"With water he defends himself from water. Danger he leans on, rests in. The drowning sea Is all he has between himself and drowning."
"Millimeters and Not Miles":
The Excellence of Robert Francis
When George Gershwin went to Paris in 1928, he applied to study music under Maurice Ravel, presumably in hopes of modifying some of the lingering Tin Pan Alley touches from his classical compositions. To his credit, Ravel turned Gershwin down, saying "Why should you be a second-rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?"
A good question, and one that resonates when applied to other artists as well. Considering the poetry of Robert Francis, I find it as hard to classify and as original as the music of Gershwin. Early in his career Robert Francis went to the work of Robert Frost for aid and comfort, and accordingly there are many echoes of Frost in Francis's first two books. For example, compare the end of Francis's "The Plodder"--
A plodder. There was little to show How rich I was to be a poor fool. Little to let the pitying know How little I felt I was pitiful.
to Frost's early poem, "In Neglect":
They leave us so to the way we took, As two in whom they were proved mistaken, That we sit sometimes in the wayside nook, With mischievous, vagrant, seraphic look, And try if we cannot feel forsaken.
Pitiful, forsaken: each poet is engaged, in his mischievous, subtly assertive way, in denying onlookers the luxury of pity. Though Frost speaks for two while Francis is, as usual, solitary, each poet also wants to be "left to the way [he] took," and both display gentle amusement at how little any observer can know of the pleasures of their lives. Beyond the sentiment expressed, the poets are also linked verbally. As Donald Hall has pointed out, Francis learned from Frost how to "[break] the idiomatic American sentence across the English iambic line . . . ." Here, in "The Plodder," the simplicity of diction, the repeated play on "little" and "pitiful," the reliance on highly colloquial, enjambed linebreaks--all remind us of Frost. Whatever their differences, both poets relish getting plain speech to echo and dance.
An even greater parallel occurs in Francis's "The Wood Pewee," which derives directly from Frost. Here is Francis:
In the shade of a tree in the heat of an afternoon The wood pewee sings his portamento tune That summer is over-ripe and autumn is soon. He sings from a twig after flitting to catch a fly. And whether he sings September or July He sings of the end of summer and sings goodby.
The same conceit appears in Frost's famous "Oven Bird," published fifteen years before "The Wood Pewee" was printed in Francis's second book in 1938. Again we see a bird, personified rather whimsically, yet telling humans of the Fall and the eventual end of all things:
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten. He says the early petal-fall is past When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers On sunny days a moment overcast; And comes that other fall we name the fall. He says the highway dust is over all.
Both poems are so charming and light on their feet that it may seem ungracious to point out how Frost really begins where Francis leaves off, and with his final four lines rises to a level of bitter eloquence that Francis rarely attains:
The bird would cease and be as other birds But that he knows in singing not to sing. The question that he frames in all but words Is what to make of a diminished thing.
Here is one way, perhaps unfairly, to express the difference between the two poets: Frost, unlike his protege, knows how in singing not to sing, while Francis seems unable ever to sacrifice a certain deft lyricism for Frost's sort of muscular bleakness. It is not that Francis lacks an awareness of evil, of diminished things generally; indeed, his work, for all its verbal lilt, displays what he calls a "happy pessimism," which allies it not just with Frost but with that other bleakly playful New Englander, E.A. Robinson. In fact, Francis's autobiography, The Trouble With Francis, revolves about just this paradox; as he says, "I have been growing healthier and happier over the years; yet when I look around me I am more impressed with the ills of life. . . than with anything else." Though Francis is concerned with and aware of evil, however, in comparison to Frost he engages it in his poetry far less. Rather, he dances about it, he comments and diagnoses, without really entering the shade. (I am speaking here of the poetry, not of Francis's life, which, according to his autobiography and published journals, was admirably unblinkered in this respect.)
