“no poet ever aspired to become ‘President of the Earth'”: miscellany 2

October 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

“The people M. referred to as ‘we’ were those he continued to converse with all his life, even when they were no longer here. There were three of them — but apart from these three, there was also the whole of world poetry, which knew no bounds of time and space. It does not matter what place a poet has in it however small it may be. The very smallest place — just a couple of successful lines, one good poem, a single well-said word — entitles him to enter the fellowship of poets, to be one of ‘us,’ to partake of the feast. I am quite sure that no poet ever aspired to become ‘President of the Earth’ — the very title was only a joke of one of the most naive of them…The pass to poetry is granted only by faith in its sacramental character and a sense of responsibility for everything that happens in the world.”
— Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Abandoned, pp.116-117

“M. was clear in his mind that poetry is a purely personal affair — this was the secret of his strength. Communing with oneself alone, one says only things that really matter.”
— Hope Abandoned, p.90

“With joyful anticipation, he thought of the day or two which he would set aside and spend alone, away from the university and from his home, in order to write a poem in memory of Anna. He would include in it all those random things which life would send his way — a few descriptions of Anna’s best characteristics; Tonya in mourning; street incidents on the way back from the funeral; and the washing hanging in the place where he had wept as a child and the blizzard had raged.”
Dr. Zhivago, p.89


from Roger Payne’s Among Whales:

— humpback whale songs follow rules similar to human songs; prob. not song lines, as in Australian aboriginal songlines (“Songs that store descriptions of many points and features needed to keep track of where one is, what landmarks to look for and points at which to change course during a long journey” p.155)

— “We don’t even know where in their bodies to look for the sound-making apparatus.” p.159; perhaps are shunted through valves & sinuses in their heads; they don’t have to open their mouths to sing — sound travels from watery (95%) body to water of sea easily

— “When you are very close to a singing whale you can hear it singing right through the hull of a quiet boat. The boat’s hull acts as a kind of sounding board to help the sound pass from water to air.” p.160

— “Music is fluctuating patterns of energy. When music is played, everything is affected and shaped: the drum, the drum skin, the wood of the drum, air, ears, walls, floors. The physicist Brian Swimme notes that ‘We think of the drummer as playing the drum only; in truth, the drummer is playing the world.'” p.166



— image or pattern in paper which appears as shades of dark & light when seen by transmitted light — caused by variation in thickness in paper; digital watermark: embedding information into a digital signal (audio, video); steganography: “data is carried in the signal itself”


“Poems in Celan are instrumental, dialogic, orientative, because the East is always and only the vanished other person. Poems are intended to engage in the recovery of orientative possibility — the mother’s body, let us say, which has disappeared — by putting language (the competence for which is the specifying difference of humanity) in service of Richtung, orientation in space and time. Enlightenment has inflicted upon language a wound — a reality wound (Wirklichkeitswund — wound, trauma of knowledge, darkness inflicted by light).”
— Allen Grossman, “Poetry and Enlightenment” True-Love p.10


from Shale Magazine (Gabriola) Issue 17, Sept. 2007:

— “Unweathered sandstone in the upper-Nanaimo Group formations is a bright bluish grey with flecks of black amphibole, milky-white feldspar, and sparkling mica. On exposure, it quickly develops a weathered ‘surface zone’ that has an overall sandy-brown colour. (When fresh, the colour sometimes includes warm-coloured hues such as pink, orange, rose, buff, dark red, or brown). Sandstone that has weathered for a very long time, including below the surface zone, has lost most of this colour and appears predominantly dull grey often with a brownish or greenish cast, with the surface zone being typically darker. The surface zone itself may acquire a patchy, eggshell-thin, dark-red or dark-brown rind that eventually turns black” p.51

Geothite, which is named after the German poet, is usually very dark brown, which, when old, appears black.”

Hematite, the possible intermediary between ferrihydrite and geothite, is dull to bright red (seen in Gabriolan-made bricks and the sites of bonfires on the beach.” p.53

— on the ‘honeycomb’ holes in the sandstone: “One admittedly attractive idea is that ‘rock bees do it,’ presumably at night when nobody is looking. An interesting variant of this theory, worth a couple of points, is that the holes are the burrows of ancient molluscs, only now being revealed to the outside world by the erosion of the rock.” p.53-4 Vo.9 August 2004


from Shale Magazine, Issue 2, March 2001: Coast Salish place names on Gabriola:

tle:ltxw (False Narrows): “Sounds like tla alt. The word means ‘rich place’ or ‘expansive dwellings.’ This site is the site of a winter village and large clam bed. Burial sites are extensive throughout this area. An important creation story is linked to this site. It is the story of Mink, the trickster, who lived here with his grandmother, sought out the Chief who kept guard over fire. By kidnapping his child and deceiving him into believing that many people live at tle:ltxw, Mink was able to convince the Chief to give him his fire drill. From this time forward, the Snuneymuxw have had the ability to make fire.” p.24

xwkwumluxwuthum (Thompson Point): “Sounds like wh kwumlo whuthom. The word means, ‘little roots.’ Roots, particularly camas roots, were an important food resource for the Snuneymuxw.” p.24

— qwunus (a rock west of Indian Point): “Sounds like kwun usThe word means, ‘whale.’ This is a rock in the shape of a whale with its mouth open.” p.24; there used to be many whales, esp. humpbacks, in the Strait of Georgia

“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

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
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….

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