“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

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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.

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