poetry & politics: lenses

July 8, 2015 § Leave a comment

lyrical in opposition to or in conjunction with the rhetorical

anger
–“the value of anger as a political/poetical resource” (Despres)

community & collective identity
–“we”
–related to pronominal forms (I-thou; you; we/our)
–related to readership & address (interpellation)
–different readers, communities of readers
–the bardic role: targeted audience, ‘we’
–critical interest in the first person plural (“we”):

Bonnie Costello: ‘impersonal personal’ 2009: “in what circumstances and in what terms might the poet speak of ‘we’?”

WR Johnson: ‘choral poetry’ 1982

Sharon Cameron: ‘amplified voice’ (Lyric Time, 1979)
(cited in Hunter, “Lyric & Its Discontents”)

empathetic imagination (mobilization); self moving into world

Antigone and Creon
–individual/repressed contra state; challenges to the state
–female virtu (Despres)
–poetry & the state; Plato

beauty is truth; truth beauty
–‘documentary adequacy’ (Heaney) & poetic form

poetic knowledge as a “thinking through the body” (Despres)
–the “bedrock of moral intelligence for much of feminist writing” (Despres)
écriture féminine; écriture au féminin
–body as resource, bedrock, source of power; vulnerabilities of source of power & knowledge
–Mistral: earthenware vessels
–links to ecopoetry; earth as ground for the body
–linked to ‘in situ’
–Philoctetes as model for artist/poet figure (wounded, ineffective)

Philoctetes
–Rich, Dream of a Common Language

in situ
–a poem begins in a particular moment, in a particular place, in a particular body (Despres)
–poetry stands inside history, histories

a common language
–link back to community; poetry as drive to connect
–link to dream

dream
–vision, political vision
–empathetic imagining
–poetry as dreaming body

commitment

witness

poetry as knowledge or capacity
–Oren Izenberg 2011, Being Numerous: Poetry and the Ground of Social Life
–Bonnefoy “has proposed an ethical ‘pact’ (alliance) between poet and reader, ‘another way of knowing,’ the purpose of which is to ‘renew our relationship with others'” in Hunter, Lyric and its Discontents, p.86
–Bonnefoy: ‘Foreword: Ending the Mission, Inaugurating the Pact.’ in 20th Century French Poetry: A Critical Anthology2010

‘documentary adequacy’ & poetic form

July 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

I was up late last night reading Seamus Heaney’s Crediting Poetry. I picked it up off the shelf wanting his words as much as the feel of this hardcover in the small of my hand with its gold-illuminated dust jacket of honey bees entering blue, green, and red hives — an image from the Ashmole Bestiary, c. 1210.  My copy is a discard from the Bethlehem Area Public Library, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania:

“When the bard Demodocus sings of the fall of Troy and of the slaughter that accompanied it, Odysseus weeps, and Homer says that his tears were like the tears of a wife on a battlefield weeping for the death of a fallen husband. His epic simile continues:

At the sight of the man panting and dying there,
she slips down to enfold him, crying out;
then feels the spears, prodding her back and shoulders,
and goes bound into slavery and grief.
Piteous weeping wears away her cheeks:
but no more piteous than Odysseus’ tears,
cloaked as they were, now, from the company.

Even today, three thousand years later, as we channel-surf over so much live coverage of contemporary savagery, highly informed but nevertheless in danger of growing immune, familiar to the point of overfamiliarity with old newsreels of the concentration camp and the gulag, Homer’s image can still bring us to our senses. The callousness of those spear shafts on the woman’s back and shoulders survives times and translation. The image has that documentary adequacy which answers all that we know about the intolerable.

But there is another kind of adequacy which is specific to lyric poetry. This has to do with the ‘temple inside our hearing’ which the passage of the poem calls into being. it is an adequacy deriving from what Mandelstam called ‘the steadfastness of speech articulation,’ from the resolution and independence which the entirely realized poem sponsors. It has as much to do with the energy released by linguistic fission and fusion, with the buoyancy generated by cadence and tone and rhyme and stanza, as it has to do with the poem’s concerns or the poet’s truthfulness. In fact, in lyric poetry, truthfulness becomes recognizable as a ring of truth within the medium itself. And it is the unappeasable pursuit of this note, a note tuned to its most extreme in Emily Dickinson and Paul Celan and orchestrated to its most opulent in John Keats — it is this which keeps the poet’s ear straining to hear the totally persuasive voice behind all the other informing voices.”

