Torment, as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary, is great pain or anguish, physical or mental. The word is derived from torquere, to twist, as when a rope that is part of an instrument of torture is twisted in order to cause a detainee to admit guilt or to identify members of her cohort. Our consciences, we say, are tormented by the memories of our past misdeeds. What graduate student has failed to remark, upon receiving an A-, that her mentor is also her “tormentor”? Hellfire, too, is torment. Dante describes so many instances of torment in his Inferno that part of the pleasure of reading Purgatorio is being awed by the poet’s ability invent new ways of twisting the cord. Dante draws explicit and implicit distinctions between the punishments of the damned and the punishments of those who will eventually be saved, and that should torment us whenever we want to privilege the suffering of some people over the supposedly lesser suffering of others.
“Torment” is also a new poem by Daisy Fried, published in Poetry Magazine‘s March 2011 issue. I invite you to read this poem [linked above, ed.]. In the following essay I will describe its construction and set it alongside two important precursors, one from the Italian Renaissance, the other from twentieth century Britain. I will characterize the site and the elements of “Torment” and some of its contents, but I will stop short of indicating to you how the narrative arc of the poem unfolds. In order to describe the poem I’m going to eschew the critical convention of referring to a poem’s speaker, a convention that “Torment” itself upholds. Instead, I will attribute every move directly to Daisy Fried. I will do this for two reasons: first, I hope to keep phrases like the speaker or Fried’s speaker from clogging sentence syntax; second, I wish to reflect, briefly, before I close this invitation, on how the impersonality of a critical tool like the speaker may deflect or obscure some of the power of a poem like “Torment.”
At seven pages, “Torment” is longer and more complicated than many American poems published these days. I want you to read it anyway, maybe because this is so. For “Torment is also clearer and more direct than much of the verse we see in contemporary magazines. It does not induce meaning under the pretense that it has none. The implications of “Torment” follow logically, almost simply, from its words and sentences and verse paragraphs. Though its language is loaded, morally, Fried has distanced her poem from the kind of poem-of-moral-instruction that has been one popular template for American poets working since the 1970s. I hope without expectation that an acute appraisal of “Torment” might lead to a robust questioning of that moral template, and that perhaps we might even set it aside.
Daisy Fried’s “Torment” is a 214-line, free verse poem in eleven sections (none shorter than a sonnet, none longer than 25 lines) that offers, in real-time narrative and in flashbacks, a complex account of a journey made by a gravid, “not-quite-40” year-old Princeton University Writing Fellow on “the Dinky — // the one-car commuter train connecting // Princeton to the New York line.” Fried has been on a visit to the Big Apple, where she spent the day trying to convince university hiring committees that she’s perfect for adjunct teaching jobs she doesn’t really want. The conflict of the poem is generated by Fried’s company on the train: fifteen Princeton seniors (two of whom are taking Fried’s poetry-writing course) slouching back to campus from Wall Street, where they have spent the day interviewing for jobs that come with enormous salaries and annual bonuses. No one is physically harmed. Rather, Fried’s “Torment” originates in her eavesdropping, on the verge of sleep, on what these fifteen Princeton Tigers say when they say what they really want.
The eye and voice of the poem is exhausted, but Fried is attentive to the dinky microcosm she has stocked for the occasion. She sketches, with a master’s brush, man-boys in Brooks Brothers suits sprawled on vinyl benches on top of trashed copies of Financial Times. Her poet’s attention to the world is an occupational hazard (like taking adjunct teaching gigs), and the cream of the world’s youth is only a high-five’s length away. She can no more keep from listening as her students decompress than she can turn off her sense of irony, as in the second line, when she describes the cohort of Tigers as “Fifteen responsible children.”
The complexity of “Torment” is produced by the interaction of at least five strands of discourse as they intertwine, disrupt, echo, clash with, and strengthen each other. There is reported speech, mostly by students (“I had to prepare for,” // a breath, “interviews.”). There is recalled speech, maybe a snippet of Fried’s pedagogical persona being wise in her class (“A few times a semester // I say ‘It’s only poetry.’”), or a warning from the midwife (“Gumbleeds! nosebleeds!”), or a rationale for Kegel exercises offered by her pre-natal yoga instructor. Sometimes the self-consciousness of the mother-to-be squeezes in an aside (“My ankles // are slim.”) There is irruptive but mild self-criticism from something like Fried’s soul or censor or super-ego gone bad (“I’d like to be able to hate her. I’m turning // into my Favorite Teachers — so kind, // so industrious, so interested and interesting.”) There is vivid description — Fried’s signature effect — as when she sees a Kleenex “measled with blood.” And then there is the core narration of events, which is loaded, sometimes, with self-directed sarcasm (“I hand her one of my self-pity tissues”).
