When we think of the pleasures of poetry, we rarely turn our thoughts to poise. But poise in the hands of Cavalier poets or Pope was a major virtue. We admire the poise of good hosts or hostesses because they make us feel comfortable, welcomed, and safe. Their poise is revealed most when things go wrong—when guests fall ill, the dinner is undercooked, an unexpected and undesired visitor arrives. It is then that our poised hosts quickly and unostentatiously handle the crisis. Poise is not rigid or static, but rather an adaptive equilibrium, an equilibrium maintained or discovered within circumstances that work against it. Poise has as one of its roots the Old English pois, meaning weight. Poise requires balancing weighty things and in such balance producing grace and lightness. Today, we like to show off the sturm und Drang of artistic creation or of life; we are skeptical of poise. Yet when a poem achieves that balance, I am delighted. I share in its grace, or at least I can imagine possessing such grace. Poise does not settle anything; it is a stance that allows one to be open to the unfolding of experience.
I have in mind as the clearest example of poise Robert Herrick’s “Upon Julia’s Clothes”:
Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
The liquefaction of her clothes!
Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free,
—O how that glittering taketh me!
Several scholars have argued that Julia, while dressed in the first stanza is nude in the second, and such a reading justifies the sense of the wonder in the final line, although it’s a rather rude wonder. But such a reading ignores the title—the poem is, after all, about Julia’s clothes, not her body. It also ignores the sensuous chastity of Herrick’s self-presentation. When Herrick thinks about Julia wearing silk, he envisions the clothes turning to water like a nymph clothed by the river currents. When he actually sees her walking, he is struck by how her dress moves to and fro in regular intervals (the original meaning of vibrate), and he is “taken” by the glittering of the silk. Any disrobing of Julia would disturb (probably destroy) the captivating effect of her movements. It is the dress’s freedom of movement that strikes Herrick as “brave” and daring. He is doubtlessly a “skirt chaser,” but I have the sense that he is much more interested in the skirt than in the body within it. It is the glitter that steals his affection.
The poem builds up to a last line that is made all the more important by the triple rhymes. The wrong move would cause the entire delicate structure of the poem to collapse just as a wrong move from Julia would ruin her glittering effect. Their poise is fraught with danger. Herrick makes it even more dangerous because the final line is a break in rhetoric. Up to this point he has been descriptive, but now he releases an exclamation of delight: “O how that glittering taketh me!” The exclamation places us in real time. Julia has just passed, and Herrick has been taken prisoner by the sight of beauty. If Herrick has “cast” his eyes, Julia’s dress has cast a more powerful spell and taken him prisoner by her beauty. Yet, although the beauty of the poem lasts, “glittering” is a very ephemeral effect. Herrick will not be held prisoner indefinitely. He loses his sense of self for only a moment. Consider this alternative conclusion to the poem: “O how I’m taken by the glittery.” Pretty awful, but it maintains the rhyme and meter of the original. However by placing glittery as the final word, the line puts emphasis on the visual effect. Herrick ends the poem with me because no matter how taken he is with Julia’s clothes, he never loses the sense of himself as a subject. The poem rightly ends with Herrick. He has maintained his poise even or perhaps because he has allowed himself to be momentarily taken by the beauty that passes before him.
The poem is fittingly quite short. The experience is a brief one. The poem may well have the Ovidian and Martial allusions others claim to see in it, but if so, it must wear these allusions lightly and freely as well as bravely. Above all, it must not lose its poise. In celebrating Julia’s dress, Herrick is celebrating Julia’s poise, her freedom of movement, her adaptive bravery, and he is also celebrating the poet’s ability to be taken by the most ephemeral but intense delights and still maintain his own control. And in what, as readers, do we take delight? We are allowed for a moment to enter the room where a beautiful woman and her equally beautiful clothes circulate. We are made to feel at home there. We may feel a bit superior to the rather silly man who is held prisoner by the moment, but his silliness allows us to loosen up and enjoy ourselves. This is the pleasure of poise.
Certain men seem to need to achieve poise when confronted with women whose beauty exerts a destabilizing force on them. If I call Herrick silly, it is because in the poem he permits himself to be more attached to Julia’s clothes than to Julia herself.
In “I Knew a Woman,” Roethke adopts the role of the innocent boy taking his first lessons in lovemaking from a woman rich in experience, a Marschallin of the Midwest. He needs all the poise he can get to keep up with her. She is a woman of mythic qualities:
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I’d have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek).
The passage shifts from gods to English poets (not Shakespeare, who knew little Latin and less Greek, but to Jonson, Pope, Housman, and perhaps Swinburne) and stops at Irving Berlin, whose song “Cheek to Cheek” (1935) Fred Astaire sang to the glittering Ginger Rogers, crooning memorably, “Heaven, I’m in heaven.” What I find delightful is the way the hyperbole goes from Olympus to Tin Pan Alley in three quick steps. That’s a lot of territory to cross and still have one’s balance.
