ROBERT SWARD: A MYSTICISM OF OBJECTS
By Laurence Lieberman
To reveal the special character of Robert Sward’s art, I shall compare two recent poems that succeed in entirely different ways, though they explore nearly identical subjects: “Travelling Through the Dark” by William Stafford, and “Turnpike” by Robert Sward. Both poems involve the effect of the accidental slaughter of a deer on the psyche of the driver of the fatal car.
Travelling Through the Dark*
Travelling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.
By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.
My fingers touching her side brought me the reason —
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.
The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.
I thought hard for us all — my only swerving —
then pushed her over the edge into the river.
*From the book Travelling Through the Dark, copyright 1960 by William Stafford, reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, publishers.
It was a hole, a leveled, paved, black, white hole
A green hole, a blue hole, grass, sky, billboards, air
And we were in the hole — into the air, trees
Grass... into what were the trees, the sky, in us.
And we were in the air, the hole that went through
All around us there was what we were
Passing through, inside, inside, inside ourselves.
And the hole was humming, clear, laned, green and paved
With black stripes. And there was nothing, the minutes
Miles when you thought of them, when they made you them.
The Buick, the speed, the dead skunks at the skunk-
Crossing, the deer — I pressed down on the horn,
My hand became a fist, became a sound, a hole
At the end of my wrist, braked and the thing was dead.
* * *
So, said Death, the deer, sitting there, between us,
With the great, white butterfly — and we were off,
Riding through air, through trees, through grass
... and we were
In the hole, and over the hole, and the hole
Went on forever, into the trees, grass, the sky
That was there, within us, paved, black, white, a rock
A ghost, a Buick-thing, turnpike ... a token.
*From Robert Sward’s Kissing the Dancer, Cornell University Press, 1964.
Verbal quietness and low-keyed prose rhythms provide “Travelling Through the Dark” with a calm flat surface. The unexpected overtones of a few ordinary casual words (for example, “hesitated” and “listen,” ending the third and fourth stanzas) spread across the poem like ripples from rocks dropped in a still moon-lit pond. Moon-lit pond ripples will persist as luminous retinal images, if an onlooker shuts his eyes but continues to see, and the clarity of outline of such images sharpens while the pond fades.
Likewise, if the listener/reader shuts his mind to all but the few phrases that hang on oddly and with inexplicable intensity and mystery in his ear, the commonly shared experience behind the poem deepens and opens up. Words italicized (I am borrowing this special meaning of the word italicized from its context in the poem by Emily Dickinson, “The Last Night That She Lived”) in the mind’s ear reverberate with life-enhancing echoes that may be recalled to the reader years hence whenever he meets these words in other contexts.
The two meanings of the word “swerving,” repeated in the first and last stanzas, cling to that word long after the poem has been put aside and forgotten. The surprising alteration in emphasis of the word is interesting in its own right. In the first stanza, we are told that in the modern world, the swerve of a machine can be disastrous to life. In the scientific scheme of mind, accuracy, correct performance — to hit the mark — is the highest good; error is evil. In extreme, nuclear power might be ultimate excellence, the accidental unleashing of nuclear war (it could happen in one moment, like the death of the deer) is ultimate evil.
Our language carries and perpetuates these moral (or immoral) aberrations of our character more than we care to suppose. The word unswerving in our literature traditionally has suggested positive dedication and commitment. In poetry, we are accustomed to hearing of unswerving — from Shakespeare to Keats — devotion to love and beauty. (In recent fiction, Faulkner dwells on the unswerving will of characters like Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom! But there is a difference; the will of a Sutpen is awesome and terrifying; it is unlimited in its destructiveness.) Today, our politics continues the Manicheistic myth, faith in the absolute value of unswervingness, “unswerving loyalty” to president, government, country.
