So, for Ada's sake, I'm going to try to do a focused reading of a poem at least once a month. She told me that's what she really likes to see on the blog and, since she is fabulous, brilliant, beautiful and wonderful, I'll try to do my part to keep her happy :-)
Poetry Daily is giving us a glimpse at W.S. Merwin's new collection and this is one of the featured poems:
Both of us understood
what a privilege it was
to be out for a walk
with each other
we could tell from our different
heights that this
kind of thing happened
so rarely that it might
not come round again
for me to be allowed
even before I
had started school
to go out for a walk
with Miss Giles
who had just retired
from being a teacher all her life
she was beautiful
in her camel hair coat
that seemed like the autumn leaves
our walk was her idea
we liked listening to each other
her voice was soft and sure
and we went our favorite way
the first time just in case
it was the only time
even though it might be too far
we went all the way
up the Palisades to the place
we called the pinnacle
with its park at the cliff's edge
overlooking the river
it was already a secret
as we were walking back
when the time was later
than we had realized
and in fact no one
seemed to know where we had been
even when she told them
no one had heard of the pinnacle
and then where did she go
This poem is teaching me so many lessons I need this morning. First, it is one or two long, gloriously built sentences, but neither has standard punctuation or needs it. Merwin masters line breaks and white space here. Also, there is almost a syllabic feel to the way each stanza reads. No line is too heavy-handed. A little over half of the forty-one lines are made up of six syllables, but no line has more than nine. This also helps propel the poem forward and by the time the reader reaches the first stanza break, each description or image builds on the previous one, so it actually feels like the reader is moving up a hill, just like the teacher and child in the poem.
Second, various meanings and the way they're hinted at throughout the poem is "a special speech (Check out Ms. Brooks...) to me" today. The Pinnacle is the perfect title for this poem. I think the best titles are the ones that capitalize on as many definitions of the word, phrase (or theme of the poem) as possible. The pinnacle is obviously the central place in the poem. However, if we examine the other definitions of the word pinnacle, we see shadings of the poem's many allusions. Just to illustrate the title's complexity, I've copied some of the definitions of the word from my favorite dictionary and related them to the poem:
1. a lofty peak. -The mountain the speaker and teacher visit.
2. the highest or culminating point, as of success, power, fame, etc.: the pinnacle of one's career. -The teacher, and her noted career, serve as a pinnacle to the speaker. He, (and assuredly the rest of the town) admires her years of service. She taught "all her life" and was revered for it. She was, in the speaker's mind, the pinnacle of success. Also, a smaller and less formal consideration might be the "different heights" of the small child and the seemingly giant adult; Miss Giles is a pinnacle to the child, in stature, manner and in life.
Miss Giles is also at the pinnacle of her life, as evidenced by the fact that "this kind of thing happened so rarely," this kind of open interchange and honesty between would-be student and educator, child and adult, seasoned veteran and adolescent still learning how things can disappear so quickly in life, and this walk up to the peak signals the climax of it all. Her denouement begins as soon as they travel back down from the place "no one had heard of" and she begins to be a fading memory in the speaker's life.
3. any pointed, towering part or formation, as of rock. - The highest point of the the pinnacle itself, which was the apex of the "the Palisades... at the cliff's edge."
What is never said in the poem is exactly how or why Miss Giles disappears and the reader is left to ponder this, just like the speaker. I would love to believe the teacher just fades from memory, like most people do who leave an imprint, then move on, but I'm inclined to think that Miss Giles has died. Of course, since the speaker is much older, recounting the story and Miss Giles was at least middle-aged when the memory begins, she would most likely have been long gone. However, her death, and its cause, is alluded to throughout the poem in subtle ways. The speaker mentions that they they had to take this walk because the opportunity "might not come round again" and that they went their "favorite way/the first time just in case/it was the only time" and if Miss Giles already knew her life would be ending (and part of it, possibly the largest part, had ended when her career reached its pinnacle), she would go the distance because this might be her only chance to do so, especially with a child, or anyone, again.
By the time I reach the last line of the poem, I deduce that Miss Giles has taken her own life at the the pinnacle, since the "walk was her idea" and "her voice was soft and sure" heading up to the place, "even though it might be too far." The pinnacle would have been the perfect location for her to commit suicide because "it was already a secret" and even when they returned, " no one/seemed to know where they had been." If Miss Giles had disappeared and the speaker was too young to really know or comprehend what had happened, it would be easy for to him to remember Miss Giles simply disappearing, or fading away, as the last line suggests when the speaker asks, "and then where did she go."
Though the poem is a simple narrative, there are a few images that are really well-constructed. One that stood out is the phrase "autumn leaves" that appears in the second stanza. On the surface, it also simply means that she is stylish and beautiful; her coat reminds him of the ochre color of leaves as they turn in autumn, as they transpire and fall to the ground or get carried away with the current. I find it interesting that the "camel hair coat" is the catalyst for this image, as a coat's connotative meanings can be interpreted in many ways. A coat can symbolize the changing of the seasons and hence, change in one's life; it can be a cold and harsher period; it can signal the beginning of a migration or long journey, etc. The "autumn leaves" image and phrase itself creates an subtle but effective double entendre here, the teacher has retired in spring, right before summer. They take this walk at the end of summer, just before the young boy will start school, and she is gone soon thereafter. She leaves in autumn, at least in his memory, and autumn leaves as well, there's nothing permanent about the seasons or life as either of the two knows it.
Simply stated, this is a beautiful poem. Merwin's constraint and precision help sustain the memory for the reader and asks, in a child's voice, one of the same questions we ask ourselves over and over: Where did they go? People disappear for various reasons--we fall out of love, we move away, we grow apart, we get married, we grow older, we take our lives and we lose them to 'time and unforeseen occurrence.' At some point, we are all the child speaker and we will all be someone's Miss Giles. We will all be looking and looked after, we'll be missing and missed. Merwin, in all his years as a poet, has never forgotten this lesson and has learned to frame the question as sharply as any poet I've ever witnessed. Beautiful work he does here, asking--without answering--the question of all our lives.