Who’s Afraid of Pathetic Fallacy? Ted Kooser Meets Walt Disney
By: Don Thompson
Deep in the weeds of volume three of Modern Painters (in Part IV and Chapter XII), John Ruskin has included an essay under the title, “Of The Pathetic Fallacy”. This is one of those literary terms that we’ve heard enough to have some sense of what it means; but no matter how often it’s explained, the definition won’t stick in our crowded minds—and why should it? We’re left with the feeling that, whatever it is, pathetic fallacy is bad, and poets should avoid it. If we do look it up online (and you know where), we find it conflated with personification. But there’s more to it than that.
Ruskin argues that first rate poets tend to stick to the facts. This seems counter-intuitive, but his example helps. When Dante speaks of spirits falling like dead leaves fluttering from a bough, the simile expresses precisely how they look without the poet “for an instant losing his own clear perception that these are souls and those are leaves.” This inevitably suggests Ezra Pound’s famous Imagist snippet, “In a Station of the Metro”:
The apparition of these faces in a crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Ruskin would approve because Pound simply offers us two distinct visuals, one suggesting the other, without confusing them. Notice that he even uses a semi-colon rather than a colon to make their relationship seem sequential and not this-is-that.
But most poetry lacks this objective quality. It’s untrue, it’s false, but we admire it no less. Indeed, we enjoy it even more. The example Ruskin provides is taken from Coleridge:
The one red leaf, the last of its clan,
That dances as often as dance it can.
Going beyond the factuality of Dante and Pound, the poet attributes qualities to leaves that they don’t have. They aren’t members of extended families and don’t dance to the wind, which isn’t music. Ruskin doesn’t reject this. He finds beauty in the metaphor and readily admits that most poetic expression is based on this sort of personification. Nevertheless, he considers it “second order” and claims that the “greatest poets do not often admit this kind of falseness.”
In Dante’s simile, the damned are the damned and falling leaves remain falling leaves. With Coleridge, however, the leaves have somehow acquired consciousness. Therefore the comparison is less pure; there has been a loss. But as with all irredeemable losses, something else has been gained—virginity being the classic example. While Dante and Pound, though vividly evocative, are somewhat detached, even cold (classical), Coleridge is more involved on an emotional level (romantic), inviting us to enter into the leaf-experience by imagining how we might feel if we were leaves and leaves could feel. False, yes, Ruskin even uses the word “morbid”, but he understands that we respond to it.
The best poets seem to back away from their emotions, according to Ruskin, toward an outside-of-themselves viewpoint, rather than wallowing in them. We could say they stress ethos and logos more than pathos. Their imagery, whatever feelings it may stimulate beyond objective facts, will seem “perfectly severe and accurate, utterly uninfluenced by the firmly governed emotions of the writer.” But if pathetic fallacy, though inferior, shouldn’t be despised, and is actually common practice for most poets, why does it get such bad press? It’s a matter of credibility.
Personification assigns human qualities to an abstraction: That statue in New York harbor personifies Liberty. Pathetic fallacy, on the other hand, is the personification of emotions. And this is what causes the problem. We won’t accept emotions that are exaggerated, maudlin, or inappropriate. And yet because of taste, one will be enthralled by something that makes another groan. Early readers of the metaphysical poets thought they must be lunatics, but learned to appreciate their far-fetched comparisons. In our time, elements of once outré surrealism have become mainstream. So the bottom line is whether or not we believe, whether we are moved to empathy or mockery. Ineffective pathetic fallacy elicits only a sneer or a guffaw. Ruskin concludes that “it is right or wrong according to the genuineness of the emotion from which it springs.” Attributes given to a “character” the poet imagines must fit.
The poet Louis Simpson in his memoir North of Jamaica (Harper & Row, 1972) mentions some verses his father had framed on the wall of his law offices when Simpson was a boy. The last stanza reads:
The mind has a thousand eyes,
And the heart but one;
Yet the light of a whole life dies
When love is done.
“This poem mystified me every time I saw it,” Simpson writes. He wants to explain to his father that it is terrible poetry. “What eyes can the brain have? Or the heart? And in any case, if the brain has a thousand eyes, whatever this means, why shouldn’t the heart have a thousand, too?” Here is an example of bad pathetic fallacy, sentimental acceptance of a metaphor that sounds good without questioning it. But of course, it isn’t really fair to expect “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes”, Bourdillon’s Victorian kitsch, to be anything else. People continue to admire it, and there have been at least two pop songs over the years with the same title and the same fly-eye image of the stars.
