The Fifth Wall: Strategies of the Self in Ginsberg, Plath, Neruda & Rilke

By Lea C. Deschenes

Introduction

Most people are familiar with the theatrical convention of “The Fourth Wall,” an invisible barrier between a play’s audience and actors. As with any convention, the strictness with which artists and works of art adhere to this separation varies. In the movie Casablanca, it drops into place like a second silver screen. The audience voyeuristically peers into the treacherous world of the film’s narrative, sheltered by their separation. During Hamlet’s soliloquies, the wall’s solidity wavers. Hamlet’s “To be or not to be?” may address himself, the audience or the castle walls. The actor, director and audience commiserate among themselves to establish an understanding of how far toward the audience the actors and characters approach. At midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the Fourth Wall dissolves almost entirely. The audience becomes part of the show itself with its own lines, props and cues; an experience which differs entirely from renting the DVD to watch at home alone.

Before any artwork reaches public awareness, its creator must grapple, consciously or not, with a parallel convention: the placement of a Fifth Wall between the Self and the Work. Whatever the medium employed to express inspiration, artists choose how much of their individual identities will be revealed, and with what degree of factual correspondence and transparency. Does the self-portrait in oil depict an idealized jaw or faithfully capture its aging slack? Does the short story’s protagonist become an author’s vehicle for wish fulfillment and revise an actual traumatic event with a happier ending? Does the songwriter cater to her own range and phrasing or write a tune meant for anyone to sing? As poets, do we consider our presence within our poems as akin to a theater tech pulling curtain strings, building sets and cueing lights; or as an onstage character we portray for the sake of art; or as a projection of self that allows us to suspend disbelief and participate in the world of our poems? Do we whisper our closest secrets in the ears of unknown strangers? Do we change names to protect ourselves?

On the first day of an undergraduate poetry class, my professor presented us with a sheet of “Rules for Writing.” Two of these guidelines stay with me as a paradox which any writer interested in exploring the Self must confront: “Tell the truth.” and “Lie like hell.” As writers we often struggle with choices between literal and metaphorical truths. Do we tell it as it is? As it should be? As we imagine it to be? As we think our audience will understand it to be?  The Fifth Wall is at its most effective when these multiple ways of conveying meaning are applied judiciously and in context. Like Lorca’s duende, the Fifth Wall’s exact location is impossible to pinpoint except as an understanding in the mind of the author and a recognition of that understanding in the reader. Whether we, as poets, see our artistic role as shaman, craftsman, satirist, etc. – our Selves are our raw material. They contain our connections to and notice of the outside world, our diction and perspectives. Our Selves are the stuff our dreams, visions, humor, despair and stories are made on.

Issues of artists’ identities and their interplay with art have permeated current culture and media, often straddling boundaries between the art of narrative, commercial marketing and self-serving deception. James Frey’s semi-fictional autobiography and J.T. LeRoi’s constructed author persona vie for space with “reality” TV. Advertising segments created by government agencies air alongside local news broadcasts. A computer algorithm generates papers on postmodernism. “Viral marketing” firms pay college students to start enthusiastic conversations in bars with their peers about their products, acting as social seeds to create “buzz.” As poets, we are left to question our obligations to authenticity and vibrant imagination in a culture of half-truths and manipulative narrative—how far are we willing to let this Fifth Wall fade in search of honest connection with our audience? Even if we remain apart from this pop-culture milieu, we must account for its impact if we wish to reach contemporary readers beyond our own enclaves.

Far from being an either-or proposition, the Fifth Wall exists as the involuted marker of a labyrinth. Authenticity, accessibility and craft interact at each turn, a manifold path that produces as many variations and adaptations as life itself. If Anne Sexton embodies the id as Rumplestiltskin, it is capable of creating the same personal resonance as her embodiment of femininity in “In Celebration of My Uterus.” It is impossible to state definitively where the Fifth Wall lies in a poem. It dissolves and solidifies from day to day and stanza to stanza. We write and choose how close we are to our writing. Our audiences will never know exactly where we hold forth or hold back, but our placement affects their response.

