home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

the man against the sky

30 august 2022

A vast tome of Edwin Arlington Robinson's poems has been with me for almost 40 years, and till now I have read in it very sparingly. For decades, I have known a handful of Robinson's poems closely and a few of them by heart, even as his life's work has spiraled into obscurity. When I was in middle school, we learned "Richard Cory" – the one that ends with Richard Cory putting a bullet through his head; imagine having middle-schoolers learn that. But Simon & Garfunkel used the poem as lyrics, and we also studied their song. My education was a weird mix of 1890s decadence and 1960s grooviness.

Robinson was just plain good with verse. He may not always have trained that skill on the best poetic ideas, but he adroitly used rhyme and meter as counterpoint to the prosody of natural spoken sentences. And he sensed the limits of such talent. "Old Trails":

He knew as well as I
That all the words of wise men who are skilled
At using them are not much to defy
What comes when memory meets the unfulfilled.

The Collected Poems starts with Robinson's 1916 collection The Man against the Sky, and thus with the poem "Flammonde," which from pride of place one guesses to be emblematic of Robinson's poetic self-image. Flammonde is all things to all men, a talent he flaunts in effortless fluency.

Why was it that his charm revealed
Somehow the surface of a shield?
What was it that we never caught?
What was he, and what was he not?
One might ask the same about Edwin Arlington Robinson. The best of his poems always seem to have a hollow center – I was about to say, like a dead tree, but at least a hollow tree once had a center, while Robinson's works often seem carefully built around something that was never there to begin with. "Stafford's Cabin" is a story that cannot be told, and in fact has no witness except one immemorial tree. The cabin is a place
Deserted and told only by the tree that knows the most,
And overgrown with golden-rod as if there were no ghost.
A lot of Robinson's Man against the Sky poems are obscure, and exhibit the rhetorical trick of building up meaning out of obscurity itself. "Fragment," for instance – the very title is an example of this method – gives a house one can barely see, a woman known only by her name and hair color, an unnamed subject (not the speaker) who deals in paradoxes ("houses are built without hands"). The theme appears to be mutability and our knowledge of things around us as we and they change – but who's to say what the content really consists of?

I love the way that "Eros Turannos" refuses to specify a situation – a marriage, though it doesn't really even call it that – while capturing its nuances in such wonderful psychological depth. But "The Unforgiven," a similar poem, seems evasive to the point of coyness. It's a delicate balance: suggestiveness is a lovely aesthetic quality, but become too suggestive and you just end up with murk. "Bokardo," one of the longer poems in the volume, is a gnomic reproach to its addressee that I think gets too veiled and too far from its unspecified subject matter.

The long title poem in this collection comes last. "The Man against the Sky" is an abstract, free-rhyming poem loaded with sententious turns. It's written in the modal – the title Man "may" be this or "may" be that. He ends up being Everyman, assailed by every absurdity that confronts everyone. It is a long poem, a kind of anthology of aphorisms, and it ends in blankness. If "All comes to Nought," the speaker asks, "why live?"

'Twere sure but weaklings' vain distress
To suffer dungeons where so many doors
Will open on the cold eternal shores
That look sheer down
To the dark tideless floods of Nothingness
Where all who know may drown.
Well, no one ever described Edwin Arlington Robinson as light, bright, and lively.

Robinson, Edwin Arlington. The Man against the Sky. 1916. In Collected Poems. 1937. New York: Macmillan, 1966. 1-69.