Pushcart XLII: Ellen Bass, “Any Common Desolation” (poem) from Poem-a-Day, 11/18/16

can be enough to make you look up
at the yellowed leaves of the apple tree, the few
that survived the rains and frost, shot
with late afternoon sun. They glow a deep
orange-gold against a blue so sheer, a single bird
would rip it like silk. You may have to break
your heart, but it isn’t nothing
to know even one moment alive.

Complete story available online at Poetry; audio on Soundcloud

I almost treated this as a sweet, simple little poem, another of those “what is this doing here” moments I have so often, but a structural element made me look twice, and boy am I glad I did. Let me emphasize again that I have very little training in poetry, and am just flying by the seat of my pants here (hey, we all need our amusements), so don’t take any of this too seriously.

It’s a common thought, really, an oppositional binarism echoed from antiquity to today: We must know pain in order to know joy; we only understand dark because we know light. We appreciate the good things when we know disaster. This kind of thing always makes me wonder what we don’t understand now, because we have never seen its opposite (also a side effect of hanging around too many postmodernists).

The speaker starts with what most of us would consider the “down side” – the “any common desolation” of the title – before listing all the up-sides this down side incurs. She covers the entire sensorium, with elements of sight, sound, smell/taste, and touch. It’s interesting that there’s some violent language in the up-side stuff; leaves shot with sun, a sky a bird might rip. Then the down side is acknowledged again – a broken heart – and again, the good stuff involves words that could be associated with pain: tearing, grating, a cuff. The final pairing, of mud and wonder, likewise includes an ambiguous image of “a needle slipped into your vein” on the up side. The up and down sides, it seems, are not that clearly demarcated at all.

But what really interested me is that use of title as a first line, something I’ve noticed twice now in this volume. I still don’t know what it’s called, so I sent out some queries. Peter Stockwell, a professor of literary linguistics at Nottingham in England (and whose Cognitive Poetics mooc I was lucky to take a few years ago, which is how he ended up on my twitter feed) didn’t know of any canonical term, but suggested “title enjambment”; that cheered me, since I’d suggested a variety of enjambment when I saw this before.

I’m still not completely comfortable with that, though. Enjambment implies momentum, a sense of coming to the end of a line but being pushed across by the natural grammar of the sentence. That’s missing in these title enjambments, since a title is naturally a single line ending with a natural stop. The sense of enjambment isn’t recognized until the first line of the poem is read. This makes me wonder if retroactive enjambment might be appropriate.

The next suggestion came from Patrick Gillespie, a “carpenter & poet living ‘Up in Vermont’”, whose blog came to my attention via a Twitter shoutout from Emily Wilson, the Penn classicist whose recent Iliad translation has been creating a stir. Patrick said:

I’ve always just called them “Line Titles”, but I might be the only one?
Out of curiosity, I looked up Title in the Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms. They go on and on and on (ad nauseum) about Titles and how they *mean* things (to absurd lengths in my opinion) but in all that verbiage they somehow forget to notice the Line Title… That one slipped right passed them.
The poetic dictionary, by John Drury, actually has an entry. He called it, in a burst of descriptive genius: “Title as First Line”. He mentions that Marianne Moore was a pioneer of the “device”. “It resides outside the stanzaic structure”, he writes. And when you hear language like that, you know academics are salivating. What could it *mean*?

(We New Englanders have a sense of humor. We have to. After six months of winter, we don’t get Spring, we get a month of mud & flood season.)

I quite like “line titles”; simple, descriptive, and accurate. Since Academia shows little interest in naming this technique, and since no one pays any attention to me anyway, I hereby name the structure a line title, and declare the function to be retroactive enjambment: a sense of momentum not noticed until the next line – that is, the second line of the poem – is read.

This fits the content of the poem quite well. Any common desolation leaves us with the sense of some love gone, some joy ended. We stop, mourn. But if we can just go a little further – look at the leaves, smell the ginger, hear the oars, remember the moments of safety and love, feel our breath – we can realize it need not be an ending, but an inevitable transition; and there will be more love and joy ahead, because the world overflows with it.

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