“The Way,” The New Yorker October 13, 2008
Goldbarth’s “The Way” is about measurement, measurement as the way to understanding the world we live in, be it your block of the city or our orb in the universe. In places, this measuring act seems futile, even silly, given our small existence; in others, particularly the poem’s end, it seems nevertheless appropriate.
Goldbarth begins with a flat assertion: “The sky is random.” A short, simple sentence devoid of filigree and elegance, it sets a straightforward tone for much of the poem, also largely made of somewhat emotionless assertions. The word random is key here as the poem progresses by discussing ways with which we try to give the chaos order. “Even calling it ‘sky’,” Goldbarth writes, “is an attempt to make meaning . . . . It’s what / we do . . . entirely / what we do.” We try to organize the randomness in order to place it in perspective.
Though the first stanza isn’t overly adorned with images, each sentence a claim rather than a description, it does ring nicely on the ear. The lines are not pentameter, but they are loosely iambic—a pattern that continues—and the sounds are present and varied. There is the ghost of end rhyme here with “sky,” “say,” “part,” “what, “what” as the AABBB end words of lines 1-5 respectively. The last end word of the stanza (line 6) is the anomaly “rose.” But, this anomaly is fitting. The quasi-end rhyme here matches the poem’s claim that we attempt to place meaning and order on things that likely lack them or whose existence is beyond human comprehension. Our ability to cogitate the universe is simply too weak for the job. So, here we have the ghost of formalities: the hint of meter, the hint of rhyme scheme, organizational methods that do not quite (fully) organize the stanza but that are nonetheless, perhaps inevitably so, in use. This is analogous to our labeling the sky sky in “an attempt to make meaning . . . of shapelessness in endlessness.” Sky fails to encompass everything aboveground from a few inches above our heads to the moon and stars and beyond, but it nevertheless puts that range of distances in a workable perspective. It is a word we’ve come to understand and whose meaning (ultimately arbitrary) we agree upon without discussion. It is an imperfect descriptor that organizes nothing more than our ability to think about the vast space above; it does nothing to the vast space.
Back to sound—Goldbarth’s is generally pretty tight through this first stanza. The first two lines are well-linked via M sounds in “random,” “attempt,” “make,” and “meaning, the next two lines connect with P sounds, and the last two with W sounds. Again, as with the other nods toward formality, none of these repetitions are over the top. They are not obvious alliterations, they are not highly decorative internal rhymes, they are not tongue-twisting attention getters. Really the only obvious sound-play is in line four: “of shapelessness in endlessness.” It’s impossible to read through the area without having to pay special attention to that phrase with its brief parallel of rhythm and rhyme.
Directly following is another parallel, an actual verbatim repetition caused by linebreak. Goldbarth writes: “. . . in endlessness. It’s what / we do, in some ways it’s entirely what / we do—. . . .” We have two lines that end with “what” and two lines that begin with “we do.” This is an important enjambment because the question what is important to the poem: it’s the what (and why) of our existence that we seem driven to answer. The poem has contended that our world is shapelessness, but we still try to give it “a meaning . . . a shape” anyway. We can’t help it. Of course, if the world is truly shapeless, then the shape we impose upon it is misleading; it’s false, actually, because it doesn’t rightfully exist. But, we do it anyway, as though compelled. We must answer the question. We’re genetically wired to do so.
The placement of “we do” emphasizes this compulsion in several ways. First, it’s at the beginning of the line, so it automatically grabs reader attention by being preceded with a slight aural pause and a clear physical one. Second, it’s preceded by the word “what” whose hard T forces our breath to abruptly stop, furthering the pause caused by the enjambment. It helps gather reader attention at both the line end and the ensuing line beginning. Third, the rhythm staccatos a little, adding emphasis in a way the preceding four lines of iambs just didn’t do. The first “we do” can be read as iambic, set up by the iambic “It’s what . . .” that precedes it. The second “we do,” however, sounds more like a spondee than an iamb, and the double-stresses emphasis the meaning of the language. In effect, it morphs the “we do” into something akin to we make, as in we make meaning, even where there isn’t any precedent for it. We can’t help it. It’s what “we do”: we make, we think, we compartmentalize.
Goldbarth uses much of the aforementioned devices through the succeeding three stanzas, but their formality potential decreases as the poem lengthens. By the fourth, last stanza, the iamb is no longer a consistent player, and in fact the poem ends in trochees, the iamb’s opposite: “ . . . but could only say it in counting.” As well, there’s really no semblance of end rhyme anymore, and there’s no use of line break to draw reader attention to a particular phrase. The last break of the poem is the only exception: commenting on Wordsworth’s ten thousand daffodils, Goldbarth writes, “by which he meant / too many to count, but could only say it in counting.” Again, he uses the hard T at one line’s end, and though it’s softened a bit by the preceding N in “meant,” it still stops our breath, especially when combined with the T in “too” on the next line. The enjambment emphasizes content that, for me, sums up the poem. Wordsworth had no way of accounting for this vast field of flowers, so he slaps an arbitrary, large number on it—ten thousand. But, that number is meaningless and inaccurate. It is not a good way to literally, physically gauge the number of flowers in the field. A scientific survey of these flowers—of the universe—would never be so seemingly slapdash. The problem (the poem suggests) is Wordsworth couldn’t organize the field in any other way; ironically, the only way he could account for something that could not be counted was to, well, count it anyway.
The middle stanzas of “The Way” provide various versions of this futile organizational attempt, the way being repeated three times to emphasize this inevitable thing we do, this path we take toward making/finding meaning. Interestingly, the use of language as the way seems to be the common ground for each stanza, regardless of the talk of galaxies and telescopes, of Dorothy Wordsworth and her perambulator. It’s “our language [that] scissors the enormity to scales / we can tolerate,” not science, not religion. Thus, the poem begins with sky as an abstract word more so than an object; thus, it ends with direct reference to Wordsworth’s “I Wander’d Lonely as a Cloud,” returning readers full circle to the sky via language, via poetry, via the way.