Study Guide

Proem Quotes

  • Language and Communication

    the descent of parachuting words onto the sands of the page; (4)

    How would this line be different if it were about words as fighter pilots instead of parachutists?

    the beheading of epithets, the burial of mirrors; (8)

    The violence of beheading and burial in this line shows just how cleanly poetry cuts off (rim shot, please!) language from what it is talking about. The use of symbols and metaphors is not direct language, but rather an indirect version that illustrates rather than replicates reality.

    the recollection of pronouns freshly cut in the garden of Epicurus, and the garden of Netzahualcoyotl; (9)

    There's that cutting again! Just like the epithets got their heads cut off in line 8, here the pronouns are being lopped off like blooms in a garden. Figurative, or poetic, language is separate—cut off—from reality.

    the migrations of millions of verbs, wings and claws, seeds and hands;
    the nouns, bony and full of roots, planted on the waves of language; (11-12)

    Like the Sea Monkey, words will come to life if you just add water!

    Syllables seeds. (14)

    Syllables in and of themselves are (usually) not communicative. But they are the basic building blocks of language, which allow poets to be creative with it.

  • Identity

    At times poetry is the vertigo of bodies and the vertigo of joy and the vertigo of death; (1)

    Man, that's a lot of vertigo! A "vertigo of bodies" suggests, though, that poetry has the power to blend identities into a dizzying form, where it's impossible to tell up from down, left from right. In a way, this poem illustrates that very idea, as the speaker takes off—taking his identity with him—in wildly divergent directions, following the possible poetic trails that branch off at every line.

    the idolatry of the self and the desecration of the self and the dissipation of the self; (7)

    Ah, yes. Poetry is first and foremost about the poet (the idolatry part), but often it involves a kind of reflection that splits the poet's identity from the speaker's identity (the desecration part). As a result, poetry often starts with egocentric identity, but ends up someplace entirely other than a coherent sense of self (the dissipation part).

    the beheading of epithets, the burial of mirrors; (8)

    "The burial of mirrors" suggests that poetry is a way to overcome identity in a sense. Beyond merely navel-gazing and yammering on about the self all day long, poetry allows us to take on other personae, other perspectives, and, in short, other identities that remove us form simply checking ourselves out in the mirror constantly.

  • Memory and the Past

    the laughter that sets fire to rules and the holy commandments; (3)

    This line shows how poetry, in its revolutionary uses of language, breaks with the past and its traditions.

    the recollection of pronouns freshly cut in the garden of Epicurus, and the garden of Netzahualcoyotl; (9)

    The word "recollection" refers not only to remembering or memory, but also to harvesting, like what the gardeners/poets do with the pronouns they pluck.

    the flute solo on the terrace of memory and the dance of flames in the cave of thought; (10)

    This line is pretty mysterious with its "terrace of memory." Do you think the poem refers to a collective, cultural memory, or to someone in particular's memory? How can you tell?

  • Art and Culture

    At times poetry is the vertigo of bodies and the vertigo of joy and the vertigo of death; (1)

    The opening line lets us know that the whole poem is going to be about poetry, with its repeated definitions of what the art form can be.

    the descent of parachuting words onto the sands of the page; (4)

    This image of poetic creation is playful and makes poetry seem like a random occurrence, like something that falls out of the sky.

    the recollection of pronouns freshly cut in the garden of Epicurus, and the garden of Netzahualcoyotl; (9)

    The references to Epicurus and Netzahualcoyotl show off just how deeply rooted in our culture poetry is (hint: it's ancient!).

    the flute solo on the terrace of memory and the dance of flames in the cave of thought; (10)

    Here poetry is related to another art form, music. Even though a flute solo doesn't have words, like a poem does, both are rooted in sound.