Chapter 1

The Alice Fallacy; or,

        Only God Can Make a Tree.


                                    A Dialogue of Pleasure and Instruction


Did you ever read one of her Poems backward, because the plunge from the front overturned you?  I sometimes (often have, many times) have - A something overtakes the Mind -

Emily Dickinson, "Prose Fragment" 30



[SCENE.  The Faculty Club of a university.  Instruction enters looking cast down, puts his papers on the bar and throws himself into a chair next to Pleasure, who is reading.  Pleasure looks up from her book and smiles with cool amusement at her friend.  Across the room is a bar at which two figures stand very erectly. They resemble waiters; they are Footnote and Printer's Devil, respectively.  A Brechtian sign stands over the bar and reads in large letters: INTERSPACE.]


INSTRUCTION.  I need a drink.  (Calling toward the bar.) Two vodkas, please.

[Footnote and Printer's Devil bring the drinks and return to their places.]

PLEASURE.  Another enjoyable and informative faculty meeting?

INSTRUCTION.  "Pleasure and Instruction" -- isn't that our business?  Isn't it what poetry's supposed to deliver?

PLEASURE.  We schoolmasters keep saying so, but who believes us?  We're teachers after all, not players. 

INSTRUCTION.  How true.  A little teaching is a dangerous thing.  A lot is a disaster.  Take me to the river.  Drop me in the water.

PLEASURE.  As bad as that, hm?

INSTRUCTION.  Same as it ever was -- a kind of moral sickness unto death, one more Great Awakening to righteousness and virtue.             

PLEASURE.  And what an odd symmetry at the moral extremes!  Political or religious correctness, left or right, either will do.  What is this need for a Codex Prohibitorum ?  We've got to get over it.


PLEASURE.  We could go back to 1966, back to Susan Sontag.  Against Interpretation. 

INSTRUCTION.  Her "erotics of reading", is that what you mean?

PLEASURE.  One could do worse, one could have more Legions of Decency.  Yes, an erotics of reading. 

I'll call the work "Longinus o'er a bottle,"

Or, Every [Critic] his own Aristotle.

                                                            (Byron, Don Juan

And we won't neglect instruction either. 

INSTRUCTION.  That's thoughtful.

PLEASURE.  We'll have lots of commandments and "fallacies" and that sort of thing.                                                



PRINTER'S DEVIL. What's this about fallacies and commandments?  Is Pleasure serious?  She seems to be contradicting herself.

FOOTNOTE.  Maybe this is what it means to be beyond the pleasure principle.  Not that Pleasure has much to do with principles.  I guess she's just being silly.  She's remembering that epidemic of 50 years ago when professors and critics started cranking out all kinds of literary "fallacies" as they called them -- the intentional, the affective, the fallacy of imitative form.  And there were "primers of modern heresy" and "defenses of reason" and all that sort of thing.

PLEASURE (resuming).  It'll begin with a commandment forbidding students (and anybody else) to talk about ideas in literature until they show they can sight-read fifty lines of verse without sending everyone howling from the room.

I mean just think about what our classes have turned into!  The "teacher" comes in and talks about (and about and about) some wonderful poem, say The Rape of the Lock or "Goblin Market".  He (or she) burrows into "the text" and comes away with all those ideas and meanings it's been concealing from us -- meanings it either contains (new critically) or locates (with cultural studiousness).

Or the teacher doesn't teach, he (or she) comes in and starts a ("Socratic") "discussion" by proposing some question, or by directing the class to talk about some passage or other that "problematizes" what we might think about the poem's "meaning".  Then the class is encouraged to talk about it and we get a free-wheeling "discussion" of what the poem means, which is to say what everybody is thinking it means or it might mean.  And the livelier the discussion the better the class seems to be, and when it's over everybody once again realizes how complex and rich poetry is, and how clever or how serious one has to be to read it.

About seven years ago the wickedness of all this suddenly "rose from [my] mind's abyss, like an unfather'd vapour" -- as the poet once said.  We were in fact discussing that very poet, Wordsworth, and that very passage (Prelude  ).  The class was talking in such animated ways about what it might mean that I began to feel they were losing hold of the poem's words as they raised up and tracked through great thickets of ideas.  So I called a halt and asked a bright student to help clear the air.  "George, read the passage for the class".

It was appalling.  He stumbled across that splendid set of lines like "one that hath been stunn'd/ And is of sense forlorn" -- wrecking the phonemes, the phrasings, the entire play of the metrical scheme in its unfolding grammatical order.  He couldn't read the poem.  He could "read off" the poem, and generate all sorts of ideas.  But the oral delivery?  It was a total crack-up.

Quel giorno piu non vi spiegammo avante. We just went around the class and everybody took turns reading or trying to read.  It was an amusingly painful experience.

For the rest of that term we spent much of our classtime simply reading and rereading the printed texts, and talking about these different performances.  Everybody got better at reading, and not just because they were forced to practice recitation.  They began deliberately to look at the words, paying attention to their parts as well as to the many kinds of physical relations that different passages of poetry built between the words.

An erotics of reading.  Or call it interpretation through the performance of language -- something like the way musicians interpret a piece of music by rendering the score.  I'm bringing it  into all my classes.  The rule is that no one will raise questions of meaning unless he or she is prepared to perform the work.  And if we're not ready for that, we spend our time reciting until we are ready.

INSTRUCTION.  I like it.  It makes me think of Blake's program for cleansing the doors of perception:

For man has clos'd himself up till he sees all things through the narrow chinks of his               cavern.

                                                (Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell plate  )

That's to say, through embrained organs of attention and awareness.  Recitation as a route back to the body in the mind, back through "the chief inlets of soul in this age", "the senses".

