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.