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.

on making a chapbook 2

January 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

When you make your own book, with your own hands, you must evaluate the worth of the poems you will include—are they worth the time and effort it takes to make each physical book? worth the environmental resources of paper, ink, and glue? Every decision is your own—which poems to select, their sequence, the typographical layout, the kinds of papers you use—and will shape the final appearance of the book, just as the marks of your labour will appear as imprint or trace in each copy.

Many years ago I took a one-day workshop on making chapbooks with a local poet called Tim Lander. He told us, “Sew your books on BC Ferries. Cut your pages with a penknife whose blade is dulled from pruning tomato vines. If you prick your finger while sewing a signature, erase the drops of blood.” If not stained with actual blood, every object carries the signature of its maker—traces of the work that went into it: the awl pierced the paper here, not here; here she slipped and made two punctures; here the end pages are somewhat crookedly glued in (a lapse in concentration, the last chapbook made that day?) These are the marks of your own labour. I sewed the book here and here. I wrote the copy number on the title page here. This necessarily alters the relationship between reader and writer, in that it becomes more intimate, as if we have almost, not quite, touched.

Within the context of a complex argument about making, Elaine Scarry describes Marx’s insistence on “the body’s presence in the made object (e.g. a bolt of woven cloth)” which “is soberly, often movingly, pointed to again and again. Marx’s designation of the single artifact as a ‘body’ is at some moments based on the concept of use value (the woven cloth refers to the human body because it has ‘use to’ the living body, at once objectifying and eliminating the sentient problems of temperature instability and nakedness) and is at other moments based on its being the materialized objectification of bodily labour (the woven cloth is a material memorialization of the embodied work of spinning, for it endures long after the physical activity itself has ceased: ‘the worker has spun and the product is a spinning’).”[1] I want to come back to this later, but what I like here is the insistence on the contact that is made between labouring body and artefact, and on the way in which an artefact can carry a memory of this labour.

Jan Zwicky’s Songs for Relinquishing the Earth was originally made by hand, and sent to people as they requested a copy. Now it is reproduced as a ‘facsimile’ by Brick Books as she couldn’t keep up with the demand. There is a note inside my facsimile copy explaining this: “Part of Jan Zwicky’s reason for having the author be the maker and distributor of the book as a desire to connect the acts of publication and publicity with the initial act of composition, to have a book whose public gestures were in keeping with the intimacy of the art.” Inevitably, the memory of labour carried by a hand-sewn copy made at a kitchen table is lost, or at least dimmed, in a facsimile edition. Something similar happens with Anne Carson’s Nox, a facsimile we are told of a notebook of poems and images she made as an act of mourning for her brother. I felt disappointed by the tidy “recreation” of the notebook, if it did in fact exist—the tidiness and uniformity of the facsimile made me doubt in its existence, suspecting that it was always planned as a published book. Although perhaps there is more going on in Nox, some gesture towards the inevitable absence at the heart of language, that we only ever know others through representation, performance, memory—that there is no original. I don’t know if I find this gesture empty or compelling. Somehow the mass-produced book (especially if it is trying to appear hand-made) works against the fragility of the gesture of remembering. At least, this is my first instinct; Scarry warns against sentimentalizing the cottage-industry and the hand-made, that mass-produced factory objects also participate in the act of constructing and maintaining civilization; a mass-produced coat, for example, can also provide warmth and comfort, on a much larger and more accessible scale than a coat sewn by hand.

So far I have been writing only of the physical book, but it is also possible to think of language itself as material. The poems are made of inked letters; they are the fossilized trace of breath. This also carries intimacy. Jane Hirshfield writes: “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.”[2]

But this isn’t the direction I want to go in for now. I am still interested in the chapbook as sewn book or pamphlet, as a physical object which bears the marks of—which remembers—a poet’s labour.


[1] Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain, p.247.

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

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