Art and Science in “The Second Person” by C. Dale Young

C. Dale Young

Divided into 4 parts, The Second Person by C. Dale Young examines first the physical body with its emotions and sensations, then moves into the scientific where death and sciences attempts to heal become a major focus before moving into a 27 poem series of triptychs that merge the two. Finally, the book shifts focus and expands its view to examine the world. Young’s poems comfortably flow between the inner and external world as is common in other current poets, but they also shift between scientific and emotional views of the world: one poem for example, shifts between the idea of the mathematical notation of summation that the symbol represents and a less literal view that moves the purely scientific term into the emotional world of the patient who is saved by the summation of the Doctor’s education.

C. Dale Young’s greatest poems are where he demonstrates his own dual nature as a medical doctor and a poet. While his poems about life and love in the first section of The Second Person are well-written and powerful in their own way, they do not serve to separate C. Dale Young from other current poets who write one similar topics such as Carl Phillips. It is not until the second section of The Second Person that one is able to see the true power of Young, and where his unique experiences and perspective shifts his poetry away from the mass of writers. By this I mean that his first section of poems doesn’t resonate as much has the latter sections and, in turn, his poetry doesn’t shift from being “good” to being “memorable” until he begins focusing on his unique perspective.

though infinite, can never meet © by Norma Desmond

One of the most powerful lessons for myself in this book is the power of finding one’s own voice and one’s own topics. What makes a poet memorable for me is not necessarily just the skill in putting words on a page, but what separates the poet from his (or her) contemporaries; for example, I find both Byron and Wordsworth excellent poets, but I prefer Byron because of his unique perspective on the world and the uniqueness of his poems about the mind in contrast to Wordsworth’s focus on nature like many of his contemporaries. It’s very hard to imagine Carl Phillips writing a poem about mathematical notation but not one about lying in a lover’s arms. While there is nothing wrong with writing about similar topics to other poets – after thousands of years, everything has been written about at least once – bringing a fresh and unique perspective to poetry is what makes a poet the most memorable for me.

The subject of science with poetry is especially interesting to me due to my dual Physics and English background; I’ve found that the most useful lessons I’ve had is learning to balance separate elements for science and humanities. As I see how Szymborska balances wit with seriousness, Phillips with experience and body, or Young with science and art, I’ve come to see the importance of balancing a poem’s content on the cusp of ideas rather than forcing one way of thinking through the poem. The most powerful poetry does not have to be all knowing, and it is possible to acknowledge that one does not have all the answers.

Carl Phillip’s “Speak Low” and Confession

Easily missed, the epigraph by Danial Defoe to Carl Phillips’s book “Speak Low” seems to sum up the experience of reading Phillips: “and I could feel my self carried with a mighty Force and Swiftness towards the shore a very great Way.” Phillips’s poetry is all about the duality of existence as one seeks to find their own place and their own power. The feeling of being pulled by water in the epigraph endures, but one sees that the poems do not force a single definition and the inherent internal struggle within them allows one to see this pulling force of water as both helpful and harmful: the water is just as likely to pull one to shore as out to sea. This back and forth of the poems in “Speak Low” is not incoherent, but rather, it reveals the struggle for one’s place in the world, and, more importantly, reveals the internal struggles of the poet as he moves through ideas.

There is always the risk in writing a poem to end with a period: not a period that marks the end of a sentence, but the end of an idea or thought as if there is nothing further to say on the topic. As Kenneth Koch warns, there is a tendency to end with a grand idea or a reference to the sea, but Phillips’s poems work against this trend (indeed, in “Gold on Parchment” the end of the poem turns its back on the sea) and the poems themselves are a diary of struggling with a thought or an idea. However, this “diary” never becomes prosaic because the poems risk becoming intellectual; that is, they do not grasp readers by the hand and pull them along; instead, the syntax of the poems are carefully trimmed so that the ideas are presented clearly though there is a certain ambiguity to them. This careful ambiguity is especially strong since many of Carl Phillips’s poems deal with the sensually erotic where one feels the erotic nature of the poem more fully than one sees it on the page.

Poetry © by CarbonNYC

Aside from this ability to question himself, Phillips has also has mastered subtly integrating questions for the reader. These minute asides that appear in the body of his poems are all the more striking as one finds themselves silently answering the question as they continue moving through the poem. The questions are almost always phrased as in “Distortion,” “Do you see that too” that is, “have you had this experience?” The reader is invited to momentarily weigh in as Phillips then continues his thought. In “Distortion,” he moves on to Augustine’s view of passion and eroticism, which is followed quickly by a rejection of the hard logic Augustine used and “falls back” to a more naturalistic view. This playing with the reader draws one further into the poem as it becomes more of a personal appeal on the part of the poet towards some idea.

