Poetry Sunday: “The Path,” by Anna Yin

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

I met Anna Yin at the West Chester Poetry Conference in 2016 and enjoyed spending time with her again this past June. She’s a warm and generously engaged poet, and I am happy to feature her work today. “The Path” is an interestingly informal formal poem. By this I mean that it incorporates certain formal elements like rhyme and meter but at the same time resists using those elements in a traditional, patterned way. Looking at the poem as a whole, the first thing I notice is that its stanza pattern appears to be regular on the page. It is composed of a couplet, five quatrains, and then one more couplet—a kind of chiasmus or envelope form that incorporates within it the patterns of couplet and quatrain. The stanza structure is, as you will see, the only rigidly formal aspect of this otherwise more equivocal, mercurial poem.

“The Path” is not metrical, but meter is strongly felt within the lines, either dimeter or trimeter, but not according to a regular, repeating pattern across the lines. Likewise, there is no formal end-rhyme scheme, but that does not mean you will not find any rhyme. In fact, there are three sets of end-rhymes across the stanzas in “The Path”: time/them/room, there/air/door/mirror, and hung/wings/bring. So, we hear a chiming, but not in a regular, predictable way; the effect is atonal rather than melodic and innovative rather than by rote. The poem also uses an array of randomly employed internal or within-line rhymes. Internal rhymes occur in lines 2 (there/there), 4 (retreats/note), 8 (crane/hung), 9 (strings, wings), 12 (hat/at), 13 (fragile/pale), 17 (dawn/on), and 21 (open/ocean). This non-patterned employment of end and internal rhyme is discursive, mysterious, and haunting—tonal effects that strongly support the poem’s overall atmosphere and meaning.

With its sequence of three gifts and their near-magical transformations from letter to bird and petals to “sun-wheels”, the poem evokes the atmosphere or mood of a fairy or folk tale. What is its meaning? As noted before in this column, poems do not have to “mean” anything, nor do they have to be “understood.” A poem can be powerful and remain elusive and mysterious at the same time. In fact, many would argue that less accessible poems are more powerful than transparent ones. In this case, “The Path” is a mysterious poem, but one that also tells a clear story. The mystery comes in the way the poem frees us to assign our own interpretations to what on its surface seems a familiar and even archetypal tale: boy meets girl, girl resists boy (here, for six stanzas), girl capitulates, and then they live happily ever after.

The boy’s wooing consists of leaving gifts, and each rejected gift as well as the one that works in the end is something into which it is possible to read many metaphors. The first gift is a love note; the girl folds it into a paper crane she hangs in the window for the boy to see, but her door remains closed. Perhaps that gift fails because it is too much in the chauvinist tradition, or maybe it is not imaginative enough, and other interpretations are possible. The second gift is of the boy’s hat, with a fading rose inside. This one seems slightly more successful, because the girl engages with it several times (watching the rose die, then pressing the petals to her mirror and enjoying the sun illuminating them), but she still does not open her door. Again, the poem feels very much like a fairy tale, so it’s perhaps no surprise that the third time is the charm, and when the boy brings the white scarf to the door, it opens.

The scarf  is “the path” to the girl’s heart, but why? We could surmise that it represents the boy’s purity, or both his and the girl’s purity, or as in the Chinese tradition perhaps even represents death. Another reader might be more impressed by its erotic potential. The point here is that all the gifts—love-note, white crane, hat, dying rose, and white scarf—are rich and evocative of a wide range of metaphorical interpretations. Readers could argue for hours about why the white scarf opened the door and the rose did not, but for me the reason is explained in the poem’s final, wonderful, couplet:

Blindfolding each other,
they enter the room.

Until I read the author’s note, it did not occur to me that the poem could be an ars poetica, but of course it is, and a lovely expression of the difficulty of accessing the muse or inner creative spirit. I read it that way now and also as a love story, both with a feminist twist: this speaker (or muse) does not want to be wooed in the courtly love tradition with billet-doux and flowers, but instead seeks union on equal ground, gorgeously expressed in the image of two people blindfolding each other, both entering the mystery at the same time.


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