For many readers, the phrase "well crafted poem," in its journey across the remarkably fast-moving tide (practically all surge, practically no ebb) of the last half-century, has gathered all sorts of misleading associative barnacles. If a poem is precise, economical, double-entendred, and overtly formal in structure, one popular assumption now is that the poet is insufficiently engaged with the poem's content; that he must have inserted too much distance between himself and his utterance (O'Hara's "raw" vs. Lowell's "cooked"). I believe the logic behind this misconception derives from two salient logical encrustations.

Barnacle One: if a poet spends a great deal of time selecting the precise wording for his thoughts, paring their expression down to its essential lineaments, jettisoning anything that does not centrally contribute to the movement of that single thought or mood, then the utterance is no longer spontaneous, and the feeling he was driven to write from — the one that launched the poem — must have dissipated long before the poem was completed, thereby stripping it of the vitality of the inspiration. That is, the time-consuming attention to technical "fussiness" must prolong the charged moment far past its expiration date. But of course the reverse may be true: the feeling or thought is of such complexity that its articulation is more elusive; perhaps it is so deeply stirring that it lingers longer (through many revisions) than a more spontaneously renderable, passing passion. Alternatively, the attention to the thought or emotion may require of its conveyor greater dedication and strategic planning for its most powerful, convincing presentation. Furthermore, it is in the act of revision that the poet may refine his original thought into a more precise and searing understanding of its nuances and ramifications.

Barnacle Two: The labor that goes into making a beautiful thing automatically disqualifies it from any appearance of natural grace. Well, I will let Yeats take over here, and ask you to reread "Adam's Curse," because I would like to turn now to the work of Daniel Hoffman, one of the most deft craftsmen of our time.

"Heartbreak" (from Darkening Water, 2002) is an example of Hoffman at his best. This poem has all of the above-mentioned qualities: precision, economy, meticulous structure, and — to my ear — a music that is not only pleasing to the ear but compatible with and organic to its subject. In its eighteen lines divided into three six-line stanzas, the poem manages to achieve a Dickinsonian spareness and plangency without sacrificing either contemplative depth or emotional force.


Delicate delicate delicate
The workings of a soul,
Captive lucent creature
In its box of bone,
How easily wounded by the stroke
It must endure alone—

Difficult difficult difficult
The soul's attempt to sing
That was made for song. The single
Soul's but half a choir
Inchoate until wedded
In accord with its desire

Desire desire the double
Of the self that seeks
Imaginable completion
—Harmonious perfection!
If once thought found, then lost,
How make sound the chord that breaks?

The doubling of words and homophones (desire/desire, accord/chord, sing/single) serves to reinforce the idea of coupling that the soul must achieve before it can "sing." We find, instead of a rhyme for "sing" ending the eighth line, the word "single" closing the ninth — illustrating just how far from singing the soul must remain by itself. Beginning the two first stanzas, which both speak of and enact the struggle to find the soul's desire and arrive at a harmonious state, are lines composed only of repeated trisyllabic words, mimetic of the strenuous effort in pursuing one's desire. There is an allusion to Whitman's "A Noiseless, Patient Spider" "who launches forth / Filament, filament, filament" in Hoffman's "Difficult difficult difficult"; both lines are unwieldy and in Whitman's case further weighted by caesura, both poems being about the soul's need to connect with something outside itself. When we reach the third stanza, the repetition of three words, with the help of a stanza break, leaves us with only two mirroring words of only two syllables each, so that the goal of soul-coupling is felt at last to be within reach. But Hoffman's poem ventures beyond Whitman's wistful spider-soul isolation and into an apparently achieved harmony with an other. The reader is invited to share in the excitement via the pleasuring relief of the lines,

Imaginable completion
—Harmonious perfection!

in which a consummation of the wedding of soul and desire is felt in the near-rhyme and nearly identical rhythms. This harmony, accord, chord, is "broken" by stanza's end, with the final two lines, which beautifully and movingly dramatize the maybe-not-quite- rightness of the coupling:

If once thought found, then lost,
How make sound the chord that breaks?

One can hear the uncertainty regarding the attained perfection in "If once thought found." Even if the heartbreak is the result of a mistaken love, it is no less heartbreak for that; maybe more of one. we move quickly then to the final line's brilliant layering of meanings in the simple phrase make sound, doing the double duty of "make sound" as in healing, and "sound forth" as in emitting the sound of a musical chord. It is difficult to say those lines in a relaxed, natural cadence. Their completely monosyllabic nature, with so many adjacent stresses, causes the voice to resume the wistful, effortful strain with which it began. In the final stanza, apart from the coupled lines' rhyming of completion/perfection at its center, what's left is only the internal rhyme of sound/found, which is appropriate to what we now suspect: the perceived and lost harmony was internal, or imagined (merely "imaginable") after all. The soul may never link up with what it perceives as a perfect manifestation of its desire; because if the desire were indeed the perfect match it would be too similar to afford harmony, and give us instead only "the double of the self"; a mirror image or sound clone, not half as enchanting as a harmonious chord.

I admire the rich ambiguities in this poem, and the way its loaded syntax and rhythms make me feel the idea's complexity almost before I understand it semantically. When I read, "How make sound the chord that breaks?" I feel, as I am meant to, somewhat hopeful in the first half (where there is assonant "harmony" or perhaps more of a howl, in How/sound"); and disappointed in the second half by both the sense and the stark "broken" rhymelessness.

Does the careful selection and positioning of each word and sound in such a poem make me question the poet's full engagement? Not at all. I only question the poet's personal engagement if his poem doesn't command my own.