of stanzas rather than a single stanza arrangement, the poem's rhythm emerges from binary comparison. I read the first two lines as hendecasyllabic patterns. Thus:
^ ^ ^ ¯ ^ ¯ ^ ¯ ^ ¯
Mantis! | praying mantis | since your | wings' leaves
^ ^ ^ ¯ ¯ ^ ^ ¯ ^ ¯ ^
And your | terrified eyes, | pins, bright, | black and poor
The remainder of the lines in the first stanza may be read similarly, though with internal variation and a syllable count that varies from nine to twelve. The unitive rhythmic contour of the first stanza does sound convolute, i.e., the first two measures of the above two lines--and of the following lines in the stanza as well--are made up of short repeating duple co-ordinates that tend to sound more quickly, despite the staccato effects in the second line, than the longer and more distinct sounds of both lines' latter two measures. These measures do not resolve the rapidity of the first two measures so much as they repeat them, but, generally, more gradually. This enlargement or gliding effect is achieved in the fourth line, for example, by the vowel sounds in "cannot touch, --You--" and by the delaying-holding of punctuation.
Further reading shows that all six lines in the other five stanzas may also be read as hendecasyllabic patterns with a tendency for a faster-slower (many smaller-fewer longer) line sound organization. The relevance of this sameness is that an even closer internal line analysis is needed to decide how densely the lines' and stanzas' rhythms operate in relation with one another.
The second lines of the first three stanzas with their similar choppy alliterative effects immediately present themselves as instances of close relation (pins-prop-prey-papers), but in place of an infinitely regressing analysis of each line's words, I shall examine only the end rhyme words, the parola-rima, and their reappearance at other points on the line. The end rhyme words in their first stanza order are: leaves, poor, it, You-you, lost, stone. The occurrence of these words on different lines in later stanzas is controlled by Zukofsky's model, Dante's rime petrose sestina (itself based on Arnaut Daniel's Lo ferm voler), which follows a scheme known in medieval Latin treatises as retrogradatio cruciata. By this scheme the sixth and last rhyme word of each stanza becomes the first of the next stanza, the fifth and fourth become the third and fifth, whereas the first, second, and third become the second, fourth, and sixth; the poet takes one from the end of the preceding stanza, then one from the beginning alternately. All the possible combinations are exhausted in six stanzas and the poem, as mathematical unit, is complete. To that Dante adds a congedo of three lines in which he uses all six rhyme words, one at the end and one in the middle of each line. With the exception of "lost," Zukofsky's coda follows Dante's practice, including the connection between four of the rhyme words by assonance (poor, you, lost, stone in Zukofsky: donna, ombra, petra, erba in Dante).
Except for "leaves," all of Zukofsky's rhyme words appear at more than their predetermined end positions throughout the poem. Thus "Poor" appears ten times (most emphatically in the coda with two repetitions in three lines), "it" appears nine times, "you"--and the related "your"--appears twenty-one times, "lost" appears seven times, and "stone" appears ten times. The result is a heightened fugal complexity of very few words with the repeated rhyme words occurring as a constant "leaf around leaf" growing subject, their other line appearances acting as countersubjects and episodes caught up in and resonating, by repetition of exact and near same sound equivalents, against the sounds made by non-rhyme words (voices).
