How Poems Think: Sugar Cane


In his ode “To Autumn,” Keats personifies the season as a goddess presiding over the harvest’s fruit, nuts, grains, honey, flowers; like a gleaner with a load of grain on her head, she steps carefully over a brook, “Or by a cyder-press, with patient look, / Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.”  The nostalgia in this poem for a season that seems to have already passed is enacted subtly in that the apples that were still on the trees in stanza one are by stanza two not there any longer–they’re in the cider press.  Nostalgia, the longing for a feeling of home, even if not the place of one’s own real home, is the mood of much Romantic poetry.  I have felt it, and still do, for places that were never my home, as when I recall now that my father, who spoke very little of his childhood on a small, poor, Mississippi farm, told once or twice of how when the family harvested their sugar cane they loaded it on a wagon pulled by mules (the one whose name I learned Spencer) and took it over to a neighbor a half mile away.  The neighbor had a cane press, also powered by a mule, this one harnessed to a long pole and walking round in a circle.  And as the heavy rollers crushed the juice from the cane, the boy who would become my father would hold a jar at the side of the press to catch dripping juice and would drink it down.

“You couldn’t drink too much of that at a time,” said my Uncle Mack, “it was so sweet.”  I called him once to ask about that little cane press.  Mack told me that the Gibbons cane patch was enough to produce several big loads of the ten-foot-tall cane for their wagon, which was pulled by a two-mule team; in turn, the pressed cane yielded enough juice, which the family hauled back home, to boil down to two to three hundred gallons of molasses, which they put in one-gallon buckets and sold.  That is a lot of labor.

Keats (1795-1821), a young man of the urban working class, was apprenticed in medicine and then pharmacy from the age of 14, having been taught until that time by a literary schoolmaster—a man who was his mentor in later years.  Keats did not have equal advantages of birth, legacy, education, or connections, compared to those of the other major Romantic poets; and perhaps with better physical constitutions than his, they also outlived him (even Shelley, who drowned shortly before he would have turned 30, and Byron, who had ten years more than Keats, before dying of illness).

Did Keats wish not to draw too much attention to his own origins?—which were above those of field laborers but nevertheless weren’t privileged.  It has always struck me that Keats wrote a poem to an imagined goddess of the harvest and put not a single human being into it.  (John Clare, the other odd man out, in terms of social class, among the Romantics, and far less privileged even than Keats, wrote many poems that evoke grain fields and physical labor.)  Keats’s harvest has no reapers, pickers, or gleaners, no children snatching up scattered nuts or a half-crushed apple or holding a tin cup to the side of the cider press.  As for Autumn, Keats in a way substitutes her for the real laborers, even though as a goddess she will suffer no damage, as they do from their lifetime of exertion: “And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep / Steady thy laden head across a brook“—as with her head piled with gleaned grain a woman steps carefully across a stream on her way back to the barn or to… a word that suddenly comes back to me—the byre.

But I’m thinking of the wrong word, since when I look up “byre” I see it means a barn for cattle, not a granary.  Grain has to be winnowed (Keats mentions that in the same stanza, but no one is actually doing it) and has to be put in sacks and stored for seed or sold or carried to a mill for grinding….  For “byre,” the Indo-European root word is bheu-.  “To be, exist, grow” (American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots).  This root word has had an wonderful range of progeny in English.  “BYRE, from Old English byre, stall, hut, from Germanic *burjam, dwelling.”  (Whereas “barn” comes from another root and means a place for keeping barley.)  Ultimately, as the meanings of derivatives have proliferated through various languages and come into English, and then developed within English, bheu- produced BE, FOREBEAR, BONDAGE, HUSBAND, BOOTH, BUILD, FUTURE , BOWER, BYLAW, BEAM, BOOM, and BUMPKIN (a partial list).  To be is to have forebears, and with luck, a future; it is at its best to husband resources, to be free of bondage, to build spaces for safekeeping, to establish rules of fair treatment, to use trees and to suffer bumpkins.  Many a word brings with it a tiny history of human beings and our conflicts, purposes, desires, and fate.  (For words in other languages that derive from bheu-, see root #146, at, where an expanding lexicon of Indo-European roots is being built, based on the foundational work of Julius Pokorny in the first half of the twentieth century.)

The sugarcane juice in Mississippi ran from the press till the work was done, the wagon mules stood impassively after the last load of cane, the last oozings drip.  Keats’s poem opens an inner space into which pour recollections, associations, word histories, human stories, because it is a space of inner life and of time lived in the imagination.

