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Blog

Poetic Shadow

Jayne English

21 English photo

I do not know which to prefer, The beauty of inflections Or the beauty of innuendoes, The blackbird whistling Or just after. - Wallace Stevens

My family has lived in this house for nineteen years. This spring, I noticed a shadow on a wall that I never noticed before. It appeared at the same time of day for a few days. I assumed it was cast by something in the room. But as I stopped to look more closely, I saw the blurred features of a chain link fence and a palm tree. The shadow was cast from the far right corner of the yard. Something about the image was intriguing. Wordsworth said a poet is someone with "a disposition to be affected more than other men by absent things as if they were present." A shadow is a paradox, representing presence and absence. In this case, a fence and tree that were present 100-feet and a few odd angles from where they were reflected—in their absence—on the wall. Poetic language plays varying roles: sometimes it’s the light shining on an object, sometimes it’s the object itself; but, it seems to me, poetry is always the shadow. As there are diverse styles of literature, poetic shadow inhabits a multitude of genres.

Sufjan Stevens’ latest album, Carrie & Lowell, was written after the death of his mom. Carrie abandoned her family when Stevens was one, and he saw her only a few times before she died in 2012. Her shadow drifts though each song. The duendic tones of vocals and guitar lament the bond and understanding that Stevens will always reach for. In the song “The Only Thing,” he says:

Should I tear my eyes out now? Everything I see returns to you somehow Should I tear my heart out now? Everything I feel returns to you somehow I want to save you from your sorrow

Can you identify other types of shadow found in the following poems?

“The Insane” by Rainer Maria Rilke:

They’ve fallen silent now, because the wall that separates the mental from the concrete life is gone;
and there are too few articulate minutes in their hour to say what they go through.

Suddenly, however, and often late at night,
they get well. The hands lie among actual things,
the heart remembers how to pray, and the eyes gaze down, unaghast,

into the clarity—no longer even hoped for—
of a garden in the quiet square. A few can recall how it really appears when they return to their own strangeness forever.

Here’s an excerpt of a poem by Philip Larkin, “The Old Fools”:

Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms Inside your head, and people in them, acting People you know, yet can’t quite name; each looms Like a deep loss restored, from known doors turning, Setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair, extracting A known book from the shelves; or sometimes only The rooms themselves, chairs and a fire burning, The blown bush at the window, or the sun’s Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely Rain-ceased midsummer evening. That is where they live: Not here and now, but where all happened once. This is why they give

An air of baffled absence, trying to be there Yet being here.

Isn't it the poets who show us that life is this pull between the shadow and presence of all we long for? As Charles Wright tells us in “A Short History of the Shadow”:

                                     Leon Battista Alberti says, Some lights are from stars, some from the sun And moon, and other lights are from fires. The light from the stars makes the shadow equal to the body. Light from fire makes it greater, there, under the tongue, there, under the utterance.