It is thus no surprise to find that in his memoir, Frost: A Time To Talk, Francis declares that to him, the greatest Frost lies in the brief lyrics, not in the long blank verse narratives and monologues, where, to Francis's ear, the verse often goes slack. So it may; but significantly, the poems that Francis disapproves of contain Frost's most complex, tortured, humanly rounded characters and psychological relationships. In poems such as "Home Burial" and "A Servant to Servants," we find a world of messy, heart-wrenching vitality utterly different from the controlled, wry, understated world of Francis at his best. And, to the extent that Keats's Negative Capability is a mark of genius, we must admit that Francis lacks such genius. His poems, to exaggerate only slightly, do not contain characters other than their author. Everyone and everything is seen from a cautious distance, from Francis's own outpost of strangeness.
Here we begin to define the real genius of Francis. If he had continued in the mode of his first books, he might well have become a second-rate Frost, one without Frost's complexity and hardness of mind. Instead, Francis gradually and wonderfully becomes something else, a first-rate Robert Francis, a poet so odd and delightful that, as Donald Hall has noted in his essay "Two Poets Named Robert," he "must be read in bulk" for a reader to appreciate his essential "solitude, [his] strangeness. . . .:
There's. . . a harshness in Francis which is available when you read for what a poem leaves out, as much as what it leaves in. . . . He's invisible--one would not consider him confessional--yet the imprint of an idiosyncratic vision gives these poems their textured particularity. . . . the most continual effect is an alienation, sometimes amused, sometimes lonely, sometimes amused and lonely at the same time.
What Francis leaves out: consider how little he fits our common image of a "major" poet. He has scant dramatic flair, little ability to inhabit characters other than himself; he does not write ambitious poems, if ambition be defined by bulk; he's never obscure, difficult, mythic, or confessional; he offers no overarching religious or social consolations to his consistent pessimism; he prefers suggestion to statement, and seems constitutionally unable to pontificate sagely on truth, beauty, or the ways of God and mankind in general. Yet in his best poems Francis captures better than almost anyone a certain mood. It can't really be named, but is some undefinable blend of lonely integrity, philosophical pessimism, and temperamental gaiety. I am thinking of poems like "That Other Dark Mountain":
My father could go down a mountain faster than I Though I was first one up. Legs braced or with quick steps he slid the gravel slopes Where I picked cautious footholds.
Black, Iron, Eagle, Doublehead, Chocorua, Wildcat and Carter Dome-- He beat me down them all. And that last other mountain. And that dark other mountain.
Here is a poem that a sixth-grader could easily and fully grasp. Yet how many poets could achieve that tact, that grace, that ironclad simplicity? How many have written a poem about a dead father without a trace of self-pity or self-approval? Even though the poem concerns the poet's father, however, note how little texture of the man's life is given here. The poem is, like most effective lyrics, universalized; what particularity it offers (the father's skill at skittering down mountains, vividly though briefly suggested) is really only a means to achieving such universality. The speaker's feelings, likewise, are barely presented, emphasized mainly by understatement. Finally, the balance of sadness and verbal savor here is characteristic of Francis: the way he relishes the list of mountain names as names is, for him, a natural prelude to thinking of his father's nameless and unnamed death. Plainly, we need a new way to talk about poetry, one that will do justice to a writer like Francis without denying the greatness of a poet such as Frost. No one is more aware of his own limitations than Francis, of course. Yet as he writes in his prose Pot Shots at Poetry, it is a comically complicated business, defining the difference between a "major" and a "minor" poet. In "Either Or," we find Francis taking satirical pleasure in observing those who "[put] all the poets into their respective hemispheres separated by a line as inexorable and as imaginary as the equator." No doubt he protests a bit too roguishly, for surely Francis would gladly grant the fact that Frost was a major poet in ways never achieved by Francis, and that his greatness has something to do with his emotional and technical range. But Francis has his own virtues, even if they are often defined negatively, as in his poem "Waxwings":
Four Tao philosophers as cedar waxwings chat on a February berrybush in sun, and I am one.
Such merriment and such sobriety-- the small wild fruit on the tall stalk-- was this not always my true style?
Above an elegance of snow, beneath a silk-blue sky a brotherhood of four birds. Can you mistake us?
To sun, to feast, and to converse and all together--for this I have abandoned all my other lives.
