melos, opsis, root: miscellany 3

October 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

Stephen Spender, Life and the Poet:

“…there is no dividing line between the poet and the audience which enters into his poetry. The poet puts into words the potential poetry of other minds. If they accept it as poetry, it is because they accept it as their own poetry, something which they, given the illumination, now see, and might have said.” p.50

–“The greatest poet of an age is the poet who accepts most of life whilst penetrating farthest with his question ‘What does this signify?’ The greatest modern poet would be the poet most capable of accepting the most anti-poetic and brutal phenomena — war, slums, tyrannies — and revealing them as expressions of man’s spirit even in being denials of man’s spirit. All the conditions created by humanity are a language of phenomena, however destructive and oppressive.” pp.51-52

Sapphic stanza

— 4 lines: 2 hendecasyllabic verses followed by a third in the same form + continuing with 5 extra syllables (which becomes the 4th line in modern verse, known as the Adonic or adonean line)

— key:   — long  u  short  x ‘anceps’ = free

— u — x — u u — u — —
— u — x — u u — u — —
— u — x — u u — u — —
— u u — u

from Welsh, Roots of Lyric

— “The ‘real core of poetry’, [Frye] writes, is not descriptive meaning, and not the poet’s cri de coeur (which is a description of an emotion), but a subtle and elusive verbal pattern that avoids, and does not lead to, such bald statements’ (p.81).” p.18 Welsh Roots of Lyric

— roots of lyric are melos (music/’babble’) and opsis (image/’doodle’ a la Frye); motion or movement through time & stasis, the still image

— that melos & opsis are “fundamental powers” p.21, not a plaster stuck on to some underlying ‘meaning’; that riddle and metaphor (opsis) “engenders thought by teaching us something” p.32; a riddle creates a space for knowing; “The riddle’s peculiar vision leads to complex and paradoxical ways of knowing something, ways that good poets will not allow to be resolved simply” p.44; images as an “intuitive language”

— Pound’s “ideogrammatic method” as a kind of thought that moves from the concrete towards the abstract (cherries/rose/flamingo/iron rust = redness); there are energies between images

— similarly, rhyme can also draw connections between words: “…rhyme in poetry has a way of moving beyond ornamentation, a way of discovering significant connections between the meanings of the rhyming words” p.123

— Frye, on the origins of the music of lyric in language: “‘an oracular, meditative, irregular, unpredictable, and essentially discontinuous rhythm, emerging from the coincidences of the sound-pattern'” p.134 (Anatomy p.271); i.e. an organization of “sound echoes” distinct from metre  p.134

–“Melopoeia… is a force that leads poetry away from precisions of word and meaning, but that may be, as Pound said, a bridge to non-verbal consciousness….” p.155

Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry

–“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.” p.67

Terrence Des Pres, Praises and Dispraises

–“The odd carnality of words is that they arise ex nihilo, become incarnate in their saying, then instantly depart while at the same time they leave an imprint that resounds. Poetry activates memory through its soundings — through rhyme, alliteration, etc., but also tone, inflection, and finally the entire  ensemble of ‘voice,’ which is the earthly shape of sound in motion. Language of this memorable  kind is capable of persisting through a void or, on the other hand, through the dense  chaos fo language in the world. Poetry — any set of lines we prize — sorts itself out from the infinitude of babble and allows us moments of coherence, of lucidity and self-possession as close to unity of being as most of us shall come…” p.27

–“Language and imagination together constitute a system of grace and a force…” p.27

— use metaphor to be precise–how seeing similarity or likeness in disparate things can help to bring the thing into better focus, as if applying to it a series of lenses
— describe materials his body will become: resemblance//becoming  sinew, string, root; the organic body described in terms of other organic things, & inorganic materials

Gerald L. Bruns, The Material of Poetry: 3 theses:

1. “that poetry is made of language but is not a use of it” p.7 i.e. “Poetry is language in excess of the functions of language….” p.7

2. that poetry is “not necessarily made of words but is rooted in, and in fact already fully formed by, sounds produced by the human voice…” p7/8

3. that poetry “does not occupy a realm of its own…poetry enjoys a special ontological relation with ordinary things of the world” p.9

“The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas  thinks of language not as a mode of cognition and representation but as a mode of proximity, sensibility, or contact, as if language were corporeal,  like skin.”  p.9

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.

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