PLEASURE.  Sometimes I think it's best to work from poems that aspire to the condition of music -- poems that work to collapse the distinction between the physique of their language and the content of their ideas: poems committed to what Shelley called "Intellectual Beauty".  Poems like Shelley's own, "Which walk upon the sea, and chant melodiously":

Life of Life! thy lips enkindle

  With their love the breath between them;

And thy smiles before they dwindle

  Make the cold air fire; then screen them

In those looks, where whoso gazes

Faints, entangled in their mazes.


Child of Light! thy limbs are burning

  Through the vest which seems to hide them;

As the radiant lines of morning

  Through the clouds ere they divide them;

And this atmosphere divinest

Shrouds thee wheresoe'er thou shinest.

                                                (Shelley, Prometheus Unbound  )

That's on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.  On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays I think we're better off reading Pope or Byron than Shelley or Christina Rossetti -- poems where the thought seems so clear we can easily neglect its articulate energies:

Ovid's a rake, as half his verses show him,

  Anacreon's morals are a still worse sample,

Catullus scarcely has a decent poem,

  I don't think Sappho's Ode a good example,

Although Longinus tells us there is no hymn

  Where the sublime soars forth on wings more ample;

But Virgil's songs are pure, except that horrid one

Beginning with "Formosum Pastor Corydon".

(Don Juan I st. 42)

The schools are far too preoccupied with what young people should or shouldn't be thinking.  Let's get back to the words, to the language -- to the bodies of our thinking.  I'm "against interpretation", I'm for recitation.  And for memorizing.  I want my students to memorize and recite.  If they can do those things well, it's enough for me.  For the time being at any rate.

INSTRUCTION. It's not enough, though I admit it makes a good start.  It's not even erotic enough.  Your "erotics of reading" stays too close to the shore of the physical senses.  It makes for a charming and delicious ride, I grant you, but it won't satisfy an adult, a full-fledged eroticism.  We want more from our reading experiences.  Let's head out to sea.

Go back to the classroom and think about it again.  The worst that goes on there isn't what you're complaining about.  The worst is the hypocrisy of it, the pretense to freedom of thought.  Everybody knows that the thinking in these "discussions" is controlled by the agenda -- maybe even the ideology -- of the teachers.  The best one can hope for is that the agenda be made explicit -- so the students understand from the start that they're being taught to think in certain ways. 

And the longest lesson of all is the old Platonic one --that poetry will be justified when it becomes useful to society.  If it occurs to someone that "society" always seems to have very different opinions about itself, then what?  Well, you "teach the conflicts".[1]   But nothing has really changed, then, has it?  We keep trying to make teaching and literature socially productive -- the usual "war of the many with one".  And so students keep turning into what their teachers have become --




PRINTER'S DEVIL.  I don't get it.  If you don't teach an agenda and you don't "teach the conflicts" of the different agendas, what's left to teach?

FOOTNOTE (rummaging around in some papers).  These are Instruction's classnotes and syllabi.  What a mess!  It's a miracle if anybody learned anything from him.   Instruction's all over the place, he can't even make up a common syllabus.  There are no conflicts to "teach", no one's even reading the same books.  There's just difference, going this way and going that.

PRINTER'S DEVIL.  Maybe Instruction wants to stop teaching altogether.

FOOTNOTE.  Maybe he should stop.  He can't be doing a very good job.

PRINTER'S DEVIL.  I think his classes are very popular.

FOOTNOTE.  Right.  And so students keep turning into what their teachers have become.

INSTRUCTION (resuming). . . .moralists and utilitarians. 

You were awakened one day when you realized how many of your students, how many of their teachers, couldn't read.  Well here's the story of my awakening.

I was teaching Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn".  I was running a socratic discussion (so-called) and we were all having a splendid time.  We were gradually unfolding the poem's delicate ironies, and I was leading them as well into the brave world of new historicist revelation.

[VIRTUAL REALITY appears.  This is the audience.  Jennifer, Christopher, Margaret, and Geoffrey are seated toward the front.  Instruction turns and begins speaking, as if we were talking to his class.]

"And notice the word `legend'; I mean in the line: `What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape'.  Does the poem answer that question?  Christopher, what do you think about that?"

"Well Sir, I'm not sure. I hadn't really thought about it."

"What is a `leaf-fringed legend' anyhow, do you think?  Margaret, can you tell us?"

"It's a strange phrase, Sir.  To me a legend is a kind of fabulous but traditional story that people tell and retell.  So I guess Keats is thinking back through the phrase `sylvan historian', as if to say that the Grecian Urn retells for us an old story or set of stories."

"Like the stories implied by the images on the urn, the images Keats redescribes for us in his poem?"


"Yes, I think so too.  But do you know about any other meanings for the word `legend'?

[Long Silence]

"Geoffrey, how about you?  Do you know any other meanings?"

"Uh, I can't think of any."

"Do you want to say something, Jennifer?"

"Well, when we were studying Shelley I read a passage I loved so much I copied it out. It's short, just a couple of lines:

Like a child's legend on the tideless sand

Which the first foam erases half, and half

Leaves legible.


Now in that passage `legend' means something like `inscription', doesn't it?  And I think I'm right in remembering that people talk about `legends' on coins and graves and things."

"Yes, that's exactly right.  But does that meaning have anything to do with this poem?

[Long Silence]

"Well, what about the famous conclusion to the ode?

`Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty.  That is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'

Notice it's in quotation marks."

"You said yesterday that there are different possible placements for those quotation marks."

"Right, Chris.  But what does that have to do with the problem we're talking about now?"


"Well, let's bracket out the question of the alternative punctuations of the passage, for the moment anyhow.  Let's just think about the fact that some part of the text is being set off here as if it were a quotation."

"Like an inscription or something?"