Let’s look at another familiar example, a couplet from Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence”:
If the Sun & Moon should Doubt
They’d immediately go out
We could easily mock this, too. It’s absurd to think the sun is self-aware and would go dark if it lost its nerve. It’s also factually wrong to say that about the moon, which has no light of its own. Nevertheless, Blake’s image has endured and received far more respect than Bourdillon’s. In fact, we easily get both without explication. Bourdillon is a bit garbled, though, and would be difficult to parse, but with Blake we know at once that whatever light we manage to emit in this world is dimmed by lack of self-confidence.
Here’s one more specimen, translated by Jo Shapcott from one of Rilke’s poems in French that he wrote in his last years:
Look at a child’s index and thumb
so gentle a vise
even bread is astonished
I can’t remember a slice of bread that seemed to be feeling much of anything. But I’d endure volumes of Bourdillon and any amount of excruciating pathetic fallacy for the sake of that one image. Poetry doesn’t get any better.
Now, with all of this said, we come—somehow—to Walt Disney films and from there to a Ted Kooser poem featuring very unusual—in fact, Disney animation characters.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first full-length animated film, debuted in 1937. More than an innovation, it was a paradigm shift—painstaking animation far beyond those ten minute cartoons that played ahead of a compilation of current events and the feature film. But if audiences had been offended by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, they were delighted by Disney’s avant garde work. No one walked out on Snow White, an immediate classic.
I saw first saw it during its second re-release in 1952 when I was ten years old. It was playing at the River Theatre in Oildale, in later years Buck Owens’ recording studio. I recall vividly the wicked queen consulting her mirror and the glistening apple in the claw of the hook-nosed witch. I shied away from apples for awhile and felt a bit sketchy about looking into the bathroom mirror. But the most frightening scene was of Snow White fleeing through the forest after having been abandoned by the huntsman who refused to obey the queen’s order to kill her.
In the original tale by the Grimm Brothers, we read, “She ran over sharp stones and through thorns, and wild animals jumped at her but did her no harm.” The Disney animators transformed this single sentence into a nightmare: Trees grab her with long, gnarled fingers, their trunks becoming vicious masks; swirling leaves become bats that pursue her; the night is filled with staring eyes; everything in the frame tilts and throws her off balance, spinning dizzily until she collapses, weeping. I was terrified, especially since I had recently been lost in the woods myself, if only for a few hours.
Many critics have pointed out the influence on the Disney studio of German expressionist films. Clearly, Walt was aiming for something much higher than Steamboat Willy. Look at a few YouTube clips and you’ll see this at once. In the scene just before her flight through the forest, the huntsman creeps up behind Snow White to stab her. He has the same mascara-dark eyes and a dagger identical to that of the mad killer in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) as he approaches a sleeping woman. And in the mildly erotic dance scene of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), the leering, tuxedoed men in the audience dissolve into a screen filled with eyes, a motif repeated as Snow White flees.
Long ago, these brilliant innovations became such clichés that it’s difficult to imagine their initial impact. But such archetypal images survive somewhere in us, despite our sophistication and jaded tastes. The pagan spirits inhabiting the forest, the sacred oaks, create a kind of folk frisson that keeps us close to our campfires, just a bit nervous about what might be out there in the dark.
However, Ted Kooser is a gentler soul much more in tune with Disney’s whimsical creations. Snow White interacts with the birds and squirrels of the forest, which respond to her in a human way although not fully formed personalities. But in Bambi (1942) we meet and have never forgotten Thumper the rabbit and that sweet skunk with her lilting invitation, “You can call me Flower if you want to.” A year earlier, Dumbo featured the diminutive wise-guy mouse, Timothy (the source of my own childhood nickname by the way) and a flock of hipster crows led, of course, by Jim. They’re now icons of racism, although it’s the crows who repent of their initial mockery and teach Dumbo to fly, using shrewd psychology—positive thinking techniques well before their time. Jim Crow is voiced by a white performer, Cliff Edwards (aka “Ukelele Ike”) who also voiced that other mentor, Jiminy Cricket of Pinocchio (1940). The point is that these anthropomorphic creatures look and behave appropriately. In short, to use Ruskin’s word, they “fit”. Animation, then, more than mere personification, is actually pathetic fallacy. And our Kooser poem presents characters that could appear in any of those Disney classics.