The polyphony of “Torment” exists at the threshold of dreaming. The speaker keeps falling in and out of sleep, and the seams, juxtapositions, and twists of the poem would be legible from a chaise lounge in Vienna. Or, to co-opt a malapropism I’ve seen in several essays by college students, “Torment” feels like a “stream of conscience.” Here’s how its tributaries flow together:
I hand her one of my self-pity tissues. My ankles
are slim. Brianna hates her name. “So tacky.
I’d be a Kelly if I were twenty years older.”
I’d like to be able to hate her. I’m turning
into my Favorite Teachers—so kind,
so industrious, so interested and interesting.
“Sorry I’m late with my portfolio,” she says
through sniffles. She dabs her lip. “I had to prepare for,”
a breath, “interviews.” A few times a semester
I say “It’s only poetry.” Gumbleeds! nosebleeds!
the midwife predicted, and it’s true, my Kleenexes
are measled with blood, weird hairs, stretch marks,
frequent catnaps, hip joints so loose you must
take care walking. The fetus dabs its fingers
in the sponge of me, flails. (ll. 88-103)
The complications of “Torment” don’t stop with its discursive field. Fried has built her poem on a rich array of parallels that yield a poignant, thwarted empathy for all of those who find themselves in torment. This might be easy to overlook because so much contemporary American poetry has conditioned readers to expect both the resolution of ambiguities and the valorization of the speaker as a person. In “Torment,” though a mass of differences between Fried and her fellow travelers accumulates, it cannot mitigate the excruciating awareness of her own similarity to those she criticizes. I cannot possibly detail all the parallels that Fried has built into “Torment,” but a selection will give some idea:
• When Fried is moved, in part by maternal feeling, to offer to a cry-baby trust fund child some of her own resources, Fried notices, admiringly, that her ankles aren’t yet swollen, that she’s nobody’s mother yet.
• A student’s tearful apology for not having submitted, yet, to her “Professor,” and thus, to poetry, bumps against Fried’s recollection of how and how often she puts poetry down, no doubt ironically, in her classes.
• The child Fried is bearing, on cue, low-fives her uterine wall, readying its fingers to rifle through more pages of the sub-text of “Torment.”
• At one of her interviews, Fried has been challenged to be a real mother and “literary mama” to undergraduates; now as she’s trapped on a train with the Tiger cubs, she almost fails to “recognize Brianna in her interview hair.” A page later, Brianna returns the favor—“I didn’t realize that was you with your hair up”—indicating that both women alter themselves for interviews.
• Near the end of “Torment,” when Fried holds a beer and a cigarette and fields Brianna’s invitation to hop into a car and race off to Soon-Ji’s party, she recalls how she had slow-danced and snorted lines with her college professors, wondering, even then—Fried was a responsible child—“When are they going to grow up?”
• The title of a seven-page poem by a poor-little-rich-boy Justin? “Torment.” In a gesture of good faith, Fried spares us details of his “poetry”—but her summary comment—“You may want to find a way to suggest // ironic distance between the poet and the speaker”—shows how honest her “Torment” is meant to be. She cannot, with the material of “Torment” at least, manage to take her own advice.
The discursive complexity and emphasis on tortuous, tortured parallels in Fried’s poem is more audible, more legible, when it is set alongside Philip Larkin’s “High Windows.” (Here I will return to the use of the convention that distances the voice of a poem from the voice of its author.) The speaker of Larkin’s poem is, like Fried, tormented by thoughts about the younger generation and what these indicate about the value of his own life. Likewise, Fried implicitly asks whether anyone ever listen her—twenty years back—talking aloud to her college friends on a bus or train:
When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise
Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives —
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide
To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That’ll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark
About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds. And immediately
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is elsewhere, and is endless.
