opsis (doodle)

November 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

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“poetry was to be found everywhere”: miscellany 1

September 19, 2013 § 2 Comments

“Poetry was to be found everywhere.”
— Ward, John Keats: The Making of a Poet, p.138

“The abandonment of the autonomy of the will of the speaking person as a speaker constitutes a form of knowledge — poetic knowledge. The knowledge that not ‘I’ speaks but ‘language speaks.’ (Heidegger).”
— Grossman, Summa Lyrica, p.210

“Seriousness is the state of feeling which arises when consciousness, encompassing the circumscription of its own life, becomes centred in itself and becomes heavy with the gravity of its own solitude. Seriousness is a quality of lyric.”
— Summa Lyrica, p.240

Papaver Orientale, ‘Beauty of Livermore’: “Crimson-scarlet with black basal blotch”; “Clumps of divided leaves clothed in bristly hairs catch the light, especially if spotted with dew, and sumptuous flowers, crumpled at first, open to reveal satiny petals and a boss of dark, velvety stamens.”

Anemone x Hybrida, ‘Honorine Jobert’: “The pristine white flowers on five-foot stems, appear luminous at dusk.” (flower manual — which one??)

a poem consists of : a) movement in time (prosody), and b) movement in intellectual time (poetic mode–the analogue of plot in fiction)
— Mary Kinzie, A Poet’s Guide to Poetry, p.14

Kinzie, on reading a poem: “Words. You are not just reading messages or extracting meanings or drafting editorials to put into lines: You are thinking in words. You are thinking so hard in the atmosphere created by words that they enter you like your breathing. This means first, looking at words by themselves, with all their weight and subtlety; it helps to think about their length, complexity, and language of origin, too.” p.5/6

and: “One of the ways a poem grows, which the act of reading imitates, is to send out tendrils from the word toward the sentence of which it becomes a part, and from the sentence to the surrounding trellis of the lines.” p.6

M: “Poetry. Tamatoe (rymeing poem)
red sliced or diced Jucy or
nice in my Hand squishy squishy squishy”

M: “Poetry. Lemon. (non rhymeing poem.)
sour lemon and lime flaver sour sour more sour.”

“As M. H. Abrams notes, Coleridge held that ‘literary invention involves the natural, unplanned, and unconscious process by which things grow.’ Like a plant, the poet gathers material from the atmosphere around him and puts out branches and leaves. The poem itself, also like a plant, begins with a seed or ‘germ.’ It finds its natural or inherent shape, having assimilated materials from the atmosphere.”
— Jay Parini, Why Poetry Matters, p.14

“The first consequence of the first reading [of a poem] is the silence of the reader who was a speaker–his privilege as a speaker has been conceded to the speaker in the poem. The final consequence of first reading is the silence of acknowledgement of difference, the primordial apprehension, not of the otherness of another in terms of characterizing marks, but of the characterizing marks of another in terms of the inference of something personal which is not the self–the new planet, the unnamed thing which was always there but never to this moment acknowledged. This is the paradox of discovery. Discovery creates nothing but concedes the existence of a thing ‘not previously known.'”
— Summa Lyrica, p320

“Prickly leaves twined around pale brown letters. A tiny red dragon’s head was spitting out flowers over the stained paper.” — Inkheart, p.39

“My hand is cramped from penwork
My quill has a tapered point.
Its bird-mouth issues a blue-dark
Beetle-sparkle of ink.”
–Seamus Heaney, translation from the Irish,  “Colum Cille Cecinit, I. Is scith mo chrob on scribainn”

“The memory of my ‘builder’ is a storehouse of materials used by his predecessors: these discoveries, their signs and symbols. This is how poets carry on ‘the conversation begun before us’ — to use Pasternak’s phrase for their response to each other that knows no bounds of time or space. As transformed in the mind of a new ‘builder,’ such borrowed elements help to bring out his purely personal feelings, thoughts, and experiences. Words themselves, in fact, are nothing but distillations of the meaning put into them by all the generations who have ever spoken the language — besides what was already built into them during the pre-history of the language, before it split off from the group to which it belongs.”
— N. Mandelstam, Hope Abandoned, p.620

“The Orphic machine is the poem: a severed head with face turned away that sings.”; “Each poem is a reinvention of the speech source, because each poem establishes again, and is also identical with, the fictional ‘I’ (the severed head) which is the machine that has speech as its product.”
— Summa Lyrica, p. 364

“Think of it as the shell, the skull, the mummy, the golden bird, the garden, the rose, the ark, the bee-box, the labyrinth, the whale, the stone, the grail, the bridge, the tower, the pyramid, the temple, the knot, the breast, the mountain, the sea, the harp, the wind, the countenance…The source of speech, the source of poetry and the source of world are co-implicated. Symbolic representations of the origination of poetic utterance in Orphic objects and machines indicates that poetry is the speaking of being and that being comes first. Poetry is the speaking of being in the process of discovering itself as an occasion of the visibility of a person. The Orphic machine is the state of the object at the point of that discovery. Poetry issues from world at the point of submission of world to countenance, that is to say, at the point of its brokeness as world.”
— Summa Lyrica, p.365

“Williams was turned to ash on August 15 on the coast of Tuscany, Shelley the day after at Viareggio on pyres of pine, frankincense, wine, oil, honey, and salt.”
— Posthumous Keats, Stanley Plumly, p.101

from Modern Poetry and the Idea of Language, Gerald Bruns:

–that to Aristotle, “Words thus appear to be regarded as so many atoms in space, available for combination into molecules according to a linear model. This linear model is clearly at work in Aristotle’s discussion of diction in the Poetics, where he distinguishes, together with the letter, noun, and verb, the syndesmos and arthron, two anatomical terms meaning ‘ligament’ and ‘joint.'” p.29  i.e. they bind together parts of the sentence (conjunctions or articles)

–“It was customary among the Greeks to identify the letters of the alphabet (and with them the indivisible sounds of speech) as stoicheia, literally physical particles…” p.30

–on Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, in the 4th book, P. & friends encounter strange sounds at sea — frozen words and cries of people in a bloody battle the winter before, their words frozen in the air; as the thaw comes, the words melt and can be heard

–P. throws “‘on the deck a whole handful of frozen words…and when we had somewhat warmed them between our hands, they melted like snow and we really heard them.'”