We can see extremes in the Fifth Wall’s placement: a language poet intent on deconstructing syntax may not see a Self in a poem at all, but an arrangement of words meaningful only in their deliberate breakdown of meaning. A formalist intent on constructing a perfect villanelle may share this exclusion of Self in pursuit of structure. At this end of the spectrum, craft or its subversion dominates the poetic landscape. The poet floats like an airy ghost around the poem without entering. At its best, a disregard for Self can create works of stunningly ornate, controlled structure. Taken too far, these poems can seem like beautiful cathedrals sealed so tightly they become airless: perfectly constructed, uninhabitable.

At the other extreme, a Confessionalist poet whose project involves healing personal trauma may attempt to place her/his Self aggressively close to the work: a forceful nakedness that dares the reader to look away. An experimental poet using free-writing techniques may also rely on internal content rather than structure. Self dominates, its expression paramount over craft. The poet turns her insides out for the blood, guts, and bones of the poem. Ideally, the poem gets up and walks on its own. Handled poorly, the reader may find nothing but a pile of offal on the floor. Either extreme tends to evoke heated, often acrimonious debate over a poem’s worthiness as Art.

So how does one examine such a frail and fluctuating boundary or interpret its position? We can only analyze the traces it leaves behind in craft. One important way in which the Fifth Wall influences craft choices can be found in an author’s choice of pronouns and the sense in which they are used. As John Berryman said, “A pronoun may seem like a small matter, but she matters, he matters, it matters, they all matter.[1]

The “I” is the most obvious choice for working close to the author’s own chest, but does the author allow that “I” to approach and enmesh with the audience (“I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together,” John Lennon, “I Am the Walrus”) or use it to separate the Self as an individual existing in a different sphere from an audience (“…I alone am left to tell the tale,” Herman Melville, Moby Dick)?

“You” can seem dictatorial as implied by an imperative (“First fight. Then fiddle. Ply the slipping string/With feathery sorcery,” Gwendolyn Brooks, “The Children of the Poor”), can represent the Other (“You do not always know what I am thinking”, Frank O’Hara), or be a gesture of familiarity as close as the archaic “thou” or French “Tu” (“While you sprawl in sleep/arms outflung like a child’s,” Maxine Kumin, “Spending the Night”).  “You” is wide open. It could be a reader, all humanity, a beloved, the godhead, a distanced Self in disguise. It could fill several of these roles at once. “You” defines “I” through comparison.

“He” or “she” may be a part of a community (“…He is/my sister, this/beautiful Bedouin…this immigrant/this man with my own face” Li Young Li, “The Cleaving”) or an outsider (“Then he returns/to the pale subways of cement he calls his home”, Elizabeth Bishop, “The Man-Moth”). “It” can imply inanimate passivity (“It courses through the cables laid for it”, Donald Justice, “The Assassination”) or the exactness of an epiphany (“It/all drops into/place,” Robert Creeley, “The Window”).

Here, we’ll explore the Fifth Wall through the use of “I” and “you” in “America” by Allen Ginsberg, “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath, “Ode To an Onion” by Pablo Neruda and “You who never arrived” by Ranier Maria Rilke. All four of these poems use successful and unconventional strategies that place an authorial Self in close proximity to the artwork.

Ginsberg’s “America uses a detailed, personal “I” against a national stereotype “you” to expand definitions of patriotism and reach for common political ground without compromising personal principle.

Plath’s “Daddy” sends readers into a tug-of-war, using a dynamic tension between viewpoints of an “I” in relation to a “you” which enlarges to include not only the Daddy of the poem, but a wider sense of patriarchy. Plath takes her individual emotional experience and unfolds it like an umbrella that covers more than the one who holds the handle.

Neruda’s “Ode To an Onion” transforms a common household bulb into a heavenly avatar and carries that sense of transcendence and universality into his “you,” made more prominent by his late introduction of an authorial “I.”

Finally, Rilke’s “you” in “You Who Never Arrived” shows an expansiveness of Self in which the elusive “you” is beckoned closer as a beloved, a reader and an embodiment of the Divine for which the enamored “I” eternally yearns even while sharing the same streets, shops and sky.

