A meticulously crafted poem, balancing informality with a tight formal structure, folds a Zen legend into a reflection on the end of an affair
This week's poem, "Love-Letter-Burning", is by the award-winning American poet, Daniel Hall, currently the writer-in-residence at Amherst College. It's from his 1990 debut collection, Hermit with Landscape, chosen by James Merrill the previous year as a winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition. His third and most recent collection, Under Sleep, was published by Chicago University Press in 2007.
In a period when formal poetry sometimes arouses accusations of reactionary politics, and poetry criticism may be equated with blasphemy, it's not necessary, though not a bad idea, to seek cover in the Collected Poems of Philip Larkin, or plod backwards with the plodders of New Formalism. There are contemporary poets whose work is of its moment, but still reminds us that the word, poem, comes from the Greek verb, poiein, to make. Of course, lively poems are constructed in the style of shopping lists, prayers, journalistic reports – almost any verbal artefact – and they too can be properly made. But it's good to be reminded how a lyric poem may be uniquely a lyric poem, not masquerading – however thrillingly – as another sort of verbal object, but being its unquestionable self.
"Love-Letter-Burning" draws attention to its care for language from the start, even before the unobtrusively noticeable word, "archivist". Its overall shape is simple and satisfying. It has a framing story-cum-meditation, and a nested, inner story, and is arranged in two inner and two outer quatrains. The rhyme scheme miniaturises this pattern like a fractal: ABBA. The poem's surface is almost suave, the emotion well tamped down, with rueful wit and graceful playfulness preponderant. The fact that grief, heroism, violence etc, may be implied in the destruction of love letters is kept at bay by the very title. "Love-Letter-Burning" sounds like a slightly old-fashioned art or sport, demanding a specific skill and painstaking dedication.
That the emotions are controlled doesn't mean they can't exert tension. This tension registers in Hall's lineation, for instance. The first-line enjambment is neatly plotted so that we feel the shudder of the word "cold" before we realise the sentence is going on, and "cold" will turn out to be an ironically un-exciting, non-shuddering word when properly connected to its hyphen-mate to become "cold-blooded". And then there's a further tease, a near-pun threaded through the further enjambment. In line three the speaker isn't saying "we commit our sins" but "we commit our sins/ to the flames". The lines twist and slough off the expected like a skin, but the skin hangs on suggestively. There's a lingering suspicion, despite the light-hearted hyperbole, that "sins" have been or are being committed. In fact, the letters, as sheets of paper and segments of words, may be sins, or perhaps played a part in a larger sinning.
Heightened emotion remains potent, though coiled into elegant-sounding French and the two caesurae clipping the last line into three segments. Why is it necessary to save yourself if you can? Fear of what "makes us bold"? The letters are somehow dangerous. It's as if evidence of a crime were being destroyed: if it's simply evidence of an unhappy, ill-judged love affair, psychological risk is still implied. The speaker's tone is of course laced with irony, but it's far from wholly ironical.
Picking up "bold" from the last line of the previous stanza in "Tanka was bolder", the poet makes an agile transition from lyric to anecdote. Again, the tone is light but edgy. The weather turns "from fair to frigid" as the story about the Zen master begins. That alliteration ("fair"/ "frigid") adds an extra dash of flamboyance to the artifice. Both epithets are exaggerated, both have sexual undertones (which is surely the point) and "fair" summons echoes of Elizabethan love poetry. The enfolded quatrain-form is itself a reference to the rhyme scheme of the Petrarchan sonnet's sestet.
Perhaps now to ensure the mannerism is not overdone and the voice remains conversational, the iambic pentameter is pared to 4 stresses: "To build a sacrificial fire." The economy also allows the word "sacrificial" to stand out, connecting to the fire which will consume the letters, and foreshadowing the painfulness of the act.
The parentheses of the third stanza suggest a little jokey aside, something muttered privately by the speaker to his auditors. In the legend, when the chief monk complained about the destruction of the temple Buddha, Tanka claimed he had burned it in order to find its indestructible "Essence." The objection "But if it shows up only in the flesh --?/ … Let's burn the lot!" may be shared by the poem's speaker, at least momentarily. A soft half-rhyme which nevertheless highlights the very different sounds and near-opposite meanings of "ash" and "flesh" hints at the sensuous sweetness of what has gone. A lot of pent-up feeling is released when Tanka grins and says "Let's burn the lot!" Meaning is suddenly stripped from the priceless Buddha – and, perhaps, from the loverless love letters.
The sacrifice becomes, in the last stanza, a "purifying rite" – if only for "believers in the afterlife". It seems both necessary, and an act of superstition. The voice grows curt again: "At last/ a match is struck: it's done". The use of the passive, and the pauses of the caesurae, deflect the emotional crisis. "Love-Letter-Burning" ends with a memorable aphorism, but one divided by enjambment to evade slickness or too-certain closure. It remains memorable and worth remembering, because patently so often true: "The past/ will shed some light but never keep us warm". The fire is nothing much in terms of fire, and the light, too, seems to have cast mostly shadow. But the savour and elegance of the poem linger on. Through symmetry and variety combined, and through polished, faintly teasing but not over-exquisite diction, it has transmitted emotions everyone has felt, and no one easily talks about. This is a well-made poem, but it's also poignantly alive.
The archivist in us shudders at such cold-
blooded destruction of the word, but since
we're only human, we commit our sins
to the flames. Sauve qui peut; fear makes us bold.
Tanka was bolder: when the weather turned
from fair to frigid, he saw his way clear
to build a sacrificial fire
in which a priceless temple Buddha burned.
(The pretext? Simple: what he sought
was legendary Essence in the ash.
But if it shows up only in the flesh—?
He grinned and said, Let's burn the lot!)
Believers in the afterlife perform
this purifying rite. At last
a match is struck: it's done. The past
will shed some light, but never keep us warm.