‘documentary adequacy’ & poetic form

July 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

I was up late last night reading Seamus Heaney’s Crediting Poetry. I picked it up off the shelf wanting his words as much as the feel of this hardcover in the small of my hand with its gold-illuminated dust jacket of honey bees entering blue, green, and red hives — an image from the Ashmole Bestiary, c. 1210.  My copy is a discard from the Bethlehem Area Public Library, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania:

“When the bard Demodocus sings of the fall of Troy and of the slaughter that accompanied it, Odysseus weeps, and Homer says that his tears were like the tears of a wife on a battlefield weeping for the death of a fallen husband. His epic simile continues:

At the sight of the man panting and dying there,
she slips down to enfold him, crying out;
then feels the spears, prodding her back and shoulders,
and goes bound into slavery and grief.
Piteous weeping wears away her cheeks:
but no more piteous than Odysseus’ tears,
cloaked as they were, now, from the company.

Even today, three thousand years later, as we channel-surf over so much live coverage of contemporary savagery, highly informed but nevertheless in danger of growing immune, familiar to the point of overfamiliarity with old newsreels of the concentration camp and the gulag, Homer’s image can still bring us to our senses. The callousness of those spear shafts on the woman’s back and shoulders survives times and translation. The image has that documentary adequacy which answers all that we know about the intolerable.

But there is another kind of adequacy which is specific to lyric poetry. This has to do with the ‘temple inside our hearing’ which the passage of the poem calls into being. it is an adequacy deriving from what Mandelstam called ‘the steadfastness of speech articulation,’ from the resolution and independence which the entirely realized poem sponsors. It has as much to do with the energy released by linguistic fission and fusion, with the buoyancy generated by cadence and tone and rhyme and stanza, as it has to do with the poem’s concerns or the poet’s truthfulness. In fact, in lyric poetry, truthfulness becomes recognizable as a ring of truth within the medium itself. And it is the unappeasable pursuit of this note, a note tuned to its most extreme in Emily Dickinson and Paul Celan and orchestrated to its most opulent in John Keats — it is this which keeps the poet’s ear straining to hear the totally persuasive voice behind all the other informing voices.”

— pp.48-51 Crediting Poetry

I’m in sympathy with what Heaney says here about “documentary adequacy,” with the poem as documentary trace; poetry not as game but as moral urgency. I’m not sure about the tenor of the epic simile he praises and the disturbing link made between tenor and vehicle here puts into question his assertion about the moral value of poetry.

First he makes a connection between documentary adequacy and poetic form — an adequacy of form, the “rightness” of a poem in its sounding. The need for documentary adequacy — poetry’s ability to document the savagery of the world — is aligned with the form of expression; the right form has to be found, that is where the authority of poetry is found. Other writers thinking about poetry have said similar things. Terrence Des Pres (“the power base of poetry is poetry itself”), Helen Vendler (“Form is the necessary and skilled embodiment of the poet’s moral urgency, the poet’s method of self-revelation.” p.xiv from Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form). She also says a poem is not an essay, not a position paper, not an argument, not a speech, not a sermon. Mutlu Konuk Blasing in The Pain and the Pleasure of Words also emphasizes with Vendler the skilled embodiment as being the basis of a poet’s moral authority.

Regarding the adequacy of sound, Heaney gives the example of Yeats’ refrain “Come build in the empty house of the stare” from his “Meditations in Time of Civil War” as well as the “sheer in-placeness of the whole poem as a given form within the language.” (p.52):

“The form of the poem, in other words, is crucial to poetry’s power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it….” p.53

He seems to use form as synonym for sound, the poem’s music — that when something sounds right there is a greater inclination to believe it is true: beauty is truth, truth beauty. So much for those of us who are ugly.

So back to the epic simile — the simile is beautiful, and Homer in other places in The Iliad uses domestic feminine vehicles — a child reaching for its mother, wanting to be held; the mother’s body as ground. And in this particular simile, the captive woman feels the male soldier’s weapon in the small of her back: powerless/powerful, raped/rapist, one who is taken/one who takes. Her tears (of grief? how about of rage, that she is cast in such an abject role) are then compared to those of Odysseus (his tears for the slaughter all around him are as great as this anonymous woman’s for the loss of her husband).

I can understand Heaney’s praise for the ‘documentary adequacy’ of the vehicle — it feels right, this scene which has been enacted so many times. But it is being used to elaborate the tenor of Odysseus, a cold-blooded killer.  Something can sound right, can have documentary adequacy, and yet the right sounding can be morally bankrupt.

 

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