While Phillips is not a confessional poet – his poems do not confess that his “mind’s not right” nor does he seem to have anything to confess – he seems more confessional than any of the “confessional” poets. It may just be how close he allows the reader to get to his mind, or it may be that he deals with the duality of the intellectual mind and the passionate body which tends towards issues that many people believe are private, but Phillips’s comes across as a very personal poet, and one, at times, feels that they are talking with a dear friend or surreptitiously reading another’s diary. It is Carl Phillips’s ability to balance dualities in experience and the mind that makes him a strong poet and it is one of the lessons that a younger poet can learn best from his poetry.

Byron’s “The Corsair.”

Byron, intentionally or unintentionally, weaves himself into his poetry stamping it with his entire persona. His characters are part of himself; the poems are pieces of his mind; the events are based on experience. Byron’s poetry is an amalgamation of all aspects of Byron. This is truer in some poems than others: some are nearly biographical and others skillfully manipulate other’s perceptions of Byron. His poetry reveals the inner workings of his mind . Because of this, the voices in Byron’s poetry are not just the voices of Byron’s characters: they are the intermingling of the poet with the poem. One of the most pervasive and recognizable aspects of Byronic poetry is the Byronic hero who is a manifestation of parts of Byron’s own personality and thoughts. Byron’s “The Corsair” introduces the most Byronic of Byron’s heroes: Conrad. He then proceeds to emasculate him and proposes Gulnare, a former sex slave, as an alternative hero. Through Conrad, Gulnare and the entirety of “The Corsair” Byron questions the status quo by using heroic couplets with a social parasite, reversing gender roles, and ignoring conventions. In doing so, it demonstrates the multitude of Byron’s voices ((Aside from the artistic uses of the multiple Byronic personae, they also seem to argue that he was, as believed, bi-polar. At times, his poetry seems less of an argument with others than an internal conversation he was having with himself. A conversation that the reader just happens to overhear. In “The Corsair,” one sees the various Byronic personae fighting for artistic dominance with none seemingly coming to the forefront.)) most exquisitely.

Conrad is described very similarly to the way most would describe Byron: a man of few regrets and pleasures . He is seen by those closest to him as, “[t]hat man of loneliness and mystery, / Scarce seen to smile and seldom heard to sigh” (I.173-4). While Conrad is physically a normal man – “in [his] form seems little to admire,” – his persona demonstrates that something “more than marks the crowd of vulgar men,” and “[t]hough smooth his voice, and calm his general mien, / Still seems there something that [others] would not have seen” (I.195; I.200; I.206-7). Conrad is also described as being able to perceive into a person’s soul:

“He had the skill […] to probe [ones] heart and watch [ones] changing cheek,
At once the observer’s purpose to espy,
and on himself roll back his scrutiny,
Lest he to Conrad rather should betray
Some secret thought…” (I.217-21).

Byron is seemingly describing both Conrad and himself simultaneously. Conrad is more than just an outlaw fighting his personal chivalrous war against oppression, he is a part of Byron, and Byron attributes some of his most public personae to Conrad.

Conrad is the most “Byronic” of the characters in the story, but the behaviors of other characters also illustrate the way Byron inserts himself into his art. The story of “The Corsair” easily could be seen as a traditional damsel-in-distress story but Byron twists this: Conrad is the poetical hero, but he does not conquer the evil he fights and his quest fails. Gulnare must kill Pasha Seyd and rescue the “hero.” Conrad would rather allow himself to die than to lose his chivalrous beliefs, so Gulnare must step in and perform the fatal act of murder.

Byron presents Gulnare as a feminine mirror to Conrad. At first, she is passively and typically feminine, but in rescuing Conrad, she immediately shakes off the burdens of defined gender roles and becomes something more than just a damsel. In making up for Conrad’s inability to overcome his chivalrous absolutes, the more restrained he becomes the less she restrains herself. Byron could have reduced her role to that of a plot devise to allow Conrad to escape Pasha Seyd’s dungeon, but by allowing her to abandon her given place in life, she becomes the driving force of half the poem taking on an aspect that rivals Conrad’s own in importance. Conrad, for a moment, is almost the prop upon which Gulnare is allowed to grow.

