‘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.


language, flesh, clay: miscellany 4

May 31, 2014 § Leave a comment

“Dear Lorca, I would like to make poems out of real objects. The lemon to be a lemon that the reader could cut or squeeze or taste — a real lemon like a newspaper in a collage is a real newspaper…” Jack Spiller qtd. in Gerald L. Bruns, The Material of Poetry, p.9

— “Imagine a poem of pure extension, that is, one that does not mirror the world but contacts it as if language were a mode of touching and not just saying.” Bruns, p.9

— “Marx had hoped that over time new human senses would develop; he never seemed to have imagined that entire spheres of sense experience might be lost for many first-world people: a tacit knowledge of tools and forms of dancing or of carrying infants, the disappearance of ways of living with animals or cultivating plant life, along with the smell and feel and sounds and even tastes that accompanied such practices; the sound of wind in uninhabited spaces; the weight of ripe things not yet harvested. These experiences are gone, and even their names will soon be gone. The historical body of poetic forms is more and more an archive of lost sensual experiences; by now an aura of nostalgia accrues around the notion of the poetic itself.” Susan Stewart, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses p.332

— “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.” p.27 Terrence Des Pres, Praises and Dispraises: Poetry and Politics, the 20th Century

— “‘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 different ideas in each language and in each of the periods of the evolution of language, then this provides a much thicker material that is not superficial, which is a thing that one can mold 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, Modern Poetry and the Idea of Language p.280

— reading Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Fish’: “Here’s a beautiful series of echoes. Sometimes it’s simply the chiming of a repeated vowel (far and larger; scratched and glass); sometimes it’s a more complete rhyme (shallow and yellowbacked and packed). Then there are echoed initial consonants (tarnished and tinfoil), and subtle groups of near-rhymes (seen and lenses and isinglass). Such music-making lends the surface of language the complexity and interest of the surface  that’s being observed. The tongue and the muscles of the jaw must work to produce these sounds; even when we’re reading silently there’s a subtle physical participation taking place, an unspoken sounding of the poem’s words. This physicality — heightened by a progression of sounds whose thickness means we have to labor to enunciate them — is a way of mirroring the physicality of the world.” pp.25-6, Mark Doty, The Art of Description

— “The musicality of poetry, its sonic texture, is a value in itself. It is, to some degree, the essence of poetry, that which makes the poem irreplaceable by a straight-forward translation into prose: the poem’s body of sound is its specific, particular flesh.” p.117 Mark Doty

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

“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.

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