Stephen Dobyns
Stanford Mohr Poet 2011
Commentary on
Context and Causality
Stephen Dobyns' Chapter 6
Next Word, Better Word

Poetry Workshop
(English 192V)
Stanford University
Winter Quarter 2011

Peter Y. Chou

Next Word, Better Word
Craft of Writing Poetry (2011)

Preface: Stephen Dobyns, Stanford Mohr Poet (Winter 2011) told his Poetry Workshop class (English 192V) on February 2, 2010 that our homework assignment for next week is a 300-350 words essay on his handout— Context and Causality (pp. 111-125) from his new book Next Word, Better Word to be published by Macmillan (April 26, 2011). I enjoyed reading this chapter more than the earlier ones on syllables and line breaks. The background that Dobyns provided with historical and geographical details enriched the five poems cited immensely. Thus a casual reading of poems is not enough, additional research on the context and causality of a poem will give a better understanding of the poet's intention and message on the page.

Context and Textile
The poem on a page presents to the reader the effects arising from a series of causes in form and content. The causes lie outside the poem and make up the poem's content. The form reflects the content by its sound and rhythm as well as the lines visually on the page. The word "context" derives from Latin (contextus)— weaving together and is related to the word "textile" (textilis)— woven cloth. Another word is "texture"— essential part: substance; overall structure: body. Thus poetry is a weaving of thoughts, ideas, memories, emotions, and sense data as well as sound and rhythm that make up the form. It's interesting that later (p. 118), Dobyns discussed Rilke's fifth poem "The Island of the Sirens" from his New Poems (1908). As Odysseus was weaving his story-telling at the court of King Alcinous, his wife Penelope had been weaving for 20 years back home in Ithaca while he was away.

Weaving Images in Dante's Commedia
Dobyns doesn't discuss Dante in this chapter. But Dante used the weaving image continuously as he wove his epic Commedia, citing Penelope (Inferno 26.93) and Aragne (Arachne) "nor had Arachne ever loomed such webs" (Inferno 17.18). Arachne was the Lydian maiden who excelled in weaving. She challenged Minerva to a weaving contest. After losing, Minerva changed her into a spider. Dante weaves more myths— "but since she who spins night and day had not / yet spun the spool that Clotho sets upon / the distaff and adjusts for everyone" (Purgatorio 21.25-27). "The reference is to Lachesis, the second of the Three Fates, on to whose distaff Clotho, the first of the Fates, was supposed to place a certain quantity of wool at the birth of every mortal, the length of time it took to spin being the duration of the individual's life." (Charles Singleton, Commentary to Purgatorio, 1973, p. 505). Finally, Dante connects weaving to his writing— "but since all the pages that were laid upon / the loom for this second cantica have been / filled, the curb of art lets me go no farther" (W.S. Merwin translation, Dante, Purgatorio, 33.139-141, 2000, p. 331). (Note: The web links to Dante translations are by Allen Mandelbaum)

Geographical Locale of Poems
John Berryman's "Dream Song 18: A Strut for Roethke" (1963) was his elegy for Theodore Roethke who died on August 1, 1963. Roethke taught at University of Washington and died of a heart attack in a friend's swimming pool in Puget Sound. Bremerton is the largest city in Kitsap County, Washington. Since Washington state is western United States, the poem begins with "Westward". Also the sun sets in the west, a metaphor for dying. A New Orleans jazz funeral is suggested by "hit a low note" and "a roarer lost" is Roethke the musician/poet.
    In Anna Akhmatova's untitled poem (1911) "Memories of the sun fade as my heart grows numb—" (translated by Lyn Coffin), Dobyns tells us that the town in question is St. Petersburg, Russia, city of many canals often referred to as "Venice of the North". It also has a near-arctic climate, with snow cover and below-zero temperatures six months of the year. With this information, we understand the bleak lines "In narrow canals, there's already nothing that flows— Water stands still. / Nothing happens here, nothing grows—" But this "skeletal life" and "Darkness in town" is a metaphor for the poet's inner life and anguish/anger when she says "Maybe it's better that I'm not your wife, / After all."

Leda and the Swan
Dobyns cites three poems with the theme of "Leda and the Swan". Yeat's sonnet "Leda and the Swan" (1928), Rilke's "Leda" (1908), and H.D.'s "Leda" (1921). Dobyns provides historical and personal details of each poet's background that add richness to the poem's understanding. Since Dobyns does not recount the myth, I consulted my books— Leda was a daughter of King Thespius and Eurythemis, who married King Tyndarus of Sparta. She was seen bathing in the river Eurotas by Jupiter (Zeus), when she was some few days advanced in her pregnacy, and the god, struck with her beauty, resolved to deceive her. He persuaded Venus to change herself into an eagle, while he assumed the form of a swan. After this metamorphosis, Jupiter, as if fearful of the tyrannical eagle, fled through the air into the arms of Leda, who willingly sheltered the trembling swan from the eagle's assault. The caresses with which the naked Leda received the swan, enabled Jupiter to avail himself of his situation, and nine months after this adventure, the wife of Tyndarus brought forth two eggs, from one of which sprang Pollux and Helen, and from the other Castor and Clytemnestra. The two former were deemed the offspring of Jupiter, and the others claimed Tyndarus for their father. (Lempière's Classical Dictionary, 3rd edition, 1984, pp. 323-324).
    Leda is not a Greek name. Among the Lycians in Asia Minor, lada meant "woman". Perhaps Zeus celebrated the swan-marriage with a goddess who— except for Mother Earth— was the world's first femal being, and could therefore be called simply Leda, "the woman". (C. Kerényi, The Gods of the Greeks, 1951, p. 107) (Image: Francesco Melzi, Leda and the Swan 1515, after a lost painting by Leonardo da Vinci, Uffizi, Florence)

Swan Symbolism
A symbol of great complexity. The dedication of the swan to Apollo, as the god of music, arose out of the mythic belief that it would sing sweetly when on the point of death (Plato, Phaedo, 85b). The red swan is a symbol of the sun. But almost all meanings are concerned with the white swan, sacred to Venus, which is why Gaston Bachelard suggests that in poetry it is an image of naked woman, of chaste nudity and immaculate whiteness. But Bachelard finds an even deeper significance: hermaphroditism, since in its movement and certainly in its long phallic neck it is masculine yet in its rounded, silky body it is feminine. In sum, then, the swan always points to the complete satisfaction of desire which brings about its own death. This ambivalent significance of the swan was also well known to the alchemists, who compared it with 'philosophical Mercury', the mystic Centre and the union of opposites, an interpretation entirely in accord with its archetypal implications. In Marius Schneider's view, the swan, by virtue of its relationship with the harp and the sacrificial serpent, also pertains to the funeral pyre, because the essential symbols of the mystic journey to the other world are the swan and the harp. This would afford another explanation of the mysterious song of the dying swan. (J.E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, 1962, p. 306) (Image: Leda and the Swan, a 16th century copy after a lost painting by Michelangelo, 1530, National Gallery, London))

— Peter Y. Chou, February 9, 2011