— pp.48-51 Crediting Poetry

I’m in sympathy with what Heaney says here about “documentary adequacy,” with the poem as documentary trace; poetry not as game but as moral urgency. I’m not sure about the tenor of the epic simile he praises and the disturbing link made between tenor and vehicle here puts into question his assertion about the moral value of poetry.

First he makes a connection between documentary adequacy and poetic form — an adequacy of form, the “rightness” of a poem in its sounding. The need for documentary adequacy — poetry’s ability to document the savagery of the world — is aligned with the form of expression; the right form has to be found, that is where the authority of poetry is found. Other writers thinking about poetry have said similar things. Terrence Des Pres (“the power base of poetry is poetry itself”), Helen Vendler (“Form is the necessary and skilled embodiment of the poet’s moral urgency, the poet’s method of self-revelation.” p.xiv from Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form). She also says a poem is not an essay, not a position paper, not an argument, not a speech, not a sermon. Mutlu Konuk Blasing in The Pain and the Pleasure of Words also emphasizes with Vendler the skilled embodiment as being the basis of a poet’s moral authority.

Regarding the adequacy of sound, Heaney gives the example of Yeats’ refrain “Come build in the empty house of the stare” from his “Meditations in Time of Civil War” as well as the “sheer in-placeness of the whole poem as a given form within the language.” (p.52):

“The form of the poem, in other words, is crucial to poetry’s power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it….” p.53

He seems to use form as synonym for sound, the poem’s music — that when something sounds right there is a greater inclination to believe it is true: beauty is truth, truth beauty. So much for those of us who are ugly.

So back to the epic simile — the simile is beautiful, and Homer in other places in The Iliad uses domestic feminine vehicles — a child reaching for its mother, wanting to be held; the mother’s body as ground. And in this particular simile, the captive woman feels the male soldier’s weapon in the small of her back: powerless/powerful, raped/rapist, one who is taken/one who takes. Her tears (of grief? how about of rage, that she is cast in such an abject role) are then compared to those of Odysseus (his tears for the slaughter all around him are as great as this anonymous woman’s for the loss of her husband).

I can understand Heaney’s praise for the ‘documentary adequacy’ of the vehicle — it feels right, this scene which has been enacted so many times. But it is being used to elaborate the tenor of Odysseus, a cold-blooded killer.  Something can sound right, can have documentary adequacy, and yet the right sounding can be morally bankrupt.

 

“a new shape of knowing”: poetry and the virtual witness

September 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

In the winter of 2003, when I was a graduate student at McGill, I participated in the massive peace marches in the freezing streets of Montreal, and later watched the invasion of Iraq begin, from the initial attacks on “targets of opportunity.” Images from street cams set up in Baghdad were broadcast live that first night. There were the shadows of men running through the streets with rifles; and at dawn, the sound of birds singing, picked up by the camera mics. I sat inside my apartment on rue Outremont, on the Ile de Montreal, but I looked out the balcony windows onto the streets of Baghdad.

From that point on I watched the war obsessively, as it was possible to do, live on television and through constant updates on the internet. This experience was therefore always mediated by a screen, heightened by the US military’s use of embedded journalists. In particular, I remember a report by Walter C. Rodgers, embedded with the US Army, in a live broadcast on CNN as he travelled through the desert with the 7th Cavalry of the 3rd Infantry Division as the invasion began: the jagged, granular look of the tanks fanning out before him, the “wave of steel” travelling towards Baghdad.

Photographs appeared on my computer screen: a woman with a tattoo of shrapnel burns on her face; a dead, swaddled infant, lying on its side on the ground, its eyes stitched closed with wet lashes. The war was so closely scrutinized and documented it was possible to track the path of a single missile that fell on a busy market in the heart of Baghdad, and killed many civilians. Later, the reporter Robert Fisk retrieved pieces of the missile and identified the serial numbers on the fuselage — 30003-704ASB 7492 and MFR 96214 09 — confirming their U.S. origins, which had been officially denied.

Fisk’s reports in the Independent became a lifeline for me — if the North American television channels offered a sanitized version of the war, Fisk tore off the bandages to show the rotting flesh, the smell of it, the injuries and waste that lay beneath.

