Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Speech, Meter, and Meaning in Shakespeare's Sonnet 129

Two of the main resources available to the poet writing in meter are the tension between the line and the sentence (this is available to the poet writing in free verse, but what poet and critic John Hollander calls the metrical contract of, say, the iambic pentameter line foregrounds the reader’s expectations of the shape of the line and thus also foregrounds violations of those expectations and deviations from that shape), and the tension between the meter and the speech rhythm (this is a resource that is largely lost to the poet writing in free verse). Shakespeare's well-known sonnet 129 exemplifies the ways in which the tension between metrical pattern and speech rhythm can be a source of energy and a mode of making meaning.

Sonnet 129

Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and, till action, lust
Is perjured, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad.
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof, and proved, a very woe,
Before a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows, yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

There is a great deal of question about how much the sequence of the sonnets reflects Shakespeare’s own arrangement, though it’s clear that the first 126 are addressed to or about the beautiful young man (let’s not forget, as many people seem to want to do, that the great majority of these poems are about one man’s love for another man), sonnets 127 through 152 are about the so-called “Dark Lady,” the speaker’s mistress, with whom the beloved young man has an affair, and sonnets 152-154 have no connection to the rest of sequence. The sonnets about or addressed to the young man present a much more idealized view of love than do the so-called “Dark Lady” sonnets, which are both more sexual and more cynical (as in the famous sonnet 138, “When my mistress swears that she is made of truth,” in which the poet and his mistress get to lie with each other because they lie to each other).

If the order of the sonnets as we have them reflects Shakespeare’s own arrangement, it’s interesting that Sonnet 130, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” a parody of the conventions of Petrarchan love poetry (her teeth are like pearls, her hair is like spun gold, her cheeks are like roses, her voice is like music, etc.) and specifically of the blazon, in which the beloved is as it were anatomized, broken down into her component parts which are praised and compared to various precious objects (I’ve always thought that there was something dehumanizing about the blazon), immediately follows this sonnet about the pains and dangers of sexual desire. It’s as if the speaker has resigned himself to his state of sexual enthrallment: he sees that his mistress is not perfect, but also knows that no real woman is, and that the perfect image of the Petrarchan beloved is not only unattainable (the Petrarchan lover’s desire is never satisfied) but also unreal. A real woman is better than an idealized goddess, not least because one can actually have her. (Pardon any implication of sexism in the use of the language of possession; I am writing from the then-contemporary perspective.)

But back to the tension between metrical pattern and speech rhythm. In this sonnet, we are immersed from the first line in the speaker’s agitated, disturbed state of mind. He is trapped, and unhappy about his entrapment, and his language reflects that. Though they can certainly be scanned as iambic pentameter, the first three lines of the sonnet have four heavy stresses (and the third line is loaded with stop plosives, “p” and “b”s); the fourth, made up largely of monosyllables (“cruel” has to be read disyllabically to make the meter work, but that’s not how we would naturally read it) has five such heavy stresses. The second quatrain’s lines scan more easily, but the stresses are still very heavy, highlighting the emphatic nature of the utterance. And the first line of the third quatrain line starts with a trochee (one would hardly pronounce it “Mad IN”—a preposition almost never takes a stress in speech, unless one is emphasizing the difference, in this case, between being in and being out of something). The line after that begins with a spondee, the comma giving equal stress to “Had” and the first syllable of “having”—again, the emphatic nature of the speaker’s utterance is foregrounded. The last two lines of the third quatrain scan more easily, but throughout the poem both the heavy punctuation and the piling-up of short phrases serve to break up and agitate the metrical pattern, constantly forcing the reader to stop and start again. The predominance of monosyllables and disyllables (only two words, “despisèd” and “possession,” are longer than two syllables; though “murderous” would normally be trisyllabic, for the purposes of the meter its second syllable is elided, so it’s pronounced “murd’rous”) also reinforces the heavy stresses, since shorter words take stronger stresses than longer words. (Even in a word with more than one stress, the stresses are not equal; there is a primary stress and one or more secondary stresses.) Strong stresses, in turn, slow down a line.