“Swerving” in the last stanza of “Travelling Through the Dark” contains a powerful irony. The swerving of imagination, spirit, out of the rut of mechanized human response may well be our only salvation. The tragic speaker in the poem realizes that to have “thought hard for us all — my only swerving” is not enough, but it is a mental move in the right direction. The wilderness has touched him, but the poem concludes on a note of expediency that overrides the revelation. Will the “swerving” leave a permanent mark? Perhaps not with the speaker, but it will work on the reader. And on the language. Though to rescue a viable word from the limbo of political slogan and propaganda by endowing it with a new precision will not radically alter a nation’s politics (or an individual’s) overnight, to sharpen the tools of thought advances our power to think clearly. And a writer may begin to restore lost values at the verbal end, as Orwell maintains in his remarkable “Politics and the English Language.”
The technique of Robert Sward’s poem is opposite in nearly every aspect. From the very first line of “Turnpike,” we are struck with the contrast in Sward’s language: “It was a hole, a leveled, paved, black, white hole. ...” While both poems em¬ploy common speech, in “Turnpike” many heavy words are combined energetically in accretive sequence. As many as six words in this line call for emphasis, compete for it: “hole” is only slightly more emphasized than the others by repetition. A very compressed rhythm is achieved by the high frequency of heavy accents; the spondee is the characteristic poetic foot, notably in key lines like the first and the second from the end. Many of the adjectives have noun-roots, nouns of precise sensory quality (“leveled, paved”), raising the adjective, as a part of speech, to the primary function of the noun.
This is a language well suited to evoke physical experience taking place now. In contrast with Stafford’s more conventional language and rhythm, no single word in “Turnpike” can stir a whirlpool of overtones. The strong charge is balanced between many simple words. If the lines of “Travelling” are like smooth currents in a pond, the opening lines of “Turnpike” sizzle like a fuse burning down, and one senses an impending explosion.
To turn from “Travelling” to “Turnpike” is to be stormed with a disquieting clutter of effects. The mannered devices which comprise Sward’s technique call so much attention to themselves, readers who come to them for the first time may well find themselves blocked by his bizarreness, stalemated by his stylistic peculiarities, and they are unable to find their way into the world of the poem. Of course, to be fair to an original author, finally, one must read his works in succession and assess them in relation to each other, rather than in relation to the work of sharply contrasted authors. One of the poetry reader’s tasks is to get the tone right, to learn to hear on the right frequency. I find it to be particularly true of Sward’s work that the best poems impart their excellences most effectively when read in a group, rather than singly.
At first reading, “Turnpike” seems crowded with language, though not of the decorative sort. The lines scan like traditional blank verse, despite the high frequency of spondees, but the metrical emphasis is syllabic, rather than accentual (there are roughly eleven syllables to the line), and the close packing of language is typical of good syllabic poetry.
Marianne Moore, the most successful technician of syllabic poetry in English, appears to have discovered from the first that the most difficult obstacle to effective syllabics in English is the iamb. The iamb is so fiercely installed in the ear of reader and writer of English poetry alike, it’s almost impossible not to unconsciously blunder into iambic at crucial moments in a poem’s rhythm. Miss Moore solved this problem largely by cultivating a precious and refined vocabulary, a vocabulary so rich in strongly accented syllables it was almost impossible for the iamb, with its singsong alternation of strong and weak, light and heavy syllables, to get the upper hand:
The pin-swin or spine-swine
(the edgehog miscalled hedgehog) with all his edges
echidna and echinoderm in distressed-
pin-cushion thorn-fur coats, the spiny pig or porcupine,
the rhino with horned snout —
everything is battle-dressed.
(from “His Shield”)
Also, Miss Moore developed intricate lapidary stanza patterns, more reminiscent of stonework than of previous poetry, avoiding the tendency of blank verse to fall into iambic meter.
But Sward adopts neither of these safeguards to resist the iamb, though he achieves true and consistent syllabic meter remarkably well nonetheless. His vocabulary is essentially American idiomatic speech (it is the language of W. C. Williams), and his line is usually pentameter or tetrameter. How, then, does he succeed?
There are several methods he employs to secure syllabic integrity of meter. Most of them can be observed in “Turnpike.” He prefers the verse paragraph to the stanza, frequently breaking off a paragraph in the middle, or near either end of the line, and perhaps in the middle of a sentence; all of these seams or junctures become levers for maintaining the knotty musculature of his syllabics. His use of italics, too, often overlapping or cutting across the other devices, is functional in expediting the ingenious operableness of his meter. Though one senses a constant shifting of many gears in the movement within and between verse paragraphs (sometimes the gears creak!), the sense of uninterrupted flow across the poems saves them from disjointedness. The dramatic unfolding of the poem’s subject helps to create this fluidity.
