Sudden Spoon

Collaborative Close Readings

“Vespers” — alternative readings inspired by form

Sycamore Leaves in November

Sycamore leaves — this is the first year I have ever seen leaves still on the trees at the end of November here. The leaves were scanned on a flat-bed scanner and the color heightened just slightly in GIMP.

In considering “Vespers,” I want to consider a few aspects of form. First, and most obviously, the language is not only formal, but business-like, even legalistic. With a couple of exceptions discussed below, the punctuation is conventional, as it would be in a business letter. As it approaches its climax, the language become passionate — but it is still framed in words such as discriminate and consequences.

Although the poem is free verse, consisting of 23 lines, many of the lines are in iambic feet (said to be the natural rhythm of English) and several lines are iambic pentameter, giving it, at the beginning, and the center, something of the feel of a blank verse sonnet. In the last lines, the lines become shorter. Many lines are enjambed, and many have caesurae (pauses within the line). Like a person breaking from a walk into a run, the poem picks up speed as the speaker argues her case.

A study of the pattern of pronouns is revealing. In the first fifteen lines, the speaker speaks of I, you, your, my. Suddenly, in line 16, she begins to speak for us.

…I doubt
you have a heart, in our understanding of
that term.

And further down, “you may not know / how much terror we bear…”

She has moved from speaking for herself, addressing an absentee landlord, to speaking for the human race, addressing God.

“Vespers,” the title of the poem, is not (as someone else noted), a prayer, but a form of worship service. It is communal prayer, the prayer raised by a congregation at the end of day, laying the day and all of its errors to rest, confessing sin and error, and placing trust and hope in God for the long dark night ahead. The “lucernal” psalms (psalms of light) are sung. Like the leader of evening prayer, the speaker of the poem speaks for all of us.

She has moved from concerns for a single crop of tomatoes to a broader view. God, she says, sees us all alike, living and dead, and does not understand our fear, our terror, as we see the dark approach. The “early darkness” takes on a triple meaning: the shortening days at the end of summer, the early winter in a harsh climate, and the approach of our own deaths.

Curiously, at the end, she seems to accept the responsibility for failure. Is this acceptance broad as well? If she is responsible for the tomato vines, is she accepting responsibility for life and death on a larger scale as well? Or, rather than acceptance, she merely recognizing that she feels the weight of it?

Finally, the matter of the colons: Andrea brought this up in a comment on Nadia’s post. I had been puzzling over them myself, and the comment made it clear. She’s right. At least for the first colon, a semicolon would be the conventional choice. Any English teacher would circle this colon with a red pen. Semicolons are used to separate two sentences that are closely related. In this case, the first sentence presents an argument, while the second sentence, introduced by a transition word ["but, however, in consequence, on the other hand," your English teacher lists on the blackboard] presents a counter-argument.

What is the effect of that colon?

“All this belongs to you” is the argument. “On the other hand” sets up the transition to the counter-argument. Then there is a list: The speaker planted the seeds, she watched them sprout, and it was her heart that was broken.

Can it be that by using a colon, Glück is turning the counter-argument into a list that is introduced by the colon? A colon is often used to introduce a list. You make a general statement, then provide details.

If we read it the colon this way, not only does all “this” (the earth, the rain, the winds, the tomato vines, the twelve weeks of summer granted to better climates) belong to God, but also the speaker, her seeds, her joy in the sprouts, the blight, the black spot, her broken heart.  It is all God’s territory.

The second colon seems to turn the conventional use of the colon on its head by providing first the details, then the generalization. At the end of a very long sentence, covering several lines, a sentence that increases in pace and intensity, from foreshadowing to terror, with vivid images of the spotted leaves and the red maple leaves falling (in August!), she bring it to a sudden halt with the colon, then: “I am responsible / for these vines.”

Perhaps the end of the poem is not, after all, acceptance, but an expression of terror or of anguish. I! All of this, this death, this blight, this oncoming darkness, and it is on my shoulders. “I am responsible…”

Sources:  Although I mainly relied on my upbringing in the Episcopal Church for my understanding of the Vespers service, I also consulted the Wikepedia article “Vespers” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vespers.

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About Elizabeth Evans

I am a poet living in Washington state.

4 comments on ““Vespers” — alternative readings inspired by form

  1. Nadia Ghent
    December 2, 2012

    Excellent post! I love how you see the totality of Gluck’s inclusiveness and how her use of form and especially punctuation bring this to prominence in a close reading. And I really admire your sycamore leaves. We are almost deep into winter here in Rochester; neither leaves nor tomatoes remain in our gardens.

    I can understand how the end can be seen as an “expression of terror.” It is a terrifying responsibility to be in charge of the existence of things–tomatoes, your children, poetry, creating art. But this is what we have to help us with facing the emptiness and unresponsiveness of of the natural world. What is left are words.

    • Elizabeth Evans
      December 2, 2012

      Yes… I was thinking about this after I posted. The most terrifying sense of responsibility comes when that first baby is on the way, or is lying in your arms.

  2. dennisaguinaldo
    December 2, 2012

    But that responsibility carries with it some power too, true authority (I could go so far as to say “natural authority”) over what you’ve been taking care for, especially against others, and most especially against absent others.

    So the swell of that last line truly engages me. Hubris was mentioned in one threads this week (what goeth before the fall), and I’m thinking here of that unfortunate mother of 14 sons and daughters who had the temerity to compare her children to Leto’s spare produce of one Apollo and one Artemis. In terms of lyric, there’s also perhaps the figure of Pan (tomatoes!) who thought his earthy song was proof enough against Apollo’s transcendent music.

  3. trjst
    December 4, 2012

    About the colons: well done, Elizabeth. I feel you nailed it and showed me the ending’s punch. Maybe it is hubris — hubris of a poet.

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This entry was posted on December 1, 2012 by in Week 1 and tagged , , , .
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