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For years now, I have been corresponding with an attractive young woman on the subject of poetry. At the risk of exposing myself to ridicule, I must confess that she is both a Goth and a pagan and adheres to all the silly romanticism that implies. At present she's refusing to correspond with me further until I retract my statement that Kipling is a better poet than Pound.
But my personal circumstances are neither here nor there, I only mention it because this long running exchange of letters has forced me to clarify my views on the Poet and his Art. If my views on this matter can help just one of the world's countless bad poets improve, I will be able to go to the grave knowing that I have made the world a better place.
The recipe for genius is a simple one. You must approach science with the passion and creativity of an artist and art with the rigorous and careful methodology of a scientist. In terms of poetry, this means choosing your words with surgical precision.
Any fool can wrap a towel around their head and write down what they feel, but a true artist will brandish the flensing knife of his critical facilities and excise the blubber of sentimentality. Every word of a poem should be carefully selected and analyzed. Your goal is produce a work that is rhythmic, melodious, rich with meaning and intense. Excess words should be cast aside and those that remain should be the result of diligent patient toil.
To illustrate my meaning, let us consider a poem that has the very qualities that I have described, William Butler Yeats' Leda and the Swan.
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
What is the first thing you notice about this particular retelling of Greek mythology? Hopefully, you noticed that it is a poem in sonnet form, but that's not what I'm getting at. What I want you to see is that Leda and The Swan does not contain a single unnecessary word. The wording of the poem is absolutely flawless.
The first line is quite unusual in that it contains 2 adjectives and an adverb. One of the foremost laws of poetry is that you avoid the use of modifiers whenever possible, but here we've got 3. Yeats isn't breaking this law as his poem has only 14 modifiers total and 14 lines, which makes it even more interesting that he chose to put 3 in the first line. It's clear that the poet wants to evoke a powerful image at the very outset.
A sudden blow
I'd say he's succeeding as this is indeed powerful. Sudden is not only a very beautiful, very rhythmic word, it is also rich with meaning. Sudden means not only "quick," but also "without warning" it implies the impossibility of preparation or resistance.
the great wings beating still
Great is used here, I think, because it has such a marvelously sharp sound. It grates if you'll excuse the pun. Also, it is a loaded word, consider the hymn How Great Thou Art. Clearly the wings are more than simply "large" and "powerful." Beating is a very harsh sounding and loaded term as well. When you consider the first line as a whole, the rhythm and the clang tint of the words combines with their meanings to give an impression of overwhelming force. You aren't thinking of the wings of a graceful swan; you're thinking of the wings of a demon or a dragon or a god.
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
This line is equally interesting as it is an almost complete retreat from the boldness of the first line. Joseph Brodsky argues that this is the best way to differentiate between British and American poets. Americans will start with a weak first line and follow it up with a forceful second line. Whether or not this is the case is beyond my expertise, but the contrast is fascinating. The first line is Zeus and the second is Leda. The use of girl rather than woman is there to emphasize Leda's innocence and helplessness. Staggering is very guttural (particularly when said by an Irishman) and not very poetic. It is there the offset the tenderness and intimacy implied by "caressed." The implication is that the innocent girl has not yet recovered from the initial assault and has not yet realized that she is about to be raped. "Staggered" also implies that the caress is far from gentle.
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
"Dark webs" is brilliant. It's superficially a reference to the webbed feet of a swan, which are indeed black, but it's obvious that more is meant. After all, a web evokes spiders, traps and cunning snares - this is reinforced by the use of "caught" later on in the same line. Yeats is alluding to the spinning of the three fates here. Note that it is the dark webs that are caressing Leda's thighs, an allusion to the tragedy that will result due to the children of this union. And what sort of union is it? It's clearly an unnatural and unholy union. The dark webs, the nape (which is a mental rhyme for rape) and the bill are all there to drive the point home. If that wasn't enough, Yeats breaks his rhythm slightly between "webs" and "her." Also of note is the fact that Yeats rhymes bill with still. Here he's following the rule that you shouldn't rhyme parts of speech. Nouns you can, verbs you shouldn't and modifiers never.