–“This frozen state is another way of describing the condition of the written (and particularly the printed) word, the word reduced to the extended, purely spatial mode of existence of the phonetic  alphabet. It was by means of the alphabet that man learned how to fix the spoken word in space by transforming  it into a sequence of objects. To read the written or printed word, of course, is simply to reverse this process: it is to re-create the utterance, to return it from space into time.” p.37

–“Signmund Burckhardt, in an essay entitled ‘The Poet as Fool and Priest,’ has observed that ‘the nature and primary function of the most important poetic devices–especially rhyme, meter, and metaphor–is to release words in some measure from their bondage to meaning, their purely referential role, and to give or restore to them the corporeality which a true medium needs.’ After all, language for a poet is rarely or never a purely transitive medium–a medium acted upon solely for the purposes of signification. Gerard Manley Hopkins once said, in his essay ‘Rhythm and the Other Structural Parts of Rhetoric-Verse,’ that ‘we may think of words as heavy bodies, as indoor and out of door objects of nature and man’s art’; and he went on to observe that, like natural bodies, words possess centres of gravity and centres of illumination. The function of a word in a rhythmic structure is to be found in the relationship or interplay between these two centres, which determines, respectively, its stress and pitch.” p.196-7

–“‘It is an impossible absolute that all words, that the texts, be written in such a way as to allow the words their complete semantic thickness. This is impossible. But if one has that sensitivity to the thickness of words, to the fact that they do have a history, that they have provoked associations of language, then this provides a much thicker material that is not superficial, which is a thing that one can mould precisely because it has the quality, the thickness, of potter’s clay. It is a physical object with many dimensions.'”
— Francis Ponge, qtd in Bruns, p.280-1

Rosalind, teasing the lovesick Orlando: “There is a man haunts the Forest, that abuses our yong plants with carving Rosalinde on their barkes; hangs Oades upon Hawthornes, and Elegies on brambles; all (forsooth) deifying the name of Rosalinde.” III.ii.352-5

“But ‘He is a god in my eyes,’ fragile and ephemeral as the action it imitates might seem, catches and holds the light of things as they are, everywhere, always, as surely as does the Iliad or the Antigone.”
— W. R. Johnson, The Idea of Lyric, p.83

“‘The circumstances of my life, living in the domain of a foreign tongue, have meant that I deal much more consciously with my language than before — and yet: the How and Why of that qualitative change the word experiences, to become a word in a poem, I’m unable to define more closely even today. Poetry, Paul Valery says somewhere, is language in statu nascendi, language becoming free.'”
— Paul Celan, qtd in Felstiner, p.77

“It is Keats’s use of consonance, however, as a stay against the flow of vowels, that really grounds the substance of the music to its meaning–both its source and statement. Keats’s consonants hold what his vowels would let go, the ‘subtle’ tension of which enacts the mortality of ‘the wasted breath’ that Yeats himself calls lyric poetry.”
–Plumly, Posthumous Keats, p.345

poem as cloth

May 26, 2013 § 2 Comments

She strung crude country wool across a loom
(The purple threads pricked out against the white);
She wove a tapestry of her sad story.
— Book VI, The Metamorphoses, Transl. Horace Gregory

The story of Philomela and Procne has been read as paradigm for the production and interpretation of texts by women within a context of patriarchal culture. A silenced group which desires to speak encodes its texts in some manner, so that the message remains in plain view, yet is read differently by different target audiences. Once Philomela’s message, woven into a tapestry, is received by Procne, the story of these sisters ends violently as they seek retribution for the crime committed against Philomela. So does the weaving competition between Arachne and Pallas Athene, in which Arachne weaves scenes of the gods’ transgressions, largely sexual violence against women; for producing this ‘text’ she is severely punished.

Saussurean models of language also lend themselves to the trope of text as cloth, with its conception of parole as combination of paradigmatic and syntagmatic selections; Barthes developed the distinction between work and text, where text becomes texture, an interwoven tissue of signs (text etymologically derived from texere, to weave).

The trope however tends towards a static conception of text, over process. The poet Rachel Blau DuPlessis in The Pink Guitar and in her own poetry (“Drafts”) developed the idea of feminist writing as process, as continual draft. In part she does this by offering multiple versions of a poem; by bleeding text into margins; ‘contaminating’ the white page with hand-written signs; and including midrash-like commentaries to her poems. But however much white space on a page is creatively approached, print tends to fix signs, like a specimen or sample fixed to a glass slide.

There is, however, the interesting concept of the “veil of print” with reference to Shakespearean studies — the way in which multiple copies of Shakespeare’s plays in folio and quarto versions, compiled by different compositors, have been thought by some to obscure or ‘veil’ the ‘original’ intentions of Shakespeare. If only this veil can be lifted away, we might see his true hand. This suggests print as a kind of tidal flux — multiple possibilities for a given word choice, line, scene — print itself as unreliable and contaminating.

