Dan Schneider’s Poem: Death of a Spider – Dan vs Robert Frost – Meaning & Elegance

Edit:

Dan noted that he also had James Emmanuel’s To Kill A Morning Spider in mind when writing his poem.

And he objected to my narrow idea of ‘music’ because his poem contains its own alliteration & assonance – and not just a focus on meter. Personally, I am really biased to those kinds of musical & metrical poems – so there’s weight to that objection. Somehow, ‘unlearning’ that bias is gonna be something I have to pick up.

(08/05/17)

This shall be a comparative analysis between Dan Schneider’s sonnet Death of a Spider, and Robert Frost’s sonnet Design. The latter is, of course, written by one of the masters of formal music. Dan, on the other hand, writes in what he calls an ‘omni-sonnet’ – which is actually his name for a sort of contained free verse 14 lines. So we can guess who definitely wins on the front of ‘musicality’. But poetry is not merely musicality, but meaning – so let’s see how each poet works within this theme.

1. Frost’s Design

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth–
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth–
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small.

Frost’s poem is an exercise in lightness, so it’s not just that he was being musical – but his verse contributes mood to the meaning. The first four lines are ‘thick’ or even ‘ugly’ – ‘fat & white’, ‘rigid satin’, ‘death and blight’ – versus the ‘lightness’ in the next four lines – ‘morning right’, ‘snow-drop’, ‘flower like a froth’, ‘dead wings… paper kite’.

Essentially, this creates a mirror effect – where the first four lines are grim and the next four – whimsical. Although they describe the same scene. Repetition of ‘white’ of course in the first 3 lines places so much focus on that colour of purity – which is tainted by the scene of death, but after ‘morning’ comes in, it seems as though the images turn into ephemeral beauties – stuck between rigid pain and floating away.

Then, the next stanza begins its questioning – what brought these 3 elements together in this dance of death? Metaphorically, they extend into a force of evil, a victim, and a ‘neutral land’ – all mixed in the same colour of innocence. The conclusion is the questioning of ‘design’ – coming to the conclusion of it being a ‘design of darkness to appall’.

Of this poem, I can say that it is supremely elegant, since basically it usually the same 3 images repeated 3 times in every four lines – but it develops these images without making them banal. The most complexity of meaning comes not from the questioning, but from the clashing in the first stanza. Without it – the latter part would probably be too didactic.

But – shall we call that it’s limit? In the end it merely descends into that kind of ending. How shall Dan fare against this theme?

2. Dan Schneider’s Death of a Spider

Its camber up the ceramic white surface
fails again and again. The sides are too steep
as I imagine it. Its legs giving way
eight times as often until they cannot grace
themselves with an order. This time is to wait
for its strength to feed on its own, as I see
its outline dissipate from the bathtub’s slope,
as it tries yet again. And I can relate
to its failure, no matter its own deftness
of being, as it tries again. With each slip
its focus shuts out the world, in relation
to escape. I simply take it in my grip,
wrapped in tissue, till it no longer misses
its life. Its struggle, itself, caked by motion.

If you take the perspective that Dan could be thinking of YOU as the spider – it feels like a royal royal stab in the gut.

But I’m getting too ahead of myself. Don’t think of that meaning first. Let’s look at the sections.

Its camber up the ceramic white surface
fails again and again. The sides are too steep
as I imagine it. Its legs giving way

The first two lines sets up the over-arching image of the spider climbing the bath-tub. The poet intervenes by the third line – placing himself from the standpoint of viewer or ‘imaginer’. These three lines come together to set up the idea of ‘struggle’. That much is apparent.

eight times as often until they cannot grace
themselves with an order. This time is to wait
for its strength to feed on its own, as I see

Calling account of the spider’s eight legs pushes the ‘again and again’ in the previous lines further, but it enjambs at ‘cannot grace’. This implies some kind of light removed from the spider – but the next line is quick to reveal what it is – ‘an order’. In other words, opposed to Frost’s notion of design, this is brutal trial and error.

Then, there is a waiting – for ‘its strength to feed on its own’. If Robert Frost was elegant in verse, this is elegance in meaning. Notice how the grammar allows for two possible meanings – either ‘feeding on itself’ or ‘strength to feed with its own power’. Then, the poet’s viewpoint returns, coming together with an ‘as I see’. This can be condensed the entire description of human struggle, or in a wider view, animal struggle – trial and error to either self-consumption or independence.

Yet, Dan (or the poet narrator – the human perspective) is always on a higher plane, watching.

its outline dissipate from the bathtub’s slope,
as it tries yet again. And I can relate
to its failure, no matter its own deftness

Enjambing changes the ‘dissipate’ from verb feeling to noun feeling, so you feel as though the dissipation were standing at the slope, slightly more concrete. The next step returns the refrain of the struggle – but now the poet’s thoughts have cycled through imagination, sight, and now into relation. Which is, actually, how a person gains experience – from internal thought, witnessing empirical experience, and finally understanding and developing a connection. But that’s a side idea – the main idea here is that the poet understands this ‘failure, no matter its own deftness’. Yet, this understanding does not allow for mercy.

of being, as it tries again. With each slip
its focus shuts out the world, in relation.

Extending ‘deftness’ to ‘of being’ removes the description from just the mere action of the spider – but places it in a kind of internal action surging through its body. Then, the repetition of ‘try again’ once more – and cutting off at the ‘slip’ to the next line.

‘its focus shuts out the world, in relation’ – this is one of the killer lines. Robert Frost’s morality of some unexplained higher design, even of mere darkness, doesn’t apply here. This makes you think of all the things that people strive to do, fail, and become worse and more relentless in their mistakes. Because they have nothing left but the struggle, they cling on to it. Think about, for example, anarchist revolutionaries wallowing in their own ideology, or tyrants struggling to maintain their position at the cost of others – or even some troll Finnish girl – or even bad poets. Failure does not necessarily lead to knowledge gained (and this is where the dictum ‘fail again, fail better’ does not apply) – but it may lead to devout persistence. It also can be applied to a bigger picture explanation of survival of the fittest – of all these beings trying to move in one wave for survival.

to escape. I simply take it in my grip,
wrapped in tissue, till it no longer misses

And then, the poet/Dan steps in, providing a path. Will he set the spider free with its grip? What does it no longer miss? Does this mean it no longer misses the top of the bath-tub?

its life. Its struggle, itself, caked by motion

No. Dan slays it. It’s life. It’s struggle. Its own self. Slathered with bloody motion and a history of its own failed attempts. It no longer misses it. It was all the better for it. Was it? Was this all there was to it? The finality of the sentence is chilling.

Now compare how much oscillation of meaning occurs between Frost & Dan – and see how many times one poet pulls the rug from under you, again, and again, and again.

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