Allen Ginsberg’s “America

Allen Ginsberg’s “America” uses the Fifth Wall to extrapolate the individual “I” as a participant in a society toward the greater “you” of America to broaden the concept of what it means to be American.

Ginsberg’s “I” lives in its particulars, drawn from Ginsberg’s experience: “I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library,” “I haven’t read the newspapers for months,” “Burroughs is in Tangiers I don’t think he’ll come back, it’s sinister,” “I smoke marijuana every chance I get,” “I won’t say the Lord’s Prayer,” “America, I still haven’t told you what you did to Uncle Max after he came over from Russia,” etc. By loading the first section of “America” with specific, highly personal detail, Ginsberg uses his “I” as a model of the political and social left.

The first section of America catalogues the “I’s” ethical questions and disagreements with its country: “America when will we end the human war?” “Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.” “When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?” “America when will you send your eggs to India?”, etc. The interleaved political questioning and personal detail establish this adversarial relationship with America as a large part of the identity of the “I.”

“America” turns in its second stanza (“I’m addressing you…It occurs to me that I am America./I am talking to myself again.”) By melding his dissident “I” and its particulars (communism, insanity, pacifism, homosexuality, non-Christianity) with the “you” of America, Ginsberg subverts stereotypical notions of patriotism. By challenging traditional portrayals of leftists as un-American outsiders and employing a light tone of self-deprecating humor, Ginsberg’s political statement avoids didacticism.

In its third stanza, Ginsberg examines his own participation in the wrongs he perceives with his country. The “I” takes on non-personal particulars of the nation it opposes: “Asia is rising against me,” “I say nothing about my prisons,” “My ambition is to be President despite the fact that I’m a Catholic.”

Having accepted a role as a participant and part of America, the “I” turns back to criticism of America and its biggest perceived threat at that time, Russia. Having come to terms with, if not acceptance of, its country’s faults, the “I” now feels able use parody to point out parallel flaws in Russia without relinquishing its own distaste for jingoism. It further exaggerates the absurdity of both xenophobic stances by taking on the incorrect grammar and primitive syntax of Western movie “Indians” (“them bad Russians”, “Him big bureaucracy”, “That no good”) while highlighting the bigotry of this government-knows-best perspective (“make Indians learn read”, “need big black niggers.”)

Through inclusion, “America” grapples with finding a common ground between the political and personal positions of the “I” and “you” to get to work fixing problems rather than passing the blame. Ginsberg uses the Fifth Wall to make a place for his “I’s” identity in its homeland and chooses to forgo a role as a backseat driver to “put [its] queer shoulder to the wheel” for change.

Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”

Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” demonstrates the effective use of the Fifth Wall by creating dramatic tension through the poem’s central relationship of a confessional “I”, closely tied to the Self, and a “you” portrayed as a hostile Other. From the first stanza forward, Plath establishes a relationship between a stifling,  authoritarian “you” and an “I” that is entirely and uncomfortably intertwined with it. The “you” is introduced through the perspective of the “I.”

Plath’s “I” is both intimate with the poem’s “you” and distancing. While Plath’s relationship with her own father and his death necessarily influences her views of a father figure as “you” and Plath’s identity and voice infuse her “I,” both the pronouns in “Daddy” are less fully-fleshed, actual persons than avatars for opposing perspectives on gender roles struggling for dominance in the speaker’s world. Plath embodies greater societal and psychological patterns in the poem’s father and daughter to comment on larger issues. Setting these ideas in the framework of a relationship, she effects an immediate and personal manner that portrays the cognitive dissonance of a love/hate relationship in which the speaker is, to some extent, complicit in her domination.