In characteristically direct fashion, Francis finds virtue in giving things up. Abandoning all his other lives is not a diminishment but is in fact the source of his spiritual strength. Perhaps most crucially, merriment and sobriety are two sides to a single coin: Francis's "true style" is this paradox exactly. Though this notion of a withdrawal from ordinary social life leading to spiritual joy is one that he probably derived as much from Thoreau as from Taoism, Francis's tone is utterly different from Thoreau's. Francis would never speak of driving life into a corner, for example, or tell his readers "what mean and sneaking lives many of you live," as Thoreau did. In Francis there is seldom any trace of superiority or scorn in his descriptions of other people, other ways of life, even if there is also little of Frost's ability to make characters come alive from inside.
The critical consensus on Francis has often seemed to be that he is a fine but minor lyricist perpetually standing in Frost's broad shadow. (And for that matter, given the shade of Emily Dickinson, we cannot even call Robert Francis the second-best poet to write in Amherst, Massachusetts!) Despite the admitted absurdity of the terms "major" and "minor," there remains no easy way around such questions: Francis himself introduces the problem not only by confining himself (except for his early, heavily Frostian narrative, "Valhalla,") to poems of such modesty, brevity, and understatement, but also by professing so doggedly the joys of retirement, contemplation, and a fundamentally solitary life. It is finally the same problem that faces an admirer of Thoreau: whatever truths he offers, he lacks a vision of normal social life.
Not that Francis is antisocial; often, as in "Waxwings," he proclaims the satisfactions of companionship. But other people seem essentially recreational outlets for him, while the core of his life is solitude. Even though there are scattered and excellent exceptions among his poems, in general there is no workaday world in Francis. Labor, when present, is likely to be either solitary or described purely in abstract terms. Nor do we find much attention paid to particular conflicts of parent and child, lover and lover, individual and community. Francis is always more apt to write of other people in terms of their physical actions, as in his many poems on athletes, than to write in terms of their inner passions, their conflicts and psychological complexities. From first book to last, he has a lyric universality rather than particularity, and a poetic voice that is curiously muted, for all its personality. What can we say, then, to assess fairly the peculiar attractiveness of his work without damning him with faint praise or unduly ignoring his limitations? Here is the crux of the critical problem. Although he is, as Hall noted, a very personal writer, he is unlike many poets in that he did not make a public drama of his life, a strident mythology of self such as we find in poets as varied as Whitman, Yeats, Rilke, Rich, and Lowell. Thus we cannot praise him as we tend to praise Yeats, for boldly repudiating his various selves, for putting his own development in the spotlight of his art. Nor can we admire Francis for taking "risks," in the sense of dramatic stylistic or personal changes--his temperament is consistently conservative, nonflamboyant, skeptical, bemused, courtly, and graceful rather than strident. His work did in fact develop some; as he says in the preface to his Collected Poems, his poems do grow progressively "bolder and livelier" book by book. (And after Valhalla in 1938, he mostly succeeds in shaking off the oppressive echoes of Frost.) Yet the changes are hardly earth-shaking. No one would mistake Francis, even at his boldest, for Ginsberg or Plath. From first to last, Francis remains a poet with a remarkably consistent, tempered voice.
It is often a voice at once whimsical and serious, as in "Waxwings," or the fourth and final section of "History":
The great Eliot has come the great Eliot has gone and where precisely are we now?
He moved from the Mississippi to the Thames and we moved with him a few miles or inches.
He taught us what to read what not to read and when he changed his mind he let us know.
He coughed discreetly and we likewise coughed; we waited and we heard him clear his throat.
How to be perfect prisoners of the past this was the thing but now he too is past.
Shall we go sit beside the Mississippi and watch the riffraft driftwood floating by?
Here as elsewhere Francis gives us a subtle mixture of satire, lyric melancholy, and exuberant word-love. Although it is clear he has no patience for the cult of the "great" man, especially one who believes it his civic duty to announce each change of mind, nonetheless Francis is hardly disputing Eliot's poetic greatness here. His point seems elusive, but includes the idea that "to be perfect prisoners of the past" is not much of an ambition, since it is inevitable, anyway: if nothing else, we will all be perfect prisoners of our own graves. Francis seems close here to the simple truths of Heraclitus and Ecclesiastes: everything changes, and there is nothing new under the sun. Ambition, whether poetic or otherwise, is absurd, mere throat clearing compared to the great river of time and its mysteries.