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
This is something of a breakthrough stanza. It recaptures the rhythm and, while it is much less forceful than the previous line, it's far from a retreat. It's the first neutral line in the poem as evidenced by the completely neutral verb "holds." "Helpless" and the double use of "breast" is here to show that Leda is no longer staggering and attempting to recover from the sudden blow, and is now stunned and attempting to mentally take stock of the situation. I'll call this stage two of the rape. Again note that Yeats is following the rules and rhyming a noun with a verb. As an exercise, you should try to figure out why this rule exists. What do you gain by following this rule? It should be obvious with a little thought.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The first stanza, while rich with meaning, was nevertheless quite simple to decipher, in the rest of the poem, Yeats begins to let his genius show through. It is complex and layered enough that I doubt even he could fully analyze it (that's the hallmark of literary genius). The question posed by these two lines can be taken in two ways:
I think Yeats mean it both ways, and that's why he used the term "vague." "Terrified vague fingers" is another example of heavy utilization of modifiers, and like the first line of the first stanza, it is used to create a powerful image. Leda is now struggling against the rape (I'll call this stage three), but she is doing so ineffectively because she is conflicted. It's worth noticing that she is pushing, not tearing, scratching or prying. Also, she is using her fingers, and not her arms or fists. Part of her wishes to reject Zeus and escape from him, but she is also becoming aroused and physically receptive, hence the reference to loosening thighs. Like most women, Leda longs to be savagely raped. It's worth remembering that Yeats' Leda is an innocent girl, and she is bewildered by both the situation and the way her body is responding. She is simultaneously frightened, repulsed, confused, curious, aroused, receptive and full of self loathing. The self loathing is there because she knows that she should not enjoy being violated, but nevertheless, she is.
"Feathered glory" is both a euphemistic penis reference and an allusion to Zeus' divinity. It echoes and clarifies the "great wings" of the first stanza. They are the wings of an angel.
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
"White rush" is an odd choice of words is it not? "White" has strong connotations of purity and divinity, but it can also convey intensity, as in "white hot." "Rush" is far more complex; the OED entry for rush begins with "The remarkable variations in the vowel of this word make its precise history hard to trace" and ends after listing 27 separate definitions. It's a big word and "white rush" can either refer to the pure, untroubled sleep of a rustic peasant on a bed of rushes or the exhilaration of sex. I'd point out the double meaning this gives to "laid," but the use of "lay" to mean "have sex with" dates from the 1930's and is simply an example of how the evolution of language can add new layers to older works.
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
Once again we can take this two ways depending on how we interpret the "rush" of the previous line. If it refers Zeus' feathered chest, than the heart is strange because it belongs to a God and Leda can never hope to understand it. However, if you take "rush" as a description of Leda's emotional state, then the "strange heart" is her heart. "Strange" because it is experiencing new emotions that she did not realize she was capable of. This, of course, give "lies" a double meaning.
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The moralist in Yeats now reasserts himself. The third stanza could be interpreted as glorifying rape, so he corrects it with these very harsh scenes of destruction.
To begin with, he uses the very neutral terms shudder and engenders as well as the euphemism "there" in order to retreat from the previous stanza. Once he has returned to neutral ground, he then moves to a harsh and unromantic 2nd and 3rd lines.
He also clarifies the dark webs of the first stanza. Leda had 4 children, 2 sons, Castor and Pollux and two daughters, Clytemenstra and Helen. Helen ran off to Troy with Paris, and it is the destruction of Troy that Yeats refers to in the second line. Clytemenstra married Agamemnon, who lead the Greeks in the Trojan war. Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter, Iphegenia to appease the gods and gain favorable winds for the voyage to Troy. Upon his return, Clytemenstra and her lover killed him to avenge Iphegenia. The young prince Orestes then kills his mother to avenge his father.
So Yeats is saying that the violence of the rape of Leda results in the violence that is the destruction of Troy and the continuation of the curse of the House of Atreus. It's worth noting that the House of Atreus is descended from Tantalus, another son of Zeus.
The break in the rhythm in the third line here is similar to that in the first stanza, but much stronger. It emphasizes the word "dead" with considerable force.
Being so caught up,
But Yeats isn't going to fully recant the sentiments of the second stanza. Here he repeats that Leda was responsive. Caught up in passion if you will.
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Brute blood of the air is a marvelous phrase. Here he's ignoring the personality of Zeus and focusing on the element and the essence that he represents. I wonder what Andrea Dworkin would say about this line.
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Note that power rhymes with tower, thus implying that the power of Zeus is the power of destruction. This is emphasized by the phallic character of towers. It's also a tarot reference. Yeats was a minor league occultist (is there any other kind?) and was rather fond of such things. Knowledge is of course the knowledge of sexual pleasure and it is a rhetorical question. Yeats has left know doubt that Leda enjoyed the experience.
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
Indifferent is perfect. Zeus hasn't the slightest interest in Leda once he has shot his load and could care less about the consequences of his actions.
This is by no means a complete analysis, but it should give you some idea of how much effort Yeats put into the poem. Like a miser counting out coins, he used his words sparingly and only when it would profit him. If you are given to composition of verse, you should take this example to heart. Most bad poems are excessively wordy and could be raised from the abyss of sheer awfulness to the plains of mediocrity by careful editing.