All this—the predominance of short, heavily stressed words, the heavy punctuation, the metrical substitution—works to slow down and break up the meter and to act out the speaker’s agitated state of mind. Through these three quatrains, the speaker has been immersed in his dilemma, caught up in the coils of lust as in the coils of a boa constrictor, and his language has reflected that. In the final couplet, the sonnet’s volte or turn, however, he steps back. In the standard rhetorical structure of the sonnet, the first portion lays out a problem, dilemma, or a situation, and the second portion presents, if not a solution to the problem, then at least a response to it. Here, in the concluding couplet we have a turn of mind; the situation has not changed, but the speaker’s relationship to it has. Having expatiated on the experience of lust in action from within that experience, he steps back and comments on that state. He is no longer in the midst of the experience, but now looks at it from the outside: “All this [that I have said about lust] the world well knows.” At this point, the rhythm evens out. There is only one comma in the final couplet, and the meter scans perfectly. The greater rhythmic poise enacts the speaker’s greater mental calm. He has moved out of the midst of entrapment, at least temporarily, and can now look on it with a colder eye: we all know these things, and yet we do them anyway. The poem opens up into a larger comment on human nature, and on the inability of our knowledge to control our actions when faced with overpowering primal urges. One can almost see the speaker shaking his head with a rueful smile.

This leads perfectly into the next sonnet: my mistress is no goddess, but she is a woman and she is mine. He is resigned, but he is also healthily realistic.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Lexicon of Blog

Although I have said that I will not write anymore about blogging and the discourse of blogs, I couldn't resist reprinting this tidbit from the British newspaper The Telegraph, which modestly touts itself as having "Britain's no. 1 quality newspaper website." The Times and The Guardian might dispute that claim, but this snippet by Mark Sanderson from their July 19 "Literary Life" column was quite informative and darkly entertaining.

"Lexicographers at Oxford University Press have been monitoring the use of English in web-logs in order to update the Oxford English Corpus which provides the basis for their dictionaries. This is no mean task: there are now more than 70 million blogs around the world and 120,000 new ones are created every day.

"They have come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as 'bloglish'--surely the ugliest neologism since Crimplene--but an analysis of the words most used by bloggers suggests that a word is needed for the self-obsessed stream of impoverished English used by most writers on the web.

"For the record, the top 15 most frequently used words are: blogger, blog, [shit], oh, yeah, stupid, post, ok, stuff, lovely, myself, update, nice, me and my."

Apparently most bloggers are even more self-regarding than even I had thought.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Timeliness and Timelessness in Art

Anthropologist and cultural theorist Robert Philen has a recent piece on his always fascinating blog on "Great Art, Timeliness, and Timelessness".

Here are a couple of quotes from this insightful essay.

"Great art always has two qualities with relation to temporality. It is of its moment – any art cannot help but be shaped by the realities of the era, but great art also reflects and shapes its moment, and does so in a different manner than equally great art of an earlier era. It is timely. Simultaneously, great art transcends its moment, it communicates powerfully well after its creation. It is timeless.

"It is possible to have the first quality without the second, that is, to be timely without being timeless."

"While timely art without timelessness is a clear possibility, I’m not convinced that the second quality of great art, timelessness, is possible without the first, timeliness. Part of what allows for transcendence is the artist’s tapping into a universal human experience, that of grappling with reality, attempting to understand one’s surroundings and reality and attempting to shape that reality, and presenting this in artistic form requires a grappling with and groundedness in contemporary reality. In great art, we see a union of the concrete and timely and the universal and timeless."

I urge all interested parties to read the entire piece. Philen promises a follow-up piece in which he will apply these ideas to the work of the jazz and classical trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

Monday, July 23, 2007

A Few Thoughts About Formalism and Marxism

In comparing the accounts by Clement Greenberg and John Berger of Cubism, as in assessing their approaches to painting and its history in general, it’s essential not to pit one against as if their theories were in opposition, “formalism” and “Marxism” as two mutually exclusive and incompatible monoliths. This would be untenable not only historically—Greenberg was at least during the Thirties and Forties a Marxist, and more specifically a Trotskyist—but descriptively. John Berger’s concern for art is not simply a concern for a mode of ideological production but for a specific material practice, which concern is central to my understanding of formalism as a descriptive rather than a pejorative term.

