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Old 10-03-2009, 03:07 AM
Philip Quinlan Philip Quinlan is offline
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Default The perfect poem

In my relentless quest for the perfect poem (and some sense of the criteria for same) I have so far discovered in umpteen years of disappointment about half a dozen that fit the bill for me.

I wanted to share one here to see if others see it the same way I do (unlikely, but still...) and maybe pick it apart some, or offer other poems for the title?

This one is probably top of my shortlist

The Eyes of the Drowned Watch Keels Going Over
(William Merwin)

Where the light has no horizons we lie.
It dims into depth not distance. It sways
Like hair, then we shift and turn over slightly.
As once on the long swing under the trees
In the drowse of summer we slid to and fro
Slowly in the soft wash of the air, looking
Upward through the leaves that turned over and back
Like hands, through the birds, the fathomless light,
Upward. They go over us swinging
Jaggedly, laboring between our eyes
And the light. Churning their wrought courses
Between the sailing birds and the awed eyes
Of the fish, with the grace of neither, nor with
The stars' serenity that they follow.
Yet the light shakes around them as they go.
Why? And why should we, rocking on shoal-pillow,
With our eyes cling to them, and their wakes follow,
Who follow nothing? If we could remember
The stars in their clarity, we might understand now
Why we pursued stars, to what end our eyes
Fastened upon stars, how it was that we traced
In their remote courses not their own fates but ours

Apart from saying that the sharp-eyed will spot the reference to Dante I will say nothing more at this stage pending any responses from others.

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Old 10-05-2009, 07:56 AM
Gregory Dowling Gregory Dowling is offline
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I suspect the silence that has followed upon your posting is due to puzzlement. Quite simply, what is a "perfect poem"?

This one by Merwin is definitely intriguing. It reminds me of "Full fathom five..." - but I haven't the faintest idea why you would consider it "perfect".

Hoping for further elucidation...

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Old 10-05-2009, 08:04 AM
Roger Slater Roger Slater is offline
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There are many, many poems that I wouldn't change a word of, and which satisfy me entirely. If that's what you mean by "perfect," there are plenty of perfect poems. If that's not what you mean, you need to explain.
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Old 10-05-2009, 12:10 PM
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Orwn Acra Orwn Acra is offline
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One time I tried to write the perfect poem. I went about it by taking a sheet of paper and then, using an X-acto knife, cut out the word "poem" in big letters. What was leftover was a big space in the shape of "poem" and it constantly changed based on what was on the other side of the paper, so it was never finished and in a way, perfect. It was like the 4'33" of poems, if you could count 4'33" as being perfect (I think it is, or at least, most perfectly embodies the idea of perfection).

So the perfect poem would be one that wasn't finished. Just like the "perfect" Saturday night is the one that hasn't started, because it could be perfect, you know? As soon as you write a word, as soon as a single note is played, as soon as you try to translate whatever's in your head to an expressible form, you've already compromised and you've already marred. The perfect poem would have no words.

My poem idea was either really dumb or really clever. It's always a fine line between those two.

Last edited by Orwn Acra; 10-05-2009 at 12:13 PM.
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Old 10-05-2009, 12:12 PM
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W.F. Lantry W.F. Lantry is offline
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First, a disclaimer: I consider Merwin the most admirable living american poet. It's not a contest, but he has no competition. If the works of only two poets from the second half of the 20th century survive, those poets should be James Wright and Merwin.

But I'm not sure I would ever attempt to apply the word 'perfection' to any of his works. It makes me think of what W.C. Williams said when Ginsberg presented him with a sonnet: "In this form, perfection is basic." Merwin seems to be interested in something wholly different.

It's easy to see the influences of three mentors here (Blackmur, Berryman, and Auden). But beyond that, most of his pieces resist analysis. Some cliches apply: early religious influence transmuted into a later interest in myth. Early work in form which later informs the more open verse. But beyond that, it's hard to discern any formulas, algorithms, or plans, except in their absence. There is no sophomoric concern with 'voice', no highlighting of the craft. What we do have is passion, and interest in the eternal, and an almost visionary intensity.

So what do we have? The voices of the drowned, who spend their time looking up from the sea bottom, at the light in the water and the ships going by above them. There's no 'I', but there is a collective 'we', and the 'we' is understandable enough that 'it could be us.' In other words, if you and I were in this position, and were conditions like this, it 'is' what we would do.

This is because Merwin is able to fully see and feel it. The ground swells moving us about, the way the light comes down through the water, the forms of the ships still going by. He even feels the loss of memory we'd experience.

And he does it without error, without abstractions, without missteps, and without conventional sentimentality. For Merwin has an incredible, almost unfair, advantage: he spent years as a translator, in various languages, and his knowledge of those other languages informs the clarity and purity of his use of english. And he spent years translating poets from distant cultures, and has an extremely nuanced view of poetics. He is the antithesis of parochialism, as universal a poet as we've ever known. And it shows here: the piece is informed by greek myth, italian epic, english drama, 20th century american verse, but doesn't belong to any of them. It's hard to even call it american, except by the accident of his birth.