In Praises and Dispraises: Poetry and Politics, the 20th Century, published posthumously in 1988, Terrence Des Pres explores poetry’s role amid the suffering of the 20th century; he notes in his prologue that human society has always been violent, there has always been suffering. The difference then — he was writing in the mid-80s — was that this violence had become a transmitted spectacle,  known through new media. Through this transmission of suffering a “new shape of knowing invades the mind” (p.xiv):

“The miracles of modern communications — the instant replay of events on TV, the surfeit of images provided by photojournalists, the detailed accounts of inhumanity given by survivors of all kinds, and then too the documentation from organizations like Amnesty International and Americas Watch, every page of it open to those who would know what can be known — all these sources combine with the cold-war order of things to make a uniquely twentieth-century sense of reality, a consciousness that began in the wake of World War Two with the film footage, miles of it, that gave us our first window on ‘the world.’ That shock of recognition, that climate of atrocity, is now our daily fare.” p.xv

Writing in the 1980s, Des Pres couldn’t have anticipated the evolution of the web, itself the military offspring of the US Department of Defence’s Arpanet, and the advent of new social media in the 21st century, which have the capability to limn the finest details of this shape of knowing. With this “technological expansion of consciousness”, we can know in the most graphic and precise detail — if we wish to look — of the suffering of others, of the injuries and damages inflicted on other flesh by a US drone, or by depleted uranium missiles used in the invasion of Iraq. How easily we can now look into the bodies of others.

Des Pres then speaks of the traditional role of the poet, which has been at times to show the stamina of language, to face such suffering and to provide “language to live by”; language “sufficient to hard times.” This has for me the ring of Seamus Heaney to it — Des Pres uses two lines from Heaney’s “The Haw Lantern” as the book’s epigraph; the haw as a small light to guide us by, modest but sufficient. Des Pres also quotes Kenneth Burke, who observed that “‘poetic forms are symbolic structures designed to equip us for confronting given historical or personal situations'” p.xviii.

These are some of the questions that interest me. How much suffering can a poem admit? What happens to it there? How is it spoken to? Transmuted or transformed? How does this suffering alter or transform the shape of the poem? How is the shape of knowing, the new technological consciousness,  expressed through the poem’s form? At a most practical level, the answers to these questions can only ever be worked out through the writing of a given poem.

I tentatively began to frame some of these questions in a poem I wrote several years ago called ‘”In the long hours of darkness, Baghdad shakes to the constant low rumble of B-52s.”‘ I took the title from the headline of a column by Robert Fisk. In this report he described being in his hotel room at night, and of hearing the constant terrifying drone of the B-52s sent in by the Americans to bomb the Iraqi soldiers who had set up positions in the desert, on the outskirts of the city.

I first read this column in Montreal at the height of the invasion, and was touched by the personal detail he included — the book he was reading as he lay in bed listening to the B-52s, the sound of the bombers, the drop in air pressure as they passed over, the way the vibrations travelled through the walls of the building and made even the flowers in a jar on his window sill tremble. He described how terrified he imagined the soldiers must be, many of whom were essentially untrained civilians.

I was also disturbed by the disparity between Fisk’s eye-witness experience of the invasion in a hotel room in a city on the Tigris, bounded by desert, and my own virtual experience of the war in the safety of a sheltered room in snow-bound Montreal. The form for the poem—which I wrote many years later in Vancouver— took two parts, although I think this was a spontaneous, not a consciously made, decision: first, the description of a man in a hotel room in Baghdad, hearing the drone of the B-52s all night, and tracking this noise out into the night where the soldiers are hiding in the dark; and second, my perception of the war mediated through the television screen.

‘In the long hours of darkness, Baghdad shakes to the constant low rumble of B-52s’ *

In a hotel room by the Tigris a man writes.
A jar with a clutch of flowers trembles
on the windowsill as the air pressure drops,
while out in the desert
soldiers hide in furrows of night.
A pale red stain seeps through—
its penumbra blooms
and is extinguished.
The man writes about the war
about the smell of burnt flesh
along the road north of Nasiriyah,
about this dark sound.
The air pressure drops again. A tremor
runs through the water in the jar
the thin stalks, the petals’ flesh.