To quote from Thomas Crow’s comparison of Greenberg and Meyer Schapiro, who occupy in his argument roughly the positions Greenberg and Berger occupy here, “Both see the commodification of culture as the negation of the real thing, that is, the rich and coherent symbolic dimension of collective life in earlier times; both see beneath the apparent variety and allure of the modern urban spectacle only the ‘ruthless and perverse’ laws of capital; both posit modernist art as a direct response to that condition, one which will remain in force until a new, socialist society is achieved. Given these basic points of agreement,...how do we explain the extent of their differences?” (“Modernism and Mass Culture in the Visual Arts,” reprinted in Francis Frascina, editor, Pollock and After: The Critical Debate).

It seems to me more productive to approach these two positions, for which “Greenberg” and “Berger,” “formalism” and “Marxism,” may be made reductively to stand, dialectically, as mutual rather than exclusive poles; the poles of an opposition are, after all, defined each by the other. Far from negating one another, the viewpoints of Greenberg and Berger are necessary to one another. Each by itself is partial and thus, when pursued to its extreme, untrue. To quote Adorno on the dichotomy of “high” and “mass” culture, “Both are torn halves of an integral freedom, to which however they do not add up” (Aesthetics and Politics).

In the broadest terms, which inevitably distort as much as they clarify, the two positions can be stated quite simply. For “formalism,” each art is motivated by its own internal forces and laws of development of technique, resources, and possibilities toward an ever-increasing consciousness of itself as medium, an ever-increasing emancipation not only from psychological or social demands but from the norms and demands of other art forms. This is the argument of Greenberg’s 1940 essay “Towards a Newer Laocoon,” though nowhere stated in the form I have given it here. For “Marxism” in its crudest form, that form dismissed as “vulgar Marxism” by many who then proceed to be equally vulgar (for example, art historian Nicos Hadjinicolaou, whom I have discussed in my essay “How Not to Read a Rembrandt”), art is an ideological superstructure of an economic base: “it belongs in the superstructure rather than the base of a historical process which moves on two levels, only one of which is effective” (Arthur C. Danto, The Philosophical Disenfranchisement of Art). Art, as an epiphenomenon of political economy has by definition no internal motivations for its development.

In Berger’s version of the Marxist position, the development of art is determined by the development of social relations and forces: to which art, when “real,” is a response; of which, when merely a part of “the normative tradition,” it is merely a reflection. In this view, art’s increasing autonomy is illusory, a concealment of art’s social bonds and a denial of its continuing ideological role. Berger, however, allows that this illusory autonomy can produce real benefits in the explorations and experiments which it makes possible, experiments which are always at least implicitly experiments with reality. Berger does not deny the internal, technical development of painting as a medium, and indeed discusses technical developments at length, but he sees this development as an expression of social, political, and technological developments in the world at large. Berger is never very precise in his treatment of “society,” tending to treat it as a largely undifferentiated whole in exactly the fashion against which Marxism developed the concept of contradiction, i.e., social classes in constant struggle. Berger writes in his influential 1967 essay “The Moment of Cubism” (reprinted in The Moment of Cubism and Other Essays) that “Cubism changed the nature of the relationship between the painted image and reality, and by so doing it expressed a new relationship between man and reality.” This is not a statement with which Greenberg would disagree, though he would object to making the relationship between the two lines of development closer than a parallel. Indeed, Greenberg writes in the first paragraph of his 1940 essay “Towards a Newer Laocoon” that “It is quite easy to show that abstract art like every other cultural phenomenon reflects the social and other circumstances of the age in which its creators live, and that there is nothing inside art itself, disconnected from history, which compels it to go in one another direction or another.”