This also makes me think of Emily Dickinson’s manuscript fascicles where she might record multiple selections for a single word in a line of one of her poems,  as if anticipating Saussure’s paradigmatic axis. Critical work has concentrated on this concept of choosing/not-choosing (see my earlier post on Emily Dickinson’s “Fascicules”) … why choose only one version? Why not hold multiple versions simultaneously in mind? Or choose one now, a different one later? Or why choose at all?

But back to cloth as text. I am thinking here of a more basic comparison between poem and woven cloth, not so much in terms of the poststructuralist trope or of the feminist models of production and interpretation, but from the perspective of the poet/maker/weaver, where writing a poem is understood as material practice. This is more closely aligned then with DuPlessis and her work on the idea of process, although I am less convinced by the older poststructuralist version of predestination, of having already been written, presented in The Pink Guitar.

In my experience, much of the pleasure of writing a poem or making a piece of cloth (I imagine, never having woven cloth) comes in the actual making, in the moment of putting down one word and then another and then another, watching as inked lines accumulate under fingertips or as lines of weft are tamped down along the warp threads and a pattern begins to emerge. (Wayland Barber: “The threads of the warp are those lying lengthwise in the finished cloth, and the most tedious part of making a new cloth comes in stringing these onto the loom, one at a time. Once you begin to weave in the cross-threads — the weft — you can see the new cloth forming inch by inch under your fingers, and you feel a sense of accomplishment.” p.17)

The production of cloth — spinning, weaving, sewing — through history is largely, although not exclusively, women’s work. Elizabeth Wayland Barber has documented this in her Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years — Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times, and in The Mummies of Ürümchi, where she describes the textiles of the 4000-yr old Beauty of Loulan and her people of the Taklamakan desert; felt, plain weave, twill. She has a wonderful description in Women’s Work of her first attempt to make her own woven copy of a piece of cloth from the Hallstatt salt mines she had seen displayed in the Natural History Museum in Vienna.  The scrap of cloth, a piece of green and brown twill, about 3000 years old, had been preserved by the salt. She decided to try to reproduce it. Her own mother had learned to weave in a weaving school in Denmark, at a time when women had been expected to make much of the cloth for their households and so Wayland Barber knew something of the techniques involved. She describes in some detail setting the warp with the help of her sister:

For nearly eight hours we had been working on the warp […] In the morning we had wound off the requisite number of green and chocolate brown threads of fine worsted wool, stripe by colour-stripe, onto the great frame of warping pegs — pegs that hold the threads in order while measuring them all to the same length. By lunchtime we were ready to transfer the warp to the loom, tying one end of the long, thick bundle of yarn to the beam on one side. Then began the tedious task of threading the ends through the control loops (heddles) in the middle on their way to the far beam. It would have been simpler if we had intended to use the plainest sort of weave. But because we were setting up to weave a pattern — the fine diagonal pattern called twill that is used typically today in men’s suit material — it was taking far longer. p. 17-18

She learned about the textile she so admired by trying to recreate it, learned things from the errors she made in setting the warp, and in the actual on-going practice of weaving the cloth, the sudden conceptual leaps made as her fingers came to understand something about the process.

The pleasure she describes in its making is much like that of writing a poem: it can take time, patience, care, requires knowledge of earlier techniques and processes; is often a question of trial and error; we learn from earlier innovations and incorporate these into our own work. There are also some structural similarities, in the lines of a poem which we might think of as the poet’s weft woven across the warp threads of culture and language. A new pattern emerges. The end result — a poem, a piece of cloth — is a human artefact that now exists in the world, and is made for others.

This is beautifully expressed in Emily McGiffin’s “Swadeshi,” in Between Dusk and Night (2012), which begins: “And because words, if they were possible at all/were illegitimate, tawdry,/I spoke to you in yarns.” The speaker in the poem describes the process of choosing to make a blanket for someone she — I’ll call the speaker a she — loves. Yet as we read, we sense that this person does not reciprocate this love, perhaps is not even there. It’s as if the beloved is a ghost: this is a thread that runs through the collection and results in some of the most intimate and moving poems, of love which is offered, not taken, but offered nonetheless — this is the nature of a truly unselfish love, a complete giving of the self, without thought of return.  Throughout, we hear the speaker’s doubts (“But you might actually have found me ridiculous”, “You were warm enough. I was redundant.”)

The speaker carefully documents each stage of the making of the blanket, from shearing the fleece, to cleaning it — picking out twigs and burs, soaking it in water, spinning the wool into yarn that can then be woven, dyeing it. Then comes the intricate task of setting the warp on the loom, the mechanics of this and its effect on the body, the descriptions of which remind me of Sean Borodale’s Bee Journal, for its technical precision which ballasts the poem’s metaphorical flight:

Bird’s-eye twill, six hundred ends. So intricate was the work
that its details crowded out all else. The old beech loom
stood patient as an aging draft horse
as I moved around and over it, climbing onto its heft frame
to straighten all the harnesses and check the lines.
Six hundred threads to keep untangled, to align, one by one in orderly sequence,
from the back beam through six hundred heddles, six hundred
separate slots in the reed. By the time I had finished and knotted them all down
and wrapped the warp onto the front beam at the ready
I was like an old woman: my back
would not straighten, a web of tense lines
had deepened at the corners of my eyes.
But I slid under the loom like a mechanic
to tie up the treadles in the last hour before midnight.

