Louis Cabri on Wilbur's frog

To: 88v@dept.english.upenn.edu
Date: Tue, 2 Nov 1999 01:52:48 -0500 (EST)
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Thanks, Al.

I won't usually post long ones like this one.

But this dead toad situation really is perplexing, as Shawn says, and
everyone seems to agree. There's another ten or so emails since I wrote
this email!

Carolyne quotes from the headnote in Norton - that the point of Wilbur's
formalism is, according to Wilbur, "to limit the work of art, and to
declare its artificiality" (1031).  The "gap" the poem creates "between
content (insignificant) and language" that Al describes, and that so many
of your posts allude to, would certainly support Wilbur's view - that art
is artifice, and such artificiality is not, is separate from, life.

If we grant that poetry/art is artificial in the specific way Wilbur is
using the word "artificial" <1>, then I think Al's question becomes really
important, namely: How does such a poem comment on the world? If art and
life are entirely separated realms, then the poem can't be commenting on
the world in any direct way: that's not the job of a poem, according to
Wilbur. And yet, this poem must be commenting on the world. A refusal to
comment on the world is a comment on the world! Poetry might be artificial
to Wilbur, but it establishes a relation, nevertheless, to the world. What
is it in this case?

This paradox -- a comment on the world that is a refusal to comment on the
world <3> -- relates to Ben's <2> post, in which he raises the interesting
question of the poem's speaker.

First of all, is there a speaker in this poem? It's certainly different
from the way a speaker manifests in Frost's poem. Does Wilbur's
language somehow hide the speaker, if there is one in the poem? --Why?
I actually forgot about the question of the place and role of the speaker
as I was reading the poem. After the first line, I think all our attention
as readers turns to the toad and to the language used to describe it. Our
email posts have dealt with how Wilbur intends us to respond to the
language he uses in the poem: is it meant to be funny, and is it really
funny. What if we turned this question back onto the speaker in the poem:
Do we have any idea how the speaker feels about the fact that he has just
cut a frog while mowing the lawn? <4>

Is this poem so "artificial," as Wilbur hopes, so cut off from life, that
in fact the speaker in this poem feels absolutely no remorse at all for
chopping the toad?

The big question here is: Can the poem really limit itself to artifice and
does artifice have no bearing on life? Whether the comparison to Monty
Python is useful or not (funny as it is) will determine in part, I think,
answers to this question - because, Monty Python is fictional Ilike the
swamp frogs in the Bud ads!). In contrast, I'd say that the initial scene
of the poem is not presented as fictional and artificial. What do you
think? Rather, the first line of the poem (the line that draws the reader
in) describes a lifelike action (cutting the lawn) and a scenario that is
realistically convincing (toads do get cut up at the expense of lawn
care!). We might not necessarily recognize the diction as "realistic" (who
says "power mower" these days?), but this does not detract from the fact
that the scene and event itself, in all its particularity, is
purposefully realistic, not purposefully fake. It is realistic so that we
as readers believe that the event is real. That's what gives the poem its

But then in that case, real ethics seem to be inescapable even in an
"artifical" poem - even if ethics are raised in the guise of a lowly,
seemingly-insignificant toad on a lawn (a "problem" like weeds are a
problem to a perfect lawn). Can we separate laughing at the toad's death
(which is a real, not a fictional occurrence in terms set by the poem)
from laughing at the flights of fancy of the language? If we recall the
speaker in the poem, then can we laugh while noting his sheer indifference
to the real plight of the toad? What is at stake here, and for whom?

In other words, I think there is a contradiction in the poem that the poem
itself cannot resolve. Can we resolve it? Are we meant to? Or, if we
can't, what do we do with this contradiction? What can it tell us about
this poem and about poetry/art?

The speaker's overblown mock-heroic language wants to make the episode of
a toad caught in a lawn mower into an artificial scene set in some distant
past. The contradiction is that the event of the toad's death is as real
as the speaker himself is real (that is, IF you believe there is a speaker
in the poem: cana poem not have a speaker?). The fact of the toad can't be
hidden or glossed over - the toad really dies, no way around it. But, the
fact of the speaker can be hidden by appearing only indirectly in the
first line of the poem, and is easily forgotten. There is no contradiction
if one does not notice, or does not believe the role of the speaker in the
poem is significant. By suppressing the speaker, the poem hopes that the
reader will forget about him -- and about the question of ethics in

<1> How would you characterize Wilbur's use of the word "artificial"? Can
it have other meanings? The Norton blurb might be too short to really help
you answer such questions - but one can try.

<2> Ben writes: "I found the poem funny, simply because of its subject
matter, and the way it fits in with the syntax and diction." But,
according to others, it is precisely the un-fit between subject matter and
language that evokes either humor, or lack of humor.

<3> The logic of this paradox might be familiar to you in other
situations. The point to notice here is that Wilbur is using it in a
specific way. What way? To what end?

<4> Notice that it's a gas-operated mower, not a push mower. How is this
significant? Incidentally, how did you feel Al, when you ran over that
frog (see Al's note about this on the website)?

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