January 18, 2005

ༀ “Swan and Shadow” (1969), by John Hollander

"Swan and Shadow" grapples with the problem of how to capture a moment in time, "before its shadow fades". Hollander employs the image of a swan drifting through water, then leaving our field of vision, to represent such a passing, "perfect sad instant". The poem questions the adequacy of memory, the mind's eye, in reproducing such scenes for us, as "the image bears its object darkening into memorial shades, scattered bits of light". In other words, though a vivid echo of a particular experience may linger in the mind for a while, like the swan's reflection in the water, the record will deteriorate and be "soon... gone". Once the swan passes "out of sight", eventually it passes "out of mind".

However, just as Hollander can adapt the content of his poem to fit the image produced by his line-break and spacing techniques, we can adapt our goals of capturing and recording experience to the reality of change. While we can never capture an idea or a moment in history in its full integrity, we can contain it by approaching it from several angles simultaneously. In "Swan and Shadow", poetry and drawing each sacrifice their respective integrities as distinct art forms for the higher goal of conveying and preserving meaning and beauty. In this way the poem is an effective critique of the all-too-human tendency toward boundary-setting that separates the different genres of Art, and, ultimately, the different cultures of the world: suggesting that this tendency compromises the higher goals of human existence.

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