Her transformation from clichéd former damsel-in-distress enamored by her rescuer: “[I] long to view that chief again, / If I but to thank for, what my fear forgot, The life – my loving lord remember’d not!” to vengeful murderer “That hated tyrant […] he must bleed” illustrates her total change from feminine victim to something more (III. 270-3; III.319). This change does not illustrate any feminist sympathies on the part of Byron because in becoming something more, Gulnare emasculates Conrad and destroys her innocence: the “spot of blood, that light but guilty streak, Had banish’d all the beauty from her cheek” (III.426-7). However, even by raising a woman to the status of Byronic hero, Byron blurs the line of gender roles. His attitude toward women in general is seen plainly when he requires that Gulnare sacrifice her feminine soul as she attains a masculine superiority and in the fact that he allows her voice to reach a fevered pitch before silencing her; thus, placing her voice subservient to Conrad again. This is also demonstrated when Conrad rejects Gulnare after the murder seeing only, “Gulnare, the homicide!” ((An interesting note is that the rhyme of “homicide” with the word “bride” of the previous line forms the following couplet: “He thought on her afar, his lonely bride; He turn’d and saw Gulnare, the homicide!” Thus, it foreshadows his lonely bride’s death, and, in a way, placing the blame for her death on Gulnare and her relationship with Conrad. Symbolically, the death of Medora may represent the betrayal of Conrad’s spirit when he kisses Gulnare because Gulnare is his true match. Medora and he are in love but they are not really “made” for each other, and Gulnare is Conrad’s equal both mentally and physically.)) (III.463). Gulnare has emasculated him, so he rejects her seeing only the negative aspects of her even after he realizes that “she for him had given / Her all on earth, and more than all in heaven!” (III.529-30).

Unlike Conrad, Gulnare is not specifically Byron; she is a powerful voice for a time, but not entirely that of the author himself. However, she could have been: as her personality shifts from feminine to masculine, her personality shifts towards that of Conrad, and thus, comes closer to Byron. The Byronic hero torch almost passes from Conrad to Gulnare with “Conrad following, at her beck, obeyd” (III. 448). The balance between the characters of Conrad and Gulnare come to its own conclusion as, “He clasp’d that hand – it trembled – and his own / Had lost its firmness, and his voice its tone.” (III.539-49). The shifting personalities had already blurred the two, and with that moment they physically merged as she “sunk into his embrace” (III. 544). The two personalities become one as Gulnare leaves the poem never to return. The shifting between the masculine and feminine reflects Byron’s own inability to fit his own identity within the narrow confines of European culture which required that his own impulses be subservient to a specifically masculine personae.

The characters themselves are only one way that the Byronic personae infiltrates his poetry, he also uses the trappings of poetry to twist the meanings and intonations of the final product: his childe is not much of a pilgrim, his ode is more satiric than honorific. The final words of poetry demonstrate the finality of Conrad’s position: “His death yet dubious, deeds too widely known. […] Link’d with on virtue, and a thousand crimes” (694-6, III). However, the final words of “The Corsair” are not intoned by the narrator or Conrad, but by Byron himself in a footnote of nearly 2,000 words whose importance to the piece is negligible at best. By inserting generic and unimportant footnotes into emotionally charged scenes such as Medora’s plea for Conrad to remain with her, he can control the way the reader reacts. Through devices such as the introduction, epitaphs and footnotes, Byron inserts even more of himself, but he also asserts his control over the reader by leading them where he wishes them to go.

The epitaphs are seemingly innocuous Latin quotes, but when one considers them in the context of the poem the epitaphs of “The greatest of all woes / Is to remind us of our happy days / In misery […]”, “So as his dim desires to recognize?”, “as thou seest, yet, yet it doth remain” for Cantos I, II, and III respectively take on new meanings that illuminate the events within. ((Epitaphs were translated by Byron in the poem “Francesca of Rimini” in lines (25-7), (24), and (9) respectively for Canto I, II, and III.)) The first epigraph clearly foretells that Canto I is to be considered the “happy days,” and highlights the coming doom. The third illustrates finality: there is no going back, but the second is a little less clear. If one takes dim to reference the clarity of Conrad’s desires, the second offers a muddle. What one desires should be clear, but for Conrad and Gulnare, it is not so. These three epitaphs set the emotional charge of the succeeding Canto, but they only do so after a second reading when their connotations are less “dim;” thus, simultaneously spoiling the story for the reader and asserting the creator’s superiority.
Byron further manipulates the reader using conventions, especially in the form of verse he uses, but he wholly admits this in his introduction:

I have attempted not the most difficult, but, perhaps, the best adapted measure to our language, the good old and now neglected heroic couplet. The stanza of Spenser is perhaps too slow and dignified for narrative…The heroic couplet is not the most popular measure certainly; but as I did not deviate into the other from a wish to flatter what is called public opinion, I shall quit it without further apology…

As stated earlier, heroic couplets are almost entirely based on rhymes whose final syllables are stressed, and used solely for “heroes,” but Byron uses unstressed rhymes and uses heroic couplets not only for his vagabond corsair but also for his feminine heroine. While it could be true that these minor things do not illustrate anything more than Byron’s own artistic choices, combined with his disregard for most other conventions, one may see this as just another way for Byron to insert a little more of himself into his art. Byron’s art is entirely Byron, even when he mimics other poets, the poetry is infused with enough of Byron’s own personality that it is clearly his own work.

