This was a particularly good essay at tracing the change in tone in the poem. (If you ever notice the tone change in a poem and can understand either why the writer chooses to do so or how the writer changes the tone for purpose, then this is usually a rock solid thesis since it investigates how a poem works.) The integration of evidence was nicely done. A couple of the body paragraphs could have stretched the analysis, but this may just be my carping obsessions. I do think it would've been interesting, not just in this paper, to pursue the pun on the word air as well as the "contradictions" that run throughout the poem that a lot of you had noticed.
Meaghan Period 6
In “Red Shift,” Ted Berrigan titles his poem as such in order to exemplify the change in his tone as it progresses. The word “red” is synonymous with emotions that convey anger, so his tone grows in intensity and anger as he develops his thoughts. His thoughts decrease in clarity, while they conversely increase in specificity. This digression, exemplified through his changing diction, clearly denotes the change in tone, because anger usually triggers ambiguity.
At the beginning of the poem, the speaker starts to describe the setting; this is the most concrete information in the entire poem. He states the time, “8:08 p.m.” (line 1) and describes the “biting, February” (line 2) air. The speaker clarifies that it is a “winter streetscape” (line 3) that he is painting in the mind of the audience. He describes his body as an “ample, rhythmic frame” (line 1) while the wind does “fierce arabesques” (line 2). He clearly defines the setting in order to establish a base of where his thought process began. Without a starting point, it would be impossible to follow the train of thought. It proves that the configuration of the poem is methodical, not random.
The first shift in tone occurs two lines further, at the point where the speaker is able to “lean/In,” (lines 5-6). It is the bridge between the foundation and the memories that will substantiate the rest of the poem. When transitioning between two such things, the clarity level decreases, because memories can never be remembered to perfect accuracy, as time morphs and distorts them. He also begins to sound disillusioned and reminiscent, commenting that the “streets look for Allen, Frank,” (line 6). These two names symbolize two of Berrigan’s contemporary beat generation writers, and according to the following line, “Allen/is a movie” (lines 6-7) and Frank is “disappearing in the air” (7). This suggests that Allen has become very popular, like a movie, and Frank is gone, essentially from the world. Thus, the speaker seems depressed and lonely, feeling as though he has been abandoned. This is a sharp contrast to the beginning of the poem where is describing the setting in an upbeat tone.
Consequently, from this point on, his thoughts seem to wander farther and farther away from where he began; each thought takes a turn from where it was originally going. He begins with a question, asking “Who would have thought I’d be here,” (line 13) and that indicates a shift in topic and tone. He then elaborates that “love, children…money, marriage/ethics, a politics of grace” (lines 15-16) are “up in the air” (line 16), which implies that the ideals that were once held are no longer there. The “up in the air” reference, that was used previously to describe Frank, suggests that the views that once held true no longer exist around him, and he is frustrated because of it.
The boy with eyes that “penetrate the winter twilight” (line 20) is his first answer to the question, and the first sense of anger in the poem because the word ‘penetrate’ has a connotation of deep-seeded emotion; his gaze is breaking through the setting that the speaker created at the beginning of the poem, which is also representative of that shift in tone. His second answer is a “pretty girl” (line 21) who is “careening into middle-age so/To burn & to burn more fiercely than she could ever imagine” (lines 22-23). Fiercely also represents the anger and tenacity of the speaker, and he sounds as if he knew that events would turn out in such a way, and the people whom the events were happening to had no idea that it was happening. He could have been angry because of their refusal to believe in the situations that life was presenting them with.
The next answer is the “painter” (line 24). The speaker says he will “never leave [the painter] alone until we both vanish/into the thin air” (line 25). The air reference means that he is intensely devoted to this other man and nothing can tear them apart. The painter, consequently, will never leave the speaker “not for sex, nor politics,/ nor even for stupid permanent estrangement” (lines 27-28). This represents his deep attachment, and almost obsession, with the painter, because neither of the most popular reasons for two people to no longer have a relationship/friendship will ever tear them apart. He is holding on so tightly that it is becoming overbearing, and that is what he portrays in this segment of the poem.
The last eleven lines are the most irate of all, and this tone comes to the forefront when the speaker discusses death. He firmly states that he “will never die” (line 31) and will “never go away” (line 32). Because of his strong sentiments here, the speaker is afraid of death in a way, because he says he is “only a ghost” (line 33) and “you will never escape from me” (line 32). This attempt at speaking directly to the audience begins here, and so does the high level of ambiguity. He says he is “only pronouns” (line 35) and that is the biggest key to the vagueness at the end of the poem because he uses a multitude of pronouns that do not always have antecedents. In this aspect, the speaker is leaving the interpretation up to the reader of the poem, because it had a certain meaning to him, but it may have other meanings to whoever reads it. He says “now nothing/will ever change/That, and that’s that” (lines 37-39). The short, choppy sentences with very few syllables reflect his anger because the complex thoughts from the beginning and middle of the poem are no longer in use. He just says whatever comes into his head.
The last lines show the outcome of the speaker’s anger and his internal struggle. He says that he “slip[s] softly into the air” (line 41), which defines his ascent from the world. He is finally leaving his anger behind. Overall, the multiple shifts in tone reflect the thought process. A thought can trigger a repressed memory, and that memory causes one to diverge completely from his or her intended path and stray into the realm of thoughts that reflect hidden emotions of anger, frustration, and fear. Such is the case with “Red Shift.”Feel free to post any constructive comments here, or questions, or observations. Trenchant insights are always welcome but please (always) avoid pithy observations.