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This is poetry in the American series of broadcast produced and recorded by KPFA in Berkeley California under a grant from the Educational Television and Radio Center in cooperation with the National Association of educational broadcasters. This program is a discussion of some American poems on the subject of death. The participants are Mr. Anthony Ostroff. Mr. Robert Bellew and Mr. Robert Hall ran of the University of California at Berkeley. For this program. We're going to discuss a number of poems on the subject of death. The poems we have chosen are the lamb by Richard Eberhard. I heard a fly buzz by Emily Dickinson out out by Robert Frost bells for John Whitesides daughter by John Crowe Ransom The Emperor of Ice-Cream by Wallace Stevens. And when God lets my body be my e cummings. I think it might be good to preface the discussion with a reading of the first of these poems which is a very short one by Richard Eberhard this poem called for a lamb.
Seems to me that this is a fairly simple poem on its surface at least the poet describes coming upon a decaying lamb on a hillside and then the remainder of the poem simply elaborates his responses. There's a curious ambiguity in it I think in the end. You were remarking something about that. Yes I think that one is apt to take the last line which says say there's a lamb in the daisies rather than a totally pleasant way that is one has a visual image of daisies as being pleasant but I think the ambiguity comes. From the mine before which talks about. So he's in the wind somewhere which emphasizes the odor and the fact is that daisies are sort of like geraniums when you get them in mass they have a rather a stanch not smell good at all. Do you think the last two lines that are saying the same thing in the poem is saying the same thing over and over again.
I think no I think that. Well I think the last two lines are interrelated in a way that if you didn't realize that about the daisies you wouldn't see that they were necessarily related. But I think that I realize it evolved separately from this poem seems to me if it involves any tension at all and it seems to me a very small tension is the tension that exists between the image of innocence the sort of pastoral image monk and I think our response connotative is of this kind of putrid. Yes yes and the end I got hands are al they got for the wrong expletive I think and it seems to me too it's difficult to see them all as having the same character. I'm not sure really what the poem says about death. It's a question about where is the lamb seems to me to be rhetorical and somewhat facile and its image is not very concrete or mine.
Well I think that it's it's a very different poem from one on a similar subject at least Eberhard famous poem The groundhog which was a little too long for us to consider here but coming upon an animal form in a state of rather advanced decomposition and then reflecting on the whole substance of death as he sees it exemplified in this forum. But I feel that. In the beginning there's. There's the Everyone's craving for some kind of sweet response to death where he sees the face nudged in the green hill of the land but then this is contradicted by the guts were out for the crows to eat. And where in the end then he says say he's in the wind somewhere say there's a lamb in the daisies. It does seem to me that here's the great difference between this poem and the groundhog. I find that I'm a little disagreed with your sense of the
main weight of these lines Robert because I think that when Eberhard says say he's in the wind somewhere say there's a lamb in the daisies I get rather strongly the sense here of something like we'll get in this last Cummings poem that the lamb has now become part of the elements that odor in the wind is really. Oh well return of the Lamb to the soil. When I walk to the earth that are a fire water that's exactly of course what he's talking about the solution to the problem that Cummings comes to in the end that the there that eternity is a matter of the cycle of nature but I think what this poem says is not that that the whole notion of the kind of. I'm in conclusiveness So the last line in fact is simply symptomatic of the inconclusive notice of that answer that's not a very happy answer really for a human for the human ego. Well that may be but the line seems to me additionally to be weak in its formulation if you want parity the bollards and nozzle of the sea.
Well that's because Cummings is making a positive assertion that that's a good solo and that's what I meant by the question being somewhat rhetorical. That is I don't think the doubt is really strongly expressed it seems to be marginal and rather pale in the poem rather than dramatic. Well that's very interesting we begin with the real dispute here perhaps a reading of the poem So just who is right and who is wrong or at least that it's pop or that it's possible for both views to be taken for a lamb. I saw on the slant Hill a putrid lamb propped with daisies the sleep looked deep the face not just in the green pillow but the guts were out for crows to eat.
Where is the lamb whose tender plaint said all for the mute breezes. Say he's in the wind somewhere. Say there is a lamb in the daisies. I must say after having read the poem I want to withdraw all the weight of negativism if I think I seem to express in our discussion of what I think is an effective poem. It's interesting to turn from this poem to the next one on our list here. The Emily Dickinson poem. It seems to me that here we get a much more intensely personal kind of expression about death or the expression of a more intimately personal relation to death. This is an intensely subjective point isn't it.
