Poetry Sunday: “Kettle,” by Phillis Levin

Let’s think about the title for a moment. Why was this poem named “Kettle,” and not “Teapot?” One is typically made of metal, the other of porcelain. The kettle is what boils the water, forcing it into another, more agitated state. The teapot is a place of refuge where the heated water rests and in which it becomes possible to steep tea without burning it or going dry. It’s a less agitated place, but perhaps one that allows something deeper to happen, something the poem calls an “infusion.” A teapot connotes domesticity, safety, civilization, while a kettle is more elemental. When I hear “kettle,” I think of a number of things, mostly outside the cozy scene depicted in the poem: kettle of fish, kettle drums (often used in war), kettle ponds. Is it just coincidence that the word derives from the Latin catillus, a diminutive for the word “pot,” and that Gaius Valerius Catullus was a famous Roman lyric poet? Maybe. This all may seem like a stretch, but what it (forgive me) boils down to is that “kettle” is the broader and more evocative word, perhaps one that better expresses this poem’s ambition to be more than a simple lyric about making tea.

I know I tend to read most, if not all, poems as ars poeticas, but how can we escape that reading here? For starters, the scene it depicts is a familiar trope for the working writer, sitting down with her stimulant of choice to begin composing her lines. It seems to me that the flame and the boiling water also express the need to experience discomfort, even pain, as part of the creative process, as well as the need to attain a heightened state of attention, and that “infusion” may be code for “inspiration.” On one level, the poem could simply be a prescription to just—write already. Begin. Shut out the rest of the world until there is nobody but you, and do the work. On another level, though, the poem’s last question sounds almost like a rebuke or a larger wake-up call, something (as Levin points out in her note) akin to what happens at the end of Rilke’s famous sonnet, “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” You can read that poem here, but it suffices here to report its famous last words: “You must change your life.”

Before signing off, I want to say a few words about the music in this poem. Read it out loud and you will notice its many repetitions of sound. Several key words are repeated, and repeated in a very short space: “flame” and “water;” “Nobody else but” and “you.” Besides these word and phrasal repetitions, Levin also makes use of assonance, near rhyme, and full rhyme. Three of the poem’s eight lines end in a word employing the long “ee” sound: “tea,” “seeping,” and “me.” That sound is reinforced at other points within lines, in “be” in line 3 and “Teapot” at the beginning of line 5. Another recurring sound is “-t”, as in “water” and “teapot,” both voiced twice. The poem is rich with other repeated sounds, sometimes occurring within lines, as with tin/spoon and an/open in line 5, and sometimes across lines, as with water/teapot/but/what and waiting/awaken in the last two lines. These repeated sounds form a sonic matrix that bind this short poem and also help set up the final, most dramatic rhyme between the first and last words of the last line: “Pour. What are you waiting for?

A word about the meter: the poem scans with four beats to the line, and all but three lines (1, 3, and 7) contain medial caesuras, punctuation that breaks the line into (mostly) two parts. The poem is extraordinarily well-wrought, showing formal inventiveness and linguistic agility, but not at the sacrifice of vitality and heart. One source of these qualities is the poem’s simple, straightforward diction: more than three-quarters of the poem’s words are single-syllable. Beyond that, the vocabulary consists of simple, everyday language, reminding us that great art is less about the materials it uses than about how those materials are deployed.

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