I am writing a series of poetic commentaries on various poems that strike my fancy for my Advanced Creative Writing: Poetry class. Hopefully, a deep exploration of the poetry of others will enhance my own poetics. I will be posting the analysis to the list, and if I can find a link to the poem already online, I’ll provide that as well. Otherwise I’ll let you know the source. Anyone who would be willing to point out devices in use in the poems that I have missed, or places where I have imputed intent or over-analyzed will be much appreciated.
A. R. Ammons’s “Clabberbabble” ( Poetry 85th Anniversary Special Double Issue. Chicago: Poetry Press, 1997) is a delightful romp through the world of language usage and at the same time a poignant expression of nostalgia for a past in which people were closer to nature. The title of the piece is a newly minted compound word that both embodies the theme of the poem in its very construction, and leads into the poem both in content and in style. Clabber is something muddy, lumpy, and inconsistent. Babble of course refers to unintelligible speech, with a somewhat muddy etymology that places its source as most likely originating in the sounds of infants, but its senses influenced by the biblical account of Babel (OED babble). The change of language and the loss of understanding and connections seem to be the primary thematic elements of the poem, and so the title works well from that perspective. The title also has an onomatopoeic quality that matches its sense and makes it a pleasure to read, especially aloud. In fact, as mentioned earlier, babble’s etymology is strictly onomatopoeic. The first line of the poem begins, “How usage changes usage,” which seems to be a commentary on or specification of the previously mentioned new word, focusing the direction which the poem is going to take, while expanding from word to meaning. This idea of specification and expansion of ideas is then followed throughout the poem with the continual use of colons as its marker.
Made up of six unrhyming tercets with no established meter, but with a smooth unhurried rhythm, the evenness of the line length, the four to five stresses per line, the consistency of the stanza formation causes it to have an evenness of flow that accords with the implacable flow of the years, and the immutable laws of language change: “How usage changes usage.” Colons allow the changes in the stream thought to retain a level of connectedness that the finality of a period would not. Changes come gradually, just as they do in language. Other than this important shift in colon use, the punctuation of the poem follows for the most part standard English usage, and so does not distract from the ideas being presented.
The diction is earthy, as befits a poem nostalgically revisiting an earthier time. Phrases such as “something the w has been left out of,” “animals were television then,” and “high-billed meanies” place the reader as an equal and ameliorate the affects of the scholasticism of the etymological question, the use of a word such as anserine (gooselike), which has all but dropped out of the common lexicon (I know I had to look it up), and the implied criticism of modern technology. Because criticism is not the point: the point is to mourn the passage of both words and lifestyles while accepting and coming to terms with the inevitability of their loss. Another aspect of the diction is that onomatopoeic effect that I mentioned. It also persists throughout the poem with words like “swishing,” “hissing,” “shrieking,” and even “gaggle.” For me at least, these tie the highbrow idea of “language,” to the concreteness of specific auditory imagery. But it is not overdone either; so many poems that emphasize sound also overemphasize it. In this case, the sound gently and inconspicuously supports the theme of the poem while providing a subtle music to add to our pleasure.
The imagery of the poem is interesting, for a poem that purports in its opening stanza to be about language and word use, in its utter lack of linguistic events. It is this, for me, which brings out the more important nostalgic aspect of the poem from its pedagogical origin and makes it a poem rather than a lecture. The “English hamlet, houses clustered/at a bend in the road where a bridge crosses/a stream.” is perfectly picked for its balance of nature and humanity. The gaggle and the boy as well provide a balance between human and nature. “A gooseless world in no need of tending” ties the previous images to the deeper nostalgic abstract, making it immediate and real as we relate it to the real, though past, images. Interesting too, is the way in which the imagery in the 5th stanza, leading up to our return to language, and to the bereavement of the final stanza, begins to take a darker tone with the “dark lively trees the brookbanks had/spared and the shattering…” All in all, I don’t think Poetry could have picked a better poem for the opening of its 85th anniversary double-issue. It was a pleasure to read on so many different levels and in so many different ways.