Yet he suggests all these things with a light touch, with nothing ponderous or grandiose to distract from his first and last love, which is wordplay. In his final couplet we find the essential tone of Francis. "Shall we go sit beside the Mississippi / and watch the riffraft driftwood floating by?" is a question both airy and profound, encompassing the river of the great Eliot's childhood in St. Louis, the river in Huckleberry Finn which the young Eliot was prevented by his puritanical parents from reading about, and the Heraclitean river of time which we can do nothing but "watch" as we drift down it on our own "riffraft" lives--as hopeful, shrewd, and innocent as Huck and Jim. The phrase "riffraft driftwood," in its boyish unparaphraseability and verve, is an example of what David Young means when he writes that Francis likes to "search out the properties of the natural world and of language that can act to offset or qualify [his] pessimism." Language is for Francis the main solace, the natural fact that can ease, somewhat, his pessimistic outlook.
Thus the many Francis poems which praise language itself for enlivening our existence. In "Hogwash," he toasts the "tongue that mothered such a metaphor," while deploring the bruising "foreign policy" which the hogwash of political rhetoric is produced to defend and conceal. In "Yes, What," he pays tribute to all the earth's "blessed boobs," her "oafs her louts her yodeling yokels" and all the other "Brueghel characters" who, unlike our political leaders, never make war or cause trouble on a large scale. In responding to "a certain reviewer" who found "Yes, What" insulting to these "blessed boobs," Francis once wrote: " 'Yes, What' is a celebration of words . . . . They refer to certain types of men, but it is not the men but words about them that I am celebrating." From first to last, we find Francis less apt to extol any particular ideas than simply to revel in the lingo. If this tendency reveals his limitation as a poet, it also points to his strength.
Likewise, he is always pulling apart words to discover new metaphors, as in "The Bulldozer," which begins: "Bulls by day / And dozes by night." Or, as in "Boy Riding Forward Backward," in describing some innocent horseplay, he gives us a joyous riot of descriptive language:
Presto, pronto! Two boys, two horses. But the boy on backward riding forward Is the boy to watch.
He rides the forward horse and laughs In the face of the forward boy on the backward horse, and he laughs
Back and the horses laugh. They gallop. The trick is the cool barefaced pretense There is no trick.
They might be flying, face to face, On a fast train. They might be whitecaps Hot-cool-headed,
One curling backward, one curving forward, Racing a rivalry of waves. They might, they might--
Across a blue of lake, through trees, And half a mile away I caught them: Two boys, two horses.
Through trees and through binoculars Sweeping for birds. Oh, they were birds All right, all right.
Swallows that weave and wave and sweep And skim and swoop and skitter until The last trees take them.
About the conclusion of this poem, David Young has rightly noted, "this is a celebration both of the way swallows behave and of the language's capacity for verbs." I would add that the poem is more interesting than that: it is also a simultaneous celebration of and lament for a solitary life, one in which the ordinary hijinks of society are viewed "through trees and through binoculars." The boy who rides backwards is indeed "the boy to watch," for he is one of the many oblique self- portraits that Francis paints. The horse-laughter here disguises an ars poetica uniting detachment with engagement.
The essential Francis, I think, resides in his quietest, most melancholy lyrics, not in the satirical pieces and poems of more aggressive wordplay (of which he wrote more and more in his later books, and of whose boldness and friskiness he seemed rather unduly proud). As far back as 1934, Francis records in Frost: A Time To Talk, the older poet had warned him that his "greatest danger" as a poet was "preciousness." Unfortunately, there is a certain precious quality present in each of his books, a coy kicking up of the heels that is more clever than humorous or moving. Ultimately, Francis is not at his best in harmless poems like "The Bulldozer" or "The Pope" (which begins "The Pope in Rome / Under St. Peter's dome / Is the Pope at home," and gets no more profound or witty as it continues). Rather, Francis shines when his precise and buoyant sense of language can enliven his fundamentally melancholy solitude, his "harshness," as Donald Hall puts it.
This harshness often takes the form of simple description revealing, upon reflection, a profound loneliness or oddness in the describer. In "The Spy," for example, Francis notes an unnamed man who is obviously a type for the poet, if not Robert Francis himself:
To leave his empty house yet not to leave it But make himself a shadow at a window-- Who is this prowler private in the moonlight?