The most singular quality of Sward’s poetry, the one which does the most to implement his syllabics, is its sinewy linguistic texture. The word-thickness of his poetry revives a tradition in English that many critics feel reached a dead end in the work of Hopkins and Hart Crane, two poets who, like Miss Moore, cultivated special vocabularies, while retaining a large measure of literary or “poetical” vocabulary (Miss Moore and her generation expunged the latter). In Hopkins, the emphasis is largely on sound devices, often verging on the sort of excess that is extreme in Poe. Crane seems more interested in the ambiguous interplay of associations that arise from exotic combinations of special words and phrases. Both poets follow Keats in the full exploitation of sensory imagery.
Sward relies on frequent odd hyphenations, as do Crane and Hopkins, but his vocabulary, though it is new enough in poetry, is not strange or specialized. A typical example would be “Pet Shop”;
The hundred dollar cats, the sixty
Dollar dogs; the lions, the tigers;
The six miniature, white, snake-eating
Fish; the snakes, the monkeys (with grins like
Gelded poodles); the parakeets; owls
Flamingos, pink pigeons and the small, headless
Proprietor, silky, creeping and jeweled.
In this descriptive poem we find adjectives, again, with precise noun-roots (gelded, snake-eating, headless, silky). Most of them emphasize ugly or painful aspects of everyday experience. But usually Sward avoids Hopkins’ deliberate self-conscious sound-play and Crane’s pile-up of associative meanings. The words refer to things, anti-poetic things, with such insistence and ingenuity the words often seem to be the things referred to, or are, at best, things-in-themselves.
In “Turnpike,” word-things enact the drama of the psyche. Occurring repeatedly in different combinations, they interact like characters in a play. The mind of the persona is a sort of battlefield that is ravaged by their warfare. Words are life and death things. Things repeated endlessly outside us become things inside us, inseparable chunks of our personalities:
All around us there was what we were
Passing through, inside, inside, inside ourselves ...
In “Turnpike,” the listing of things indistinguishable from sensory perceptions they are mixed with (“And the hole was humming, clear, laned, green and paved / With black stripes”) forcefully suggests the muddling of inner and outer reality. Paradoxically, both worlds come together and are contained in “the hole.” The hole is a moral vacuum: when it appears at the end of the speaker’s wrist, it is a spigot out of which any last trace of human feeling and value pours like blood. The stages of human enslavement to things are traced remarkably by the poem. Not only do the turnpike miles become parts of yourself, and all alike; they make the rest of you into themselves:
… the minutes
Miles when you thought of them, when they made you them.
Both “Turnpike” and “Travelling” reveal a world in which man’s psyche is dominated by things, objects — at worst, by man-made objects (not natural objects), machines. Appropriately, the auto is the primary symbol. The auto is so omnipresent in our lives, its symbolic and literal levels perfectly coincide.
Sward’s method carries the process of dehumanization a step further than Stafford’s. If nearly all the events in “Turnpike” occur deeply within the persona, most of the happening in the Stafford poem takes place outside the persona, the mind in the poem. The experience happens to the speaker of “Travelling” but seems to occur outside him, and this incongruity accounts for a certain terror — the reader’s, if not the speaker’s — at being unable to distinguish inner from outer reality. The center of gravity of “Travelling” is almost entirely in the world of the road, the deer, the woods. The center of gravity in “Turnpike” is totally introverted. “Travelling” proceeds from the outside in; “Turnpike” from the inside (composed, defined eerily by objects) out.
The mysticism of objects, of thingness, is an inversion and, in a way, a bizarre parody of conventional mysticism. With Wordsworth, we “see into the life of things.” In Sward’s world, things work their way inside our life, become parts of our psyche, dominate our minds and take us over, make us over, entirely. The objects become so overpowering, in fact, they make ourselves over in their own image, and everything that is not themselves becomes absorbed into their one substance of thingness, from which all value leaks away.