I want to focus on the humor of the self-consciously hyperbolic because humor in general and such humor in particular are ways to maintain poise under stressful conditions. It’s the principle behind gallows’ humor that allows the joker to stay in the moment and above it at the same time. Such humor provides safety valves to expel pressures that would otherwise explode. “I Knew a Woman” is a very funny (as well as erotic) poem but that is because the lessons the woman teaches him are so dangerous. The way humor both advances poise and makes it difficult to achieve is shown in the structure of the poem: four seven-line stanzas, all of their last three lines are rhymed, so that as a stanza progresses greater and greater demands are put on the poet. For example the second stanza ends in this way:
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing we did make).
The agriculture metaphors are part of a series of double entendres that organize the poem. The speaker is a poor rake indeed. Hardly the hell-bent womanizer of William Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress. She is the sickle that can cut him down to size. Yet by coming “behind her” (anal intercourse?) they make a “prodigious mowing,” prodigious in both the sense of plentiful and unnatural or abnormal. Prodigious swells the line, and the unnaturalness of its meaning is heightened by the inverted syntax.
The woman gives the speaker lessons in comportment: “She taught me Turn and Counter-turn and Stand; / She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin.” Her lessons are poetic: turn, counter-turn, and stand are the three parts of the Pindaric ode—strophe, antistrophe, and epode. But they are also lessons in the art of making love—how to get and keep an erection. And these are far from all the erotic punning in the poem. Take the line: “Love likes a gander, and adores a goose” in which the slang meanings of both gander (a look, a simpleton) and goose (a poke between the buttocks, an invigorating boost) are brought into play.
One of the pleasures of double entendres is that they allow the poet to say one thing and suggest an entirely different level of meaning. The speaker is poised between these two registers, one licit and the other illicit. But if this is fun for the poet, it should be even more fun for us readers. We are in on the double meaning, coconspirator positioned between polite discourse and smut. And we have even more deniability than the poet, who may be forced by some critic to come clean. We can pretend not to have any knowledge of the business. Rakes? Geese? Sickles? Hay? We took them for images drawn from farming!
But just as we are enjoying ourselves in a sort of belly dance (“She moved in circles, and those circles moved!”), the poem takes a dark turn, and the poise that the speaker has maintained is threatened. The erotic gives way to the issues of mortality, the little death or orgasm folds to the larger death of finality. The hay that they took such pleasure in mowing also makes Roethke a “martyr to a motion not my own,” the natural rhythms of birth, growth, and mortality (“Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay”). There’s something desperate in the call and response: “What’s freedom for? To know eternity.” Is freedom just another word for nothing left to lose? Is freedom meant for serving us up to eternity? Roethke’s next move is to assert that “she cast a shadow white as stone,” a paradox that will not be decoded like the double entendres that crowd the rest of the poem. For a moment, Roethke seems flummoxed by the influx of new ideas and feelings. But the poem reestablishes its balance when the speaker tells us: “These old bones live to learn her wanton ways.” The very regular iambs of this line do not lumber the way the lines above it do. The ls and ws give it a much-needed elasticity. But there has been a more profound shift. The poem began with the woman “lovely in her bones,” but now ends with “these old bones.” He has grown up because of her tutelage. And there is more to learn. The poem, which began in the past tense, is now in the present tense, and the speaker is able to proclaim “I measure time by how a body sways.” This is also a rather straightforward iambic pentameter line, and yet the stress on how is a minor stress; Roethke sashays through the line swinging from “I measure time” to “a body sways.” The pendulum of erotic life does not count its moments by the rigidity of iambics or the fatalism of nature. It has a beat of its own, and the poise that Roethke achieves in the poem is a sign of his overcoming the rigidity and naiveté of his youth while retaining its passion. Yet Roethke provides us with something else—an invitation to join him in the dance. Probably this dance will be far less raucous than the waltz his father led him through—no beating time on our heads, the pans will stay safely on the shelves—but it will be as loving and as deeply sensual and will probably end up in bed.
Poise, as I see it, is not merely composure—the ability to properly arrange oneself—but graciousness, an ability to offer the social pleasures to others, and not when they are convenient, but when proffering such pleasure is a challenge. Herrick invites us to be taken by the same glittering that captures his imagination. Roethke invites us to be swayed by his vision of the dance of existence. But perhaps no poet wanted such poise and needed it as did Elizabeth Bishop, and I would suggest that a great deal of the esteem she receives today derives from the poise she maintained under the most trying of circumstance. “One Art” presents a plan for achieving poise, of mastering the art of losing, and suggesting that such mastery is open (at least in theory) to us all. Even when Bishop is unable to rise above yet another loss, she still holds out to the reader the promise of mastering such tragedies. And what looks like her cruel demand to herself to acknowledge disaster (“Write it!”) is part of the healing process needed to survive. But Bishop shows both her desire for poise and its dangers in more humdrum circumstances.
. . .
Read the rest of this essay by downloading our free iOS digital app available in the iTunes store. For Android users, click here to access our mobile-friendly site. Or, purchase a print copy of the July/Aug 2016 issue here.