The passage is replete with technical vocabulary (bird’s-eye twill, harnesses, heft frame, beam, heddles, reed); the loom is described as a machine the speaker works on, and the speaker/poet as mechanic. This is in itself pleasing, to hear this particular register incorporated into a poem. Yet this setting of the warp is also offered metaphorically, as model for poetic practice, and as emblematic of the speaker’s relationship with the person for whom she is making the blanket. The speaker realizes, when she is done, when the warp lines are all set, all parallel, that they embody the problem of her relation with the beloved: “the nature of our conversation/all the threads ran one way”.

It is only when the work of beginning to weave the blanket, just as Barber describes above, of bringing in the weft, which crosses over the warp, that there is real communication — even consummation, in the mechanical song of making, in the clanking of cranks, gears, break and beater: “But when I began to toss the shuttle, as the cloth grew/under my hands, colloquy blossomed into cacophony…”  The speaker finds joy in the process.

And when she is done, having worked all night:

I worked clear through the frog-song night and when dawn came
I cut it free. Unfurled it from the loom. It billowed out
the way a sail climbs a mast in a few quick halyard pulls,
snapping open in the morning light — that quick instant
the story of our kind. Ingenious capture. The way into a whole
civilization and its ugly deceits. But there is also a way
of being careful. Here, spread in soft folds across the floor:
only the labour of my own attentive hands.

This idea of capture, of our human ingenuity in the making of artefacts often used for negative ends carries traces of the violence embedded in the tapestries of Philomela and Arachne. Philomela is taken, her tongue cut out so she cannot speak. It carries traces of the ways in which we capture or take the natural world, and others, carelessly, without thought. But I like the insistence here on an alternate understanding of making — a way “of being careful,” of hands that are “attentive.” This cloth the speaker has made, which can keep a body warm, intended for the one she loves, will last many years beyond the time it took her to make it, the attention and care she placed in it will perhaps outlast her; it was made not for herself but for another; and in the end, it was freely given:

This entwinement of yarn:
all the words that lived in me, the finest
I could craft. I gave them to you.

poems and things

May 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

In The Material of Poetry Gerald Bruns, with reference to the French poet Francis Ponge, discusses the idea of  “taking the side of things,” as in “siding with things against human egocentrism, meaning (among other things) not just anthropocentrism but human self-importance, what we might call high-culture humanism that regards ‘Expressions of the Spirit’ as foundational, world-making, and the source of the true, good, and beautiful.” p.87 He relates this to the concept of objectivism and Louis Zukofsky. The idea of “sincerity” in Louis Zukofsky, Bruns suggests,

“does not mean speaking from the heart; it means (counterintuitively, perhaps) careful attention to the things of the world and a kind of selflessness and straightforwardness with respect to them — for example, not turning them into metaphors or stand-ins for one’s own experiences.” p.88.

Bruns then elaborates upon construction vs. expression; the poem as constructed by materials/things, not an act of self-expression:

“One has to imagine a poem that seeks proximity with things and not a cognitive transcendence that grasps or contains them or makes them transparent to view. (Proximity here means what the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas means when he says: ‘The visible caresses the eye. One sees and hears like one touches…. The proximity of things is poetry.)'”p.89

Bruns speaks of a poem that “shares the ontology of the thing” p.88.

How might this concept of construction versus expression — and the concerns expressed above over a devouring “cognitive transcendence” contrasted with “selflessness” — be connected to certain movements towards the concrete and the unadorned in some post-war Polish poetry, such as that of Tadeusz Różewicz and Zbigniew Herbert?

Czesław Miłosz, Madeline G. Levine, and Clare Cavanagh have all documented this rejection of the transcendent, the symbolic, the ‘poetic’, a rejection in fact of all of the ‘toolkit’ associated with poetry (metre, metaphor, simile, and so on), as some poets came to see poetry and language itself as complicit with or even the instrument used to carry out the atrocities of the Second World War.

In a somewhat different context, but with  similar concerns, Roumanian-born poet Paul Celan, who lost both of his parents in an internment camp during the war, and was himself held in a labour camp, engaged with the German language in particular, his “mother tongue,” where his later collections reworked the very language itself through excavation of its etymologies and unfamiliar or archaic registers, both at the level of the word and the phoneme and morpheme.

Tadeusz Różewicz, who was in his early twenties during the war, a member of the Polish underground, and whose older brother Janusz was executed by the Gestapo, began after the war to write poems stripped of the ‘poetic.’ Here is an excerpt from  “In the Midst of Life”:

this is a table I said
this is a table
there is bread and a knife on the table
knife serves to cut bread
people are nourished by bread

— from Selected Poems (Penguin 1976) transl. Adam Czerniawski

It is as if he needs to rebuild language, which in so doing rebuilds a destroyed world, syllable by syllable, word by word, beginning with the simplest of things. The speaker in this poem reminds himself of the ways in which a knife can be reimagined not as weapon but as tool which serves human interests, in this case, used to slice bread to nourish people. (I’ll come back in a moment to a much later poem Różewicz wrote about a knife.) Yet here the thing is not considered solely in relation to its own existence, in and of itself, but as it relates to human needs.

