Martha Silano: “When I begin to dig”

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

The structural engine that drives this week’s poem is its form: 21 couplets mimicking the furrows turned by a plow and concluding with a singleton line. The semantic engine is word etymology, the speaker examining the word “verse” as used in poetry from a variety of angles stemming from roots in many languages (Latin, Sanskrit, Lithuanian, English) in many countries (Lithuania, Slovenia, Wales, Greece, and Ireland). According to my much more cursory research, the word also has German and Dutch origins.

“When I begin to dig” begins with what sparked the poem: Silano’s discovery that the English word “verse” derives from Latin for “to turn,” itself derived from the action of a plow’s turn at the end of a furrow during field cultivation. Like that plow, the speaker begins to “dig deeper.” While conducting this inquiry, Silano enacts the poem’s meaning, constructing it in two-line verses (couplets) that mimic those furrows’ parallel lines. Like the plowman, she “break[s] up sod” to get beneath the surface of things, and in her poem constructs turns and “tidy rows” in the form of those couplets.

Next, the speaker observes that in early poetry, which was verbal rather than written, fixed form was a practical device used to help poets (“singers”) “recall their lines.” As it became easier to create and access written poetry, regular forms became less important—some might even say became obsolete—for this purpose, and free verse began to assert greater sway. We don’t need those old fixed forms anymore, this speaker seems to argue, any more than we now need the old QWERTY keyboard layout, originally designed to solve the problem of mechanical rods getting tangled up on the old analog typewriters.

Now that those rods are gone, QWERTY keyboard layout no longer makes sense and arguably just makes for slower typing than might another, more intuitive layout like Dvorak or an ABC-based system. Many poets—notably fans of free verse and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets—would agree that the old forms are, in the same way, just so much baggage slowing poets down. I take the other side, delighted to see that contemporary poets are still using received forms in surprising new ways, and I’m looking forward to teaching in the new formalist track at The Frost Place Poetry Seminar this summer where we’ll explore the exciting new work of poets such as Terrance Hayes, Diane Seuss, Tyehimba Jess, and others. Registration for that conference is here.

As the speaker in today’s poem continues to unearth the meanings of “verse,” she discovers refinements in the meaning of “turn”—transformation and a turning “inward,” concepts that have obvious application to poems and the act of writing them. “When I began to dig” makes this connection explicit in “Poet, like a plowman in a field” and in the near-rhyming “furrowed words” in the tenth couplet. This moment happens just after the speaker’s discovery that “verse” also has roots in words denoting “conversion, a breather, a fresh start”—concepts in direct contradiction to another previously-unearthed related root word that means destiny or fate.

In the twelfth couplet, the speaker takes a small detour (or “turn”) to take note of the sexism implicit in the word “plowman,” taking pains to show that a “poet” can be a woman as well as a man: “to put up his brow, wipe his feet, reward herself for making it this far [emphasis added].” This seems like a side point until we read further to understand that one of the poem’s main subjects is the tension between form and not-form in poetry, and remember that some critics of fixed form call it a relic and a product of a patriarchal canon dominated by white, male, and now mostly-dead English poets.

Still digging deeper (“when I dug”) in the next couplet, the speaker finds the fruits of the plowman’s labor—literal sustenance: “porridge, / bread (barley and rye), lentils, peas, eggs”—a list that has metaphorical resonance with the idea that poetry can provide spiritual food. Moving on, the speaker is once again struck by an apparent paradox: the word “verse” has roots that suggest both destiny and free will (“a single word meaning destiny and clean slate”), and she finds “In that plowman’s act, an apparent contradiction / as great as any yin and yang, koan-like conundrum [stanza 15].”

I want to talk for a moment now about the phrase “English sparrow of the lexicon” in the sixteenth couplet. The symbolism of the “English sparrow” itself embodies a paradox. Traditionally, the sparrow symbolizes industry and joy as well as community. [Source here]

However, as the bird referenced in the “Great Sparrow War,” English sparrows have come in recent years to represent something very different: an invasive, alien species imported to solve one environmental problem but creating another, bigger problem. Introduced to the country in the mid-nineteenth century to control insect infestations, sparrows ended up eating grain instead and multiplied rapidly to become pests.

When Silano calls the word “verse” the “English sparrow of the lexicon,” she is saying two apparently opposing things: the word builds community by giving poets a common structure or system of language, but it also represents destructive invasion and a menace to our ecosystem, or in this context, to the evolving canon. This paradox neatly captures the conflict between those who think fixed forms are obsolete, and those who do not.

Discovery of the paradox allows the poet to draw her next parallel, between the “confrontations” in poetry (which I read as the vitriolic squabbles between this century’s “New Formalists” and just about everyone else) and the battles fought in contemporary sports arenas. This last leap allows the speaker, remarkably, to connect running back Marshawn Lynch with Shakespeare and his athletic efforts with “the task of the poet.” And, what is that task? In a return to the agrarian imagery that opened the poem, it is to “disembalm the knotted, / entwining roots, / the richest loam.” The poem closes with a broader, more abstract statement of the poet’s task: “To make, of the oldest question, / a song: are we free or are we not?” This statement risks sounding grandiose in almost any other context but here is richly earned by all that has come before: the speaker’s research into and deep thinking about the etymological paradoxes that underpin the word “verse.”

The speaker may seem to be leaning towards keyboards without QWERTY and poems not constructed in form, but that conclusion is belied by the poem on the page, itself clearly (and very powerfully) constructed in form. I believe that Silano intentionally leaves this issue unresolved, laying out the conflict but allowing readers to make their own call. “When I begin to dig” is a brainy poem but one that does not sacrifice heart and does not bludgeon readers with its opinions. We sense in these lines the poet’s passion for her inquiry, for language itself, and for discovering in the things that divide us what we also have in common. This is poetry at its best, foregrounding language and using that scrutiny to discover surprising and illuminating connections at the heart of things.

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