Membrane of ice on the windows of this room in Montreal.
I cup my hands, peer into the television’s blue cave, and see
pale slivers of tracer fire in the desert
missiles scattered like black seeds
a pale red stain on the horizon that pours back into the dark.
Through a live street cam, somewhere in Baghdad,
the shadows of men. I can hear them—
they call to one another in their language,
and at dawn, the birds sing.

*My thanks to Prairie Fire, where this poem was first published, 33.2 Summer 2012.

Beyond the two-part division of the poem, the lines are relatively free, organized by phrase and syntax and internal rhyme. I realize now, as I read it again, that each part ends with the observation of a detail from the natural world mediated by technology: the vibration from the B-52s travelling through the flower’s stalk and petal flesh, and, as heard through the street-cam in Baghdad, the birds singing at dawn.

All of the details I record in the poem are true — both the details described by Fisk in the first section, and what I saw and heard through the street cams in Baghdad on the first night of the invasion, as they were broadcast live on television by all of the major networks. This was the night of the “targets of opportunity,” when the Americans said they had received information on the location of Saddam Hussein and attempted to assassinate him in the first strike of the war. The newscasters soon found they had little to report on, so would cut away to the live street cams to “listen in.”

And so, at one point in the dark silence of my room, I listened as men rushed past with rifles, shouting to one another as they ran; I listened as the birds began to sing; it was dawn in Baghdad.

Seamus Heaney, 1939 — 2013

August 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

Friday 18 September 2009

I find reading Heaney, then Larkin, that you begin to see the structure of the poet’s mind which is both recognizably human, in that I recognize myself, but at the same time utterly alien and unknowable. Grossman: “A poem is a fiction of a self seen from within.” Summa Lyrica p.246. No, perhaps that isn’t right — not unknowable, because I am in fact able to see or to begin to see this structure of another’s mind, which would, under normal circumstances, be completely inaccessible. Yet still alien, in that this is another mind. With Larkin, I identify and recognize the misanthropic gesture, while with Heaney I yearn for the possibility of transcendence and absolution he describes.

Monday 7 December 2009

What is it that so appeals to me in Heaney’s poems, which I want to emulate in my own? There is an economy of words in his free verse, which gives the appearance of form — 4- or 5-word lines, lines divided into stanzas — tercets or quatrains, although not always…I want to replicate the spareness of Heaney’s earlier poems, combined with his complexity of imagery — startling at times. There is also its groundedness, linked to its subject matter, his childhood on his parents’ farm…I like also the references to writing, letters, school satchels, common objects….His optimism. Their lyrical beauty — this comes through especially in his later collections — The Spirit Level, Seeing Things. They don’t chatter. They sing.

Saturday 2 January 2010

Reading Byatt’s The Children’s Book where there is a lot of discussion of pottery, clays, slips, glazes. I love the word ‘clay.’ …The words draw me — clay, slip, glaze, the metals and elements that produce distinct colours, And I thought of Heaney’s poem in The Spirit Level — ‘To a Dutch Potter in Ireland’: “Grey-blue, dull-shining, scentless, touchable — /Like the earth’s old ointment box, sticky and cool” and “Hosannah in clean sand and Kaolin/And, ‘now that the rye crop waves beside the ruins,’/In ash pits, oxides, shards and chlorophylls.” I like “sticky and cool” — the /k/s, and the word ‘sticky,’ the short and then long vowel, and the idea of clays in the ground that you dabble your fingers in like an ointment box, and of praising clay, the elements. Again it’s the alliteration — ‘clean’ and ‘Kaolin,’ although I don’t know what Kaolin is, the s‘s and sh‘s and then the final /k/ in chlrophylls. And again some kind of progression of vowels — ae, short o, long a, long o — short through long? several kinds of ‘a’? I don’t have the technical vocabulary to precisely describe this yet.

Tuesday 23 February 2010

Rain. It always makes me want to write, to sit quietly with a pen in my hand and a notebook, and work on a poem. I am learning some things about writing poems, about refusing lines that come too easily, holding out for a sharper, more precise or startling image. And about sudden turns in the direction you thought you were going, when the language takes you elsewhere. Reading some of Heaney’s poems — the earlier ones, in North for example — there is a sense of watching an artist at work on a canvas, seeing the technique of laying down words, sounds, a sudden gesture that turns the poem in a new direction, taking you sideways, or turning something inside out, the process of defamiliarization. I’m not describing it right. Throw-away lines, that seem so casual — the last lines of ‘Viking Dublin: Trial Pieces,’ about pampooties. A lightness, and a way of deflecting the too easy (too heavy) conclusion. Or the ending of ‘Bone Dreams,’ although I don’t understand it, about the animal pelt and its tiny eyes. Well, I would like to do that.