The “I,” for all its declarations of hatred and independence, is portrayed solely through its relationship with the “you”. Even as it tries to create an identity as a persecuted victim of the “you”, most of its actions arise from the “I’s” often drastic attempts to reunite with it: traveling to the “you’s” ambiguous homeland, attempting suicide to join it in death, creating a model of the “you” in marriage. Finally, the “I” believes the only way to complete its own identity is through the murder of the “you”, taking on its violent power as a right of conquest: only becoming its full Self through the destruction and conquest of the Other. This positions readers at a close standpoint they may find intensely uncomfortable – as if one were an unwilling guest at the dinner party in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” It may also strike chords of recognition: “Daddy’s” “I” calls upon the reader’s identification, particularly soliciting female readers. Her “I” generalizes itself through a link to women in general with “Every woman adores a Fascist.” Plath’s use of a rhyme scheme that recalls the nursery gives a dual sense of a problem whose origins are in childhood (reinforced by the image of the “you” as a teacher) and a speaker who has been infantilized either through the machinations of the father figure or a failure to grow beyond the need for the father figure.

The “you” of “Daddy” permeates the poem even when not directly addressed, reinforced through heavy reliance on assonant long “oo” sounds in the rhyme scheme. The most notable trait of the “you” is its mercurial transformations: a shapeshifter changed through the lens of the “I” into a container (“You do not do…Any more, black shoe”), a foreboding deity (“a bag full of God,/Ghastly statue with one grey toe/Big as a Frisco seal”), a genocidal oppressor (“I thought every German was you”, “…with your Luftwaffe…And your Aryan eye, bright blue”), a teacher (“You stand at the blackboard”), a demon (“no less a devil for that”), and finally an undead, parasitic monster (“The vampire who said he was you,” “There’s a stake in your fat black heart/And the villagers never liked you.”) Centered on figures of authority and evil with a mythological scope, the “you” seems to be everywhere, its origins scattered in a “dozen or two” towns making its identification difficult (“So I never could tell where you/Put your foot, your root”) and direct communication impossible, complicated by the “I” and “you” speaking different languages (“I never could talk to you,” “I could hardly speak./I thought every German was you./ And the language obscene.”)

As Plath’s “I” is shown to define its Self through the lens of the “you”, it also defines the “you” it reacts against. Fluctuating with the “I’s” own ambiguity, the “I” attempts to find an appropriate shape and attitude in which to cast its oppressor.  Being dead, the “you” cannot define itself. It is beyond being overcome, placated or conquered. It cannot judge the “I” or exert physical or mental force to control it. Its power exists solely as memory of formative influence by the “I,” who judges and forces itself. The “you” exerts power indirectly with the “I” as agent: through the “I’s” inability to take power over itself without a controlling “you” to struggle against.

In the final stanza of “Daddy,” the “I” remains undefined, depicting an over-the-top scenario of justification in which the outside world is introduced in the “they” of the villagers, as if the “I” still does not trust its own opinion or judgment of the “you” and must rely on a new outside force, society, for validation. Even in the definite-sounding condemnation of “They always knew it was you/Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.” definitions remain vague. If “they” always knew, does that imply that the “I” did not? What is the “it” they know? What, exactly is the “I” through with: the father figure? Men? Defining itself through an absent object of affection? Itself?

These ambiguities hold the key to the use of the Fifth Wall in this poem. “Daddy” appears to be a raw statement of emotional reaction to male abandonment and patriarchy, yet its carefully structured language and imagery belie notions of spontaneity. It is a poem by an author generally categorized as “Confessional” whose characters are archetypical outlines, not autobiographical excerpts. Through this simultaneous closeness of the emotional Self and distance of the details of that Self’s identity, Plath allows readers to project themselves into the poem. This creates an unspoken dialogue between the poem and the reader. Depending on individual genders, backgrounds and associations, each reader will assign their own values to the “I” and “you,” pulling definitions of both from their own experience. The “I,” unable to establish its identity without its opposite number, reaches across the Fifth Wall to its readers for a shape.

Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to the Onion”

In considering the Fifth Wall and use of personal pronouns in “Ode to the Onion”, one must first consider their relative scarcity in the text. By substituting reflexive verbs and possessive pronouns at key points in the Spanish (e.g. “se formo tu hermosura”, “se redondeo tu vientre”), Neruda chooses to imply his subject  without restating it (Tu te formo hermorusa, etc.), adding an immediacy and urgency similar to imperative statements and continuing the flow of language without pause. The choice to have the “you” possess the objects in the litany of images adds to the onion’s sense of elevation and enlargement into symbol as it lies in the earth “collecting [its] crystal scales.” Through his deliberate syntax, Neruda quietly draws focus to image and action and away from the personas of narrator and subject.

In addressing the onion, Neruda uses a familiar “you” (“tu”) rather than the more formal “usted”, echoing the use of “thou” commonly found in the ode form (e.g. Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”). Combined with the technique of starting numerous lines with “and,” this also imparts a scriptural feel, (e.g. “And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good, and God divided the light from the darkness,” Genesis, Alter tr., pg. 3). The juxtaposition of these stylistic choices with his humble subject matter of the onion allows Neruda to subvert the ode’s context as a ‘high art’ form and bring it, like the onion, “…within the reach/of the villager’s hands.”

Additionally, Neruda’s use of scriptural syntax contributes to his transformation of the onion into a symbol of transcendence available to the common people. The onion is described as sacrificing itself to the pot and the oil and sliced by the kitchen knife, then referred to as “sales del suelo,” translated as “you rise from the soil” by Kenneth Krabbenhoft, but also translatable as “salt of the earth.”  This double-meaning, impossible to capture as succinctly in English, firmly cements Neruda’s deification of the onion as savior to the poor and the working class.

While elevating the onion, Neruda lifts its working-class setting by association: his divine onion does not shun or separate from its surroundings. The onion, connecting heaven and earth, interacts with the people (“you satisfy the worker’s hunger/along the hard road home”). This connection becomes more earthy through associated images of love, sex and fertility (“…your belly of dew grew round,” “…raising up her breasts,” “rose of water,” “livens the salad’s love.”) While praising the divine through the commonplace, Neruda also places it on a level field with humanity: sex, hunger, work, love, and God help one another rather than those above dictating to those below.

In keeping with this non-hierarchical world view, Neruda refrains from inserting an authorial presence into his description. His sole interjection of “I” comes late in the penultimate stanza (“Yo cuanto existe celebre”), acknowledging his role as a celebrant before his object of contemplation (“I celebrate all existence, onion,/but in my eyes you are/more beautiful than a bird/of blinding plumage.”) By his careful omission of the personal Self from his description, he further turns focus toward his subject, introducing himself only to fully link the human world with the dual earthiness/divinity of the onion. Neruda avoids detracting from the egalitarian project of the poem by casting himself as its enraptured celebrant: not an authority on enlightenment. The authorial “I” is absorbed into the “you” in a manner resembling exstasis. For an opposite strategy, contrast Whitman’s “I” in “Song of Myself”: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,/And what I assume you shall assume,/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

In “Ode to the Onion,” we see the Fifth Wall pushed forward — the authorial Self dissolving almost entirely into its subject Other to echo the poem’s project of elevating the onion to a heavenly object and then unifying heavenly and earthly realms. The line between the speaker’s perception of the subject and the subject itself becomes permeable. Readers are led into the poem and its contemplation as fellow discoverers of the divine. Through this lens, they too can lose themselves in the onion while Neruda stands to the back of the poem, cueing the lights.

Ranier Maria Rilke’s “You who never arrived”

Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Rilke’s “You who never arrived” shares the concept of a reader-projected “I” with Plath’s “Daddy” and the Self dissolved in Subject with Neruda’s “Ode to the Onion”, but creates a more strongly present “I” and a more complex relationship with its “you.”

This complexity begins with his first lines, “You who never arrived/in my arms, Beloved, who were lost.” How can the “I” have lost a Beloved it never embraced? Have the “I” and the “you” even met? The use of the opposing end verbs of the first two lines (“arrived” and “lost”) highlight the conflict and complexity of the “I’s” image through the lens of the “you.” Rather than segregating the “you” into its own apostrophic phrase (“You, who never arrived,”) Mitchell’s translation of the line as a single phrase confers the clause as part and parcel of the referent—its absence integral to its nature.