History itself pours in, too—here, especially in BONDAGE.  The slaves who worked the cane fields in the US and the Caribbean were mercilessly expended, did hot, horrible, dangerous work with sharp blades on swampy ground.  New Orleans, which despite an arbitrary state borderline is in fact the principal city of both Louisiana and Mississippi, was in the nineteenth century the capital of cane sugar.  (The brutal labor of cane field workers is oppressive to this day; in Africa, to the hard work of tending the crop is added the terrible poverty of workers and the danger of the frightening, fatally venomous black mamba snakes that drape themselves in the top leaves of the thickly growing cane, with which owners have replaced their natural habitat; in the cane leaves, the snakes are hard to see till it’s too late to avoid one.)  Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807; Spain in 1820.  It seems that where sugar cane went, there went slavery–from Haiti after its revolution to the American south and to Cuba…

Keats’ autumn, though, shows no trace of that; instead it celebrates harvest at a temperate latitude.  And at a time when the consumption of sugar was nothing like what it would become, fruit–not sugar–is what’s sweet, the “sweet kernel” belongs to a nut, and bees and flowers imply sweetness, as does the cider-press.   My Northwestern colleague Emily Rohrbach told me once that Leigh Hunt called Keats by the nickname “junkets,” because this is what Keats’s Cockney pronunciation of his name sounded like to Hunt (See the photo of Keats’s signature, above).  It seems Keats did not at all like the nickname; “junkets” is the name of  a sweet milk pudding.  And Keats had a sweet tooth–the sweet tastes in his ode to autumn are not the only trace of sugar in his work: Emily sent me to look at “The Eve of St. Agnes.”  There I found Keats naming many “cates [sic] and dainties” (line 173): “candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd; / With jellies soother than the creamy curd, / And lucent syrups, tinct with cinnamon; Manna and dates” (lines 265-68; “soother” means “softer” or “smoother”).  (That “creamy curd” would be, I suppose, a “junket.” Anyway, the two lovers of the poem do not pause to taste these sweets, which are merely figures for the sweetness of Madeline and of love itself; they escape the violence and darkness that make up anti-love.)

Nor is there any question that Keats had the sweetest tooth for words of any poet in English, savoring the rich compound of syllables he could concoct (in Cockney, whatever it sounded like in his time).  In one rhyme sequence, he enacts a progress of action and thought: “thy hook [i.e. scythe] / Spares the next swath and all its twinéd flowers: / And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep / Steady thy laden head across a brook; / Or by a cyden-press, with patient look, / Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.“  The hook is the tool of perhaps the hardest labor of the harvest, scything the grain all day—mens’ work; the brook is a physical obstacle to carrying in the last of the grain—what has been gleaned by women after the sheaves have been bundled in the field and loaded on a wagon; the look is a passive taking in—evidently in a daze (which can’t, in the case of the goddess, be from physical exhaustion)—of a slow, late, perhaps inconsequential dripping of apple juice from the press, “hours by hours.”

The last stanza of the poem is about sounds and sights; the eyes of the reader rise with those of the poet up to the clouds, then gaze across the stubble-fields, and down to the river; all that lives is mild and sweet.  That work is done. The invisible laborers are at rest, we hope. 

(This is a slight revision of an earlier post.)

Language evolution and poetry

A few ideas pulled from two books–not to argue anything, but simply to hold them close to the idea and practice of poetry, and wonder what they might suggest about it:

Christine Kenneally (all quotes from THE FIRST WORD, 2007):

“Swearing […] uses parts of the brain that support language and also parts of the brain that are used when laughing or crying.  Often people with severe brain damage remain able to swear even when they are unable to produce other language.” (116)

[I don’t agree with the inference that Kenneally draws from this fact, about similarities between animal languages and human language.  I think Derek Bickerton’s proposal (see quotes from his book below) is much more persuasive: that language evolved originally from a set of words (no syntax) that improved the ability of human beings to survive.]

“Is it true that the complexity of human language is without parallel. […] But […] it implies that anything can be expressed by human language, when we don’t know if this is in fact the case.” (116-17)

“John McWhorter […] emphasizes the way that, like biological evolution, language change results from accretions or acumulations of struture.  In this sense language is an artefact of the collective mind of history.  It has imperfections and odd quirks, and makes peculiar demands of its speakers.  Its textures and patterns have been created over a long period of time as it has been dragged through millions of mouths, expressing their individual agendas.” (165)

“The most exciting implication of the language-as-virus metaphor is the finding that some features of language have less to do with the need of individuals to communicate clearly with one another than with the need of the language virus to ensure its own survival.[…] the features of language structure reflect its struggle to survive in its environment–the human mind.” (234-35)

[Citing several researchers, Kenneally askes “why language is learned so readily by children.”  But anyone who has watched a child learn a language over time, and who might have read Steven Pinker on much sheer brain power that requires, over a period of several years (THE LANGUAGE INSTINCT, 1994), would wonder what she can be thinking.  It’s hugely difficult and takes so many brain cells, Pinker says, that after language has been consolidated in the brain, the brain has to shed huge numbers of those brain cells because it can not afford to support them now that their job is done, and there’s so much more that it must develop over the coming years.  The most interesting point that Kenneally does take from the researchers she cites on the “language-as-virus metaphor” is this:]

“If language is driven to survive, and the language learners of the world are children, language must be adapted to the quirks and traints of the child’s mind.  As Deacon puts it,language is designed to be ‘particularly infective for the child brain.” (236)