Tuesday 6 July 2010

I was reading some of the poems in North while my students wrote their in-class essay last night. Trying to think about the elements that make them distinctively his —

1. place, setting — N. Europe, the bogs, N. Ireland, and also language & dialect as place or location in which you reside;

2. his focus on violence — Iron Age violent deaths, carried in the bodies of the bog people, mapped onto the violence in N. Ireland, if obliquely;

3. A precise, even technical vocabulary, not easily accessible. For example, in ‘Bog Queen,’: turf-face, demesne wall, glass-toothed stone (i.e. granite w/inclusions? glazed with ice?*), braille, Baltic amber, crock, diadem, ‘Carious,’ peat floe, bearings (as in ball bearings), sash, glacier, ‘Phoenician stitchwork,’ ‘retted’ (what is this? “retted on my breasts’/ soft moraines”), fjords, fledge, coomb, stone jambs, skull-ware, tufts. As if looking at a stone wall, all sharp hard words, of one-syllable. No, not entirely — coomb, moraine, floe, fjord, these are all soft. Perhaps I am thinking of the meaning — archaeological or geological terms, applied to a new domaine — the woman’s preserved body. Some descriptions are modified by adjectives that suggest rotting — “slimy birth-cord/of bog,” “bruised  berries.” There are nouns made into unusual verbs, “kinned,” “ossify myself” — from different poems (‘Kinship,’ and ‘Bone Dreams’?); *or, a stone wall topped with shards of glass

4. Brilliant Metaphors — “My body was braille/for the creeping influences” — the body like a tactile text read by the elements. The body as text is not uncommon, nor is land as text to be read — a common colonial gesture. But here it is the land reading her body — this is new, isn’t it? It strikes me as original and startling. Or “they lie gargling/in her sacred heart” — as if a blood rattle, their deaths — from ‘Kinship.’ Or her brain fermenting — “a jar of spawn/fermenting underground”;

5. Spareness, precision. Each line and stanza is pared down, stripped of excess, 7 syllables per line at most, many with less, like imagist poems. There is nothing common, or clichéd, or soft — except in terms of a body which is rotting or bruised. There is economy — a “cured wound” in ‘Grauballe Man;’

6. The erotic — some element of the erotic in these descriptions of her body? Is this because it follows on the heels of ‘Come to the Bower’ and ‘Bone Dreams’? an effect of resonance? from one poem to the next. And there is the erotic married to the violent — nipples like blown amber, always in the description of the woman (Ondaatje does this also) as if describing a rape, that which is taken;

7. Content? What are the poems about? What do they mean? Is this a naive question? And yet they seem deeply significant — at the level of individual words engaging with issues of colonialism and the violence inflicted by language in addition to the historical violence towards which they gesture. e.g. in ‘Bone Dreams’ where he addresses English literary heritage: “I push back/through dictions/Elizabethan canopies,/Norman devices,//the erotic Mayflowers/of Provence/and the ivied Latins/of churchmen/to the scop’s/twang, the iron/flash of consonants/cleaving the line.” As if pushing back through overgrown, flowering plants, he reveals a cross-section of the English language, which his poem cuts through like the flash of consonants where Anglo-Saxon words cleave the line — ban hus, bone house;

8. Abrupt, unexplained transitions — in ‘Bone Dreams,’ the final section on the dead mole? He loses me here. Or is it meant to take us back to the bone he finds in the grass in the opening section? This mole also will decay, and already suggests to him a whole landscape, the “small distant Pennines.”

And then the question becomes, what can I do, what have I done?