Larkin’s much shorter poem is not polyphonic, but dialectical. Its discourses flow continuously, if disjunctively, from the same speaker’s consciousness, and form a kind of syllogism. Thesis–Antithesis–Synthesis: Larkin juxtaposes a down-to-earth first-person voice in real-time with an equally down-to-earth voice of an imaginary elder from “forty years back” (in italics), and the collision yields the non sequitur of the more spiritually-minded first-person voice that closes the poem. For almost four full stanzas, Larkin’s speaker ratifies, to his torment, the notion that a younger generation, from the point of view of middle age, has some new access to permanent bliss, even if his ratification comes with an infantilizing image of “the long slide.” If any of the discursive strands in Fried’s “Torment” achieves such certainty, I don’t hear it. At the end of the fourth stanza and in the finale, Larkin’s speaker is literally distracted from his own conflicted but jealous imaginings. His torment suddenly and infinitely accelerates, in an image of the utter transparency of man’s efforts and the cruel fact that there is no One, after all, watching, no one looking through those “High Windows.” (A similarly sudden and abyssal acceleration of doom is conveyed in Larkin’s “This Be the Verse,” where human misery “deepens like a coastal shelf.”) “High Windows” is the more powerful because its synthesis is articulated in an image (looking up into the nave of a cathedral) that is so utterly foreign to the rest of the poem.
In “Torment,” the New Jersey Transit Dinky provides a purgatorial slide—that’s Manhattan’s infernal dust on Fried’s shoes as she detrains in paradise, under the high window of Paul Muldoon. The dispensation of grace is over. My earlier invocation of Dante was intentional: I think it’s important to see Fried’s “Daisy Fried,” in light of Dante’s “Dante Alighieri,” who came to understand torment so well. It’s possible to consider Fried’s poem as a kind of situation-Commedia set in mass transit, but with an absence more startling than that in “High Windows.”
If we take Penn Station for Satan’s navel and the train ride for what Muldoon would call a “near-version” of Purgatorio, the Daisy Fried in “Torment” is self-Virgilizing. If the poem were a sit-com, the ghost of James Merrill would have made a cameo as a friendly conductor who chats with the kids and then punches Fried’s ticket. Fried is unable to turn to any more-experienced guide for succor. That is a part of her torment, and maybe a diagnosis for our age. Fried’s situation, our situation—having to be one’s own Virgil—helps to account for the polyphonic flow of Fried’s consciousness. The parts of her that seem to know how she ought to feel must face down the parts of her that desire comforts she cannot afford. But if the poem is atheistic, and no one is sending any help, neither is anyone passing out forgiveness, or A-plusses for keeping decorum as the tourniquet tightens.
It may be a stretch, but I think that if one wants to understand “Torment,” one has to accept that for this cast of characters Ivy League colleges, shopping at Barneys, etc., is what passes for the every day. That affluence and opportunity—and the feelings held about them by people we meet, work for, dance with, teach—are, much like torment, relative. One also has to accept, I think, that “Torment,” closes the gap between actual poet and fictional voice that the New Criticism insisted upon in order to achieve its worthy goal of pseudo-objectivity. Fried is in good company in demanding that we set this convention aside—if you want to admire Dante’s “Dante,” you have to admire him whole: vengeful politico; swooning, guilt-ridden horn-dog; and piteous mourner. Readers who want to make sense of “Torment” have to make leaps of imagination, the same that Fried likely made to write it, to sidestep some of our natural judgments. That the site of the poem is one of privilege, that the people depicted in it—even Daisy Fried—are, in the poem, hopeless, does not disqualify its moral vision. It may even make the poem’s effect more acute.
I rarely come across a poem as sharply-angled as Fried’s “Torment.” I’ve read a thousand would-be poems that articulate critical stances toward American society though the retelling of brief epiphanic anecdotes by an educated, more or less elite poet who has become immersed in a community of underserved Americans whose aspirations she, and we, identify with, and whose lack of opportunities are presented to us, by the poem, as a prompt for taking progressive political action. (I’ve even written some.) By the testimony of such poems, which are usually short and thus less difficult to write, and which often traffic in stereotypes, we are supposed to be moved to do better, to be better citizens. But it seems to me such writing can make only one particular nothing happen: it can be used, usually posthumously, to stuff the writer’s portfolio for sainthood when the College of Cardinals finally calls.
Fried’s “Torment” is more challenging, and more dangerous, because there are no “underserved” minorities here; instead we experience painful twists of consciousness among the “undeserving,” and nobody—not Fried, and certainly not the reader—comes out cleansed or better prepared to meet their maker. The wrong side of the tracks was on top of them as that particular Dinky rolled toward Princeton Junction, where real-life Daisy Fried once held one of the most prestigious fellowships in poetry, and where a solicitous husband, a car, and a well-stocked bassinet once waited. Fried’s “Torment” is not only admirable, but necessary.