Then at another window and another, His face against the glass and peering in-- What does he think he sees or wants to see?
Soft as milkweed floss the September night. White as the milkweed the untroubled moon Whose face, though far, is also at the window.
Two faces, but the prowler peers in deeper Spying upon the empty chair, spying Upon the man who is and is not there.
It is hard to know what to say about such a poem. The man who "is and is not" present is, of course, the poet, as he discusses and analyzes his own life poetically. Is this then a sort of homily on the difficulties of biographical criticism? Or is it self-admonition, suggesting that the more closely one examines one's own life, the less one sees? Or could it be primarily about the difference between what the man sees and what the face of "the untroubled moon" observes? (The moon sees nothing, of course; it is untroubled because it is utterly inhuman, we being the only self-conscious spies in the universe, so far as we can ever know.) The poem probably means to encompass all of these matters, with the added feeling that this unnamed man must be a very anxious man indeed, a troubled soul, to conduct such moonlight investigations. And finally, there is the poem's typically oblique consolation: we realize that "the prowler," though he may be troubled, nevertheless "peers in deeper" than the moon can, creating and embracing the paradox of "the man who is and is not there." It is not much of a consolation, as these things go, but it is unmistakable: we find no self pity here, finally, but an understated hymn to the fact of consciousness itself.
An even bleaker poem is "If We Had Known," which reflects on a suicide, I take it, without mentioning death explicitly. Note how unflinchingly the poem avoids both praise and blame for either victim or friends:
If we had known all that we know We never would have let him go.
He never would have reached the river If we had guessed his going. Never.
We had the stronger argument Had we but dreamed his dark intent.
Or if our words failed to dissuade him Unarguing love might still have stayed him.
We would have lured him from his course. And if love failed, there still was force.
We would have locked the door and barred it. We would have stood all night to guard it.
But what we know, we did not know. We said good-bye and saw him go.
Again following Donald Hall's suggestion, I am drawn here to notice what Francis leaves out of such a poem. He omits the normally expected anger at the dead person, the anguish of the survivors, the puzzlement over why someone might want to destroy his life, and so on. The entire poem, up until its final couplet, consists of a rather somber summary of all the things that a generic "we" might have done to prevent the death "if we had known" it was coming. But of course, not knowing is of the essence; we never can know the full truth of someone else's feelings, especially concerning such intractably solitary experiences as suicide, and so all our rationalizations reduce to so much wind. "Knowledge increaseth sorrow," as Ecclesiastes says, expressing the ultimate conflict of human existence, and a major theme in Francis. The poet does not say any of these things, naturally, but leaves the reader to do so, because we must say something, mustn't we? And that, I take it, is the point: "we said good-bye and saw him go" is what we inevitably do, faced with the mysteries of otherness. It is all we can do. The poem does not make the mistake of engaging in my sort of ungainly interpretation; it merely presents, and gains strength and spookiness by its reticence.
This concern with the ultimate solitude of human life shows up again and again in Francis's poems, underpinning even his frequent gestures toward fellowship. In "His Running My Running," for instance, the poet's appreciation of the lone runner serves to reinforce rather than mitigate the essential melancholy of the scene:
Mid-autumn late autumn At dayfall in leaf-fall A runner comes running.
How easy his striding How light his footfall His bare legs gleaming.
Alone he emerges Emerges and passes Alone, sufficient.
When autumn was early Two runners came running Striding together
Shoulder to shoulder Pacing each other A perfect pairing.
Out of leaves falling Over leaves fallen A runner comes running
Aware of no watcher His loneness my loneness His running my running.
The setting, of course, has to be autumn; the season of loss almost seems to conjure up this vision of the runner, who appropriately arrives "out of leaves falling / Over leaves fallen." The impression is of an active progress through and against the passage of time, with its inevitable diminishment of vigor and erosion of companionship. Having evidently suffered the loss of his running partner "when autumn was early," the runner is "alone," yet is also quite "sufficient" in his solitude, sturdy and unflappable. With a Whitmanesque gesture at solidarity, the poet claims the runner's "loneness" as his own, perhaps because it is so doggedly self-contained, sufficient unto itself. Perhaps (and this is the true Francis touch) this runner is beautiful precisely because he is alone. The poem is profoundly, tenderly voyeuristic, and recalls nothing so much as Section 11 of Whitman's "Song of Myself":
Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore, Twenty-eight young men, and all so friendly, Twenty-eight years of womanly life, and all so lonesome.