Or consider Herbert’s poem, “The Stone:”

The stone
is a perfect creature

equal to itself
mindful of its limits

filled exactly
with a pebbly meaning

with a scent which does not remind one of anything
does not frighten anything away does not arouse desire

— from Post-War Polish Poetry (Penguin 1965) Ed. & Transl. Miłosz

Herbert seems to approach this stone with the kind of “selflessness” and “straightforwardness” Bruns describes above. Yet there is not simply an appreciation here of the stone/pebble for its own pebble-ness or “pebbly meaning.” Herbert begins to approach the “proximity of things,” yet we are inevitably drawn towards a larger political context which encompasses knowledge of events such as the razing of the Warsaw ghetto, the Warsaw uprising, and the Holocaust. The speaker of the poem finds solace in this non-human world which exists without desire, and, inevitably, without the violence and inhumanity Herbert witnessed (as with Różewicz, Herbert was also a member of the Polish underground). Similarly, poets writing under the socialist regime in Poland found that simply to write a private domestic poem, a poem set in the privacy of one’s own ‘room’ came to have political implications.

Różewicz writes a much later poem about a knife. His later poems become much less austere, and more eclectic in that they gather much of the everyday world into them. (For English speakers, these can be found most recently in Sobbing Superpower: Selected Poems, translated by Joanna Trzeciak, a great collection which was nominated for a Griffin prize several years ago).

The poem is called “the professor’s knife” from a title of the same name, 2001. It’s a wide-ranging free-verse multi-sectioned poem, conversational in tone, incorporating in several sections dialogue between the speaker/Różewicz and his professor friend Mieczysław as they eat breakfast together, talking and quarrelling affectionately with one another. In this excerpt readers familiar with his poetry hear echoes of the much earlier poem on a knife which cuts bread, and see the ways in which he opens up and is in dialogue with his earlier, more severe relationship to poetry:

after all these years I’m sitting with Mieczysław
having breakfast
the twentieth century is ending
I slice bread on a cutting board
spread butter on it
add a pinch of salt

“Tadeusz, you eat too much bread…”

I smile I like bread
‘you know’ — I say —
‘a slice of fresh bread
a slice, a heel
buttered
or with bacon bits in lard
with a dash of ground pepper’

Mieczysław rolls his eyes

The object or ‘thing’ the 6-part poem circles around is a knife made out of a barrel hoop, which his friend Mieczysław (“the Professor”) has preserved all these years, a knife he once used in the concentration camps. At the same time, throughout the poem there are references to a freight train speeding through meadows and forests; both knife and train flicker in and out of memory, in and out of their present benign existence. This simultaneously recalls their earlier use during the war, the train carrying Jews to the concentration camps, the knife which was concealed in the hem of a prison uniform. Human-made things, artefacts, are almost always implicated in their particular uses, their histories:

I first saw it
on the Professor’s desk
sometime around the middle of the twentieth century

strange knife I thought

neither a letter opener
nor a potato peeler
neither a paring knife nor a carving knife

‘strange knife’ I thought
it lay between a book on Cubism
and the last page of a review article
he must use it as a letter opener
in the concentration camp
he peeled potatoes with it
or used it for shaving

why yes — the Professor said —
vegetable peels could save you
from starving to death

his orderly desktop reflected
the state of his mind

you know Mieczysław I will write a poem
about this knife….

poems and other domestic objects

April 6, 2013 § Leave a comment

“It is worth one’s while, at certain hours of the day or night, to scrutinize useful objects in repose: wheels that have rolled across long dusty distances with their enormous loads of crops or ore, charcoal sacks, barrels, baskets, the hafts and handles of carpenter’s tools. The contact these objects have had with man and earth may serve as a valuable lesson to a tortured lyric poet. Worn surfaces, the wear inflicted by human hands, the sometimes tragic, always pathetic, emanations from these objects give reality a magnetism that should not be scorned.

Man’s nebulous impurity can be perceived in them: the affinity for groups, the use and obsolescence of materials, the mark of a hand or a foot, the constancy of the human presence that permeates every surface.”

–from “Some Thoughts on Impure Poetry,” quoted in the Introduction to Residence on Earth xii-xiii

Neruda, who wrote odes on socks, a table, a chair, here describes the marks of labour carried by objects. In an earlier post (“the poem as artefact that carries traces of its own making”) I’ve considered, with reference to Elaine Scarry’s extension of Marx in The Body in Pain, the traces of making that objects carry — the cloth which is “soaked” in labour, which carries traces of sweat, blood, the pin pricks and marks, the very weave of the cloth — and the subsequent alienation of the maker from such labour.

The objects Neruda describes here seem to come largely from the stereotypically masculine realm of labour: carpenter’s tools, wheels that bear heavy crops, charcoal sacks. Does he romanticize these common objects, and is there an attempt also to valorize poetry — I mean, to give more every day value to it — by placing it on the same footing as a sack that carries charcoal, or a wheel that bears a heavy load?

Heaney’s poetry also values such tools and the labour of the farm, in his case, the result of his having been raised on a small farm-holding in Northern Ireland. From his earliest collection, with the pen as substitute for the spade (and gun), he invokes the earth. Later collections return often to the trope of the plough and the ploughshare (again, with reference to the boustrophedon and versus, to the modern line’s turn at the end of each verse, and to the lovely image of the poem which turns back time):

My father’s ploughing one, two, three, four sides
Of the lea ground where I sit all-seeing
At centre field, my back to the thorn tree
They never cut. The horses are all hoof
And burnished flank, I am all foreknowledge.
Of the poem as a ploughshare that turns time
Up and over…

–‘Poet’s Chair,’ in The Spirit Level

The many domestic objects which work their way into his poetry are not limited to the masculine realm. There’s the turnip-snedder in District and Circle: in an age of “bare hands/and cast iron,//the clamp-on meat-mincer,/the double flywheeled water-pump,//it dug its heels in among wooden tubs/and troughs of slops…” There’s also the beautiful dedicatory poems to North, in particular “Sunlight,” dedicated to his aunt Mary:

There was a sunlit absence.
The helmeted pump in the yard
heated its iron,
water honeyed

in the slung bucket
and the sun stood
like a griddle cooling
against the wall…

He goes on to describe her floured hands and apron as she makes scones, the “plaque of heat” given off by the stove, dusting the board with a goose’s wing. Then comes the quiet moment as she has time to rest between work:

here is a space
again, the scone rising
to the tick of two clocks.

