[This is another paper I wrote for my poetry class. Gotta post something, right? If you want to read these poems yourself, they’re below.]
“The Weed” by Elizabeth Bishop
Often the most touching poetry refines a common emotion by taking it and reforming it into a personal, distinctive, and freshly meaningful set of images. Ambiguity and specificity; imagination and logic; syntax and meter; tone and content – all mix and interact to create a poem of original sentiment that gives new depth and insight to the reader’s own experiences. By comparing poems from different authors one sees more clearly how a poet achieves this effect, especially when their subject matter is similar. The poems “Wait” by Galway Kinnell and “The Weed” by Elizabeth Bishop both ruminate on the uncertain, all too familiar feelings belonging to romance (and its loss), although they are dramatically different poems.
“The Weed” is a personal allegory in which the speaker recounts a dream that she is “dead, and meditating” upon “a grave, or bed, (at least, some cold and close-built bower).” She soon finds the originally static nature of her dream startled by some sort of motion, and then a creeping sensation around “the heart” that reveals itself to be the weed. She watches the behavior of the weed, which grows and moves its leaves, until it finally prods a flood from the heart, forming a river that threatens to sweep the weed away. The weed survives the flood, and when the speaker asks it what it is doing it replies that it grows “but to divide your heart again.” Much more direct, “Wait” is a poem in which the speaker advises in second person to do just that: wait. He assures that things will become “interesting” and “lovely” again, promising a harmonious and satisfying music if one will only have patience. The poem retains the imperative mood throughout, encouraging the addressee to keep waiting, despite his or her weariness, saying, “You’re tired. But everyone is tired. But no one is tired enough.”
While it is not explicit in either poem, both skirt the theme of loss (or anxiety of loss), featuring somber moods and simple language. One line in “Wait” is, “Personal events will seem interesting again,” – a direct and simplistic line that gives clear indication of the addressee’s state of mind, contrasting with the delicate simile of the gloves and lovers that follows shortly thereafter, which becomes luminous and vivid against such bluntness. “The Weed” uses mostly short, declarative sentences, as if the speaker was addressing someone who is psychoanalyzing her. After being awoken from desperate sleep she says simply, “I raised my head.” Throughout the poem the speaker displays such curious indifference to what she is describing. Neither poem utilizes any rhyme scheme, although “Wait” by Kinnell does employ a bit of repetition to great rhetorical effect. Both poems are in free verse, but “The Weed” uses lines of typically seven to nine syllables, whereas “Wait” consists of lines that are anywhere from one to sixteen syllables long, so one could say Kinnell uses freer verse. The steady pace of “The Weed” gives it an introspective, pensive tone, while “Wait” gradually crescendos in each stanza, building usually into longer lines with more metaphor and imagery, making the reader feel that the speaker is addressing someone in some sort of mourning or depression.
The atmospheres these two poems create by their simplicities help to convey the distant, disconnected moods of their subjects, giving each a sense of loss. “Wait” is more clearly about romance, or at least relationships, saying, “the need for the new love is faithfulness to the old.” Bishop’s poem is ambiguous throughout about the source of the weed, and gives no clue why the speaker dreamt of being dead and meditating, but that the weed is rooted in the heart in a highly symbolic poem hints at its importance. The lines that mark the arrival of the weed give a more subtle clue, “Suddenly there was a motion,” (when one uses a soft “a” here, it sounds vaguely like “emotion”), “as startling, there, to every sense as an explosion.” This motion then drops to “an insistent, cautious creeping in the region of the heart,” which reminds one of the sensations usually related to love, initially violent and overwhelming, eventually fading to slight and nagging.
The nature of the loves (if that’s what they are) in each poem is even less clear, but the startling motion in “The Weed” could be something traumatic like a death. But even though the dream takes place (possibly) on a grave, death seems unlikely, since the weed states that it grows to divide the heart of the speaker again. (If it did pertain to death it would be an especially insidious weed). There are also no explicit or implicit references to death after the first two lines. That Bishop tells us parenthetically “all this was in the dark” seems to strengthen the likelihood of the poem being related to romance, as it reinforces the dreamy sensation of the poem, like she is watching her thoughts develop, and using them for sight. There is a confusion and a clarity to this darkness, like the dérèglement of the senses for Rimbaud, which the speaker remains unconcerned about. This disconnected tone and focus on self further cements the theme of romance, as it seems the speaker is observing her feelings and emotions with indifference not typical to a mourner (one even wonders at points of the poem if the speaker is within her own body in the dream, especially with the use of “the heart” instead of “my heart”).