"Exactly, Chris.  Does that make sense for the poem?"

"Well, do you mean that we're supposed to think of the quotation as the `legend' mentioned earlier?"

"What do you think?




PRINTER'S DEVIL.  How I hate that classic classroom move!  That wide-eyed teacher's hypocrisy, talking as if he wanted his students to think for themselves.  He's got his lively "discussion" in good train and he knows how to keep it going where it's supposed to go.

FOOTNOTE (checking through a pile of papers).  I don't find any documentary evidence of that at all.  What makes you think he's manipulating his class?  Margaret's free to say what she wants.  He can't know what she's going to say.

PRINTER'S DEVIL. He knows the class is trying to figure out a good answer, the best answer.  He knows the class thinks he knows what that is, or knows at any rate the range of the best answers (ahead of time), or knows at any rate how to tell if an answer is a good one or not.  So they're thinking on his terms and grounds.

FOOTNOTE.  The discussion does run along in pretty predictable ways. 

PRINTER'S DEVIL.  It can't be a good sign that Instruction comes in with his telling questions at crucial points.

FOOTNOTE.  But isn't he supposed to know the answers?

PRINTER'S DEVIL.  What answers?  Even Instruction knows you don't read poetry to get answers.  That's the whole point of his coy question.  He's pretending they're having a conversation and that it's free and open.  He's pretending he isn't what he clearly is, a pompous know-it-all.  So he asks his contemptible leading question -- "What you you think?"

INSTRUCTION (resuming).  -- Margaret, you want to say something?"

"Suddenly it came to me.  I mean, what is a Grecian Urn?  It's like one of those amphora I saw when I was visiting the Getty Museum with my parents.  And I remember some of them had inscriptions on them, and these inscriptions sometimes circled the neck of the urn, and often they would be decorated with ornamental leaves and things like that."


"And so I think I know the answer to your earlier question, about whether the poem has an answer to its question about the `leaf-fringed legend'.  The answer is `Yes', -- in fact, the answer is literally that `inscription' given to us as the poem's sententious conclusion about truth and beauty.  It's wonderful."

We were all quite pleased with ourselves during this "discussion", as you may imagine.  In fact, so far as I was concerned all we had left to do was mop up the details.  That's when it happened.

"Well, does anyone have any other questions?"


"Sir, what's an "Attic shape"?

"Does anybody want to answer that question for Christopher?  Geoffrey?"

"Well here it must be some kind of ghostlike thing, some old piece of memorabilia or whatever?"

[I smiling] "Why do you say that?  I don't really understand."

"It's an attic shape, it's some kind of thing from an attic.  I mean, it goes back to that line we began with: `What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape'.  Keats is imagining some kind of mouldy apparition whose features aren't too clear -- something slightly ghoulish from the dead past,

with brede

Of marble men and maidens overwrought.

I love those lines.  This ghost is Keats's cobwebbed version of Mozart's stone guest, or Roger Bacon's Brazen Head, something like that.  I love the puns on "brede" and "overwrought".  Keats's `Attic shape' is a pretty lively stone guest after all.  And when Keats lets the ghost speak at the end -- well, it's a kick!  He must have loved making that final comic move, sending the whole thing up and over the top at the end."

[I smiling more deeply]  "But Geoffrey, `Attic' here doesn't mean what you're thinking.  Keats's word means something like `classical', `Attic' refers to Attica, in Greece.

"Oh.  I thought Keats was thinking of an attic, like at the top of a house, under the roof."

"I know." [Smiling in an understanding way]

"Well it made sense that way to me.  I mean, the poem is about  old legends and haunting shapes.  And where would you find an urn like the one in the poem?  In a museum maybe, or buried somewhere, or left forgotten in some storeroom or attic.  They didn't have garages in Keats's day, did they Sir?"

"No Geoffrey, they didn't.  And while I do see the way you're thinking about the poem, it's just not possible.  Keats is using the word in a specific way, it means `classical'.  Look at the text.  Keats capitalizes the word to emphasize its particular reference to `Attica' and ancient Greek civilzation."

"Sir, couldn't it mean what Geoffrey says?  I mean historically speaking."

"Well, Jennifer, yes it could -- that is, technically. `Attic' had both of those meanings, as well as some others, when Keats wrote his poem."

"Then what's wrong with Geoffrey's reading?  It makes sense in the poem.  And it even adds a whole new way of thinking about it.  I like what it does to the poem, it makes it richer, wilder.  Or it helps to explain that peculiar way Keats loads and even overloads his poems with figural effects:

`to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees'

Here the text is "overwrought" not only because of that strange pun (and the equally strange one on "brede").  The word "overwrought" works so well exactly because, in one sense, it appears to make so little sense in this poem.  The style of the verse is cool and controlled.  If I imagine the "bold lover" "overwrought" with his passion, the poem toys easily with this thought.  It wants to play a game of passion `far above' `breathing human passion'.  So it constructs images made not only of sounds (`Attic'/`attitude'; `ear'/`endeared'), but of `unheard' sounds and melodies.  In this world the lover appears as it were unimaginably `overwrought', a verbal figure everywhere conjured in unexpected forms and antitheses (`Cold Pastoral').

"Look at that completely arbitrary juxtaposition of "Attic" and "attitude".  Sounds pull the words together, but their horizons of meaning never quite connect.  And the verse doesn't stay to let the reader stabilize their surprising relations.  Even stranger verbal creatures immediately appear (`brede', `overwrought').  The effect is finally uncanny, as if one had entered a purely magical space -- a vitalist and metamorphic world.  It's all apples and oranges.  It's a garden that `breeding flowers, will never breed the same'.  In Keats's gardens words miseginate (`brede').  Their relations and their offspring seem a kind of `wild surmise' of a new world -- a world far more wondrous than the America that set Keats voyaging in his sonnet on Chapman's Homer."

