Leading Class Discussion on John Hollander's "Swan and Shadow"
Phil Nel
Introduction to Poetry


"even after this bird this hour both by atop the perfect sad instant now"
What is happening at this point in the poem? What does the line represent? How does this line fit with the shape of the poem and its literal translation? (Or, in other words, how does this line form a bridge between the two halves of the poem?)
This is the half-way point, between swan and its shadow.


The line connects the bird's approach with the fading of its reflection. We are in "the perfect sad instant now," after which (as the next line tells us), the bird passes out of sight, and above which ("atop") is the swan


The bird is quite literally drifting by, above the "atop." The words "drift by atop" point to the precise place on which the "drifting" is occurring.


Passage of time. References to "after" both "bird" and "hour" passing by. The "now" transition between then (the first half), and after (second half). See "A" above.


Look at the words forming the "neck" of the swan. What role do these words play? How do we read these words? Do we go down the neck or do we read horizontally? What would be the effect of either approach? That is, what would either decision (regarding reading) contribute to &emdash; or detract from &emdash; the reading of the poem?


If we read down the neck, then the words lead us to the moment in which the swan begins to take shape: "What," "When," "Where" suggest the beginning of recognition. We're seeing something, but we don't know quite what it is. Suddenly, these questions find answers in "In us," indicating that perception of this image (as a swan) occurs upon our recognition of its form.


If we read across, we receive a series of questions and answers. The questions and answers echo the poem's literal appearance: like a mirror (the swan and its refection). Given the images here, the 3 questions more closely correspond to the poem's upper half and the 3 answers to the lower. For instance, "in this pool of opened eye" figuratively points to the swan's reflection in the pool below; "shadow" works in a similar way. The questions depict the process of recognition, the questions we ask to figure out just what is coming into view (the swan, at top).


A related question: how do you read this poem, anyway? Does it matter where we start? What happens if we just read along the edges? For instance, "No," "Breaking," "Yet," "Yes" (on the lower half, the left side of the wing).


How does the author use diction and syntax? What words stand out? How would you characterize the style? The tone and sound? How do each of these elements contribute to the effect of the poem?


No punctuation. Capital letters tell you when a new idea or sentence begins.


Stream of consciousness. Lack of regular punctuation mimics the thought process. So, seeing the swan arrive and depart occurs in one continuous movement.


Other ideas. Time and Memory. Why is it dusk? How does time contribute to the poem's meaning? (Impermanence represented by fleeting moment, vanishing....) Memory: The "swan" part could be the "event" and the "shadow" its memory. See also the last lines of poem… What do these mean?

Return to Phil Nel's syllabus for English 112W, section 5 (M-W-F).