And here is love
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.

Time is love and food, and the preparing of it, and plenitude — love as a scoop that is “sunk past its gleam.” North quickly descends into the darkness of myth, but still finds its ground in the archaeological objects of a distant Viking and Iron Age past. In this description of baking in the dedicatory poem, there is still the fairly strict demarcation of male and female roles, as there also tends to be when Heaney lays out his various schemata of English/Irish roots in his theoretical explorations of his own poetry: masculine, consonantal, air, clarity and light, the long line of iambic pentameter, all contrasted with feminine, vowelled, earth, darkness, the short, cutting line of North.

I turn often to Eavan Boland to read poetry with domestic objects and experiences from a woman’s perspective: fabric, cloth, the kitchen, children, illness, the confined spaces of small rooms in the suburbs. Boland is particularly fine in her poems that incorporate cloth. For example, in The Journey when she describes her search for a language like lace, or in “The Unlived Life,” her description of quilting in the new world:

to formalize the terrors of routine
in the algebras of a marriage quilt
on alternate mornings when you knew
that all you owned was what you shared.

Cloth in its long history is the history of women.  Elizabeth Wayland Barber traces this labour in Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times, and in The Mummies of Ürümchi, where she describes the woven textiles of the Beauty of Loulan and other mummies found on the edge of the Taklamakan desert, along the old Silk Road. Cloth, like DNA, carries signatures, traces of its history, of how and when it was made, of where it comes from. Cloth is analogue for language and for skin, which comes into close contact with another.

In The Material of Poetry, Gerald Bruns, citing Levinas, describes poetry as object, as ethical contact with the world, language as skin. The aural qualities of a poem operate on a different level from the visual which emphasizes objectification, sudden complete comprehension, totality, versus the unfolding of sound over time, which is partial, incremental, and intimate as touch (as radio is more intimate than television). Poetry requires listening, which

“involves a form of subjectivity — indeed a kind of experience — different from seeing; it implies or entails a porous, as against a self-contained, mode of being, and it also implies a different world from the one that seeing, perception, observation or conceptualization constructs or projects onto the screen of consciousness. In an essay on ‘The Transcendence of Words,’ Levinas says, ‘To see is to be in a world that is entirely here and self-sufficient.’ Sound, however, undoes this state of self-sufficiency and contentment — and it is important to know that Levinas is thinking of the sounds of words rather than, say musicalized or harmonized sounds. Specifically, he is thinking of voiced sounds in which sound is no longer a semantic medium or the embodiment of aesthetic form but rather a mode of sensibility irreducible to vision, comprehension, or containment within categories.” p.44

Bruns is referring here to the role of sound in poetry over and above its semantic content; we’re within earshot perhaps of Kristeva’s distinction between genotext and phenotext. He notes also how sound overwhelms the firm borders of the self; “sound bleeds the self.” p.45. Listening to a poem is to exist in the “mode of being touched.” p.43 The poet’s relationship to language is one of listening. [1]

Similarly, Robert Pinsky, in Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry, speaking of the Favourite Poem Project, describes the reading of a poem as being inhabited by it, of giving oneself up to this mode of being touched. In fact, the reader becomes “an actual, living medium for the poem.” p.61 This is Jane Hirshfield again, on taking the poet’s breath into your body, to give life to his or her words once more. There is a cohabitation in this, a living with another for the time it takes to speak the poem, a willingness to become the medium for that person’s voice.

But I have gone somewhat astray — or perhaps not. The experience of a poem, as in the wearing of cloth, or in the pleasure of touch, is one of proximity. I was describing cloth as analogue of poem and skin. In Boland’s poetry cloth is intimate with the human body, linked to both labour and desire, and its accompanying dangers:

Tonight in rooms where skirts appear steeped in tea
when they are only deep in shadow and where heat
collects at the waist, the wrist, is wet at the base of the neck,
the secrets of the dark will be the truths of the body
a young girl feels and hides even from herself….

(2. How the Dance Came to the City in Domestic Violence)

Boland describes many other kinds of domestic objects in her poetry. Here she is writing about antibiotics, from the title poem of The Journey:

And then the dark fell and ‘there has never’
I said ‘been a poem to an antibiotic:
never a word to compare with the odes on
the flower of the raw sloe for fever

Depend on it, somewhere a poet is wasting
his sweet uncluttered metres on the obvious

emblem instead of the real thing.

Perhaps I am stretching things by thinking of an antibiotic as artefact or domestic object, but I take my lead from Scarry and her wide-ranging account of the role of human artefacts, including language, in making the world. This brings me back to Neruda again, and his insistence on an impure poetry, an insistence on poem as labouring object, and Scarry’s description of a poem as being able to work on the world in a positive sense, to rework it, and change ourselves as a result.  I’m thinking of the use of a poem in a very diffuse way as this ability to work upon the world by working upon — by touching — another’s consciousness, and transforming it.


