A poem contains (has / holds) words, but a poem cannot contain (restrain / control) meaning.
In 1956 Dorothy Livesay wrote “On looking into Henry Moore.”
This week I wrestled with that poem and its subject.
I paused on the bridge over Colquitz Creek and watched a mallard fly awkwardly beneath my feet, squawking with urgency. I thought: I am like that duck. Flying with ungainly wings—so clumsy you could hardly call it flying. Toward what? For what purpose? Only to get to another part of the creek? Why? That is what trying to “get” poetry can feel like for me.
I have been struggling to find conclusions to writing that is meant to be open to many interpretations, work that must remain ambiguous, opaque. And of course this is part of its beauty. Thank you to Blank and Kay on close reading of poems. They remind us there is no final solution or mastery of a poem in close reading: only deeper understanding.
So I will meander a bit today as a way of acknowledging that blog posts are not polished academic papers; they are (or can be) exploratory essays. First, Livesay’s poem cannot contain Moore’s work any more than this post can contain any final interpretation. She wrote the poem in 1956, so I kept trying to figure out which piece or pieces of his sculpture had motivated the poem, kept thumbing through books showing a chronology of his massive oeuvre. What had she seen? And in what context? I don’t know—I only know my experience of Henry Moore’s work, not Livesay’s experience.
To grow up in Toronto in the 1960s is to remember when, in 1966, Moore’s The Archer (or Three-Way Piece Number Two) was unveiled in Nathan Phillips Square. This bold bronze sculpture was so revolutionary, so wonderfully different from anything I knew, a complement to the curved towers of our City Hall. The Archer seemed part machine, part human with smooth protuberances punching up and out into space.
Later that sculpture was the backdrop for my stepfather’s photographic portraits of my teenaged sisters: brown and red hair whipping cross their lean and tender faces. Then later, in 1974, the Henry Moore Sculpture Gallery opened at the AGO. I can remember walking around in the silent gallery, among the monumental stone figures, many of them recumbent, and feeling peace. This was hallowed space. Those figures felt human, kind, and wise.
Fast forward, way forward, to 2014 when the AGO made the brilliant pairing of Henry Moore with Francis Bacon for “Terror and Beauty.” We travelled to Toronto to see family and to see the show. I discovered Moore’s realistic drawings of the London underground during the blitz in WWII. People lined the tube like insects wrapped in chrysalis blankets, mouths agape as they slept off the trauma of the bombings. I also saw Moore’s late crucifixion drawing and felt again, something hallowed in the vulnerable curve of Jesus’s spare, feminine body against the cross.
Poems don’t always yield their nuts easily: If I can pry open the shell a little, get a crumb, that is enough for now. To strive too hard to get it, to get it all, is to be like the urgent flapping duck.
To open her poem, Livesay writes,*
Sun stun me sustain me
turn me to stone:
Stone goad me gall me
urge me to run.
When I have found
passivity in fire
and fire in stone
female and male
I’ll rise alone
self-extending and self-known.
Livesay’s title is “on looking into Henry Moore.” Perhaps she’s looking into the artist’s mind and attempting to capture his experience of working in stone. To feel, paradoxically, energy and movement in immovable, inert material. To feel your medium goading you, prodding you to make something, to run, to create. To find passivity in dynamic, always changing fire: again, paradoxical. Those extra spaces placed after Sun, stun me, stone, goad me: The pauses of incantation, as if making art is like making magic. Leaving space for us to walk around Moore’s massive sculptures.
“And fire in stone”: Michelangelo said (I paraphrase) every block of stone has a statue in it and it is up to the sculptor to discover it. So the passive fire burns slowly in the stone, willing its sculptor to fan the flames.
In the next line, Livesay writes “male and female” then “I’ll rise alone/ self-extending and self-known.” To acknowledge the potential for male and female within the stone, within ourselves, to be sufficient unto ourselves, to be fire and stone, to be passive and feel vital energy, to know oneself, to extend oneself, to complete oneself. To contain all things, yet never be contained.
On second thought, this is not Livesay trying to get into Moore, but isn’t it Livesay herself, spinning some of her common threads from The Self-Completing Tree? Just as the reclining figure was a subject Moore explored over and over, so self-completion, aloneness, the paradoxical self, were some ideas Livesay returned to throughout her writing life.
I know the poem will yield more nut crumbs as I continue to ponder. And I’ve started reading John Russell’s biography of Moore, as well. The duck has landed.
Livesay, D. (1986). On looking into Henry Moore. in The self-completing tree: Selected poems. pp. 27-28. Victoria, BC: Press Porcépic.
*Copyright law dictates I cannot quote the entire poem here, but you can read it here.