Zukofsky's preoccupation with music, particularly that of Bach, is well known. But, as Kenneth Cox has noticed, Zukofsky's work, including "Mantis," is not musical as that term is conventionally applied to poetry, which has more to do with imitative "sound effects" than anything else. For Zukofsky "is concerned for the pitch of vowel and duration of syllable which fit verse to be sung and it distinguishes song from declamation and declamation from recitative. . . ." The pitch of vowel and duration of syllable: "poor" in the first stanza ends a series of rim-shot "sprung" monosyllabic words. There, in alliteration with the relatively closed sound of "pins," it is open-longer held, though not stressed--; its pitch, coming after the crackling "bright, black" is descending, lower, suggesting that it is (as it in fact is) the most crucial element of the series. "Poor" appears only once, the end rhyme for the fourth line in the second stanza, but is extended by earlier alliteration with "prop, prey" in line two. "Papers" likewise carries the p sound in the third stanza. Here "poor," in the fifth line, again has lower pitch and comparatively longer syllable duration by the juxtapositioning of "too," ascending and open. In the sixth line, these qualities are played off against the expansive "too" with "Like all the separate poor to save the lost." "To" is the extreme opposite of "too," signifying the seeming paradox of the newspaper which in its contents' blurring generality is inadequate for any particular problem or its solution in the case of the separate poor: the poor get poorer.
The close repetition (lines two and three) in the fourth stanza creates a just delayed trip hammer effect that underscores the non-seeing of the poor. "Poor" is again at the climax of a serial movement in the next stanza: "On stone,/ Mantis, you will die, touch, beg, of the poor." And again, with the anticipation made by close comma partition and the specifying preposition phrase "of the . . .," "poor" is low pitched and held. In this case, however, pitch and duration are virtual. What lowers and holds them is the ruthless meaning that all of these things will happen to the mantis as a result of the poor. In direct opposition--further stated by the lines' literal closeness--, the first line of the sixth stanza has "poor" as the end-object of the mantis'--now become "loving beggar"--dive "to the poor." Thus the final line of the preceding stanza declares the mantis to be victim of the poor's non-seeing inattention and the very next line implores the mantis to sacrifice itself to the poor, to force them to see, as a loving beggar. The space constriction involved is not coincidental.
It may seem odd that the poet's voice, which heretofore in the poem is undeviatingly grim, suddenly becomes compassionate. But the change is of the nature of the act required; it would be "irrational," as love may be thought irrational facing the equations of individual gain, for the mantis to give itself to the poor. The immediacy of the change in the appearance of "poor" substantiates ("sounds") the genuine disinterest the poet would have the mantis embody, i.e., his own, as an urged "idea." "But the mantis can start / History." The coda maintains the prepositional focus upon "poor" through the poet's final urging. "On the poor" is a variation of "to the poor"; both are for the poor (directives to the mantis) as "of the poor" is not, a stage at which (strength) the mantis' sacrifice is not needed. The second "of the poor" (the first was in the last line of the fifth stanza) is crucial; for while in both places there are indications of power, it is the poor's strength, which now sees, that will save the mantis.
In each of the coda's first two lines, "poor" lies precisely in the center of the line, stopped there by commas. The pitch and duration are quite similar, though meaning developing out of syntax makes them utterly different. The first "poor" remains in need of the mantis' loving sacrifice; the second "poor" comes, presumably the effected result of that sacrifice, as armies whose strength will build a new world. "Poor" ranges throughout the poem, weaving the poem by sound and what might be called "position associations" with other words, the sound of the word never allowed to leave the reader's forgetting and remembering head, to come down twice, again and again, the central insistent subject of "Mantis."
What does this single word, watched and listened to through its changes, sound like? What, in the words of Robert Duncan's poem "An Essay at War," is the "hidden thing/ revealed in its Pulse and/ durations"? It is a fugue, a principle, a process, one voice contrasting and joining with others. Or as Bach has written: "the parts of a fugue should behave like reasonable men in an orderly discussion." Yet the poet's voice in "Mantis" is anything but reasonable--his reason is rational, but frantic, without syllogistic manners--; his discussion with the insect is passionately disorderly. How can such things be identified with fugue as defined by its great master? But before trying to answer that, I would cite Zukofsky's own description of fugue as made in a discussion of Shakespeare's Pericles:
And if that intellective portion of mind that is music can make poetry and prose interchangeable, because there is a note always to come back to a second time--sung to the scale the 'subjects' of speech are so few and words only ring changes one on another, the differences perceived by their fictions are so slight music makes them few. Up, down, outwards--for even inversions and exact repetitions move on--are the melodic statement and hence the words' sense: or after syllable have been heard before in contiguity, they may also be augmented or diminished, or brought to crowd answer on subject in a great fugue. . . .