“What about the evolutionary processes of adaptation, where a trait evolves for a particular purpose, and exaptation, where a trait that is used for one function becomes co-opted to serve another purpose in later generations? What role have these played in language evolution? For all the furious words expended on the subject, everyone agrees that both processes have had a role.  And everyone has acknowledged that communication has to have something to do with language evolution.  Regardless, the rapid spread of the human mutation of the FOXP2 gene is definitive evidence that there has been a positive selection for a form of the gene that had major consequences for language.” (268)

[What I think of, reading this passage, in the midst of a much longer argument that Kenneally is presenting, is… the possibility that in some such terms poetry is an exaptation of language itself.  That is, having evolved, at least culturally, but perhaps even in biological/neurological ways, too, language (like living creatures and like cultures) continues to evolve not only to develop from a vocabulary to a syntax, etc., but also from one use to other uses.  The elaborate musical and other *formal* aspects of the earliest poetry we can recover suggests that language developed uses associated with different human activities–one of which emphasized a seeming power of language over reality.  (Reality means not only what we can touch, see, small, harvest, and eat, etc., but also storms, mountains, oceans… i.e. concepts of the divine.  Poetry is not only associated with the divine in religious practice, but in fact is a kind of co-evolutionary relationship with it.  I write about this in HOW POEMS THINK (coming out Sept. 2015).]

“Researchers have shown that humans consolidate spoken language during sleep.  It’s known that many different memory tasks are improved by sleeping, and the complications of speech are no exception. […]  Other researchers have monitored the brain of songbirds during sleep and discovered that the parts of the brain activated while singing while awake were reactivated during sleep, suggesting that in the way we dream of speech, songbirds dream of singing.” (314)


Derek Bickerton (from ADAM’S TONGUE, 2009):

“A concept is something in the mind.  Once it exists, it can affect behavior.  Before it existed, it couldn’t. All that natural selection can see is behavior.  So concepts could only have been visible to natural selection once they existed, once they’d begun to affect behavior.  But they couldn’t exist until they’d evolved, and they could only evolve if they were selected for. So human-type concepts couldn’t have evolved by themselves.  They could only have evolved if some other thing had been selected for, something that *was* visible to natural selection–in other words, some overt behavior that gave an adaptive advantage to those that had it.[…]  The fact that language is by now the main engine of thought doesn’t have any implication for its status when it began. That’s the fallacy of first use, the idea that whatever a thing started doing will be what it does mostly nowadays–and vice versa, naturally.  It was the fallacy of first use that led Robin Dunbar to propose gossip as the engine of language evolution, just because gossip is what (spoken) language is most used for today. […] Certainly, language is now the means by which we structure the world of thought, but it would never have gotten off the ground, never developed into what it is today, and certainly never have raised thought to a new power if it hadn’t first entered the real world in the tangible form of communication.”  (184-85) 

“that beginning where the Word was”

Joseph Brodsky: 

“Poetry is not ‘the best words in the best order’; for language it is the highest form of existence. In purely technical terms, of course, poetry amounts to arranging words with the greatest specific gravity in the most effective and externally inevitable sequence. Ideally, however, it is language negating its own mass and the laws of gravity; it is language’s striving upward—or sideways—to that beginning where the Word was.” 

We are permitted to think of “that beginning where the Word was” in many different ways. That beginning does not belong only to beliefs figured in the beginning of the Tanakh, the Bible (at the beginning of the book of Genesis). “That beginning where the Word was” is the beginning of language use, and our use of language (as well as its use, with us, by Yahweh and other gods) is one event (as we imagine it) by which we may define the beginningness of a human way of being. 

A quote from Cixous

Language is always looking for things to do within the rough boundaries of what someone says with it, and it slips over those boundaries—sometimes sloppily, sometimes to speak a marvel. >>>>>>>

Hélène Cixous: “It is in the poem, hybrid of music and language, that something of mysterious and unstoppable life can be produced, with subverted grammar, with liberties in the bosom of language, in the law of genders, in dance, the darts (in), the dancing of the poem, minimal world in movement, the poem speaking French, the tongue, very differently from prose, the poem playing with language more than it speaks, changed expression of drives—but here I am evoking only the poem that invents the other tongue within the tongue, the dreamtongue […]”

Another poet’s method

Marianne Boruch on writing:

Which techniques might you use that tend to best elicit your meaning or illuminate your thoughts best?

Well, I’m addicted to what I call my “begging bowl theory” of writing poems – and essays, for that matter, though those require a little more willful engineering. With poems, intention doesn’t mean much. I try to empty my mind completely, and see what turns up – an image seen or imagined, a phrase, something that I feel stirring and I have no idea at all where it might go. Then I let it lead me; I follow it. The whole business can get scary; then I know I’m on the right track. And for months, I go over and over my drafts very early each morning, tweaking and redreaming, slashing and burning. It gets pretty wild, the revision process. I call that my “hospital rounds” and in a way, that’s where the real writing takes place.