Words Without a Song

This post is a continuation of my previous post, in which I looked at some allusions. Today I’m going to look at one particular poem and the allusions in it and the kinds of meanings I think are carried by the allusions. The poem I have picked is titled “Words Without a Song”, and it was written by me. I don’t write a lot of poems. I don’t claim that this is anything special as a poem, though I like it okay. The advantage of using it is that I (the critic) can ask the poet (me) what he had in mind when he wrote it. Here it is:

Words Without a Song

I cannot tap my feet in time
     Or make my verses run;
I have no gift for trope or rhyme
     Or seeing two-in-one;
My senses never cross their wires
I never feel that feathered choirs
     Are like the setting sun.

I’ve read my share of poetry—
     It fell on stony ground.
The meaning is a mystery,
     Although I like the sound.
Was stout Pizzaro, on his peak,
Merely playing hide and seek.
     And blind to what he’d found?

I’ve been assigned a Muse that’s mute—
     A bird with a broken wing;
She tries in vain to strum a lute
     With only a broken string.
But if you’d care to cure my Muse,
Invoke her with a shot of booze—
     Then you’ll hear her sing.

I start with the title. This is intended to be an allusion by inversion to the title of a set of short piano pieces written by Felix Mendelssohn, “Songs without Words” (“Lieder ohne Worte”). The pieces are (mostly) quite lyrical, with melodies it would be easy to sing. The implication of the title, I suppose, is that these pieces could be songs, and it’s just an accident that they don’t have words. I don’t think there’s any sense that they are deficient because they don’t have words. But “Words without a Song” is different. The title suggests that these words lack the song that makes a poem something more than just a collection of words. We will have to see if that interpretation is consistent with the rest of the poem.

This kind of title which is an allusion by inversion goes back to Karl Marx, who wrote a book titled “The Poverty of Philosophy” in 1847. This was a response to another book, “The Philosophy of Poverty”, by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Proudon’s book was a sort of anarchist analysis of economics. Marx disagreed with Proudon’s analysis, and his title is meant to suggest that Proudhon’s philosophy is pretty poor stuff. As it happens, we can be sure that the author of the poem knew about Marx’s reply to Proudhon, which probably provided the template for his allusion by inversion, even if he didn’t expect the reader to know about it.

The first stanza is a form of what a rhetorician might call the inability topos (“As unaccustomed as I am to public speaking …”), in which the speaker of the poem declares that he can’t write a poem; the statement of his inability to write a poem takes the form of a poem. I note the hint of a pun in the word “feet”, which can refer to physical feet attempting to tap time on the floor, or to poetic feet; the pun is continued in the next line, “verses … run”. I note that the speaker of the poem says he can’t make meter or rhyme in lines that have meter and rhyme. “Trope” means a figure of speech which changes the meaning of the words, such as metaphors. In this part of the poem the speaker more or less is saying that he just sees the world as it is, that is, as an objective physical reality. The phrase “seeing two-in-one” is seeing a symbol, in which one thing has two meanings. So the speaker is saying that he can’t make metaphors or symbols. The sentence “My senses never cross their wires” is a way of talking about synesthesia, which occurs when one sense is experienced as another sense—when sounds are seen as colors, for instance. The source of the next couplet is complex: “I never feel that feathered choirs / Are like the setting sun.” I haven’t been able to find any direct allusion here, though I have looked, but I suspect the poet was influenced by several different poetic sources. One of these is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, which describes trees in the winter as “bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang”. Those birds might be called a feathered choir, in a sort of trope.

Also in the background I sense hints of Blake’s imagery; for instance, in Blake’s notes on one of his engravings, “The Last Judgement”, he says “‘What!’ it will be questioned, ‘when the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire, somewhat like a guinea?’ Oh! no! no! I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host, crying, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!” But there is no direct allusion here; we are in the region of what some critics call intertextuality, the faint memory a word brings with it all the other contexts in which it has been used.

The next stanza, however, includes two specific allusions. The first is the Parable of the Sower, from the New Testament (Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23; Mark 4: 1-20; Luke 8:4-20). Here’s part of the passage from Mark: “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away.” The point of the Parable, I suppose, is that that just as some soil will not grow a crop, some people will not be able to receive the word of God. The speaker of this poem says that he is deficient soil for the growth of poetry. The poet reports that this parable was certainly in his mind when he wrote these lines, but after he wrote them he had to go back to the Bible to make sure he had it right.