There is no real discrepancy between Bach's understanding (and practice) of fugue and Zukofsky's. A reading of "A, " which cites Bach's definition, only serves to notice Zukofsky's continuing attentive sympathy for Bach's music, which, in fact, is used as one of that poem's modes of organization.
And however casual that reading may be, it is impossible not to notice
What stirs is
his tracing a particular line,
Tracings of lines
Meeting by chance or design.
With him ornament,
A precision of appeal--
This appreciation of Bach's skill in renewing the use of the arabesque is followed three pages later by the poet's account of own work.
This imagined music
Traces the particular line
Of lines meeting
by chance or design.
Bach's music and the poet's consciousness of his own art exist in shared words, shared so that, much later in "A," Bach's quoted voice and Zukofsky's active composing voice become a single voice without trace of heavy-handed joinery:
old man and close lady as one August gust on another stop speaking in pretty ears: B's Notenbuch compiled by both: her copy has her initial no other signature: 'between order and sensibility in its power at once to suggest all complexity and keep every form each form taking up the same theme': not by association' it is so things come to me.
"Certainly," as Robert Creeley writes in his introduction to the American edition of "A" 1-12, "Zukofsky hears Bach . . . ."
Still, it remains true that "Mantis" outrightly violates the reasonable and the orderly. And still, again, the sestina reveals itself as a mathematically unforgiving form, forcing those without great surety of technique to become its enthralled manipulators: the form is orderly. Here, though, lies the clue. For if a sonnet as an instance of received or inherited form may be said to be orderly, then the sestina is demonically so. Or as two of Dante's commentators write with admirable brevity: "The form in itself renders an obsession." "Poor" in "Mantis" sounds an obsession with "the most pertinent subject of our day--/ The poor--". But the ways "poor" is sounded--exact repetition, augmentation, dimunition--are the ways of fugue process. "Mantis" is a fugue, but speeded up, a film made blurred and "jumbled" by being run at more than usual speed, quarter notes all transposed to eights and sixteenths, without transitions.
The rhythm of "Mantis" does fulfill the shape chosen for the poet's torsioned thoughts, the relentless sestina experienced as fugal drive and not wicker-work. The realization grows, however, that the poet's emotion, no matter how apparently genuine, can never, despite the attractions of biography, be known beyond the necessary remove of the poem itself, a construction of language, with its own special tests for sincerity, style and technique.
Style acts as a corrective, critical template of adjustment (judgment) upon patterns of expectation developing from the poet's word combinations. Its judgments, based on awareness of good continuation, are expressed as in or out of style. In the case of "Mantis," the governing style is the obsession of the sestina form in the right relation with the subject of the poor. It is accordingly never enough merely to exhibit one more contemporary reproduction of the form.
How a test of style for "Mantis" comes out depends on the functioning of individual words. For it is there that the patterns of expectation inhering in shape either organically contribute as "minor units of sincerity" or simply act as a form's required identifying place-holders. "Wind-up" in the second stanza, for instance, is curious, but not incomprehensibly arbitrary: a combination of wind's motion and that of mechanical toys can easily be "applied" to the mantis as insect and sharer of the terror of the lost poor, who are controlled at will by the banks and newspapers. A part of the coda--". . . arise like leaves/ The armies of the poor . . .", wrenches the syntactical expectation made by "Fly, mantis, on the poor. . ." but such inversion is suitable for la battaglia and for additional stress upon the inextricably tied fate of the mantis and the poor. These instances appear to stick out in relief from the poem, but are then seen to resolve themselves into its larger shape.