What strikes me in even this most broadly-sketched picture of the two supposedly opposed positions is that both are true: a phenomenon quite common in life, though rarely acknowledged in polemic. Neither includes the other, but neither negates the other. Indeed, the degree to which the two arguments acknowledge one another is striking. Greenberg examines one part of the development and within the explicitly laid-out limits of his field of examination his arguments and conclusions are perfectly assentable. Similarly, Berger, in addition to sketching in the “world” which gave birth to Cubism, which cannot “explain” why Cubism as an artistic phenomenon came into being or took the forms that it did, examines the Cubists’ practice as painters, though his focus is on the external, non-artistic “meaning” of this artistic practice. Berger sees art as having a “function” of producing new knowledge through interpreting (in “artistic” terms) new experiences and realms of experience. Greenberg sees artistic practices and the art objects they produce as forms of knowledge in themselves. The knowledge that art produces within and about itself is on a par with the knowledge about “society,” “man,” and “reality” that Berger sees it as the function of art to produce and convey.

Near the conclusion of “Towards a Newer Laocoon,” Greenberg writes that “The imperative [for developments in art] comes from history, from the age in conjunction with a particular moment reached in a particular tradition of art.” It is the conjunction, and the particularity of the items conjoined, on which I would focus. Greenberg’s purism, which springs from similar roots as Adorno’s, that is, the desire to preserve a realm of human activity from the logic of the commodity and of instrumental reason, instantiated for both of them in the culture industries, too often isolates the artwork from its context and thus separates being from meaning. What Thomas Crow has, with some exaggeration, called Greenberg’s “eventual modernist triumphalism” belongs to a later phase of his thought, certainly not to that in which he writes that “it is necessary to examine more closely and with more originality than hitherto the relationship between aesthetic experience as met by the specific—not the generalized—individual, and the social and historical contexts in which that experience takes place” (“Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” first published in 1939, reprinted in Art and Culture: Critical Essays). Berger’s referentialist utilitarianism too often reduces the artwork to a representation and an example of sociopolitical forces and circumstances taken as the “real,” neglecting the artwork’s status as a reality in itself as well as an image of a reality, what Danto calls “a semi-opaque object.”

That art is conditioned, and its development often motivated, by social forces is both obvious and undeniable. That its relation to these forces is determined by its own development as art and by the changing relationship of the activities and objects designated “art” to other social practices is equally obvious and undeniable. In artistic practice the two realms of forces these two positions represent (in both senses) operate in dialogue: this interaction is the dialectic of modern art. Aesthetic theory would benefit if it followed the lead of its object of investigation, rather than demanding that art conform to its theoretical and/or polemical strictures and reductions.

Monday, July 16, 2007

A Few Thoughts on the Dramatic Monologue

A dramatic monologue is a poem written in the voice of a specific, definite character who is not the poet: the speaker is a persona, a mask. It’s a monologue because it has only one speaker, though there is sometimes (as in Browning’s “My Last Duchess”) a silent interlocutor whose unheard (or unread) responses help shape the speaker’s discourse and the meaning of the poem. (In such poems addressed to a specific listener, though only one person speaks, both the speaker’s and the listener’s point of view are inscribed into the poem.) It’s dramatic because it’s as if spoken by a character in a play, “a poem which seems to be a speech taken from some dramatic encounter between an imagined character and someone he or she addresses” (who may, as in a soliloquy, be him or herself, or even no one) (Shira Wolosky, The Art of Poetry: How to Read a Poem). By revealing a character in the context of a dramatic situation (a “soul in action”), a dramatic monologue provides knowledge not just about the speaker’s personality, but about the time, the setting, key events, and other characters involved in the situation at hand, even if they are not present.

The modern dramatic monologue, in the manner of Tennyson’s “Ulysses” or “Tithonus,” is often as much about the varying emotions of a single mind as about a specific dramatic situation—that is to say, it overlaps a great deal with the personal lyric, except that the person in question is a persona, explicitly not the poet. One critic has called many modern dramatic monologues “mask lyrics” (“persona” means “mask” in Latin), as they often involve the poet assuming another identity in order to more powerfully or directly express his or her own emotions through the safety of dramatic distance. As Browning (who called his poems in this form “dramatic lyrics,” emphasizing the blurring of genre boundaries) wrote, “I’ll tell my state as though ’twere none of mine.” Expressing one’s own emotions or experience through the medium of another character can be a way to produce a larger context for personal material, so that it doesn’t remain purely idiosyncratic; it can also be a way to gain the necessary shaping and controlling perspective of art, by projecting oneself outward from oneself.