"Well that's a remarkable set of imaginations, Jennifer.  And I'm more than a little surprised that Geoffrey's mistake about the meaning of the word `Attic' should have triggered those thoughts. Because so much of what you say makes sense for anyone wanting to read Keats's poetry.  I don't know what to make of that.  All I do know is that Geoffrey's meaning for `Attic' is out of the question.




PRINTER'S DEVIL.  So much for our instructor's pretense of catholicity.  What his talking head can't do, at any rate, is stop making sense.  That's out of the question.

INSTRUCTION (resuming).  Keats clearly intended it to mean `classical'.  [Smiling at a happy thought]  After all, if we go along with Geoffrey we'll have to set up the Humpty Dumpty School of Criticism."

[Puzzled laughter] "What's that, Sir?"

"Don't you remember Alice in Wonderland?  When Humpty Dumpty tries to assign purely arbitrary meanings to certain words, Alice challenges him about `whether you can make words mean so many different things'?"

"But didn't Humpty Dumpty have an answer?  Didn't he reply: `The question is. . .who is to be master-- that's all.'  It seems to me that Lewis Carroll didn't take a position on the problem.  Humpty Dumpty isn't talking foolishness.  So why can't we go with Geoffrey's reading?"

"Well of course poetry wants to multiply meanings, but only within the limits that are permitted by the poem. 




FOOTNOTE.  I wonder what he means by "the limits of the poem"?

PRINTER'S DEVIL.  Not much.  He's forgotten to think about that thought, hasn't he?  He throws it out, as if it were self-transparent.  What "limits", what "poem"?  It's not as if Keats or anyone else had the authority to declare what they or it might be.  When Blake and Shelley decided it would be a good idea to take Satan as the hero of Paradise Lost, they exploded those limits for good.  But there never were any such limits.  That's what upset Plato about poetry in the first place.  That's why he wanted to throw the poets out.

FOOTNOTE.  It's interesting that Instruction talks as if the poem were a person, as if it could give and take permissions.  As if it laid down a law that it comprehended, or maybe embodied.

PRINTER'S DEVIL.  He talks as if he were Jesus Christ himself, "like one having authority".  He talks, he always talks, when he should be paying attention to the text of the Ode and to what his students are saying.  He should be listening within the limits that are permitted by the poem.

INSTRUCTION (resuming).  And here `Attic' in Geoffrey's meaning just doesn't make sense."

"Yes it does.  It made sense to Geoffrey.  And when he explained it, it made sense to me too.  And it made more sense of the poem, and it made sense for Keats's poetry in general."

"It made nonsense of the poem!  It's a travesty."

"Well then maybe nonsense is sometimes more sense.  I thought poetry was supposed to open up doors of perception.  Isn't that what you're always telling us, Sir?  This reading opens up the poem in lots of new and interesting ways."

[Silence from the front of the room]

"She's right, Sir, it's as if Keats were playing with his subject, making sure it didn't kill itself with its own seriousness and classicism."

"Well, . . . ."

"Actually, I like that reference Jennifer made to Keats's sonnet on Chapman's Homer.  It made me think again about the mistake Keats made -- confusing Cortez and Balboa.  The mistake turns out to be a happy one -- what's that phrase you like to use, Sir? -- a kind of `felix culpa'.  I like Keats a lot more than Wordsworth and Byron just because his poems are so unguarded, so -- full of surprises.  You walk into a Keats poem and suddenly all things become possible.  But Wordsworth seems so worried about losses and disruptions that he can't help making sure everything is organized.  And Byron's deliberateness is positively fanatical.  That's why his great hero is Lucifer, immortalized in his dark, unchanging splendour.  Keats is always so fresh."

[As Jennifer is about to speak] "My goodness how late it's gotten!  The period will be over in five minutes so why don't we stop now.  I'm sure we can take up these subjects another time. -- Next class, remember, we move on to Shelley.  Read his `Defence of Poetry' and Peacock's `Four Ages of Poetry'.  Make sure you check the notes in our text.  These essays are difficult to understand."

"But Sir, what do you think -- I mean about what we've just been saying?"

"Well, it's very interesting.  I'll have to think more about it."


[VIRTUAL REALITY recedes; Instruction resumes his conversation with Pleasure.]


PLEASURE.  A pretty embarrassing experience.

INSTRUCTION.  I was mortified.  I still am.  The only thing that kept me going for the next few days was remembering Whitman: "He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher." (Song of Myself,  )  And Jesus: "He who would save his life must lose it."

PLEASURE.  So what did you do?

INSTRUCTION.  I started trying to imagine new kinds of critical thinking.  Remember Emily Dickinson's suggestion about reading poems backwards?  It seemed like a good place to start.  So I began reciting poems in reverse -- just the words, just pronouncing the texts."

PLEASURE.  An excellent thought.

INSTRUCTION.  And then I started other kinds of exercises.  I'd go to famous passages randomly.  Say, Macbeth:

"Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck,

Till thou applaud the deed."

                                    (Macbeth  )

Or Wordsworth (again):

"To me the meanest flower that blows can give

Thoughts that do often lie to deep for tears."

                                    (³Ode. Intimations of ImmortalityŠ²,  )

Then I'd propose an arbitrary task -- say, "Give a homoerotic reading of that text."  The results were surprising -- truly the Humpty Dumpty School of Criticism.  The Macbeth passage turned out to be a wonderful Shakespearean joke, a Brechtian moment when the actors slyly reveal that Lady Macbeth is being played by a boy.  And the "Intimations Ode" passage!  It will never be the same for me, indeed the whole poem is "changed, changed utterly".

PLEASURE.  By giving the Ode a kind of Platonic blow.