She owns the fine house by the rise of the bank, She hides handsome and richly dressed aft the blinds of the window . . .
In both poets, an observer savors the gleaming bodies of athletic young men, seamlessly identifying with them. Both poets emphasize the same qualities of discreetly erotic yearning, furtive charm, and lonely integrity. In each poem, the erotic charge is bound up in secrecy and distance, and in an isolation which is not lamented, just noted with accurate compassion.
Francis often writes in praise of athletic prowess, the natural world, and the quiet pleasures of a contemplative life. I would argue, however, that even in his happier poems, there is often a definite undercurrent of harshness. Consider the lyric "Swimmer," which develops as beautifully universalized an extended metaphor as any in Shakespeare's sonnets:
Observe how he negotiates his way With trust and the least violence, making The stranger friend, the enemy ally. The depth that could destroy gently supports him. With water he defends himself from water. Danger he leans on, rests in. The drowning sea Is all he has between himself and drowning.
What lover ever lay more mutually With his beloved, his always-reaching arms Stroking in smooth and powerful caresses? Some drown in love as in dark water, and some By love are strongly held as the green sea Now holds the swimmer. Indolently he turns To float.--The swimmer floats, the lover sleeps.
Here is a characteristic Francis performance. If it is a poem about swimming, it is equally concerned with love's motions in the face of death and betrayal. And typically, it is also about the artistic process, which is to say, the poem neatly describes itself and defines its own embodied excellence. The poem is so subtle and multifaceted that its clarity might lead us to call it "deceptively simple"--but even this critical option has been foreclosed by the poet in "Deception," one of his prose "Pot Shots":
Wherein lies the deception? Being simple to read, do they [his poems] seem to have been simple to write? Is this where the deceiving lies? Or do they only seem simple to read? Are they really not simple at all? Or are they both truly simple and truly poetry, and is it the possibility of this combination that deceives, or rather undeceives, the reader?
Francis is right: the deception in a poem like "Swimmer" is not the poet's, for he could scarcely have made his poem more lucid. The deception, or undeception, consists of our surprise that such a poem can contain so many interlocking meanings without being difficult in the way Eliot or Pound are difficult.
In any event, observe how the poet in "Swimmer" negotiates his way as if effortlessly amid his meanings. What is the poem's chief theme, for example? Is it about swimming, employing love as explanatory metaphor? Or is it the reverse, comparing languid lovemaking to swimming? Or is it perhaps most deeply about poem-making, with both lovemaking and swimming serving as illustrative metaphors? Merely to ask such questions is to see something of the seamlessness of Francis's art. In fact, the poem balances alertly among its themes, preferring none, as a parent might refuse to designate a favorite child. The pleasure achieved is one measure of Francis's lyric power: in place of obscurity, allusiveness, or complexity of idea, he characteristically offers us simultaneity of meaning, an entanglement of metaphors which fosters richness without complication. The poem resists interpretation, not because it is hermetic, but because its meanings are overlayered one on another, like a double-exposure photograph. To separate the thematic elements is to reduce them accordingly.
Nonetheless, for discussion purposes we need to look at the poem's various strands in order to see something of Francis's undeceptive richness. This swimmer we are called to observe "negotiates his way / With trust and the least violence," and both abstract nouns here contain ambiguities. What must the swimmer trust? As the poem develops, the idea clarifies: the swimmer should trust "the depth that could destroy," must, that is, have faith that the destructive element, properly negotiated, will not destroy. It is not the depth itself that is to be trusted, however, but one's ability to negotiate it; so in a real sense, one does not trust the depth at all, but learns how to remain safely atop it. Likewise with the "least violence." One swims most efficiently by minimizing or economizing one's motions--using the "least violence" in order to swim powerfully yet effectively. Power alone would be merely violent, an aimless and dangerous thrashing. Yet without some violence, the poem suggests, there could be no progress, no accomplishment. So, one must negotiate with both trust and violence.