Shira Wolosky writes that “The complexity of poetic voice is most obvious in poems that are quite explicitly structured through a speaker who is not the poet. In such a poem, the speaker is specifically defined or presented as [a distinct] character and is often presented as if speaking to (a silent) addressee….[The] dramatic monologue is one case where the question of poetic voice becomes central and is specifically dramatized. The fact that the ‘speaker’ is a dramatic character clearly distinguishes him or her from the poet, whose voice, however, is no less represented in some manner through the speech-act of the invented character” (The Art of Poetry).

The dramatic monologue highlights the question of voice as something made, not found: the speaker of any poem, however personal, is always a mask, a persona, a production of the act of writing. In this sense, the dramatic monologue highlights the verbal foregrounding that is central to all poetry, in which the language is not meant to be seen through, as in much prose, but to be experienced in its own right. In a dramatic monologue, the writer has nothing but the voice, the what and way of saying, to produce the character for the reader, without the props of setting, description, interaction with other characters (except implicitly). The character must come alive purely through his or her way of speaking, through the words that conjure him or her into being while producing the illusion that he or she precedes and produces those very words.

One of the things that literature can do for us is to show us how it feels to be someone else, to be in another place, another time, or simply in another person’s skin. The dramatic monologue is the perfect exemplification of this attempt to become, if only momentarily and contingently, another, the other. Reading Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” we get a sense of what it’s like to be an aging king whose adventures are behind him, but who seeks (perhaps in vain) to go out in a final blaze of glory, rather than sitting at home waiting for death. Reading Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” we see a man clearly revealing more than he intends to reveal about himself (indeed, he reveals more than he seems to know about himself); we see the distance between his self-image and the person others see, but we also understand how he sees himself.

My Last Duchess

Robert Browning

That’s my last duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Frà Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ‘twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say “Her mantle laps
“Over my lady’s wrist too much,” or “Paint
“Must never hope to reproduce the faint
“Half-flush that dies along her throat”: such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ‘twas all one! My favor at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace--all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,
Or blush, at least. She thanked men—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—which I have not—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
“Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
“Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and make excuse,
—E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will’t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below, then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretense
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!


Alfred, Lord Tennnyson

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an agèd wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel; I will drink
Life to the lees. All times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea. I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known,—cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honored of them all,—
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch where-through
Gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades
Forever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains; but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the scepter and the isle—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfill
This labor, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centered in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.
There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail;
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me—
That even with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil;
Death closes all. But something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Ann Lauterbach on Schools, Movements, and Poetic Identities

One of the benefits of having a web log is that it puts one in contact with people one would otherwise never interact with. Conversely, one of the drawbacks of having a web log is that it puts one in contact with people one would otherwise never interact with. In some of my recent online interactions, I have been struck by the eagerness of some people to label me and make sweeping assumptions about my tastes, opinions, and positions, often on the basis of a proudly professed ignorance of anything me or my work. They simply decided that, not being a member of their club, I must be one of “Them,” and thus irredeemably worthless if not outright evil. These interactions, in turn, have me thinking again about the will to categorize, label, and pigeonhole both oneself as a writer and other writers that is so prevalent in the online poetry world. Such fixations on labels and side-taking seem more prevalent in the online poetry world (certainly in the world of poetry blogs) than in the print poetry world, where things are much more fluid and flexible, though such compulsive territorializing and fence-building is far from absent there either.

Ann Lauterbach, a brilliant poet and an equally brilliant thinker about poetry, has in various essays made several acute observations on this situation, as well as its larger intellectual and social context, in which poems are defined, judged, and even written (but rarely actually read) in terms of their authors’ social or ideological identities, whether presumed or professed, imposed or embraced. I quote them here for the edification of all interested parties.