Robert Sward is particularly sensitive to those areas of con¬temporary life in which beings are subjugated to things, imagi¬nation to mechanization. One target of his disesteem is conven¬tional marriage. His favorite symbol for what is wrong with conventional marriage is the mother-in-law, or “Momma-law”:
Married twice now, I’ve had two
Mothers-in-law. One visited us
And required, upon departure,
The services of three gentlemen
To get her back into her large black
The other, Momma-law the Present,
Is (with the exclusion neither
of that other,
nor the fathers-in-law
of either marriage),
The mother-in-law, like the auto, has won a ruthless and mechanical domination over us. She is an institution in our matriarchal culture which runs over the lives of all those touched by her, much as a car might do, and we accept an extraordinary percentage of fatalities each year without questioning. Like traffic deaths, they are inevitable, unavoidable. Sward’s mannerism, at its best, with uncanny precision instils into the saliences of form and phrase the exact textures and shades of absurdities in our lives. Mannered devices suggest physical shapes for the ugly details, the monstrosities of mind, that underpin conventional marriage. Notice how the parenthesis in the second stanza (above) suggests, kinetically, the identification between woman and car. Rhythm and typography collaborate to project an image of a large woman who, like a car, can contain and maneuver — which is to say, manipulate — many beings simultaneously. The strangeness in syntax of that final sentence recalls to mind the oddity of the 1947 Studebaker, the first car with the ultra-modern look; a typical remark of that period in auto history was: “you can’t tell the front from the back, whether it is coming or going.” All of these associations are suggested by the form of the second stanza.
In “Lost Umbrellas,” another Momma-law poem, we are all converted into a culture of footmen, manservants:
Her courtiers, we direct her
Mix martinis for her
Find causes for her, lost umbrellas
and car keys
Even at the gates of hell.
Momma-law is an uncrowned grotesque empress of American life.
Despite the marked humor of these poems, the reality of pain behind failed marriage, the ghastly servitude of a victim, is sensed below every word. The poet is a survivor: he has lived through the experience, is growing past it, as he says in “Voyage”:
The journey is forever inward,
Through marriages, past divorce suits
Diabetes, dentures, horny toenails . . .
I am moving inward.
But what he displays, enacts in these poems, combines the wisdom of old scars with the fresh sting of open wounds.
At the heart of all of Sward’s satires there lurks a painful quest for truth of experience. In contrast with the Momma-law poems, he has written several love poems in which he has the air of a man discovering the beauties of marriage for the first time, “Kissing the Dancer,” “Marriage” and “Nightgown, Wife’s Gown.” In the last of these, a sort of formula is implied for engaging any mysterious and unknown being, in this case the wife asleep beside him:
Where do people go when they go to sleep?
I envy them. I want to go there too.
I am outside of them, married to them.
Nightgown, wife’s gown, women that you look at,
Beside them — I knock on their shoulder blades
Ask to be let in. It is forbidden.
But you’re my wife, I say. There is no reply.
Arms around her, I caress her wings.
The poet has been married before, but formerly he had accepted the official version of marriage that is part and parcel of the disease of his culture, as treated in the Momma-law poems. Now he approaches marriage with the pristine openness of intelligence of the mystic. He knocks at the shoulder blades of the unknown Beloved, asks to be admitted. He finds he must wait. In poem after poem we discover him standing just this side of the barrier between this world and another unknown (perhaps unknowable) one, rapping at the threshold, asking to be let in, and at last, humbly waiting and marveling.
Sward would rather remain ignorant than become privy to the sorts of officially endorsed knowledge that our culture offers up free to the asker through a vast network of instruments that treat education, even personal education, as an information service. In moments of desperation, he seems bent on achieving a state of experimentally induced amnesia, clearing his mental landscape of all the debris of science and society, to let in some spiritual fresh air.