INSTRUCTION.  Well that's the least of it, really.  Let's say we just keep it from turning into an Ode to Duty.  These kinds of critical moves free poetry from its obligations to the state and the state's representatives, the teachers: everyone who is presumed to know.  Truly now one can begin to imagine "voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone" -- or not alone.  With others.  Like all games, such readings work best when people play at them together.

And then after I worked hard at these kinds of exercises, I decided to try a full dress effort with something unlikely --



PRINTER'S DEVIL.  There's something wicked happening here.  Suddenly Alice has become Humpty Dumpty.

FOOTNOTE.  Right.  Those interpretive exercises Instruction talks about -- they can't be serious.  Do you think they were actual class exercises?

PRINTER'S DEVIL.  They're jokes, of course.  They're the exercises of his sick brain.

FOOTNOTE.  Bad jokes.

PRINTER'S DEVIL.  Deliberately bad, that's what makes the whole thing so irresponsible.  Don't you see, he's manipulating those ridiculous signs to play out a play.  Through this looking glass Alice undergoes a sex change.  She becomes Humpty Dumpty -- truly a full dress effort at something unlikely.

INSTRUCTION (resuming).  -- something important partly because it would seem so unlikely.  I meant to set my sights high.  I wanted a reading that could make a real difference in the way we go about our intercourse with poetry.  And I didn't want something smartass and deconstructive, some gloomy "exposure" or negation of a canonical text, or whatever.

It took a while but one day I realized what I wanted.  I wanted to read a poem that would help us begin reading poetry all over again.  I wanted to go back to the beginning -- or to some place that seems like a beginning.  For me that meant one thing: Understanding Poetry. I had to go back there and start all over again -- back to the road not taken by the schools.

Frost says it makes a great difference when you decide between roads.  He also suggests that once you make a decision and travel along, you can't go back again.  And Frost was the darling of New Critical reading, as one can see from his dominant presence in Understanding Poetry. 

But maybe that idea is just part of what comes with having taken a frostbound road in the first place.  Maybe along another road one can go backwards or forwards or any old way one wants.

So back I went to Understanding Poetry.  And I set off from the book's most crucial moment, the moment when it began to issue its Everlasting Nay.  I wanted to plant roses where Brooks and Warren's thorns had begun to grow.  I wanted to redeem their time.


[Voiceover intones Kilmer's "Trees" while Instruction mouths the words.]


(For Mrs. Henry Mills Alden)


I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree.


A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;


A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;


A tree that may in Summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair;


Upon whose bosom snow has lain;

Who intimately lives with rain.


Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.


Now before I give my comments on this poem I want you to look at the essay that inspired me.  You will recognize it I'm sure.  Few of the critical pieces in Brooks and Warren's Understanding Poetry were more famous than their commentary on Kilmer's "Trees".




FOOTNOTE (handing a manuscript to the Devil).  Here's the actual original.  We can check it against what we're about to hear.  I don't trust any of this anymore.  I mean really.  Joyce Kilmer's "Trees"!?


"This poem has been very greatly deplored by a large number of people.  But it is a good poem.




FOOTNOTE.  Why go on, it's just a travesty, isn't it?  The actual "original of the essay" begins: "This poem has been very greatly admired by a large number of people.  But it is a bad poem."  The game is to read black where Brooks and Warren read white.

PRINTER'S DEVIL.  And so not a "positive image to a negative" but a negative to a positive.  As you say, a travesty of Brooks and Warren.

FOOTNOTE.  I suppose it all depends on where you stand.  That's part of the point of Instruction's joke, isn't it -- to turn Brooks and Warren's debunking "negative' reading of "Trees" into a positive act of appreciation.  To develop the picture they took of Kilmer's poem and make a positive (re)print from it.

PRINTER'S DEVIL.  Clever.  But is it a good poem?


"First, let us look at it merely on the technical side, especially in regard to the use Kilmer makes of his imagery.  Now the poet, in a poem of twelve lines, makes only one fundamental comparison on which the other comparisons are based; this is the same method used by Housman in `To an Athlete Dying Young.'  In `Trees' this fundamental comparison is not definitely stated but is constantly implied.  The comparison is that of a tree to a woman.  If the tree is compared to a woman -- literary tradition weighs heavily here, as it does for so much modernist writing -- the reader can't expect a consistent use to be made of the aspects of the woman which appear in the poem. . .


[PLEASURE.  My God, what a sexist remark!  Did Brooks and Warren actually write that?

INSTRUCTION.  Hold your questions till I get to the end of this.  We don't want to spoil the coherence of the argument with interruptions.]


"Look at stanza two. [Voiceover intones stanza 2; Instruction mouths the words]  Here the tree is metaphorically treated as a sucking babe and the earth, therefore, as the mother -- an excellent comparison that has been made for centuries -- the earth as the `great mother,' the `giver of life,' and so on.

"But the third stanza introduces a confusion: [Voiceover intones stanza 3; Instruction mouths the words].  Here the tree is no longer a sucking babe, but, without warning, is old enough to indulge in religious devotions.  But that isn't the best part of this confusion.  Remember that the tree is a woman and that in the first stanza the mouth of that woman was the root of the tree.  So now, if the branches are `leafy arms,' the tree has metamorphosed in a very strange way.  The poem's woman begins to appear an uncanny, a wholly imaginative creature.

"The fourth and fifth stanzas maintain the same anatomical arrangement for the tree as does the third, but they make other unexpected changes: the tree that wears a `nest of robins in her hair' must be grown up, perhaps bejewelled; yet the tree with snow on her bosom is also a chaste and pure girl, for so the associations of snow with purity and chastity tell the reader; and then the tree that `intimately lives with rain', who is she?  A chaste and pure girl?  A woman vain enough to wear jewels?  Our difficulties at this point have grown extreme.  For this girl/woman, though living in an intimate relationship with someone (`rain'), also appears withdrawn from the complications of human relationships and might be said to be nunlike, an implication consonant with the religious tone of the poem.

