Thursday, March 02, 2006

Tom Raworth - Part 3

This concludes my reflections (such as they are) on Tom Raworth’s poem, All Fours (see my entries on 27th and 28th February). The penny isn’t really dropping. But here are a few observations.

1. The poem’s theme appears to be a huge alienation.

2. The characters who inhabit the stanzas appear to have little that’s vital to them. They “order quantities of everything”, “are living under siege”, are “dead and senseless at the wheel”, sing “damnation at an empty chair”, are “efficient as she had to be”, are “breathing not daring to smoke…”.

3. The descriptions also give that sense: the thick high weeds, the uniformed policeman who spies inside people’s houses, the workmanship years of polishing have dulled, the embers that have gone out, the mushrooms that are “small common objects of assault”, the blown cell in the dusty bulb, the blank shining glass that blots out light, the vending machines.

4. Certain words are used which further the sense of malaise: chronic, normal (surely ironic), rumbled, crouched, postured, shambling, abandoned road, mushroom thrived (fungus is the only thing that thrives here).

5. There’s no definite sense of place. There’s a road surrounded by high weeds, a shop(?), a house, a car, a roomful of books, a dark room in an apartment block. This shifting of setting presumably is to disorientate the reader and provide a deeper sense of alienation.

6. Similarly, there is no central perspective, no narrator, no central character – there’s a you in S1, a she in S2, we and him in S3 (although the you in S1 and the we in S3 aren’t necessarily connected), a she and him in S4, her and we in S5 etc.

7. The formal structure, regular stanzas of four ametrical lines, is a counterpoint to the abandoning of elements that a traditional poem would deem necessary – a structured argument or narrative, a narrator, a sense of unity (not all of thse have to be present in every poem, but if none are, the poem is probably [post-] modernist).

8. The title All Fours plays on the four-line stanzas and also denotes something animalistic, a dehumanisation.

So the poem leaves me with that sense of alienation, a few haunting images, but nothing overly memorable. I don’t dislike it as much as I did when I first read it, but it doesn’t do a lot for me either. It doesn’t point to anything beyond itself – the numinous quality that Robert Hass wants in poetry is absent - but I guess that’s modernism for you.


Larry said...

All I can say about that poem is that it is extremely boring: it looks like a cut-up exercise, grouping random groups of 4 phrases. I don't think there was any intention for any line's sense to be carried into the next line. As you've said there is no place, no characters, no story, no idea. It isn't even properly a cluster of images since there doesn't seem to be any effort to choose striking images of any sort. So I suppose it is a comment on formalism and meaning. It could be carried out indefinitely and at its length it already reads like an endless yawn.

Rob Mackenzie said...


You are probably right about the independence of each line, although I think some lines could be joined together by the reader if the reader so desires.
I reckon that's a feature of this kind of stuff - the multiplicity of meanings possible depending on how you decide to read the fractured grammar.

I find the lack of emotional content a problem. It's a very cerebral poem, and I like a touch of human emotion in poetry, in addition to intellectual content.

There are some good lines in it and Raworth does force me to read it in a different way from how I'd normally read a poem, which I suppose is a good thing - for me at least.

Larry said...

If I compare it to a Burroughs cut-up: Burroughs would cut up parts of the text you had read earlier and intersplice various texts, some familiar, some random. He believed in magic and found meaning in random conjuctions, but he would also choose the parts that seemed interesting. What you get - at least sometimes - is a build-up of tension and multiply-refracted echoes that add up to a kind of intense poetry. He was writing about the collapse of structures and scripts and word-control anyway.

I find nothing of that caliber in the Raworth poem.