[1] I’m less convinced by Bruns’ defence of sound poetry as joyous vociferation; what he describes as an opening of the self to sound (and he describes exclusively male projects and projections here) feels more like unwelcome, one-way invasion, of being forced open.

the poem as participating in the ongoing human project of making the world

February 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

How is a poem like a coat? In The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, Elaine Scarry develops Marx’s insight that the human body is an artefact that is constantly being remade by means of the artefacts which we produce, and by so doing we participate in the ongoing human project of making the world. Material objects hold and extend our sentience. She notes Marx’s description of cloth, for example, as memorialization of the body: “the woven cloth is a material memorialization of the embodied work of spinning, for it endures long after the physical activity has itself ceased” (p.247); the raw material is “soaked in labour” (p.247).

How do these material objects extend our sentience and rework it?  The telephone extends hearing, the telescope or microscope, sight; and so on; sentience is now “objectified in language and material objects and is thus fundamentally transformed to be communicable and endlessly sharable” (p.255):

“…human beings project their bodily powers and frailties into external objects such as telephones, chairs, gods, poems, medicine, institutions, and political forms, and then those objects in turn become the object of perceptions that are taken back into the interior of human consciousness where they now reside as part of the mind or soul, and this revised conception of oneself—as a creature relatively untroubled by the problem of weight (chair), as one able to hear voices coming from the other side of a continent (telephone)….is now actually ‘felt’ to be located inside the boundaries of one’s own skin where one is in immediate contact with an elaborate constellation of interior cultural fragments that seem to have displaced the dense molecules of physical matter” (p.256).

The object returns to us; sentience itself is reworked. Words also become external objects in which we invest our sentience: the words we speak and write are grounded in our bodies, and assume a physical form, whether through the voice which speaks words or the movements of our hands and fingers to produce writing. Words spoken involve breath and vibration. The writer holds the pen in her hand or types at the computer; fingers, tendons, muscles, wrapped around bone, enclosed in skin, produce letters, whether in digital form or as traces of ink. In this way a song or a poem, a stitched fabric of words, is also a material artefact which goes out into the world, and then returns.

Scarry’s discussion of the artefact as lever is carried out within her larger consideration of the ways in which torture and war “unmake” the world, attempt to destroy and take apart objects, institutions, language itself. The artefact plays an important role in the aftermath, in the making or remaking of this damaged world. In particular, she emphasizes the artefact as “lever,” with powers of projection and reciprocation.

Projecting human sentience into objects, an awareness, a knowledge of human needs, is only one part of the equation. Second, comes reciprocation: we can then think of the artefact as a lever or fulcrum, that moves this force of creation back again from itself, from the external or natural world, to human beings, recreating, remaking, extending our powers. This holds for a single poem, or an entire library; Scarry is wide-ranging in her embrace of all kinds of human artefacts, from common domestic objects such as the clothespin, the chair, the cloth, to the polis or nation-state and even the Judeo-Christian God (an act of collective human imagining). She observes that this reciprocation is almost always magnified. 

This is where the coat and its relation to the poem, comes into her argument.

She asks us to consider a coat made by a woman called Mildred Keats: she spends 2 weeks making the coat, but wears it for 20 years (here is the magnification effect of the artefact as lever). The 2 weeks of physical discomfort while she sews the coat are repaid many times by the warmth and mobility it provides her, thus freeing up her awareness of her body and its needs so that she can work on other aspects of world-making.

Similarly, John Keats writes a poem. He projects his own private thoughts and emotions into the poem (if inevitably imprinted by the discursive context in which he writes); it is printed, circulated, and now exists in the world of material objects for us to read. Perhaps it takes him 3 hours to write “Ode to a Nightingale.” It is still with us almost 200 years later. Each time it is read, “its power now moves back from the object realm to the human realm where sentience itself is remade” (p.307). We breath into his words, give them life; and they work on us too, reworking our consciousness.

This is a modest claim, then, for poems as artefact-levers, like coats, which are projected out into the world, and then return, magnified, modifying consciousness through time.

the poem as artefact that bears traces of its own making

January 24, 2013 § 4 Comments

It is also possible to think of a poem as a material artefact, whether constructed out of sound, or the letters of the alphabet, which function as a fossilized notation of sound. Jane Hirshfield’s observation on the experience of speaking or reading a poem is again useful:

“Saying a poem aloud, or reading it silently if we do so with our full attention, our bodies as well as our minds enter the rhythms present at that poem’s conception. We breathe as the author breathed, we move our own tongue and teeth and throat in the ways they moved in the poem’s first making. There is a startling intimacy to this. Some echo of a writer’s physical experience comes into us when we read her poem.” [1]

She reminds us that words have a physical origin, anchored in the body of the poet. Nor is it incompatible to think of a poem as both material artefact and living flesh; the poem as material artefact is a projection of the human being (the human body) into the world—a projection of sentience, moral perception, emotion, idea—in a form which can now be shared with others, and which can last through time, working on the world as other tools of our material culture do—which then, as Marx and Scarry note, rework our own sentience, our own selves.