And imaginative really a projection of Dickinson in the condition of death which seems to bother some literalist of the imagination but also the poem is incidentally untitled like almost all of Dickens poems. This is just the title for convenience. The poem seems to me beyond. Revealing the kind of typical epigrammatic economy of Dickens and also to reveal the very tension that I personally felt was missing to some degree in the ever hard tension between the solemn scene of death the relatives beside the bed waiting for that last onset when the king be witness to his power and fly this very month in domestic uncertain creature which comes to represent review life and vitality and which is between the window of the eyes of the dying person and the external window of the light.
And it's that life which fails. Yet it seems to me to be a wonderful dramatic device in the poem. If if you feel it works. And of course the fly is not only a symbol of life but wonderfully ambiguously a symbol of death. I mean given the supply's own cycle there were these very brief allies that saw. Yes it's a brilliant image or I think it certainly does work. And Dickinson Well I was going to pontificate about her stature supposed which is quite a necessary thing. Suppose we have a reading of the poem. I heard a fly buzz when I died. The stillness round my form was like the stillness in the air between the heaves of storm. The guys beside had wrung them dry and breaths were gathering sure for that last onset when the
king be witnessed in his power. I willed my keep say X signed away what portion of me I could make assignable. And then there interpose a fly with a blue uncertain stumbling between the light and me and then the windows failed. And then I could not see to see. The Dickinson poem is intensely subjective and lyrical and I think especially in that last line I could not see to see in which the failure of consciousness and physical sight and the light of life is so wonderfully coupled is rather typical of her technique. The poem by Robert Frost out out
which Robert blue for you I think is a totally different or largely different conception of death. Yes I well I think the narrative technique here gives a certain objectivity. These human beings as objective view are the. Movement technically it is so simple that it doesn't need to be talked about I think what we have here is self-dependent mountain farm family in New England. I think you might find in these people a sense of that incredible realism which Tolstoy I admired so much in his Russian peasants. People that are so involved with life that death no matter how disastrous really is no more than another defeat which they have to somehow integrate with life and make a part of life's continuing process. You know I think it's interesting and some of our other programs
we in the series we've discussed of poems with reference to American history American tradition general American attitudes. But it's very difficult to do that with points on this particular subject isn't a death I don't think the poets seem to show what we might call typical typically American attitudes. That is this is simply an attitude toward death that you find in real unaffected people anywhere yet as opposed to let's say or we might consider there are some I suppose typical American attitudes toward death as exemplified let's say in Forest Lawn where death is soft music and and perpetual care. Green grown a lot since then Metairie and at less than affluent levels I think that genteel attitude that a direct discussion of death is somehow morbid. Besides I think nothing to do with speculations about immortality but that we speak of passing over and into the
beyond. It was always to be a kind of oblique reference to what is after all a fairy. Yes John rarely had an honest and direct statement on death and the ordinary course of affairs. But you certainly get this kind of statement from the poets and how it is is one more marvelous instance of this. Well suppose we have a reading of this bone out out. The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard and made dust and dropped stove length sticks of wood sweet scented stuff when the breeze drew across it and from there those that lifted eyes could count five mountain ranges one and beyond the other under the sunset far into Vermont and the saw snarled and rattled snarled and rattled as it ran light or had to bear a load and nothing happened.
