You begin this way:
this is your hand,
this is your eye,
this is a fish, blue and flat
on the paper, almost
the shape of an eye
This is your mouth, this is an O
or a moon, whichever
you like. This is yellow.
Outside the window
is the rain, green
because it is summer, and beyond that
the trees and then the world,
which is round and has only
the colors of these nine crayons.
This is the world, which is fuller
and more difficult to learn than I have said.
You are right to smudge it that way
with the red and then
the orange: the world burns.
Once you have learned these words
you will learn that there are more
words than you can ever learn.
The word hand floats above your hand
like a small cloud over a lake.
The word hand anchors
your hand to this table
your hand is a warm stone
I hold between two words.
This is your hand, these are my hands, this is the world,
which is round but not flat and has more colors
than we can see.
It begins, it has an end,
this is what you will
come back to, this is your hand.
Margaret Atwood 1978
"You Begin," one of my all time favorite poems, plays with language, feelings of childhood, nostalgia, and love, and the state of the world. Atwood gives the poem a rise and fall: the kind of circularity that makes me ache. That it is titled "You Begin" emphasizes hope, I think, which the inclusion of the child does as well. She builds to that point, and part of that building process serves to invest the reader in the poem. The "you" in the poem could be any "you," though it seems to be addressed to a child drawing on a page.
The first stanza is light and whimsical, with clear, direct statements. There is something about naming things that I love - identifying them against the backdrop of the world provides some surety that is comforting. We can see the narrator smiling when she notes that the drawn fish is, indeed, not a great illustration - "blue and flat - on the paper." But this is done lightly, and the speaker engages the child's imagination by providing "almost the shape of an eye." She does the same with the mouth - "an O / or a moon, whichever / you like." These lines give us early on the confusion between drawing and world, for the speaker connects the image of an open mouth with the drawn circle on the paper. She backs off with the next statement, "This is yellow.," though.
In the second stanza, the narrator seems to be entertained by this naming/imagining process. She leaves the paper and starts describing the world - the rain is "green / because it is summer, and beyond that / the trees and then the world." A sense of curiousity and sadness comes through in the lines "the world / which is round and has only / the colors of these nine crayons." It is as if the narrator is looking askance at this statement, conscious of an innocent way of looking at the world. Also, by now the repetition of the phrases "it is" and "this is" has become apparent. This sense of naming becomes more and more strange, and its declarativeness forces us into the present.
The narrator starts to realize the strangeness of this reductive way of describing the world, saying, "This is the world, which is fuller / and more difficult to learn than I have said." On the surface, we may read this as the fact that things inevitably become more complicated than our language can express. On a deeper level, it is an expression of smallness, I think, and a kind of helplessness in the face of the endless web of complexity and problems in the world: "the world burns." Indeed, the next lines reiterate this, for "Once you have learned these words, / you will learn that there are more /words than you can ever learn."
Here Atwood begins her discussion of language, my favorite part of the poem. Words position us within the world. They are labels, floating above things "like a small cloud over a lake." They triangulate us. Just as "the word hand anchors / your hand to this table," so words bring us into relation to one-another. They interact with objects; the narrator says "your hand is a warn stone / I hold between two words." Words hug us, surround us, connect us, define us. Humans are a relation of words.
A lot of recent theory wants to say that words are thin shells of the real things, that the word "hand" could never be so solid as my fingers that are typing this, or yours as they rest in your lap. But to call it (and every one like it) a hand brings our hands into relation, sitting as a signal for all of the hands in the world. Maybe the inexactitude theorists like Derrida see as an expression of meaningless is actually a freedom, an opportunity for the imagination to link hands. The thing is, words do mean something. If they didn't, we would be forever making sounds at one another and marks on pages that meant nothing.
Lines 30-32 take the narrator from words to the world. The naming process sketches the huge and complex world. Hm - there is a paradox here. Words bring us into relation in the particular, helping us understand and make sense of the world, but on a meta level, their open-endedness allows for intricacy.
The last stanza is a cry of love and finitude. Perhaps the unknownness of things does get to the speaker. Or perhaps she acknowledges it... perhaps she sees that meaning resides in the particular, in the individual. Though there seems to be an infinity of the world, this specific world has a beginning and an end, and finitude is what we come back to. Ultimately, importance rests in a single person, in one hand. If you think about it, any relation of something to anything else (a hand to the other hands in the world, this desk to the floor to the earth), starts with the thing. The center of a web of complexity is here, always in the finite, always in the particular...
Maybe that is why I like this poem so much - the idea the infinite rests in the particular, or at least that the particular gives us access to the infinite. My friend loves to say that language is a finite tool used for infinite means (I think he's quoting Noam Chomsky, or at least drawing from him), and this is what can make words so magical. They are paradoxical, constantly bringing us into relation with one-another, with the world, with ourselves, but those relations are endless. I love this poem for its circularity - it includes the entire realm of things in its hands (line 2 and line 35, the last line), it holds us like a warm stone between two words...
***** This is the original posting (with additions to my favorite poems. It is nice to have them listed, if for no other reason than to remind oneself of them)*******
This poem is my second repeat author (I told you to watch for Atwood), but I choose it now because it is one of my all time top five favorite poems in the world and it is my birthday. So I can do what I want for another hour and seven minutes! Hm! But I choose it for a birthday day because I believe that it is full of passion and hope and love: the kind of tenacious tenderness that exists only in the deepest bonds (and the greatest grief). The form is impeccable and the emotion exquisitely controlled. Its rhetorical complexity is astounding, not least thanks to its "economy of words" (a term one of my lit professors used to describe good poetry). I am exhausted now, but will close-read this poem for all of you tomorrow. There is so much going on that I want to give it the attention that it deserves. For now, I am going to settle into bed with my blanket and my 19 year old self and read my all time top five favorite poems. In case you are curious, here is a list in no particular order.
Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
Punishment by Seamus Heaney
You Begin by Margaret Atwood
Caedmon by Denise Levertov
Love Calls Us to the Things of This World by Richard Wilbur
The Illiterate by William Meredith
Sonnet 14 by John Donne
The Prelude by William Wordsworth (esp. parts of Book 13)
Sea of Faith by John Brehm
(additions since then):
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Kubla Khan by Coleridge
Mt. Blanc by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake
The Simple Truth by Philip Levine
Elegy for Jane by Theodore Roethke
Adam’s Dream by Edwin Muir
Okay, so that was more than five, but I started going and got all excited about the poems that I love. Incidentally, all have been PotWs, so you are free to look them up. Also, in order to make you all a special part of the Poem of the Week, and to remind you to read the poems, I am still going to email you every Monday with the poem text and a link to this blog. I hope that you are enjoying the new easier-to-read PotWs, and that you all have wonderful nights!