"Now it would be quite pedestrian for the poet to use only one of these thoughts about the tree (1. the tree as a babe nursed by mother earth, 2. the tree as a nun praying all day, 3. the tree as a girl with jewels in her hair, or 4. the tree as a woman involved in an ambiguous sexual relationship) and to limit himself to a single metaphoric structure.  The poem's success comes because the poet has tried to convey all of these features in terms of his single basic comparison to a woman.  As a result, he presents a poetical image that has all the confused and metamorphic power so typical of modernist works of art and poetry.

"For a moment it may seem possible to attack the poem by pointing out its absurd romantic title, `Trees', with its implicit appeal to the consistencies of an organic approach to art: one tree is like the babe nursing at its mother's breast; another tree is a girl lifting her arms to pray, and so on.  But this line of attack would damage itself more than the poem it seeks to denigrate: for `Trees' is not consistent and romantic, it is modern and grotesque, and as such it refuses to provide any real or natural basis for seeing one tree as a babe and another as a devout young woman -- and least of all for establishing a `natural' consistency between those figures and the complex sexual being who emerges toward the climax of the poem."

*          *          *

PLEASURE.  The essay is strangely familiar -- like something often thought but never so well expressed.

INSTRUCTION.  It ought to be required reading in our introduction to poetry classes.  I especially like the tact of its historical awareness.  The authors don't belabor the point, but they lead us to see how important historical context must be for "understanding poetry". 




PRINTER'S DEVIL.  Clever.  But is it a good poem?

FOOTNOTE.  Maybe that's not the point at issue -- I mean, whether "the poem itself" is good or bad.[2]

PRINTER'S DEVIL.  What's the point then?

FOOTNOTE.  I suppose Instruction wants to show up the fragile authority of even the most authoritative critical moves.  Alter a few words and this famous foundational essay of 20th century criticism changes from a duck to a rabbit.  The arguments and evidence brought forward support antithetical readings.

PRINTER'S DEVIL.  So Instruction wants to "teach the conflicts" after all!

FOOTNOTE.  More than that, surely.  He wants to generate the conflicts.  Play the gadfly.

PRINTER'S DEVIL.  As I say, "teach the conflicts".

FOOTNOTE.  No, it's more aggressive, more like "teaching conflict" than "teaching the conflicts".  Look carefully at those last remarks about "required reading" and "the tact of its historical awareness".  They're corroded with an ironical attitude toward "introduction to poetry classes" and the modern founding fathers of those classes.  And as for those founding fathers, well, Brooks and Warren made their reputations by a wholesale assault on historical awareness.  Instruction isn't sincere.  He has nothing but contempt for teaching and for understanding poetry.

INSTRUCTION (resuming).  Not once do they tell us that Kilmer was editor of The Dial, for example, or that the poem comes out of the same period and place -- New York in the teens of this century -- that produced Stevens' Harmonium.  Yet how obvious the connection must now seem to us!  One thinks immediately of Stein's early cubist poetry, and we may even remember that Tender Buttons was published at exactly the same time as Kilmer's book.

But "Trees" has more in common, I think, with more traditional kinds of Modernistist experimental writing.  Surely the similarity of Kilmer's poem to Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is obvious!  It isn't just the physical shape of the two works that recall each other, though that's very striking.  Think of Stevens' disorienting and revelatory shifts of focus.  These dominate Kilmer's poem as well, and the regularity of Kilmer's rhyme only makes the shifts more shocking.  Besides, in Stevens' charming poem the romantic commitment to a specular order of attention is hardly violated, so that his poem has more than a trace of that "consistency" (properly) deplored in Brooks and Warren's hypothetical critique of "Trees".   But in "Trees" the order of things is fractal and chaotic -- an effect heightened exactly by the poem's seductive apparition of consistency.

Not that Brooks and Warren's essay has given the last word on Kilmer's poem.  On the contrary, their reading's preoccupation with "technical" matters has caused it to misrepresent a key feature of the work, and to miss altogether the literal meaning of the final two lines' climactic and defining moment.

PLEASURE.  What do you mean?

INSTRUCTION.  I'll explain by making a confession about the text of the essay I gave you.  The truth is that I slightly altered what Brooks and Warren originally wrote.  I did so to highlight   something important that's missing from their reading.


INSTRUCTION.  In the essay I gave you, whenever Brooks and Warren wrote "human being", I substituted the word "woman". 

PLEASURE.  Is that all?

INSTRUCTION.  No, but it's important.  Now I did this because "human being" is completely untrue to the meaning of the poem.  "Trees" is not only written to a woman, its running human analogy is gendered female at every point.  The subject of the poem is what Robert Graves would soon name "The White Goddess".  So the title is apt -- "Trees", not "Tree" or "The Tree".

PLEASURE.  But the women in the poem appear so unmythic -- despite what Brooks and Warren say about "the earth mother" and all that.  So quotidian and, in one case -- the baby girl I mean -- so completely nonsexual.  Think of Keats's La Belle Dame.  There's the White Goddess!  Kilmer's Trees are hardly pagan at all; they're too correct -- too American and Irish-Catholic.

INSTRUCTION.  You're deceived by one level of the poem's appearances.  Think again.  Think, for example, about the dedication to Mrs. Henry Mills Alden.




FOOTNOTE.  That dedication line, incidentally, isn't reproduced in the text of Understanding Poetry.  Brooks and Warren took it out, I guess, because they thought it wasn't part of "the poem itself".