Less easily resolved are the three parentheses: (thoughts' torsion), (is it love your raised stomach prays?), and (once men). I have already pointed out that Zukofsky uses the parenthesis to remove or disengage his voice from the flow of the poem to comment upon it as an actor might use an aside to his audience. This comparison's involvement of audience is not without interest, though any consideration is made difficult by the anonymity of the modern mass art patron audience (what is "out there" according to Stravinsky) and by the serious poet's own insulation from a dictating audience while in the act of composition. Who is Zukofsky talking to? Perhaps to himself--"While you're partly right you're all wrong--/ I speak to myself most often."--, perhaps to anyone out there.
The point remains that, for however momentary a time, the energy of the sestina is made to pause, then plunge on in its convolutions. The parentheses are delays, disruptions of the poem's musical shape. In measuring the disruption more precisely, it must be admitted that the parentheses are of some aid as landmarks in the otherwise blurring speed of the sestina. And their very aid uncovers their difficulty: that they are somehow outside the poem which does not possess the larger space of drama. A further distinction can be made between the parentheses themselves. (Is it love's food your raised stomach prays?) represents another level of the poet's voice in the poem, addressed to the mantis, whereas (thoughts' torsion) and (once men) are essentially exterior explanations. Yet no satisfactory link can be found for (thoughts' torsion) and "it" of the same line, and the reader is forced to assume that the parenthetical torsion, though perhaps in a more impersonal manner, represents another level, distinct from the passionate voice level of most of the poem, even to the extent of interior admonishing "mind-voice" conscience. Likewise, (once men) may be taken as spoken by the poet, but it is spoken to neither the mantis, nor to the poor--nor to the poet himself--. Its lack of "local" direction is a sign for its explaining connection with "the paths men leave" and the mantis' death by thorns with the mythic explanation--Cadmus reversed--which helps in turn to connect with the later flat reference to "the myth."
Arguing for Dante's Donna Pietra as a symbol of a poetics, Leslie Fiedler remarks in passing that "if there is a 'true love' behind the rime pietrose, it is the love of Arnaut Daniel."' I at first read this to refer to Daniel's own "real" romances in comparison with Fiedler's idee fixe description of Dante as a member of university homosexual society more concerned with finding a subject to justify a new style than with the unrelenting charm of a historical maiden. A later reading is that whether Dante's sestina was written for an actual female or not, what "Al poco giorno" inescapably demonstrates is a love of language as embodied in the practice of Arnaut Daniel, il miglior fabbro, the best smith of language. To repeat, the poet's emotion can never be directly warranted, however contemporary he may be with his readers. (So the pretty dilemma: what if Zukofsky--asked if he were really passionately concerned with the poor--were to say "yes," but in an unconvincing manner?) Similarly, reversing analysis cannot be expected to lay bare anything like the full dynamics of the composition sequence. The emotion that can be indicated through analysis is love of language from the treatment of style and technique. There is at least the implication that, by virtue of his treatment, Zukofsky successfully objectives his complex emotion toward the poor in "Mantis."
That is to say if the poet's personal love or compassionate emotion for the poor cannot be finally determined, it nonetheless can be inferred from his love of language, his consciousness of word combinations and their construction to the extent that, in Eric Mottram's phrase, "technique is mythicized." The poem is an emotional object made of words. The emotion is objectified--held for the inspection of others--if the poet has sufficient technique, the particular point to point (not to suggest military march music regularity) realization of the shape to rhythm to style sequence. The undeniable obsession of Zukofsky's sestina, his "successful" consciousness and realization of technique, all these "facts of practice" ground the extensions I have made of his understanding of sincerity as the care for detail founded on love that sees with the eyes (with the justly coordinating mind), the "engenderer" of his composition sequence. Such care may come to exist for language well constructed--not pure--, for language seen as an object of delight in the eyes of the sincere poet who desires to witness his love.
From Louis Zukofsky: Man and Poet. Ed. By Carroll F. Terrell. Copyright © 1979 by The national poetry Foundation. Reprinted with permission.
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