In the center of such paradoxes lie the poem's multifoliate meanings, for these not-so-simple motions of trust and violence are linked at several thematic levels or perspectives. As a simple parable about swimming, the poem suggests something of the way in which the beauty of the sport is bound up with its danger. More deeply, however, as a description or prescription for love, the poem implies that the lover must offer up him- or herself entirely to the dangerous waters of otherness; the beloved becomes thus the "depth that could destroy" the lover, and yet does not. In this sense the violence is both the risky gesturing of self-revelation, of spiritual undraping, and also the necessary friction or opposition by which love must be defined, as happiness is meaningless without comparison to sadness. The poem's second stanza asks "What lover ever lay more mutually / With his beloved . . . ?"--a question not so purely rhetorical as it might at first seem. If the obvious answer is that no lover could hope to merge so fully with a mate as a swimmer can immerse in "the green sea," the less obvious reflection is equally pertinent: for the lover, as for the swimmer, all contact is in a real sense only skin deep. Lovers do not merge into each other any more than swimmers dissolve like sugar cubes in the water. The poem remains keenly aware that, in love, transcendent union is as impossible as it is inevitably tempting. We may achieve a momentary illusion of such union, just as we may swim as if without effort, or float as though permanently at ease on the water's surface--but the water remains an alien element, and we can drown in it. Thus it is apt that the poem ends by comparing the swimmer "indolently" floating to the lover sleeping. Sleep is a necessarily solitary endeavor. With this final image, Francis seems at first to describe an unambiguously sensual, affirmative vision of lovemaking, but the metaphor's implications emphasize solitude.
Finally, the poem is of course about swimming as an imaginative act in opposition to drowning or death. In this sense the poem enacts its own assertion that one may make "the stranger friend, the enemy ally," at least momentarily, in the imaginative boldness of language. Consciousness is what supports and sustains us in our attempt to float above the depths of destruction--we oppose death not by ignoring it, in other words, but by swimming in it. By way of "the least violence," we convert our fear of unconsciousness or oblivion (old metaphorical equivalents for the sea) to imaginative activity. We keep the "drowning sea" between ourselves and drowning, a paradox which makes, like all paradoxes, an emotive rather than logical sense. By imaginative immersion in death, we may not be able to destroy or defeat death, but we can "float" upon it for a while and enjoy a respite from fear, an indolence that is not mere paralysis. In such a way the poem describes its own graceful, subtle prowess at reconciling opposites, floating as if without strain upon the surface of dangerous incoherence.
It is a rich poem but not an obscure one, for its "deeper" meanings are not really concealed below the surface, but lie hidden in plain view, like Poe's Purloined Letter, sly in their very obviousness. As a love poem, "Swimmer" is curiously without hyperbole, celebrating its subject (not any particular lover) with a precise, abstract relish. And as a poem about performance, both athletic and poetic, it seems equally balanced and truthful without being fussy or coy. Francis pulls off such precarious balancing acts of tone and meaning frequently in his best lyrics.
The best of Francis thus occurs in poems such as "Swimmer" and in others like "Apple Peeler," "Summons," "Bluejay," "The Laughers," "Weathervane," "Answer," "The Hawk," and "Remind Me of Apples," poems in which, as David Young writes of "Bluejay," there exists beyond the felicities of wordplay and technique a "mysterious something" released by the poem's radical economy and understatement. In describing how "Bluejay" engineers in him "a release of feeling and a summoning of diverse emotions and experiences," Young is talking, really, about that indefinable something which makes all lyric poetry memorable, from the anonymous "Western Wind" through Herrick, Dickinson, Frost, and all the others. As Francis notes in "Excellence," another of the many ars poeticas he wrote in the guise of appreciation for sports: "Excellence is millimeters and not miles. / From poor to good is great. From good to best is small. / From almost best to best sometimes not measurable." Though in no measurable way, the poems of Francis at his best seem to me to achieve the millimeter of difference between good and great, and, whether "major" or "minor," we can ask no more of any poet.
--Painted Bride Quarterly. 35 (1985) : 79-93. Robert Francis Issue.