FOOTNOTE.  Of course, just as much as the title.  But Brooks and Warren want to uncouple poems from their explicit historical connections.  Removing this actual woman rarifies the poem.  And these losses of textual reference tend to affect all the more concrete aspects of poetic language -- for example, the signs themselves.  The poem's signs slip loose from their physicalities -- from their phonemic and rhythmic structure -- and readers begin to treat poetic language as "a text", a conceptual organization, a play of Saussurean signifieds.  It's important to see the particular woman standing among Kilmer's trees  -- Mrs. Henry Mills Alden.

PLEASURE.  Who is she?

INSTRUCTION.  Kilmer's mother-in-law, a woman who for years had moved at the center of the New York literary world.  A poet herself, she married Henry Mills Alden -- the editor of Harper's -- when she was a young, aspiring writer and after a whirlwind three-month courtship.  Their love sprang up when Mrs. Alden, then Mrs. Kenton Murray, submitted some poems to Harper's. 


INSTRUCTION.  You're so ignorant, all you care about are the surfaces of things!  Read between the lines, behind the words!  Mrs. Alden's obituary notice in the Virginia Pilot and Norfolk Leader (4/14/1936) describes her as "a woman of high intellectual attainments, of courageous spirit, and of marked personal charm".  The significance of this language in that newspaper becomes clear when one recalls that her first husband had been editor of the Norfolk Landmark. 

Furthermore, although married to Alden she continued to publish her poetry under the name Ada Foster Murray. (She was born Ada Foster and grew up near Huntington, Virginia -- now West Virginia.)

In short, the words "Mrs. Henry Mills Alden" release the poem under the sign of a woman and a poet.  More significantly, this person would be seen -- we are looking from Kilmer's point of view -- as a volatile and complex being.  Brooks and Warren's remarks on the poem's inconsistencies are subtle glosses on the name standing at the head of the text.  Look again at the text of the verse!  Kilmer's Trees are populated by evanescent Ovidian figures.  "Moving about in worlds not realized" -- moving about the poem's forest of strange symbols -- are "light winged dryads" whose presences we glimpse by oblique suggestion -- as we glimpse them in Heine and Baudelaire, and in so many poet/painters of modern life:

Gods float in the azure air

bright gods and Tuscan

                                                (Ezra Pound, Cantos  )

From Poe to Pound, even North America did not free itself of that world.   Mrs. Henry Mills Alden, upright and respectable, comes from that world.

The first sections of Kilmer's verse text are full of deliberate deceptions; so we only glimpse, by various stylistic plays of confusion and indirection, the poem's disturbing and erotic presences.  In the end, however, they are presences that are not to be put by.

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;

Who intimately lives with rain.


Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.

All further commentary proves unnecessary as soon as we realize the startling sexual wordplay in the word "make".  Kilmer descends to this kind of vulgarity only once in the poem.  But it is a descent

that must be made, a descent to coarse pagan earth.  The descent is telling and overthrows the whole fabric.  What did you say about Dickinson reading poems backwards?  This word "make" unmakes the text, forcing us to read it all backwards: back over again, back against the deceptive inertia set in forward motion at the outset of the work. 

But we are ready for this backward overthrow because -- despite its appearances -- the poem has never settled into its rectitudes.  As Brooks and Warren were the first to notice, it is far too inconsistent and "confused" for that.

PLEASURE.  But then the poem is some grotesque male joke -- is that what you're saying?

INSTRUCTION.  Not at all.  As in "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" and so many similar poems, "Trees" is written out of a certain kind of male eroticism.  After all, what else is the so-called myth of the White Goddess?  But if this were all the poem had to offer -- serving up another coarse of that myth -- it would have scarcely arrived at the level of Keats's traumatic fantasy.  What distinguishes Kilmer's poem is the fact that it is God who makes the tree.  This literal (religious) fact can barely tolerate the extreme "opposite and discordant" suggestion introduced by the wordplay.  In forcing that extremity upon us, the text leaps to an unspeakable imaginative level.  The achievement recalls nothing so much as certain analogous moments in Lautreamont's Les Chants de Maldoror -- for example, the great scene in Canto III when Maldoror narrates the story of God and his desolate strand of hair.

I think Nietzsche wrote the moral for Kilmer's poem before Kilmer ever wrote the poem:

It is with people as it is with trees.  The more they aspire to the height and light, the more    strongly do their roots strive earthward, downward, into the dark, the deep--into evil.             (Nietzsche, The Gay Science sec. 371)

This is a thought fully realized in Kilmer's shocking last couplet, where we come upon something far worse than a simple religious blasphemy.  The coarse final wordplay doubles back upon the penultimate line, undoing the idea of poiesis itself.  From the original sin committed among the trees of his little garden, Kilmer has imagined the adamic fall of the poem itself.




PRINTER'S DEVIL.  How right you were about Instruction's insincerity.  This is all an outrageous act of cleverness and self-display.  Instruction tells a greater (and a worse) truth than he realizes when he turns Kilmer's wretched little verses into an allegory about "the adamic fall of the poem itself".  His cynical games with poetry will be the death of poetry.

FOOTNOTE.  Did you catch the sly allusion in that phrase?  "The poem itself" is one of those word plays Instruction seems incapable of resisting.  He's recalling another famous book from the period of New Criticism's hegemony Stanley Burnshaw's The Poem Itself.


FOOTNOTE.  I guess his reading wants to imagine "the fall" of a certain kind of "poem" or idea about poetry.  In this sense his "allegory", as you call it, would be an historical allegory, not a transcendental one.  Which makes sense, given his critical view of Brooks and Warren's (unhistorical) way of "understanding poetry".

PRINTER'S DEVIL.  And what's Instruction's "way" of "understanding poetry"?  It's to invade the texts and force them to turn nonsensical.  Ever critic his own Aristotle indeed!

