Essays

Stone, Hammer, Poem: The Meaningful Struggle of Finding Meaning

In Robert Kroetsch’s “Stone Hammer Poem,” the persona traces the origin of a stone and a stone hammer against the backdrop of family and national history and the Canadian landscape. Greater physical and metaphysical ramifications are at stake: Kroestsch wants to know the purpose of a stone beyond a human tool as a hammer—he is seeking intrinsic meaning unrelated to human-imposed extrinsic meaning. The very title of the poem suggests this dynamic: Stone, Hammer, Poem. Like the Trinity, the three are distinct yet one. Poetry ultimately allows Kroetsch to connect with his forefathers, reconciling the unknowable stone and the imposed hammer and deriving meaning from the struggle of finding meaning.

Kroetsch’s style and form lends itself to the subject. Short lines, heavy enjambment and irregular section and stanza lengths gives the poem a sense of elusiveness and transformation. The transformative and cyclical nature of the stone is immediately demonstrated through enjambment, “This stone / become a hammer / of stone” (Kroetsch 1-3). The definition of and the difference between the stone and the stone hammer is at the heart of the text. It is tempting to see extrinsic meaning as intrinsic, given how equivalent the stone and the stone hammer are. But Kroetsch emphasizes the unknowable nature of a stone compared to the human agency in a stone hammer. “The stone is / shaped like the skull / of a child,” says Kroetsch’s persona ominously (13-15). The antithetical connotations of death and violence in the skull and life and innocence in the child gives the stone a paradoxical quality that transcends—and even threatens—humanity. For the stone hammer, the buffalo’s skull supplants the child’s skull. By making the stone a tool in human hands, it becomes momentarily unthreatening—until, of course, the transient hammer fades as “the / hand is gone, the / buffalo’s skull / is gone” and the stone becomes unknown once more (Kroetsch 9-12). Hands are as a synecdoche here for humanity. Without a human purpose, the persona cannot understand the nature of the stone. “Cut to a function, this stone was / (the hand is gone–” remarks the persona, unable to say anything about the stone, or even finish the sentence, bracket or em dash (Kroetsch 22-24). This in turn makes him question the nature of the hammer and if intrinsic meaning even exists.

The persona tries to imagine the origin of the stone in the hopes of learning its purpose. He is only able to narrate the hammer in context to humans, however. The stone existed before the hammer was crafted by humans, however: “it is a million / years older than / the hand that / chipped stone” (Kroetsch 33-35).  The stanza and section ends on an unfinished “or,” suggesting the stone is older than everything. Section five employs a beautiful waxing and waning imagery in the retreat of the ice, buffaloes and Indians against the bloom of native flowers. The stone is the constant against moving space and time. The stone represents an objective reality, where humanity does not matter.

The persona cannot handle this. In the sixth section, the mid-point of the poem, the persona suffers a breakdown. If he cannot know the stone, how can he know the hammer? How can he be sure of his humanly-imposed reality when he does not know the objective reality? Language begins to crumble as the persona contemplates the lack of knowable intrinsic meaning. “I have to/ I want / to know (not know)./ ?WHAT HAPPENED” (Kroetsch 75-77).

In an epiphany of metafictive clarity, the persona suddenly understands that poetry is like the stone transformed into the stone hammer. Poetry is the poet’s imposition of meaning. The answer lies in poetry. In one fell swoop, Kroetsch is posed to legitimize the stone hammer and poetry. The persona understands that the stone cannot be owned, any more than the landscape can be permanently owned. It is not possible to own the stone, only the temporary stone maul. One has to accept the eternality and unknowable nature of the stone to understand it. “Now the field is / mine because / I gave it” (Kraustch 83-85). The grandfather erred here, neglecting his duties, as the persona notes that, “I picked up all the stones” (Kraustch 102-103). By refusing to work, it is not surprising that the grandfather loses the stone maul, while the father treasures it, “He kept it (the / stone maul)” (Kroetsch XX-XX).Such a syntax is mirrored by the persona, who continues such a legacy. “I keep it / on my desk / (the stone).”

His father enjoys the work and struggle of cultivating the land. The father reminiscing about his work with the stone hammer is the most descriptive and poignant in the poem, “hot wind on his face” (Kroetsch 118). The persona has sold the land, and hence does not need the hammer, but continues to honor his father and mankind’s struggle. He keeps the stone, and writes about the stone hammer. The persona persists the meaningful struggle of his father to create meaning. When the persona uses the stone and his poetry, he seeks to connect with the meaningful past. “Sometimes I use it / in the (hot).wind”—the bracketed “hot” shows the persona changing his environment to the same “hot wind” his father felt (Kroetsch 140-141).

In the beginning, the persona could not distinguish between the stone and the stone hammer. Now he understands they are separate. Stone, hammer, poem. They are aspects of one interpreted differently. The stone is the unknowable. The hammer and the poem are the physical and metaphysical struggle to create meaning. Kroetsch never determines if intrinsic purpose of a stone exists, only that it is outside of humanity. In understanding this, the struggle for meaning, the extrinsic purpose, is enough.

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