Hirshfield also reminds us of this material nature of the poem—the poem as artefact—when she observes how the effect of time alters our perception of it. Strangeness in the language of a poem as it ages through time functions as a kind of patina for future readers, a historical ‘signature’:

“When an original grows old, its dated words and syntax serve as a kind of watermark. Age in itself gives substance—what has lasted becomes a thing worth keeping. An older poem’s increasing strangeness of language is part of its beauty, in the same way that the cracks and darkening of an old painting become part of its luminosity in the viewer’s mind: they enter not only the physical painting, but our vision of it as well.” [2]

To describe a poem as we might a painting helps us to remember that, however ephemeral or immaterial a poem may seem, it is still a physical thing that can work on the world as much as a telescope or a microscope, tools which help to extend our range of sight. As an object which can hold and share a human’s perceptions and sensations with others, even those who live far in the future, the poem might be described as analogous to a container or vessel—it carries some essence or knowledge of the poet, knowledge which was once restricted to the borders of the poet’s body, but can now be shared.[3]

Another analogy I have suggested is that of a woven cloth, composed of many disparate threads. I am sympathetic to this comparison because of the work I did with “Karyotype.” Some of the poems in the sequence describe the cloth worn by the people of the Tarim Basin, and use the language of woven cloth—warp, weft, plain weave, selvedge—a vocabulary which reminds us of the complex work of weaving, a skill that was once essential to know in order to provide clothing, blankets, and other household textiles for your family, but is now almost a forgotten skill due to the industrialization of the process. As Elizabeth Wayland Barber points out, we are hardly even aware of the fact that most of our clothing is still made from woven cloth, and that the ancient patterns can still be seen in the plain weave of our cotton shirts, the twill of our jeans.

The poem-as-woven-cloth analogy also reminds us of the work and care that goes into making a poem. It reminds us that a poem bears the marks of the labour that went into its making. Just as a piece of cloth can be read for clues as to how it was made (the width of cloth produced by a portable loom; the kind of selvedges; patterns such as twill or plaid or plain weave; the smooth or rough transition from one colour or pattern to the next), so does a poem (the metre as the warp across which the rhythm is weft; choice of line endings in tension with syntax; formal and aural repetitions; transitions from one stanza to the next, from octave to sestet, and so on); these clues also tell us something of the skill of the maker.

I find it very difficult, excruciating, in truth, to look at my poems for this reason—I see the awkward transitions, the slips, the failures of technique, raw places where I could have done better. A poem is never finished; there is always more work to do.

Take for example ‘Karyotype XVI’:

XVI

Running the length of the skinny
little body, the narrow cloth
is wrapped, the tan warp tucked across

her like the threads of a cocoon,
as she is waiting to emerge
from her long sleep. Moon-

face in her pod of softest brown
stitched closed with carved bone pins,
the mottled wasp-nest skull

and tapered form
so carefully framed with selvedges
and checks, as if a young woman

made this as she learned to weave,
a sampler gangly as the child
she had to wrap so carefully and leave

in the cold ground, her child.

[This poem first appeared in Event Magazine;
my thanks to the editors.
]

I find it almost unbearable to read for the technical errors I see shot through it. I worry about the line breaks in the first stanza, and the way the sentence breaks across the first stanza into the second. Why end the first line on “skinny”? Why end the third line on “tucked across” and place “her” at the beginning of the fourth line? It could easily go at the end of the third line as a downbeat, an extra syllable resulting in a feminine ending, still iambic in sound. I suppose it could be argued the break between the first and second stanzas enacts the warp stretched across a space from life to death, to accommodate the body.

The rhyme throughout is very slant (I was simply aiming for two lines in each stanza to rhyme, at least in part): cloth/across, brown/pins, form/women. And as Mary Kinzie has noted in Poet’s Guide to Poetry, end rhymes are harder to hear if the lines don’t end on the phrase or clause or the close of a sentence, as with enjambed lines the ear is already skipping ahead to the next line to complete the syntactical construction. I’m not sure if I like the repetition of the phrase “so carefully,” one to refer to the work done on the sampler/shroud, the second to the wrapping of the child’s body in this piece of cloth. The lines don’t scan very smoothly—they are also awkward, although it improves a little towards the end.

There are elements I like as well: the way the penultimate line breaks off at “leave,”—again, the unbearable space between life and death—and the final line resumes after crossing this space, “in the cold ground, her child,” so that “the child” is separated from the mother, as the line orphans her. I like that I attempted to describe the child and her shroud accurately: tan warp, stitched closed with carved bone pins, the mottled wasp-nest skull; the language of weaving and making is merged with natural forms made by insects (cocoon, wasp-nest). So despite the technical errors, I still feel protective towards this ungainly poem, as if it enacts the woven sampler with its awkward transitions that show the inexperience of the maker. The poem seems to me now unwittingly like the cloth sampler it tries to describe.

‘Karyotype XVI’ is based on a photograph and description of the Qäwrighul child in Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s Mummies of Ürümchi. The photograph shows a child of about eight years old who was wrapped in a shroud of cloth which Wayland Barber reads as a ‘sampler’ because of the evidence she sees  in the traces of its making, traces that show the weaver was inexperienced: uneven colour zones, haphazard transitions, “but that is how one learns.” Wayland Barber speculates that perhaps the young woman who wove the cloth eventually used it—perhaps now a piece of scrap cloth—to wrap her child in before placing her in the grave.

I tried to write this poem a second time, outside of the Karyotype sequence. I decided for the second attempt to use blank verse, and to try to describe the sampler in more detail—the oatmeal and tea-coloured patches, Barber’s technical analysis of the work. This time I was more conscious of the comparisons that could be drawn between the inexperienced work of the woven cloth, and the writing of the poem as artefact—as made object that bears traces of its own making.

[1] Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, p.7-8.

[2] Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, p.67.

[3] Ursual K. Leguin explores this analogy as it relates to narrative fiction in her essay, “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.”

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