FOOTNOTE.  Satan as the hero of Paradise Lost is a nonsensical idea.  But you gave it your good housekeeping seal.

PRINTER'S DEVIL. Yes, because its nonsense is useful.  It helps to expose the contradictions that run through Milton's Christian mythology.  In doing that, it helps to expose the structure of poetical discourse in general.

FOOTNOTE.  As nonsensical?

PRINTER'S DEVIL.  As incommensurable.  What did Wilde say?  "A truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true."[3]

FOOTNOTE.  I think your ideas have more in common with Instruction's than you realize, or admit.  You have highbrow ideas so you want highbrow examples.  That appeal of yours to Blake could have been made by our Instructor.

PRINTER'S DEVIL.  Yes, but in his mouth it would have been a rhetorical jeu, a sign that poetical authority rests with him, with the meanings he sets in play.  If I'm highbrow, he's just a vulgarian.  Besides, the incommensurability of poetic discourse is for me one of its key objective features.  That's a crucial difference between us.  Another -- it's even more crucial -- relates to the fundamental unseriousness of Instruction's critical methods.  And in truth how could he take himself or his ideas seriously!  They're grounded in nothing beyond his own fancies -- mere airy nothings, as fragile as himself, as all subjective criticism will always be.

FOOTNOTE.  Or as Shakespeare?!


FOOTNOTE.  I was just reflecting on your allusion to Shakespeare and his airy nothings, his poetry and his ideas about poetry.  Maybe you shouldn't be quoting Shakespeare, or appealing to Oscar Wilde.  You don't help your case. 

PRINTER'S DEVIL.  What are you thinking?

FOOTNOTE.  I'm thinking about Instruction's "unseriousness", as you (rightly) call it.  About how studied it is.

PRINTER'S DEVIL.  Right.  That mannered style is what stamps his thinking as iredeemably trivial.  It doesn't even take itself seriously.

FOOTNOTE.  But what if that's the point?  What if the question isn't "how could he take himself or his ideas seriously" but "why should he take himself or his ideas seriously"?

PRINTER'S DEVIL. Explain please.

FOOTNOTE.  Why do you, why does anyone, privilege "objective" values?  Because they're imagined to have weight and substance,  something more solid than mere personal ideas and subjective whimsies.  When Instruction flaunts the fancifulness of his critical ideas, when he -- in effect -- turns them over to his friend Pleasure, he puts them in that "unsubstantial faery place/ That is [their] fit home". 

In this sense, the deliberateness of his unseriousness would thus not be a "cynical" gesture, at least not in the usual sense we give that term.  It would be a move to label the fundamentally subjective character of his criticism, and perhaps to suggest as well that all criticism -- even criticism, like Johnson's, committed to objective standards -- operates subjectively.

PRINTER'S DEVIL.  So what else is new!

FOOTNOTE.  Two things, perhaps.  First, Instruction's game-playing assumes a formidable (double) standard for critical acts: a demand for a high level of reflective self-awareness, on one hand, and for a matching style and practise on the other -- for a sound that would be the echo of its sense.  His triviality is significant exactly because it's so cultivated.  He is labelling his proposals "modest".

PRINTER'S DEVIL.  Or "indecent".

FOOTNOTE.  Yes, modest and indecent both.  It's Pleasure's ideal of an erotics of reading, a move "against interpretation".  And the move is important because of the implicit challenge he's laying down.  His criticism of "Trees" emphasizes the rhetoric of interpretation, so his studied triviality signals that he appreciates the difficulty of the reciprocal demand his challenge puts on us.  He comes forward not as a master but as just another player.  Or if he seems a master, his behavior emphasizes the mortal limits of mastery.

Second, the dialogue argues that meaning comes as acts of thinking (which may get reified into sets of ideas), and thinking comes as exchange of thought.  All sorts of uncommon critical possibilities might flow from that view of things.

PRINTER'S DEVIL.  Including the slaughter of criticism's innocence.

FOOTNOTE.  A prophetic sign announcing a new day, perhaps, when we may repeat, in a finer tone, "the adamic fall of 'the poem itself'".

INSTRUCTION (resuming).  So a modest and even genteel irony turns corrosive.  Aspiring to the height and light, Kilmer's poem discovers its damnation.

PLEASURE.  If this is how one finds meaning in poems you could almost persuade me back to interpretation.

INSTRUCTION.  Sometimes you do read your texts too simply.  "Against Interpretation",  for instance.  It's clear that you've let your enthusiasm carry you away.  For the phrase has, I think, graces beyond the reach of the art you have in mind.  You read the word "against" as a mere prepositional call to arms.  And that's fine, I like that reading -- even if it is pretty commonplace. 

PLEASURE.  Novelty isn't everything, my friend.  What is it Byron says?

I care not for new pleasures, as the old

Are quite enough for me -- so they but hold.

                                                (Byron, Don Juan  )

INSTRUCTION.  Well, what I like about that Byron remark -- about Byron in general -- is the cool, self-conscious way he approaches the pursuit, and the question, of pleasure.  What did he say in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage about thought?  Didn't he call it "our last and only place of refuge"?

Don't just run with that phrase "Against Interpretation", think about it. Imagine what you know.  Suppose "against" were an adjective instead of a preposition. 

PLEASURE.  The Everlasting Nay becomes the Everlasting Yea!

INSTRUCTION.  Ever the enthusiast.  Suppose it were an adjective and a preposition.

PLEASURE.  Then you would have invented what Xerxes wanted, a new pleasure.

INSTRUCTION.  Or a new thought


[1] See Gerald Graff,

[2] See Stanley Burnshaw¹s influential book

[3] Oscar Wilde,