William Logan, an excellent poet and very critical critic, has judged that “Ted Kooser is a prairie sentimentalist who writes poems in an American vernacular so corn fed you could raise hogs on it.” This is not only funny, but fair enough if you like your poetry acerbic, abstract, and unapproachable. Logan probably does. He believes, for instance, that contemporary poetry ought to be more difficult. His own work has been compared to that of Geoffrey Hill (qv), whose poems are virtually conundrums. A graduate of the elite Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which apparently didn’t teach him to appreciate the heartland, the Boston bred, Yale educated professor decamps for Cambridge, England, as soon as classes end in Florida.
Ted Kooser has taught, but earned his living in the insurance business, retiring as vice president of Bankers Life. He was born in a small Iowa town in 1939, graduated from the local high school with less than two hundred students, and went on to Iowa State, ultimately earning an MA—without noticeable academic distinction. Though he has served as the Poet Laureate of the United States (twice!), he continues to live in farm country near Garland, Nebraska, formerly Germantown, which has a population about the size of his high school student body. Kooser rents a storefront on main street for his studio, writing and/or painting every morning as he always has. On the plate glass window, written in gold leaf, you can read: “Poetry: Made and Repaired”. He has published a dozen or more books, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Delights and Shadows (2005).
As a deeply-rooted prairie poet, Kooser writes about ordinary things, places, and events in a plain style. His unobtrusive diction has taken a lifetime to master. Although there’s no flashiness or intensity, the emphasis is on imagery—on making startling but apt connections rather than on language itself. You’ll never find in his work a line such as Robert Lowell’s “A savage servility slides by on grease”, which concludes “For The Union Dead”. This isn’t to say that he writes prose broken into lines (well, not often), but the diction is clear and direct no matter how surprising the metaphor. Plain style has always existed side by side with more elevated poetics. On one hand we have Milton trying to get right with God and on the other, a cavalier trying to get lucky with a lady-in-waiting, each using the appropriate tone. Kooser certainly has a good ear for subtle phrasing, but isn’t particularly attracted to the sensuality of sound. He gets the job done—a farmer rather than a landscape architect. This poem comes from Sure Signs (1980):
West of Omaha the freshly plowed fields
steam in the night like lakes.
The smell of the earth floods over the roads.
The field mice are moving their nests
to the higher ground of fence rows,
the old among them crying out to the owls
to take them all. The paths in the grass
are loud with the squeak of their carts.
They keep their lanterns covered.
The first three lines establish the scene and season. It’s after the fallow winter fields have been prepared for planting in Nebraska farm country. Garland is about seventy five miles west and a bit south of Omaha. Presumably the speaker is driving along a gravel road at night in a battered old red pick-up truck (Kooser’s). Noticing how the wet fields look like water in the moonlight triggers other sense associations, and he smells the wet soil so strongly that it seems to flood across the road. But from this macro-view, he shifts suddenly to the micro, feeling empathy for the field mice at this time of the year. Somewhere in a poem about a furious Midwestern storm, William Stafford comments, “It takes a man to be a mouse on a night like this.” True.
But Kooser’s mice have another sort of problem. They have to gather their belongings and move to higher ground. They haven’t been flooded out yet, but they’re experienced enough to know they soon will be—not always the case with human beings. This evacuation also reminds us of forced marches, of the Trail of Tears or the flight from Seoul when the North Koreans invaded. We’ve seen the images, so it isn’t unnatural to apply them to these mice, who become altogether human in the poem; we feel for them and with them as if they were like us. Of course, field mice don’t have household goods or carts to transport them. But we believe for a moment. Therefore this is effective pathetic fallacy. And if you visualize these mice on their journey, what you see in your mind will be conditioned by Disney animation. No doubt about it.
The poem isn’t a cartoon, however; it’s really about fear. We know that in many such situations, the old are left behind to perish. A Korean woman who fled south with her family once described to me how even babies were tossed into the ditches beside the road. So the old mice cry out in their hopelessness, praying for the owl-gods to take them now and spare them inevitable suffering and slow death. The owls are indeed above them, gliding in low over the fields, not to strafe like fighter planes, but to snatch. The mice may be hidden in the grass, but the screech of their cartwheels could give them away before they reach safety. And if the old have given up, the young want to survive. Therefore you know they grease the wheels just like we would; they mask their lanterns and trudge on with as little light as possible. I hope they make it.