What it does have is intensity, passion, vision and dexterity. Maybe it *is* a production of its time, but it's also eternal. I'm gushing here, and I don't want to gush. There's no need. But I will say this: woodworkers, seeing a piece approaching this level, have a tendency to throw down their tools, and say 'that's it, I give up.' But a piece like this has the opposite effect on me. It shows me that it's humanly possible to do better than I'm doing. Much, much better. It helps me keep going in spite of my substantial limitations. And if that's how you wish to define 'perfection', well, the definition is good enough to persuade me.


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Old 10-05-2009, 01:17 PM
Philip Quinlan Philip Quinlan is offline
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Bill has saved me the task of trying to say why one might consider this poem perfect by saying it in a way I couldn't even begin to.

If I had to clutch at "why"s they would include indeed the poem's sense of faultlessness, and even effortlessness. But this wasn't an exercise in saying "I, PQ, have the secret formula by which I judge this poem to be perfect" (there would be paydirt in that!) nor even an exaggerated way of saying (to borrow Rose's expression) "this one floats my boat" (although it does, bigtime).

Nor is it hero worship. Because, while I admire Merwin's choice to live (rather than just write) poetry, a great deal of his poetry irritates the living **** out of me, and again that isn't because it is impenetrable, but because of the language in many cases.

The "perfect" thing is a sort of gut reaction, the same one I get with say Beethoven or Sibelius. Given a hundred years I wouldn't have come up with even the main opening theme of say the Pastoral Symphony, but when I listen to it I can't help thinking every time "yes, of course that's what you'd do - of course it has to go that way".

So in a muddly way I suppose I'm saying that it's a sort of "rightness" which isn't diminished by "obviousness". It is only obvious once you know. So I suppose the "I wouldn't change a word" criterion is also a bit of it.

There is a poem by Carol Ann Duffy (Valentine) that makes me want to razor out the word "wobbling" and replace it with almost anything else, it is just SO wrong.

In the Merwin poem there is no line or phrase I can point to in isolation and say "how brilliant" or "see what he did there". It is a ribbon of words that leads inexorably (and attractively) to an exactly, but gently stated conclusion.

Inter-alia I should say I agree re: James Wright (who has a similar poetical pedigree).

It may be significant (or not) that on my shortlist of "perfect" poems no two are by the same poet. The ones that come to mind immediately are:

Lawrence Durrell's "Water Music"

Wrap your sulky beauty up,
From sea-fever, from winterfall
Out of the swing of the
Swing of the sea.
Keep safe from noonfall,
Starlight and smokefall where
Waves roll, waves toll but feel
None of our roving fever.

From dayfever and nightsadness
Keep, bless, hold: from cold
Wrap your sulky beauty into sleep
Out of the swing of the
Swing of sea.

(most of Durrell's stuff seems affected to me and too littered with classical references)

Also one by Ted Hughes "October Dawn" (which I can't lay my hands on electronically).

Perhaps I have a particular penchant for "purity" of language, or language without jagged edges, I don't know. But I go back to this one of Merwin's more than any other.

I'd be interested to know whether anyone else has such a poem lodged in their brain.

No biggy

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Old 10-05-2009, 01:42 PM
Richard Epstein Richard Epstein is offline
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Seems kind of pointless, "perfection" being so much in the eye of beholder, except, of course, that anything which reminds us of good poems serves a good purpose. To me perfection implies a kind of formal symmetry probably found only in short poems--Nothing Gold Can Stay; Stars, I Have Seen Them Fall; Museum Piece; Diffugere Nives. The thing is, "most perfect" doesn't necessarily mean "best." Frost wrote better poems than Nothing Gold Can Stay or Fire and Ice, but nothing closer to "perfect."

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Old 10-05-2009, 04:31 PM
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Gail White Gail White is offline
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I loved the Merwin poem, which was new to me. But then I also love "Billy in the Darbies" at the end of Melville's Billy Budd, which has a similar vision of the drowned man.
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Old 10-05-2009, 11:21 PM
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Chris Childers Chris Childers is offline
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Etymologically, "perfect" means "finished, completed," so Orwn's idea is actually the opposite of perfect, at least in its Latin sense.

I like the Merwin poem, but don't really get what it means to call it "perfect." More perfect than "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning," or "Ode on a Grecian Urn," or "Among School Children," or "The Whitsun Weddings," etc.? Maybe, but I still prefer the ones I listed. The Merwin is very fine, however.

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Old 10-06-2009, 04:43 AM
Gregory Dowling Gregory Dowling is offline
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A good list, Chris, though I would substitute "Ode to Autumn" for "Grecian Urn". It's a rare example of a poem that strikes me as having all those qualities of exquisite formal symmetry, as Richard calls it, superb suggestive power and total appropriateness of diction, imagery, sensuality and sense. So maybe that's English literature's perfect poem. It's tragic but maybe also inevitable that it was (with one or two minor exceptions) Keats's last poem. Where do you go after perfection?

But then again maybe perfection is the wrong thing to be looking for in a poem.
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