Rilke’s “you” presents itself as multi-layered: it is equally available to the reader as a representation of Spiritus Mundi (his “Beloved” echoing the Sufi mystic poets Rumi and Hafiz), as an actual individual walking through shops in a city, as an idealized lover, an elusive Muse, or as a direct address to readers as the remote Other that Rilke strives to reach with his songs and images.

Similarly, Rilke’s “I” is expansive — it, like Whitman, “contains multitudes” and is comfortable with contradictions. His “I” is humble and vulnerable — unafraid to admit ignorance (“I don’t even know what songs/would please you”) and failure (“I have given up trying/to recognize you…”)

Rilke accomplishes this generalization of the Self and Other without becoming vague by creating a concrete landscape for his conceptual “you” and “I” to inhabit. While both presences in the poem are non-specific and unadorned with detail, the mental and physical worlds they inhabit are not: there are “cities, towers, bridges”, “an open window in a country house,” shops with mirrors. These identifiable landmarks help to anchor his ethereal speaker and subject to common experience. However, even the solid objects in this poem partake of a certain archetypical feel — the sparseness of adjectives leaves readers to fill in detail from their own experience while the numerous objects create a sense of the poem taking place in a large world.

Unlike the world of Neruda’s “Ode to the Onion,” “You who never arrived” shows signs of privilege: it is unlikely that its “I” is concerned with the provision of its next meal or involved in its preparation. It is familiar with more than one city and likewise knows many country gardens. The “I” has an air of restlessness and travel, moving from place to place in search of an ever-receding satisfaction. It moves through places without designating any one setting as “home.” Where Neruda is an Everyman, Rilke is the perennial Outsider.

The first stanza of “You who never arrived” captures the state of the “I,” who struggles toward acceptance of his situation: the “you” who inspires him to create art is beyond the reach of his yearning or human satisfaction (“All the immense/images in me…rise within me to mean/you, who forever elude me.”) Like the initial paradox of a never-met Beloved, the “I” is simultaneously given artistic potency by his aspiration (“immense images in me,” “powerful lands that were once/pulsing with the life of the gods”) and completely bewildered as to the nature of his muse (“I don’t even know what songs/would please you.”)

The second stanza turns to the “you”, bringing it nearer to the “I”: it remains elusive, but now its traces can be seen: it comes close to a direct approach (…you almost/stepped out, pensive, to meet me”), its reflection has faded from a mirror a moment before the “I’s” entrance while it presence lingers (the mirrors/were still dizzy with your presence”). The use of “pensive” implies a complexity on the part of the “you” equal to that of the “I,” and perhaps a similar bewilderment with the Other. The “you” and the “I” become comparable, linked in place, if not in time.

The last half of the second stanza merges the “I” and “you” in nature if not in proximity. The startled mirrors return the “I’s” own reflection when he searches for the face of the “you”. The same bird echoes through both individuals. Rilke merges the avatars of Self and Other through a bird, an image that implicates both the natural world and spirituality. This allows the “I” to accept its yearning, if not resolve it, by assuming a spiritual linkage and shared experience in the world in the absence of physical presence.

In “You who never arrived” the Fifth Wall steps out beyond the authorial presence to encompass not only the subject, but, in turn, to project itself as landscape and merge with its subject. The presence behind the poem is embodied in its own avatar, the “I,” the Other in the “you,” and both inhabit the physical landscape. This builds upon Neruda’s movement toward exstasis, which uses dissolution of the Self through detailed contemplation and love of one subject, the onion. Rilke moves toward an exstasis in which the Self, the Other, and the physical world become one, as in the Chanddogya Upanishad’s “Tat tvam asi” (tr. “You are that.”)

Placing the Fifth Wall

Having considered examples of the Fifth Wall’s effective placement in well-known authors, we must now ask how we, as artists, can make practical use of the concept or if it merely serves as an interesting thought experiment.

One common theme in each of the examined poems is their use of “reader-space.” Each contains an undefined area in the “I” or “you” that allows the reader to imbue the poem with their own emotional or mental landscape, creating a collaboration between the poem and its audience: dialogue rather than a monologue.