In his best satires, he ridicules dictionaries, encyclopedias, American Histories, National Geographic Magazine — all books he holds suspect because they ascribe to themselves a sort of automatic objectivity —a knowitallness — and maintain this myth in the public mind, laying claim to the aegis of authority that the label “reference book” automatically commands. (Ironically, Sward became an expert’s expert himself on one occasion when he reviewed Webster’s Third International Dictionary in Poetry Magazine.) Sward shows us that we have all been at least partly lulled into a sort of imaginative submission by the expertise we blindly attribute to all official sourcebooks:
The Apteryx (1/35) of Webster's Dictionary and New Zealand
The inflected apteryx (or kiwi) would appear
To be a rudimentary, an essentially
Webster-bird. The apteryx (from the Greek a +
Pteryx) does not fly and, in fact,
Lacks all regard (and need) for flight
And the bird — not quite extinct — survives
Under government protection. It reproduces
Slowly, and in public, burrow-hiding.
... but when it curls itself, extinct
Within its sleeping back (by day)
Enwhiskering its ooou, the apteryx returns
Upon the government and Webster of it all.
Again and again, he burlesques the definitions and definitive stories — anthropological, historical, biographical. He explodes the false reverence for the bird’s-eye view, the thumbnail sketch, wherever we have substituted these assembly-line versions of experience for authentic response. His charades, at their best, achieve a sardonic humor: we are surprised to find how much imagination of a sterile variety has been infused into most anti-septically objective and anonymous reports. The poems cry out for a new freedom of imagination in areas of experience that have been closed off from the casual eye of the observer.
I might add that in Sward’s second American collection of poems, THOUSAND-YEAR-OLD FIANCEE, his satires often fail because he tries to cash in on the same reader response he evoked with the earlier satires by merely referring to suspect publications by name: Life, Look, Reader’s Digest, etc. In the more recent poems, he usually relies too much on reader familiarity with his previous work.
Sward is no skeptic, recoiling from all that the world offers up to us as truth, knowledge. We can come into the truth, but knowing is a state of being, it is deeply personal. Sward’s strategy for perceiving truth is best explored in the short poem “Owl”:
Let us suppose the truth:
I am an owl by virtue
Of my belief in owls.
The owl swoops, like a hawk;
Is still, like a rock; shrieks,
Meditates, like God, like air.
I believe in owls. And,
What is more, what is in fact
The exact same thing, as you
Will by now have guessed
Hawk, rock, rodent, wail and God.
Which troubles me, which makes
Of me, myself. An owl.
This poem comprises an entire metaphysics. Belief precedes truth, not the reverse: truth is mystical, not scientific. Existentially, we understand other living beings by identifying with them, not by detached objectivity. What are the steps in the process of coming to know an alien creature, a being utterly different from ourselves? We must enter into a dynamic relation with the Other. Relationship proceeds on many levels, ranging between extremes of detachment and identification. Let us consider the intermediate stages of relationship. If I am in sympathy, I feel concern for the other being. If I am in empathy, I feel with, or the same as, the Other. If I am in communion, I feel a oneness with the Other, or as if I were the other being. Finally, I am the Other, in this case the owl. That is identification. And that is ultimate truth.
Returning to the opening lines of the poem, we come at the truth by first supposing it and by gradually coming to feel its reality. We must feel our way into, inside of, the truth, but next and most important — we must let the truth, by a sort of naive, yet dynamic passiveness, work its way into ourselves. It becomes newly alive in us, at our centers.
This, then, is an affirmative application of the mysticism of objects discussed earlier. In contrast with the negative mys¬ticism (destructive to personality) of “Turnpike,” in which our thoughts were helplessly churned into highway miles, in “Owl” the identification is willed, consciously achieved. The final state is one of exalted awareness, as compared with the nonattentive-ness, or numbed awareness, of “Turnpike.” We identify with each element separately — “Hawk, rock, rodent, wail / And God” by a sort of spiritual ingestion. We collaborate with, not merely participate in, the spiritual events that uplift us. We are present, a felt saintly presence, in all that happens to us, becomes in us, and we arrive at the earned vision. To demonstrate a slackening of powers in a number of poems in Sward’s second book, I present a second poem about owls that largely derives from the first:
What matters, is silence. There are owls
in English woods, owls
That bark like dogs. It is the silence
That follows, that matters. The barking —
No, no, I do not mind the barking.