Wednesday 15th September 2010

I am reading Human Chain, which came in the mail on Monday, and I saved until late Tuesday night….I’ve only skimmed through it and now want to read it through again, slowly. There are poems on books, and scribes, and writing tools, scraps of Virgil and Keats, echoes of earlier poems he’s written, which is disconcerting — for example, echoes of ‘The Rainstick’ from The Spirit Level in one poem, as if you’re hearing a song transposed into a different key that’s foreign to you ( a different scale?) or a song translated into a foreign language similar to your own. Some repetition of style which has become a verbal tic, like scar tissue. And it also reads like a private summing up of a life — you are welcome to listen in, such an intimate offering, but he doesn’t offer many signposts — you are on your own.

“death of the book à la russe”

August 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

We live without feeling the land beneath us,
Our speeches can’t be heard ten steps away.

But whenever there’s enough for half a chat–
Talk turns to the Kremlin mountaineer.

His fat fingers are plump as worms,
And his words are as sure as iron weights.

His mighty cockroach moustache laughs,
And his vast boot-tops gleam.

A mob of thin-necked chieftains surrounds him,
He toys with the favors of half-humans.

One whistles, another mews, a third whimpers,
He alone bangs and pokes.

He forges one decree after another, like horseshoes–
One gets it in the groin, another in the head, the brow, the eye.

Every execution is a treat
And the broad breast of the Ossetian.

–Mandelstam’s “Stalin Epigram,” translated by Clare Cavanagh

I wrote in an earlier post (poem as threat to national security/as terrorist act I: Guantánamo Bay) that in particular historical situations the writing of a poem has been perceived as a terrorist act or as a threat to national security — recent examples of this include poetry written by some of the prisoners of Guantánamo Bay, anthologized in Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak Ed. Marc Falkoff (2007), and Pussy Riot’s musical expression which led to the imprisonment of  Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Tolokonnikova being currently held in IK-14, in the same penal colony — the Dubrovlag —  that once housed the poet Irina Ratushinskaya, who was herself sentenced to a lengthy term in the 1980s for writing poetry deemed anti-Soviet.

The paradigmatic historical example of the poem as terrorist act is Osip Mandelstam, whose “Stalin Epigram” was described by his wife as “uncharacteristically coarse.” (Most of his verse is known for its intimate character and its musical play, poems which proceed by a kind of aural logic almost impossible to translate into a new language.) But as Clare Cavanagh points out in her important book, Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics, Russian and Polish poets of the 20th century have often found the need to insist upon the private nature of the lyric, the stanza or private room as stay against the monolithic culture of the state. The private realm of the lyric in itself becomes by situational necessity a political space. Seamus Heaney once described Mandelstam as “a reminder that humanity is served by the purely poetic fidelity of the poet to all words in their pristine being, in ‘the steadfastness of their speech articulation.’ Mandelstam died because he could not suppress his urge to sing in his own way” (XX The Government of the Tongue). Heaney also describes this effect as “poet as potent sound-wave” (xx).

Mandelstam’s wife Nadezhda however also noted in Hope Against Hope that she thought her husband deliberately wrote and performed his “Stalin Epigram” for people they could not entirely trust; she saw this uncharacteristic, “coarse” (‘political’?) poem, as deliberate provocation: he was baiting Stalin. Here is Cavanagh, on this “terrorist act”:

On hearing the ‘Stalin Epigram,’ Boris Pasternak reportedly exclaimed: ‘This is not a literary fact, but an act of suicide.’ Mandelstam’s interrogator likewise saw his unauthorized lines as exceeding the reach of literature proper: they were a ‘provocation,’ a ‘terrorist act,’ he charged. And Mandelstam apparently ceded the point: the poem was, he confessed, ‘a widely applicable weapon of counter-revolutionary struggle.’ All three agreed that these were not words, but deeds.
— Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics p.114

Cavanagh offers an interesting challenge to poststructuralist conceptions of écriture, the death of the author, and the death of the book by insisting on the cultural specificity required for such readings (that a metaphorical, not actual, death of the/an author is required). She notes that such phrases as the “death of the author” or the “death of the book” “are bound to give the Slavist pause, not least because such metaphors have had, in recent Russian history, an uncomfortable habit of realizing themselves as they pass from theory into practice” (p.110). She goes on to describe the many poets and writers in Soviet Russia who have had to literally burn or destroy or hide or never write down in the first place, their books, in addition to the many poets and writers who died at the hands of the state — hence the title of Chapter 3 on acmeism, a chapter I highly recommend: “The Death of the Book à la russe“.

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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