In Ginsberg’s “America,” the “I” and the “you” exchange particulars and stereotypes to shatter ingrained perceptions of both leftists and America, pointing out fallacies of dualism in leftist/nationalist dialogue.

In Plath’s “Daddy,” the “I” and “you” of the poem shift their shapes. The crimes of the “you” and the particulars of the “I” are left to the reader’s imagination, leaving both presences partially the reader’s own creation.

In Neruda’s “Ode to the Onion”, the “I” is subsumed into the “you” of the onion, drawing the reader to follow the “I’s” absorption and contemplation of the poem’s subject.

In Rilke’s “You who never arrived,” the “I” and “you” merge with the body of the work and its world, including the reader as one of its inhabitants.

As with most issues of craft, there are many roads to the destination of sufficient reader-space. In principle, reader-space performs a similar function as that of negative space in visual art. By creating tensions between areas of intense scrutiny and detail and mystery, poets can add interest and complexity to their poems. To use a visual metaphor for this practice, consider the painting “The Calling of St. Matthew” by the Baroque master, Caravaggio. The canvas, similar to many of his other works, is dominated by darkness. Figures huddle at a table in the darkest corner while  Christ gestures in alignment with a strong shaft of light from an unknown source to single out Matthew at a table of tax collectors.  Matthew’s expression suggests surprise while the boy next to him projects wary cynicism, glancing sidelong at Christ rather than facing him head-on. Through his extravagant use of darkness, Caravaggio angles the canvas, reducing its square to a narrowing triangle to focus on Matthew and his moment of disbelief and decision—not Christ’s extended hand. By placing Matthew’s figure next to the cynical boy, Caravaggio captures a dual state of astonishment and cynicism. This creates a more complex tableau than Carpaccio’s painting on the same subject: Matthew is shown taking Christ’s hand, almost as if he were accepting a betrothal. They stand surrounded by a bright, outdoor city landscape and a crowd of apostles. Matthew’s decision, in the Carpaccio painting, has already been effortlessly made, having no darkness to conquer. In a parallel way, Ginsberg, Plath, Neruda and Rilke use the interplay of their pronouns with opposing forces to create contrast and direct meaning.

When we take up our words to paint our experience, we must remember to leave these spaces for tension and contrast between our personal Self and the unknown Other of our readers: Ginsberg’s patchwork face of America, Plath’s daughter/father, yin/yang pinwheel; Neruda’s unseen but implied world of workers sitting down to eat with God; Rilke’s gapped and synchronous duo, inches and worlds apart. The Fifth Wall exists as a continuum from Ginsberg’s extrapolation of Self into the Other to Rilke’s incorporation of the Other as Self. With awareness, we can place the Fifth Wall upon solid ground, reach out to our poems and the readers lying just beyond.


[1] from “Self-Pity”, Carol Frost, After Confession, pg. 165

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3 Responses to The Fifth Wall: Strategies of the Self in Ginsberg, Plath, Neruda & Rilke

  1. Lenore Weiss says:

    Lea: Thanks for this careful analysis. I wonder if the poetry itself doesn’t suggest a certain stance in relationship to the wall, more than a deliberate assembly by the poet. Maybe a temperamental stance also impacts its building. All the above?

  2. Lea C. Deschenes says:

    Hi Lenore,

    It may be morning making me dull as a post, but I’m not sure I’m understanding your question well. Forgive me if I’m responding to the wrong bits & feel free to poke me with a stick until I’m facing in the right direction.

    I don’t think of the Fifth Wall as something as deliberately constructed/deconstructed as the Fourth Wall in theater, but I do think that the author’s mindset affects how it functions in a poem (and it may change from day to day or poem to poem) on an intuitive level.

    The interaction of identity, authorship, and readers’ perceptions are impossible to “prove”, being hermetically sealed inside people’s skulls. Looking at poems’ structures is a good starting place to think about the possibilities and why we make assumptions about intimacy or lack thereof in the tone of a poem through how the author expresses her/his Self through the speaker.

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