“It is no secret that the academy has, over the past several decades, increasingly stressed theoretical and critical reading, promulgating a subtle inversion by which so-called primary texts have become secondary, mere pretexts to argue or ‘prove’ one critical ideology or another. Much that is invigorating and compelling has come of this, providing a hugely expanded vocabulary for discussing aesthetic objects, but there are danger signs, at least in the poetic community, of an increasingly eviscerated and arid landscape. The aspiring young poet begins to write in such a way as to invite a certain critical attention, to ‘fit’ her work into one or another critical category. This is the main function of being identified with a group or school, to draw critical attention that individual poets, not affiliated with a movement or group, cannot easily attract. ‘New York School’ or ‘Language Poetry’ are given brand-name status, commodifying and homogenizing, so that critics (and poets) can make general identifications and totalizing critiques without having to actually contend with the specific differences among and between so-called members of the group. Those not so identified are left out, often understandably embittered or confused, as the idea of an individual iconoclastic poet gives way to collaborative and tribal identities. Thus the marginalized world of poetry begins to imitate other identity formulations which increasingly govern contemporary academic, cultural, and political life. Frightened by exclusionary clubs, the poet ceases to identify herself with the essential margin from which a vital critique must come.”

“In this culture, the choice begins to be either to move into the denuded brilliance of celebrity or become part of a group which knows itself not because its little dog knows it but because it represents the Society of Little Dogs. Thus allegiances are formed not so much by ideological choice but by a priori cultural determinates; one identifies with those who most resemble what one already claims as identification (I am a woman, therefore I must be a feminist). The idea that the act of reading expands and extends knowledge to orders of unfamiliar experience has been replaced by acts of reading in order to substantiate and authorize claims and positions which often mirror the identity bearings of the reader.”

This is a wonderful Gertrude Stein quote that Lauterbach cites: “The manner and habits of Bible times or Greek or Chinese have nothing to do with ours today but the masterpieces exist just the same and they do not exist because of their identity, that is what any one remembering then remembered then, they do not exist by human nature because everybody always knows everything there is to know about human nature, they exist because they come to be as something that is an end in itself and in that respect is opposed to the business of living which is relation and necessity” (Gertrude Stein, “What Are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them?”).

“Misquotations from Reality,” Diacritics, 26:3-4, Fall/Winter 1996. pp. 152, 153.

“Among my graduate writing students there was a noticeable deficit of references to sources, literary or otherwise, outside their immediate foreground; among African-American students, I found a tendency to write from the perspective of racial identity that demanded a public stance toward the self, as if the self were a stereotypical example whose voice must uphold, and reflect, the most unnuanced and prolific negative assumptions about black life in America. Individuailty was conflated with identity….”

“The Night Sky II,” The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience. New York: Viking, 2005, p. 77.

“[W]e need to question the notion that we can talk with any clarity about the academy when there are so many institutions that now invest in contemporary writing, each of which has a different perspective on, and alignment to, poetic lineage and practice. These perspectives are often directly attributable to the specific poetics of poet/teachers within a given program….

“We need to think about how so-called ‘schools’ come into being, through what agencies they disseminate and become part of an historical narrative. I am thinking, for instance, of the poet in and around Black Mountain, the New York School, the Beats, the San Francisco Renaissance, the Harlem Renaissance, and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, each of which represents a particular extension and hybridization of a recognizable poetics. At what point does a group of poets with a loose configuration of affinities and concerns become a school or movement, and at what point does this named entity become the property of literary history, a commodity?” [RS: I question in what way a literary movement, however reified, can become a commodity in any but the loosest metaphorical sense.]

“The Night Sky IV,” op. cit., p. 102, 103.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Reflections on Poetry and Disaster

It seems that everyone and then some has weighed in with his or her responses to or thoughts about the events of September 11, 2001, so I thought that I would make my contribution as well. Poetry played an important role in helping me come to grips with both those events and what was made of them in the media. As for most people in America and around the world, my only access to those events and their aftermath was through their media representation. Though I grew up there and remember the construction of the World Trade Center, I no longer live in New York City and don’t know anyone who was directly affected.

William Carlos Williams famously but not, I think, accurately wrote that, though the news cannot be found in poetry, men die every day for lack of what is found there. It distorts what poetry actually offers to aggrandize it in this way. People die every day, often in large numbers, for all sorts of quite material reasons, and many people live perfectly well, even happily, without poetry. As Edna St. Vincent Millay, also famously, wrote of love, it is not meat nor drink, nor slumber nor a roof against the rain. And yet, it’s much better to live with it than without it.

