The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Incantata,” written in memory of the artist Mary Farl Powers, is a nearly perfect synthesis of formal construction and emotional content. Spoken directly to the poet’s former lover, the poem is both elegy and celebration. Each of the forty-five eight-line stanzas has the rhyme scheme aabbcddc, called a “stadium stanza”—a form invented by Abraham Cowley for elegiac purposes and later adopted by William Butler Yeats. Because of its length (360 lines), “Incantata” can sustain some variation; the lines range from four to seventeen syllables, and there is no regular underlying rhythm.

The first twenty-two stanzas tell the story of the accidental fortunes of a friendship, the shared history, the ways one life enriches another and the ways in which they differ. The poet begins thinking of his dead friend when he is cutting into a potato to make an Incan glyph in the shape of a mouth, and this, in turn, reminds him of the first time he saw her works of art. The mouth itself is significant because the poet is attempting to speak across the boundary of death. The title suggests that this is a kind of incantation, as though he could call her back through verbal ritual. It also suggests a “non-song” (in-cantata), and this association, too, is appropriate, since he cannot seem to find the proper words to express his feelings.

As the poet rushes through specific memories of what appears to have been a stimulating and...

(The entire section is 526 words.)