The multitude of voices that are present within Byron’s poetry can be daunting, but as one reads they find that the voices all come from a single source: Byron. Either intentionally or unintentionally, Byron inserts his many personae into his poetry – sometimes they flow together undetectably and others they create confusion jarring the reader with the abrupt shifts. The characters and the events are so completely “Byron” that it is hard to resist drawing parallels to Byron’s own life because at times, the poem seems to illustrate Byron’s past and future . While we cannot assume that Byron intended this to be so, the mirroring of Byron’s personality and life with the lives and personalities of his characters evidences a far deeper connection between the two than that of creator and creation. The tragedy that affects the lives of all of the characters in “The Corsair” mirrors the constant tragedy that seemed to follow Byron throughout his life. Byron’s constant searching for happiness was simultaneously defeated by his own shortcomings and the confines of society just as the Corsair’s happiness was impossible because of his own shortcomings and those around him. Through these and other examples, one can see that the entirety of “The Corsair” and other poems are not just stories, but Byron speaking through his many personae which are all pieces of him, but none entirely so.

Responding to “This Compost” by Walt Whitman

Yes, the Earth is “work’d over and over with sour dead”, but the earth is the symbol of renewal, so why should they poison it? The earth and its environs are incorruptible. Like a body, the Earth can renew itself, but unlike a body, it can heal from any injury or poison. When “normal” plants first evolved, they took over the earth and corrupted its atmosphere with their toxic breaths. The Earth embraced this change and it and all its life adapted to these changes giving rise to our everyday world. Humans have become the plants poisoning the air, water, and soil without realizing that it is not the earth they are killing but themselves. The Earth can survive everything from nuclear war to asteroid impacts; however, those whom live on its surface are vulnerable to being brushed away like a proverbial insect.

The Earth purifies the poisons put into it, and it is capable of still putting forth the “grasses of spring,” but this is not an endless cycle. Eventually, the Earth will be corrupted by the poisons thrust into it, but the Earth will recover. If only after the sources have destroyed themselves.

“There Was a Child Went Forth” by Walt Whitman

There Was a Child Went Forth” by Walt Whitman illustrates his position as part of the new American Tradition and his desire to fulfill the call for a poet who “sings the materials of America” by Emerson. The poem is earthy and real: the emotion, events and perceptions are that of the average person. The lofty ideas presented within are approachable because they are part of the every-man’s perception and life.

Walt Whitman’s language is loose yet precise, varied but common, and it illustrates a perfect balance between the real and the artistic. The structure flows coalesces and begins to flow again while all the while remains a simple list-like form.

However ,within this list, he pulls and plays with emotions and moves from excitement into doubt and then to resolution to rescind all doubts. Doubt begins as the child moves from the pleasant natural world into the human world he is subjected to. The ills of the drunkard, the boys and his father manipulate the child and pushes him beyond the comfortable bounds of childhood and nature and forces him to deal with the negative aspects of human existence: the child moves from the tactile understanding of reality into the doubt of the mind. The permanency of emotion and the place of the individual within the group.

Finally, the real world intrudes again and the child leaves the mental world and resolves to enter the real world experiences the world as it is without being subjected to the existential doubts that flooded his mind as the world intruded on his excitement.

Wordsworth and Keats: For the birds.

Wordsworth and Keats both wrote poems about birds, and both imbue their birds with a mystical nature, but where Keats sees the bird as a representation of a better life, Wordsworth sees it as a mysterious presence that represents the disembodied spirit of nature.

In Wordsworth’s “To the Cuckoo” he never sees his cuckoo and had long since stopped looking for it, so the bird had become a spirit that represents the rest of nature, and like the daffodils it transcends itself. In an “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats speaks to the nightingale as the representation of his desire for happiness — Keats feels a “numbing pain” because he is so happy that the bird is happy that it begins to work on him like a drug. He sees the nightengale, at first, as the essence of summer and the chance of a new life. However, the bird eventually loses its magic beginning first as a “light winged Dryad of the trees” and slowly transforming tin a “plaintive anthem” that fades away only leaving a dejected Keats unable to see reality.

Wordsworth never loses the mysticism of the cuckoo because he doesn’t tie temporary or seasonal ideas to it, so its magic is permanent and doesn’t end. Wordsworth ties his cuckoo to nature and the “grandeurs that are found in the beating of the heart,” so a temporary loss of the bird’s song or beauty is not a reason for dejection because beauty is temporary for Wordsworth and the beauty is in the magic not the thing itself.

Keats focuses solely on the beauty of the song, so when the song is gone, he loses his beauty and is left with his own deflated self. However, his deflate is temporary because he knows the bird and beauty will return eventually. Should the cuckoo ever lose its mystery for Wordsworth, (through him finally seeing it) he would permanently be deflated.

Wordsworth’s victories and defeats are permanent, but Keats can allow for both at the same time.