And why?

Because it’s one of those ur poems, one of those echt poems, one of those poems that simply does what a poem can do, and does it beautifully. Everyone loves Adelstrop because it isn’t showy and it isn’t sentimental and it isn’t welcome to my psyche. Art arrests life, wrote someone or other, and Adelstrop artfully describes life suddenly arrested so you can see it pure. Pure – what do I mean by pure… I mean life for most people contains these very occasional epiphanic moments when the sheer flow and contingency of event breaks and you see – quoting Wallace Stevens here, in his poem Snowman:

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

The poet’s poet – Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop – is almost always doing Adelstrop, variations of Adelstrop. These poets evoke a consciousness able for a moment to perceive the true silent steadfast life of the world – call it Gaia, if you’d like – as it breathes its being behind our daily agitations. Meditation, prayer – there are disciplines that can take you to a similar place. But the most powerful poetry represents a body of writing that inaugurates you into this condition of calmed and clarified consciousness, this state of full receptivity to the song of the earth, simply by making you feel what someone feeling the receptivity feels.

Yes. I remember Adlestrop —
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop — only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.


The life train suddenly and inexplicably puts on the brakes; we have no idea where we are. No motion, and a silent empty platform, and letters that don’t refer to anything. ADELSTROP means to designate a place, but designates instead the nothing that is. Its very absurdity eases the poet into nothingness in a way Portsmouth – a name with meanings in it – wouldn’t.

There’s hardly any sound – hissing steam, a throat cleared – and everyone’s abandoned the midday June heat for the shade. But for the poet in the passenger car, the full summer sun can now burn into the human void and shed absolute radiance on the world of natural objects, objects commonly obscured by humanity. He lists each thing he sees as if playing a children’s game, reconstituting the world out of nothingness … I spy with my little eye… Each of these objects hits him with the same newness, the same sense of having burst fresh and alone from the earth’s body, that objects seem to have to children playing pointing games in the semi-dark. Grass. Haycocks. Meadowsweet.

The name, the objects: all seem

No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

As his eye lifts to the clouds, the poet realizes that while each of these singular objects claims radiant independent life, each is also part of a mysterious multiplicity. The willow has a kinship with the cloud – both are infused with powerful and beautiful being, and together with all the natural objects of the world they make the world, the world whose life, again, always seems mere backdrop to our human drama.

So for this minute the world discloses itself to the poet. He sees its singularity and multiplicity. For him for this minute it pulls itself into singing unison, allowing him to hear all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

And just like The Snowman, and just like Virginia, this poem, which wants to give verbal life to the staggered accretion of life-awareness, will compose itself out of small lines and small words – new to this newly disclosed form of life, we bring to it a child’s gathering recognitions.

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