To day it was all but done. Call it a day I wish they might have said to please the boy by giving him the half hour that a Boy Scout so much when saved from war. His sister stood beside them in her apron to tell them supper at the way the saw as if to prove saws knew what supper meant leaped out of the boy's hand or seemed to leap. He must have given the hand. However it was neither refused the meeting. But the hand the boy's first outcry was a rueful laugh as he swung toward them holding up the hand half in appeal but half as if to keep the life from spelling. Then the boys saw since he was old enough to know big boy doing a man's work though a child at heart
he saw spoiled. Don't let him cut my hand off the doctor when he comes. Don't let him sister. So but the hand was gone already. The doctor put him in the dark of ether. He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath. And then the watcher at his pulse took fright. No one believed they'd listen that is hi little lad. Nothing. And that ended it. No more to build on there. And they since they were not the one dead turned to their affairs. The next poem we're going to consider bells for John Whitesides daughter
follows very well I think on this poem by frost there in the Frost poem we see as you remarked Robert the family or all the people involved in watching or witnessing this event of the death of the boy observing the end that moment of horror for all of them. But then no more to build on there. And since they were not the one dead they turned to their affairs. But one feels there that the death is distinctly seen. And you remark in your introduction of that to that poem I think something about. Tolstoy's sense of realism and the integration of this fact into their Yeah dealer every day lives in the ransom point bells for John Whiteside daughter something a little different happens here it seems to me. The poet is interested in or attempting to convey the total shock and mystery of death but in such
wonderfully Mundine terms the poem begins with a description of John Whiteside daughter and the description moves interestingly into what appears to be quite a dick Russian from the real subject of the poem into discussion of the scene in which she played as a child. The the lazy geese moving through her childhood landscape and harassed by this ferocious youngster until at the end he is reminded suddenly drawn back from this reveries of its kind of attempt to escape from the real subject that's confronting him. But then the bells began the funeral bells of course. And he is Remarks This shock this stunning appearance of the child actually dead but if he really can't accept the fact of death or can't comprehend it at all it's seen through the metaphor of a brown study which means literally it's a condition of being deep in thought a loss to the world but in
my domains the head this is so typical of the child in the rest of the poem. He was so animated and yet I feel that there's a certain narrative perspective that he's carried all the way through. That is to say the child's nature has changed so drastically that the observer can't quite grasp it and yet if you notice his observance of her life he sees it from a distance he's up high in the study window and he looks down or in his window at a second floor you presume he looks down in this yard and sees her playing with the geese on the earth at some distance still so you feel this is the older person's inability really to comprehend that intense activity of you yes that you normally don't like Romney but he's an it's all round study the reversal at the end is made I think very powerful and it's even interesting though in some of the images he uses in describing her play where she took arms against her shadow. And there you see a marvelous foreshadowing of the terrible conflict about human life the struggle with death and yet you said something about the Koran being shocking I
think it's extremely delicate and rather understated. That is it's drama is not. Yes you're quite right and shocking at the wrong word to use really because it's not shocking to see denominate rather gradually the astonishment of the removal of the breast is a perfectly ordinary kind of death and it's that great delicacy that makes the poem and it seems to me a very very fine one. Those were John Whitesides daughter. There was such speed in her little body and such a lightness in her footfall. It is no wonder her brown study astonishes us all. Her words were bruited in our high window. We looked among orchard trees and beyond where she took arms against her shadow. Or Harry down to the pond the lazy geese like a snow claw gripping there's snow on the green grass
picking and stopping sleepy and proud who cried in goose Alas for the tireless heart within the little lady with Rod that made them rise from the noon Apple greens and scuttle goose fashion out of the skies but not of the bells. We are ready and one house where sternly stop to say we are vexed at her brown study lying so primly proper. That last metaphor primly product of course contains the central drama of the poem in the contrast between the former activity intensified tell of the of the child alive and the utter stillness of the child bed in the next point it seems to me the Emperor of Ice-Cream we also have the stiffness of the dead body involved in a very important tone of the way.
And yet in the completely different kind of image I think the example say of the horny feet protruding from underneath the sheet. A sense of of grotesqueness almost the bizarre quality of this death. You know this poem is haunted me. I must say for years it seems to me to have a very clear tone which strikes want to mediately. I mean the tone of bitterness I take it to be a kind of subdued angry bitterness. The dramatic situation is also clear. Someone has died in the narrator you feel has been very close to this person. He senses the indifference of the environment however of the young people and so where then he attempts somehow to. To assuage his bitterness by adopting that indifference as a kind of tone. But the real heart of the difficulty for me is in a couple of the figures of speech. The first one the Emperor of Ice-Cream who is the Emperor of Ice-Cream what kind of concept is this thing represented. Then there's the initial question in the
poem who is the role of big cigars you know I had a personal experience with that when I was a young fellow of twenty to 21 and I'd already been thinking of this poem for a couple of years and one time I was hitchhiking between Philadelphia and New York and we were going through Trenton and as we passed the mortuary the truck driver glanced over and they were taking a body out and he said oh there goes the cigar roller. And that was I was the first insight I had into the kind of ambiguity of that image where it's both a sensual pleasure a cigar and also the image of death. Well I never done that before. You know I think I'm from critics or with her colleagues. Well I had always felt that the muscular one who whips in kitchen cups and cubism curds is the Emperor of ice cream. And there I and the Emperor of ice cream being deaf this had to be to have oh I had trouble with that ruler a big cigars This of course clarifies it perfectly.
