One Word Only is No Word: Anadiplosis in Sidney, Stevens, and Riding

I’ve been thinking about anadiplosis and the various ways that poets have put this seemingly archaic technique to use. Here’s a classic example from Sir Philip Sidney:  

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,—
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,—
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe;
Studying inventions fine her wits to entertain,
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburn’d brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting invention’s stay;
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows;
And others’ feet still seem’d but strangers in my way.
Thus great with child to speak and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart, and write.”

The speaker claims he “sought fit words” by “Studying inventions fine…/Oft turning others’ leaves,” but still the “words came halting forth.” That’s what makes anadiplosis interesting here–it’s at odds with what the poem states. Anadiplosis is anything but a “halting” stammer, especially in this case, where it’s carefully sequenced to take the reader from “pleasure” to “knowledge” and, finally, to “grace.” The poem’s slick surface shows us that the speaker did learn something by studying others’ “leaves.” It also suggests he’s not listening to his muse’s instructions to “look in thy heart, and write.” With this tension between stated purpose and actual practice, between the poem’s unflattering description of itself and its highly wrought form, the poem gives us everything except what we/Stella are supposed to be getting—the speaker’s “heart.”

Such heightened artifice seems a bit out of sync with most 20th-21st poetic styles, but I nosed around a bit and found this, from Wallace Stevens’ first book, Harmonium:

The Load Of Sugar-Cane

The going of the glade-boat
Is like water flowing;

Like water flowing
Through the green saw-grass
Under the rainbows;

Under the rainbows
That are like birds,
Turning, bedizened,

While the wind still whistles
As kildeer do,

When they rise
At the red turban
Of the boatman.

Here Stevens puts his own twist on anadiplosis: instead of the climax of the Sidney poem, what’s emphasized is how one thing is like another, can become another. It’s almost an Escher print in words. So in this case, the technique embodies Stevens’s poetics of change and transformation: “The freshness of transformation is / The freshness of a world.”

Laura Riding is the last poet I would expect to indulge in the artificiality of anadiplosis, given her passion for “truth,” which eventually caused her to quit poetry entirely: “When…after pressing the linguistic possibilities of poetic utterance to further and further limits, I comprehended that poetry had no provision in it for ultimate practical attainment of that rightness of word that is truth…I stopped.

But my encounter with it in her work is what prompted this post. Here is the passage, in the middle of the decidedly anti-poetic (in any conventional sense of the term) poem “Disclaimer of the Person”:

My name is not my name,
My name is the name.
The name is the one word only.
The one word only is the the one thing only.
The one thing only is the word which says.
The word which says is no word.
The one word only is no word.
The word only is agreement
Word with word finally. (255)

The poem, as I read it, is an extended meditation on what it means to say “I” or at least to express that “I” by means of language. (And, lest the reader roll her eyes at yet another poem questioning the “lyric subject,” note that this was written around 1933). Here, I’d like to suggest, Riding uses anadiplosis to point out a structural flaw in language: the medium we use to “express ourselves” is the same language used by all the other speakers of that language. More: words require a shared understanding among speakers to work, and it’s only by agreed-upon convention that words mean anything: “The one word only is no word. / The word only is agreement…” So our words, no matter how “personal,” belong to everyone. (cf Saussure: “An individual, acting alone, is incapable of establishing meaning”). The means by which I express my most personal feelings is impersonal. Even something as personal as a name is only useful when it’s understood by others: “My name is not my name,/ My name is the name. / The name is the one word only.” Ultimately (or “finally” as Riding puts it) words simply “agree” with other words.

Anadiplosis is often climactic, as it is in the Sidney above. Riding, however, is strategically anticlimactic, going from “my name” to “the name” to mere “words.” And while Stevens employs anadiplosis to emphasize transformation, Riding uses it to show that language is, ultimately, tautological.


A Portrait of the Vanishing Subject: On David Ferry’s “Who Is It?”

I am not I if there be such an I…
                               —Romeo and Juliet (3.2)

   Portrait. Decayed daguerreotype; artist unknown

I was excited to see a new poem by David Ferry in the latest Threepenny Review:

Who Is It?

Here inside this fiction of myself,
Two voices I always hear, both of them mine,
I guess, one of them telling the truth, I guess.
I don’t know which one it is that’s telling the truth,

The voice that said what it was it had to say
And heard what it said when it said it, and didn’t know
Exactly what had become of the person who said
What it was he said, just now, to tell the truth.

Always like this. Always it’s been like this.
The one that told my parents who I was,
And told my wife who I was, and told my children,
And told whoever it was I was talking to
So help me god, telling the truth, so help me. 

[link to poem]

I love how this shatters just about every writing workshop bromide I can think of. So many abstract terms: there is not one vivid image or word; even the people mentioned are mere categories: children, parents, wife; it buzzes along in passive voice, is-ing and especially was-ing, employing many verboten expletive constructions. Its pronouns point unconvincingly, like busted weathervanes, at something that seems to have passed.

But these are surface/stylistic considerations. If we continue to look through the workshop/pedagogical lens, and ask “What is the setting?” we see the poem thumbs its nose at that as well: “Here inside the fiction of myself.” “Here” is murky, suggesting merely that the poem is near its subject, which is, it appears, “the subject,” the selfhood of the speaker.

After informing us that that self is a “fiction,” the speaker** goes on to use “I,” as if the poem didn’t just call that very notion into question. In any case, we learn that “the two voices” inside the speaker both belong to him, and that one of them is telling the truth. But each of these claims is followed by a verbal shrug, “I guess,” transforming assertion into shaky surmise.   

I don’t want to belabor this poem—and fear I already have—but I do want to draw your attention to the astonishing second stanza:

The voice that said what it was it had to say
And heard what it said when it said it, and didn’t know
Exactly what had become of the person who said
What it was he said, just now, to tell the truth.

This reminds me of the extreme abstraction of parts of Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas In Meditation, almost anything by William Bronk, or certain passages in Creeley:

it was all now
and in
was oneself again

(from “A Feeling”)

The question is, why does Ferry use such vague, circuitous, and redundant language to say, in effect, “I’m not sure who I am?” (Or, “I am not I” as Sidney concisely put it; see also the Shakespeare cited above). My guess is that Ferry is demonstrating how difficult it is for anyone “to tell the truth” when answering the poem’s title/question, “Who is it?”

Ferry’s poem, then, is a portrait, not of the self, but of the difficulty of “telling” the self. It’s been said that the self is the sum of our memories. And recently, neuroscientists have pointed out that each time we recall a memory, the memory is changed by very act of being recalled. As Daniela Schiller puts it, you don’t “remember the original event; you just remember your last retrieval of it.” What’s left is the memory of a memory of a memory: an umpteenth-generation photocopy, barely legible, and “true” only to the slow drift of its subject’s vanishing. Ultimately, that drift is the subject of Ferry’s poem.


**This poem demonstrates the limitations of the poem-talk convention, “the speaker”