“Wait” is clearly about someone who has lost a lover, but it is unclear as to how or why. The second line, “Distrust everything if you have to,” could indicate that the addressee of the poem has been betrayed, and is now weary of the world, but it could also imply loss-induced denial that one could think of as a similar confusion of the senses as is in “The Weed” – perhaps what one sees is a creation of the mind. But subsequent lines suggest a loss of someone important, as the speaker seems to be trying to overcome a great, numbing dejection, reassuring that “Hair will become interesting. Pain will become interesting. Buds that open out of season will become interesting.” The mention of the buds opening out of season gains extra weight in the second stanza when the speaker advises: “Don’t go too early,” which seems to imply the desire for death, like a bud opening out of season and dying. The bud could also, however, be a metaphor for a romance that flourishes at an unexpected or inappropriate time, either in life, or in a friendship. In this sense, one may be able to relate the bud in “Wait” to “The Weed”, although more because it is a symbol of life (or its loss), and its beauty despite its tragedy.
The speaker in “The Weed” may not be grief-stricken, but she does seem to be standing on the uneasy precipice of rejuvenated romantic interest after swearing off love forever (as so many of us have done). This provides an answer to what the cold heart’s “final thought” is, after it “remains unchanged” with the speaker for an indistinct amount of time, until the arrival of the weed. Rekindled sentiments also explain the change in the heart that ultimately precipitates the flood and the startling motion beforehand, as the weed (perhaps a spore of love?) begins to grow unexpectedly despite the “immense and clear” resolve of the heart. The semaphoric motion of the weed and its “nervous roots” also fall in line with this interpretation, as the early stages of love are often anxiety-wrought, while understanding even one’s own feelings is akin to watching someone signal with flags at great distance, in the dark.
Both poems feature the importance and fickleness of time when it comes to the heart, as the speaker in “Wait” tells his listener to distrust everything if necessary, “But trust the hours. Haven’t they carried you everywhere, up to now?” Though this is mostly a new way of saying that time heals all wounds, it has a more reassuring, more easily embraced frankness – things aren’t always great, but time kept moving, and you right along with it. The poet in “The Weed” seems to be in a similar situation at the start of the poem, saying, “In the cold heart, its final thought stood frozen, […] stiff and idle as I was there; and we remained unchanged together for a year, a minute, an hour.” The speaker and her heart simply wait, for whatever span of time necessary (the greatly differing units show the unpredictability of how long it takes to get over heartbreak). In each poem, time proves to be not only a healing force, but a beautifying and constructive force. Of the weed, the speaker says, “It grew an inch like a blade of grass”, implying the slow growth of tentative new love, which comes to flourish with stability. We find similar sentiments in “Wait”, which also expounds the benefits of time, “Only wait a little and listen: music of hair, music of pain, music of looms weaving our loves again”. Weaving, of course, is an intricate, delicate, and slow process, but one that creates a lasting, strong fabric when one has enough patience.
Both poems emphasize the key role that memories play in emotions, and reach a similar conclusion to their role. “Wait” uses a simple, common, intimate symbol to do this: “Second-hand gloves will become lovely again; their memories are what give them the need for other hands.” For Kinnell, memories are what lead the gloves back to beauty, to usefulness, to vitality. Likewise, he thinks they shall guide lovers back to loveliness, saying “The desolation of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness carved out of such tiny being as we are asks to be filled.” Bishop’s speaker witnesses her heart changing as a result of the weed, when it splits and unleashes a flood, nearly sweeping the weed away. She notices “that each drop contained a light, a small, illuminated scene; the weed-deflected stream was made itself of racing images.” This is a powerful image suggesting the torrents of old scenes that one seems to inevitably recall whenever the first thoughts of new romance take root. It seems, at the conclusion of the poem, that the weed’s goal was to release this flood of memories, much of which “went off through the fine black grains of earth”, thereby moistening it for other weeds, and providing itself with moisture. Here Bishop again makes a parenthetical observation, stating that the stream was as if a river carried “shut in its waters” all the scenes it had ever reflected, instead of them “floating on momentary surfaces”, hearkening to Virginia Woolf’s idea of the lastingness of moments, and reminding the reader of the mundane memories that never seem to disappear.
Both poems manage to provide an uplifting though unsettling conclusion, without a clear, or at least happy, resolution. The weed seems to be as indifferent to its host as she is to it, although both are greatly affected, and both seem to be resigned to their fate of repeatedly dividing and releasing floods from “the cold heart.” This is both inspiring and disheartening, depending on the reader’s attitudes toward love: he could view it as a beautiful, desirable thing and be excited at the prospect of once again feeling the uncertain, petrifying rush of passion, or he could abhor it as a barbarous, cruel and lonely cycle of repetition and pain. “Wait” ends with the addressee’s entire existence playing itself into “total exhaustion” which sounds, well, exhausting. But unlike “The Weed” Kinnell’s poem does not imply a continuous cycle, as the speaker says, “Be there to hear it, it will be the only time.” This allows the last line, otherwise tiring, to seem exultant and free, leaving a powerful impression upon the reader. Both Bishop and Kinnell seem to believe in the beauty and nobility of sorrow and pain, like Chateaubriand, Hesse and so many other artists before and since. Though we may suffer, those sorrow-scored symphonies will wash us anew, and in those cascades we will become lovely again.