This stanza also includes a direct allusion to Keats’ Sonnet, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”. Keats says that reading Chapman’s translation of Homer was like discovering a new world; he felt like an astronomer seeing a new planet for the first time, or like one of the Spanish explorers in the New World. The allusion is to the last quatrain of the sonnet, in which he says he felt “like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes / He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men / Look’d at each other with a wild surmise— / Silent, upon a peak in Darien.” The key words here are “stout” and “peak”, which tie the allusion directly to the source. This passage is one of the great blunders in literary history. Keats is talking about the Spanish conquistador who crossed the Isthmus of Panama to reach the Pacific Ocean from the West, but he gets the name wrong—it wasn’t Hernan Cortes (1485-1547) who led this expedition, but Vasco Núñez de Balboa (c. 1475-1519). Keats had clearly read something about the Spanish conquests in Central and South America, but he didn’t check his reference before he wrote the poem. This mistake is famous, but I hasten to add that no one I know of thinks this blunder in any way diminishes the literary value of the poem.

The speaker of this poem has read Keats’ poem, but he compounds the problem by introducing a third conquistador, Franciso Pizzaro (c. 1471-1541), most famous for his military activities in Peru. I gather that he actually was on the expedition with Balboa, but he wasn’t the leader of the expedition and he wasn’t the person Keats had in mind. When the poet presented this poem in a creative writing class at the University of Toronto, one of the other students, who obviously knew about Keats’ blunder, had a fit. “Is there some reason,” he said, “that poets can’t get their history right!” Well, I would say that student didn’t have a sense of humor. The speaker of the poem got the reference wrong, but the poet knew what he was doing.

The third stanza doesn’t, so far as I can tell, include any specific allusion, but I suspect there’s some additional intertextuality, this time vague reminiscences of two poems by the Renaissance English poet Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542): “To His Lute” and “Blame Not my Lute”. Both of these were probably songs, but the music for them has been lost, so they are literally “Words without a Song”.

In the third stanza the speaker suggests that poetry is written by inspiration, and in particular by intoxication. His problem wasn’t really lack of feeling for poetry, it was a lack of drinking.

In this short poem we find a variety of clear allusions and some traces of intertextuality. The poem alludes to Felix Mendelssohn, Karl Marx, the Bible, and John Keats; there are less definite reminiscences of Shakespeare, William Blake, and Sir Thomas Wyatt. How many of these did the poet want or expect the reader to get? Do the allusions add anything to the meaning of the poem? Does the explanation of the allusions make a difference? What should a poet (or a composer) expect of readers (or listeners)?

I will leave you to consider these questions, and I will be interested to hear any comments.

2 thoughts on “Words Without a Song

  1. This is wonderful, Matthew. What fun it is to be granted access to both the critic and the poet. Though the poet very generously explains some of what he had in mind when writing, he declines to share his expectations about what readers might get. I’ll admit that I wouldn’t have been able to correctly identify any of the allusions, though I could have gotten close-ish with the title and the falling on stony ground. I can’t say for sure, but I think that I would have had the sense, even if I had read the poem outside of a discussion of allusion, that it was full of allusions that I did not get. I probably would have looked up Pizzaro, but I doubt that would have gotten me to Keats, which makes me wonder about the game(s) of hide and seek in which this Pizzaro might be involved.
    I’m interested in how we might distinguish references, allusions, and intertextuality. Intertextuality, it seems, depends as much on a reader’s context as on the author’s. The possibility of meaning-making without much overlap between these contexts often makes me a bit nervous (as both a writer intending and a reader attributing meanings). On another note, I’m fascinated by our nine-year-old’s relationship to cultural references, many of which she enjoys without being aware of the source. I won’t be surprised if, when she encounters various canonical works, she wonders why they are referencing The Simpsons.

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  2. Thanks for these great comments. Your comment about “hide and seek” is great. The whole poem is a game of hide and seek. The poet didn’t notice that connection, but he accepts it with thanks and insists that he meant that all along. As for what the reader should get out of an allusion I will have more to say in either my next post or the one after that. My mother used to say that she liked reading Shakespeare because he quotes so much. I’ve never been satisfied by discussions of or definitions of intertextuality. Some critics seem to mean not much more than allusion, in which case we don’t need the word, but some mean something broader. One critic says, “The phrase “I love you” is always a quotation”. Chomsky emphasizes (quite correctly) the ability of language always to say something new, but it’s also the case that people use idioms all the time, as well. It’s that use of prefab language that I take to be intertextuality. I’m not going to write a post about Dylan, so I will mention him here. Dylan is massively allusive, and it’s often possible to track his allusions down to specific sources. My friend Richard Thomas, who taught me Hellenistic poetry back in graduate school, has written a book, “Why Dylan Matters”, which I highly recommend. Richard is particularly interested in Dylan’s classical allusions, and in some instances he has been able to track down specific translations of classical literature that Dylan uses. So all that is allusion. But in addition, Dylan often uses short phrases which are part of the folk tradition, or just part of the language. A couple that spring to mind are “when your deal goes down” or “a day late and a dollar short”, but I’m sure there are hundreds. That’s more like intertextuality. Sometimes we are aware of using an idiom, sometimes not. In my poem, the phrase “hide and seek” is not an allusion, but it could be considered intertextuality.

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