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Monday, December 19, 2011

Well Water

(Moorish tiles at the Alhambra in Andalusia, Spain)

Sometimes a poem will appear to be a sonnet, until you count the lines and examine the rhyme and rhythm.

The first of today’s poems, by Randall Jarrell, is one line short, at thirteen, while the second, by Robert Frost, has too many lines, at fifteen. Neither follows the rhyme scheme or the iambic pentameter rhythm of a traditional sonnet form.

We could conclude that these two poems are not sonnets at all or we could decide that they are sonnets in blank verse, with some variations.

At first glance, they both seem to be about well water. But that’s just a coincidence.

Both poems are divided into two parts like a sonnet, first asking the question and then proposing an answer. Each describes the problem that arises if we dismiss the importance of the commonplace of life, the “dailiness,” as Jarrell calls it, the “something,” as Frost does. We remain alone in our loneliness. The water in the first well goes through a rusty pump and keeps everything hidden from sight. The water in the second well is so shiny that we can see only our own Narcissus-like reflections.

Each poem then brings up a solution. In the first, we find the water is nevertheless clear enough to draw our attention to the quotidian parts of life. And in the second, as one unexpected drop from a living thing disturbs the surface of the water, we see new details at the bottom of the well.


What a girl called “the dailiness of life”
(Adding an errand to your errand. Saying,
“Since you're up . . .” Making you a means to
A means to a means to) is well water
Pumped from an old well at the bottom of the world.
The pump you pump the water from is rusty
And hard to move and absurd, a squirrel-wheel
A sick squirrel turns slowly, through the sunny
Inexorable hours. And yet sometimes
The wheel turns of its own weight, the rusty
Pump pumps over your sweating face the clear
Water, cold, so cold! you cup your hands
And gulp from them the dailiness of life.

~ Randall Jarrell (1914-1965), American poet, essayist, and novelist, appointed poet laureate 1956-1958


Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs
Always wrong to the light, so never seeing
Deeper down in the well than where the water
Gives me back in a shining surface picture
Me myself in the summer heaven godlike
Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.
Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,
I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,
Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,
Something more of the depths — and then I lost it.
Water came to rebuke the too clear water.
One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple
Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,
Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?
Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.

~ Robert Frost (1874-1963), American poet, appointed poet laureate 1958-1959

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