It is the sleep it leaves me in, dog
Dog that I am; owl, owl
that I am no more,
Poems such as this one, that take as sole point of reference and point of departure earlier poems of Sward’s, lack not only the freshness of the original, but the foothold in a reality outside the poem, as well. In the best poems, a soiled and fray-edged reality bounces waves off the poem and back to itself. But the lines of this poem are like high tension wires that have lost their “juice”; grown slack, they strain after an artificial charge, wagging in the literary breeze. “Owls” (2) is merely a sort of footnote on “Owl” (1).
I do not mean to suggest that a poem which requires one to be cognizant of the author’s previous work necessarily cannot be of the first importance. Yeats’ “Circus Animals’ Desertion” is a major exception to this rule. And another exception is the “Hello Poem,” concluding Sward’s second collection. In the “Hello Poem,” things and events — motifs — from Sward’s pre¬vious work are intermingled gracefully with random images from life. The unusual ingenuity of the poem’s technique is its adroit balancing between two levels, the satirical and the mysti¬cal, this poet’s two chief strategies of strength. As a sample of its movement, I quote the opening and closing lines:
Hello wife, hello world, hello God,
I love you; hello certain monsters,
Ghosts, office buildings, I love you . . .
handball, volleyball, tennis;
Croquet, basketball, football, Sixty-Nine;
draft beer for a nickel; Women
Who will lend you money, Women
Who will not;
Women, pregnant women;
Women who I am making pregnant;
Women who I am not making pregnant.
Women. Trees, goldfish, silverfish,
Coral fish, coral;
I love you, I
This poem is central to Sward’s art. It epitomizes his defiance of the arrangement of the conventional poem in English. One element from modern advertising and the mass media, the willing suspension of good taste in the interest of practical operableness (or assembly-line turnover), is extracted, as in pop art, and crystallized into a new form and medium for poetry. The entire poem is a single extended Whitmanesque catalogue. Despite the many apparent incongruities between elements that occur side by side in the catalogue, there is an underlying con¬tinuity from start to finish. Apparent arbitrariness of sequence nearly always shrouds an implicit inevitability. In fact, arbitrariness and inevitability, opposites, converge in a bizarre indiscriminate all-embracing mysticism of objects.
Robert Sward’s PERTH AMBOY, NEW JERSEY
A young man
Is eating one of the two heads
Of a mouse.
He comes upon a minotaur.
The minotaur is outside a warehouse.
The minotaur is eating the last of seven virgins.
An old woman kneels before him.
Waits to be eaten.
The warehouse is burning.
Inside are flowers —
The minotaur is dancing.
All the roses are in flames.
A magnolia tree, suspended in air,
In its arms a firehose,
Is scratching at the door.
The minotaur comes up behind it,
Swallows the magnolia tree,
Swallows the firehose.
Dancing still, he seals the woman
To the man, the man to the woman
And the couple
To the warehouse.
The young man begins eating his hands.
The police appear. Attach handcuffs
To the roses.
Meanwhile, the minotaur
All the warehouses
In New Jersey,
All the suitcases,
And moving vans.
He eats the railroad tracks —
What is to be done? Where
Will the minotaur strike next?
He sits in his rocking chair.
Sings this song —
Hail to me, I am the minotaur,
Hail to me, I am the minotaur,
I eat young lions
And I eat computers,
I eat beauty, I eat vermin,
I eat shopping bags and Senators,
I am the minotaur, and America’s my home.
I’m the minotaur, I’m the minotaur,
I eat young ladies
And I eat their lovers,
I eat their fathers
And I eat their brothers,
I am the minotaur, and America’s my home.
from Carleton Miscellany, Spring, 1967, “Robert Sward: A Mysticism of Objects,” by Laurence Lieberman. Reprinted with Prof. Lieberman’s permission.
PERTH AMBOY appeared in Horgbortom Stringbottom, I am Yours, You Are History, Swallow Press, 1970, a book-length poem set in the Vietnam War era. Carleton Miscellany's editor requested a sample of my work to accompany Larry Lieberman's article. PERTH AMBOY was what I was working on at the time. Hence its inclusion here, though it does not relate specifically to the article. Note: Many of the poems cited here will appear in New & Selected Poems forthcoming from Red Hen Press.
Causes Robert Sward Supports
Audubon Society, National Geographic, "Green," the Environment, SPCA...