The Poem

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 486

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Formally, this short poem is free verse, divided into five uneven stanzas. On the surface it seems obscure, a mixture of statements and images without much connection. There is no identifiable speaker, even though there is a mention of “we.” The poem begins, not with any statement of subject, but with an assertion that “the mind” “feels bruised.”

This sentence mixing abstraction and image, “mind” and “bruised,” is followed by an image of light making white holes through black “foliage,” succeeded in turn by a line that is both abstraction and image: “Or mist hides everything that is not itself.” If the poem seems obscure, however, it nevertheless has a precise meaning. All the assertions and images are Charles Tomlinson’s way of talking about poetry, by demonstration rather than mere precept. Even the apparently vague “we” becomes, clearly, “we poets.”

The alternation of abstraction and image in these first two lines echoes the structure of the rest of the poem, for the second and third stanzas are a series of statements (one should especially note the statement almost in the center that “Proportions/ Matter”), whereas the last two stanzas are almost purely visual imagery. Still, these images require the reader’s mind, as well as the poet’s mind, to work. In those last stanzas, “green twilight” has “violet borders,” a seemingly meaningless image until one thinks of the actualities of colors as evening comes down. The last four lines, describing butterflies, emphasize their “yellow” and then the colors—“scarlet” and “bronze”—of the flowers they are on. The poem is concerned with the effect of a process as well as with presenting static images.

The title of the poem, “The Art of Poetry,” announces its subject matter and, by implication, offers an illustration of that subject matter. That title fits the poem into a long tradition of poems that take poetry itself as their subject, beginning with the Ars poetica (c. 17 b.c.e.; The Art of Poetry) of the Roman poet Horace and continuing through innumerable treatments by later poets, often using the same title. Tomlinson’s poem, despite its brevity, is a development of, as well as a reaction to, Horace and all the followers of Horace.

Horace wrote a long, discursive poem on poetic techniques and subjects; basically, he argues that a poem should be a unity, allowing variety in order to avoid simple uniformity. Horace was much concerned with the practical effect of the poem, holding that a poem should either teach or delight. Indeed, he suggested that it should do both (“he who mixes the useful with the sweet gets every vote”); the poem’s pleasing qualities exist, essentially, so that the reader will accept the teaching. At the same moment, he attempted to illustrate his own precepts on how to write a poem. Tomlinson, in a much shorter space and using a different technique, is doing the same.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 505

Tomlinson has called himself a phenomenologist; what this means to his poetry is that the concrete actuality of the world is primary. Moreover, he was trained as a painter; one would therefore expect visual images in Tomlinson’s poetry, and they are there. He was also greatly influenced by certain modernist American poets such as William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens.

Those poets were, in their own right, influenced by the Imagist movement of the first part of the twentieth century, a movement that insisted upon the primacy of the image, especially the visual image. Neither Williams nor Stevens ever held that the image existed only for itself, however; it suggests, always, an intellectual element. As with the late poems of Wallace Stevens, Tomlinson’s poems are not static images: His images suggest motion: “the light makes white holes,” and “butterflies/ [are] Nervously transferring themselves.” Motion is the very sign of the modern world, the world with which the poet must deal.

Tomlinson’s lines, as well as whole stanzas, are discursive, not merely imagistic. Even in the discursive statements, however, there is either an image or an implied image. If “the mind feels bruised,” the mind itself is somehow material, capable of being hurt. The following two lines, very imagistic, are designed to show what “bruises” the mind—the things of this world that are excessive or unclear. The second and third stanzas of the poem are nearly pure statement, but the following two stanzas of visual imagery respond to those two just as the last two lines of the first stanza respond to its first line. They illustrate the abstraction, giving it body.

The fact that the poem is in free verse is also an illustration of its abstractions; metrical poetry asserts uniformity, but not necessarily unity. Tomlinson’s free verse suggests variety, but variety in a whole, emphasizing connections. The poem makes some use of run-on lines, even between the stanzas, as well as employing sentence parallelism, so that the ideas are connected by sound as well as by logic.

The poem’s change from a mixture of statement and image through statements to images seems to reject any attempt at unity, but that change actually demonstrates unity. The images of twilight and of yellow butterflies moving from flower to flower are an illustration of how to see the world in order to find the proper proportions.

Moreover, in a traditional poem, the authority of an “I,” the poet directly speaking about the craft on which he is an expert, clarifies and reinforces the teaching by identifying the source of the morality. The speaker of Tomlinson’s poem, however, is simply an “authorial” voice; the voice speaks of “the mind” and then uses the impersonal “one” and finally “we,” but even the “we” is a generalization for poets. Still, and paradoxically, that “authorial” voice, with its almost abstract tone, offers a kind of authority for the poem’s implications simply because it is abstract and distant, not limited to some fallible individual.