what a difference an ‘a’ makes

Feb 6, 2020 poetry appreciation

I apologise for that appalling pun. Had to be done. If you’re still speaking to me, have a look at this poem, ‘A Bitterness’ (here), then think about what it would feel like with even only a slight change in the title—’Your bitternesss’, or just ‘Bitterness’, or even ‘The Bitterness’? Wouldn’t that make it a really different poem?

The implication of an indefinite article is usually that the noun it precedes is not specific (“Pass me a pen, would you?” as opposed to “Please could you pass me the fountain pen—yeah, that one with the red top?”). But, oddly, in this poem the indefinite article is part of what makes it feel so intimate and specific: the speaker is describing the particular bitterness of a particular person, and describing it with the intimacy of close knowledge. Paradoxically, the use of the indefinite article in the title confirms that she is not attempting to define what bitterness is generally, rather that she is describing what bitterness looks like in this person’s case.

But that amazing article does still more! In separating out ‘A’ bitterness, Oliver implies that this is only one of a number of reactions to life, which she goes on to name in the text of the poem. Bitterness—the absence of sweetness—is not seen as the truth about the world, only about this person’s experience of it; indeed, only as the speaker’s ‘belie[f]’ about that person. The ‘A’ is a kind of containment facility for this ‘bitterness’, which absolutely accepts its truth and power but refuses to see it as the last word about life. And I love that about this poem: it holds the subject’s experience with clear-sighted empathy and compassion at the same time as it refuses to be depressed about the world and its ‘wild, amoral, reckless, peaceful/ flowers of the hillsides’. Indeed, to describe the flowers is this way is to register the world’s separate existence quite apart from our projections and desires.

And what do you make of the repetitions of ‘I believe’? Of course, they inevitably echo the Creed; and there’s something horrible about believing something so sad (albeit, as we have said, about an individual rather than about the word). The repetitions toll, solemnly, like a knell. And the statements are simple and devastating: ‘I believe you did not have a happy life./ I believe you were cheated’. Simply said but not easy to say (or know) about ourselves or those we love.

The imagery is simple, too: friends, enemies, games, strangers… and trinkets. At that point there seems to me to be a slightly different note sounded: for how could bitterness ‘sh[i]ne so bright’? Because it was polished and tended to—cherished, almost, as we might a trinket or a precious metal? For me there’s something very psychologically acute there, about how we can get used so to our grievances and wounds that losing them, or even letting them dull a little, can seem like a loss of who we are and what we do. This idea is offered so lightly by Oliver, almost as it were in passing; but it does put something different in alongside the compassion—the possibility, however faint, of a different way. And it points us forward, I think, both to ‘none the wiser/ and unassuaged’ and also to that intake of breath, that soft wordless exclamation ‘Oh…’ in the final line. It hurts so much to feel this or to know that someone we’re connected with feels it.

In ‘Why I Write’ Orwell said that ‘good prose is like a window pane’, and endless hours of academic discussion have no doubt gone into debating the validity or even possibility of such a claim (!). It came to my mind in relation to this poem, though, because I feel ‘A Bitterness’ does let us see so clearly both the person the speaker is describing and the speaker herself. We become aware of the quality of the glass—the poet’s insight and compassion, and the simple clarity with which she can convey as well as perceive. This is a window pane we can love for itself, because of what it allows us to see.

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