I think what kind of become becomes clear to me is as I've thought of this going through the years is that all the images of death though are one in the same time contain in themselves a terrible contrast to some ludicrously simple youthful pleasure like ice cream or like cigars just some overtly sensual pleasure. And as if this were the dichotomy of life what it consisted of you I'm not sure I followed all that. Do you mean you find the Emperor of ice cream to be emperor of life really. But it is but it's death which is this figure that's Emperor of life. Yes I see it that way sir and also what all there is in life really is a designer slack holiday pleasure yeah ice cream Well soft Yeah yeah I think you know lighting that doesn't really amount to. I feel even a relation between the kind of figure described and say a poem like Thomas's in-memory Van Jones you know
the dress through deal the horny CSI kind of simplicity and really heinous of the character under this tyranny of one thing puzzled me a little bit Robert in your you're statements about point I'd have not felt that Stevens was terribly close to this person I wonder why you thought that I feel that the whole poem comes from a distance that has a considerable region of remoteness about it. I guess for me it comes primarily in the brevity of the commands which seem to me to contain a great deal of emotional involvement. Let the lap a fixit be me I don't feel those and they come in such a series of intensity that I don't. I was thinking of another Thomas poem where obviously the poet was extremely close. Do not go gentle into that good night and the immense sense of involvement of course it's kind of gone but still I agree with Tony for myself. This poem with its irony and intensity is still distilled from it so
maybe I can convince you by reading it this way. You have heard of ice cream. Call the roller a big cigar as the muscular one and bit him whip in kitchen cops can cube us and curtains let the wenches dawdling such dress as they are used to wear and let the boys bring flowers in last month's newspapers. Let be be finale of scene. The only emperor is the Emperor of ice cream. Take from the dresser of deal lacking the three glass knobs that she done which she embroidered fantail swarms and spread it so as to cover her face. If her Harney feet protrude they come to show how cold she is and let the lamb fixit be the only
emperor is the Emperor of ice cream. Certainly the bitterness which you project in the poem makes it seem personally more urgent but not legitimately I don't know how I feel. You know your image of me I think will feel that they have for me the figure of the dead person in the poem is less significant than the attitude toward death. I think I watched as I saw a figure come of that is on the horizon and Jones or it or do not go gentle. The individual Yes I think I do I feel that very strongly too it's interesting that we are so split on this I think we really are here because I think too that I find the attitude in the line the only emperor is the Emperor of ice cream a very difficult one to fix. That is how the irony should be expressed. Whether this comes in a kind of burlesque that is if this is celebrate Tory. The line in its
statement or whether it's I don't intend a bitter sad irony fatalistic lighting with high concrete extension of let B be Fanaa Let's see that's the way I see it since the world seems to be and I think the irony is I'm sorry I think the irony and bitterness that I was trying to project comes from his seeing that is the truth and just hating the idea that yes only that neglects that key term of fatalistic. I think well we approve the poem an object for contemplation Anyway let's move on to this next poem by E. E. Cummings when God lets my body be. The Cummings poem is really not directly about the experience of death. Not a narrative or dramatic as the frost is or are not even the dickens sunny and sounds but really a poem about after death a form of naturalistic reincarnation. I think the point is fairly simple it has a kind of archaic flavor like in mediæval tapestry.
One of the nice things about the coming suppose it ends with an essentially infant mother image which gives you the cycle a lot of young well I mean the cycle of life death and birth re-entry maybe yes that's right. Totally to nourish the yeah use your world. Well we conclude this program that when God lets my body be when God lets my body be from each brave high shall sprout a tree fruit that dangles there from the purple the world will dance upon. Between my lips which did say a rose Shelby get the spraying of that maiden's passion waists will lay between their little breasts. My strong fingers beneath the snow into strenuous birds show go my love.
Walking in the grass their wings will touch with their eyes and all the while. Shall my heart be with the ball and muscle of the city. The tree in the American was produced and recorded by station KPFA in Berkeley under a grant from the educational television and radio center and distributed by the National Association of educational broadcasters. This is the ne B Radio Network.
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Poetry and the American
Producing Organization
pacifica radio
KPFA (Radio station : Berkeley, Calif.)
Contributing Organization
University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Episode Description
Discussion and reading by Anthony Ostroff, Robert Horan and Robert Beloof, poets and teachers at the University of California.
Series Description
Twenty half-hour programs designed to further the enjoyment of poetry.
Broadcast Date
Media type
Performer: Beloof, Robert, 1923-2005
Performer: Horan, Robert, 1922-
Producing Organization: pacifica radio
Producing Organization: KPFA (Radio station : Berkeley, Calif.)
Speaker: Ostroff, Anthony, 1923-
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 59-12-6 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:29:24
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Chicago: “Poetry and the American; Death,” 1959-01-01, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed May 29, 2024,
MLA: “Poetry and the American; Death.” 1959-01-01. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. May 29, 2024. <>.
APA: Poetry and the American; Death. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from