I do believe that poetry embodies and enacts kinds of knowledge, and not just thematically, but in its form. One kind of knowledge poetry enacts is that of rightness of relation, of part to part, of part to whole, and of whole to part. This rightness of relation is a model or an imago of a just society. Though many things in our world are an affront to the very idea of such a society, that rightness of relation was a consolation to me in responding to what has become known as 9/11.

Death, Continuance, and the Lights

A poem that I turned to in the aftermath of the destruction of the World Trade Center seems on the surface to have nothing to do with the disaster, but it nonetheless resonated very much for me. It’s by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and appears in her first book, Random Possession, published in 1979 by I. Reed Books and sadly now out of print. Here is the full text of the poem.

Suspension Bridge

You say all of us
even if we fail become lights
along the awesome bones. Separated
by darkness, humming through wires
on windy nights, bellying out
you’re so sure the current is personal

Not like the firefly
that lives for a month
jolted at random by a blank force
that never knows the brightness
of its shocked body
even on cool nights above the grasses
when it loves, victim to victim.

One thing that moves me about this poem is the promise of continuance, the sense of cycle in the poem’s melding of the man-made with the natural world: we die as individuals but life goes on, our works fade or collapse but the work of making continues. The hint of immortality in the promise that we will all become lights makes the terribly clichéd notion of a thousand points of light concrete in the image of the world as a field of glowing fireflies (corresponding to the image of the bridge as a string of lights). Given the context of socio-political extremity, I can’t help but think of the end of Auden’s “September 1, 1939” (rather too obvious a choice about which to write, though I re-read it many times in the weeks following September 11), the ironic points of light of the Just flashing out their messages. I don’t have Auden’s confidence of being among the just, let alone the Just. The modesty of Berssenbrugge’s claims feels much more appropriate to me, the tentativeness of the hope it proffers more accurate and realistic.

Though this poem is about a bridge, I think of the World Trade Center’s awesome bones (the myriad vertical struts making up the structural redundancy that was intended to permit the towers to survive the impact of an airplane crashing into them), now bent and broken. “The blank force/that never knows the brightness/of its shocked body” will for me always evoke the planes crashing into those shining towers on that bright clear morning. But I am still consoled by the poem’s assurance that our lights are not merely fireflies, fleeting victims flickering quickly out of existence, but will go on: that though lives end, life goes on. There are moments at which truisms are nothing less than true. Despite the apparent distance of its subject matter from the horrors of September 11 (though the poem does deal with a massive structure of human design), it’s the poem’s juxtaposition of death and survival, its sense of recurrence and things going on despite death, including and containing death, that makes the connection for me. And the lights.

Some Things to Do With Tears

I read Allen Grossman’s collection How to Do Things With Tears several times in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks and it was a source of great solace to me, a reminder of the news it is possible to get from poetry, and the life, of the spirit if not always of the body, that poetry can help sustain. The book addresses the question of what is to be done with tragedy and mortality, of how they can be addressed without being trivialized or merely turned into more poetry.

My poem “Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear,” which appears in my most recent book, Fata Morgana, is a poem “about” the World Trade Center disaster, or at least about the mediated spectacle of the disaster (the mirror being of course the television screen through which I and most people experienced it). The poem was born under Grossman’s sign, as it were. How to Do Things With Tears, and the notes at the end of it, especially the second note, gave me a way toward this difficult subject, as well as an admonition about the dangers of approaching it at all. And I did find myself in tears at several points watching the televised deaths of strangers in a city in which I had not lived in years. Grossman’s book showed me what might be done with those useless, vicarious tears.

I used Grossman’s phrase “there is nothing that will suffice,” as one of the poem’s original epigraphs, to underscore my sense that in such a situation poetry indeed, as Auden wrote, did nothing, and that perhaps what it did was of dubious worth, but then decided that it was perhaps too directive and explanatory of my intentions. I felt somewhat ambivalent about writing this poem, and about the impulse to write it, not wanting to make poetic capital out of suffering (in the way that the relentless media exploitation of the catastrophe made so much more literal capital out of it), but the poem is critical (and self-critical) about the impulse to turn suffering into song (what the marvelous poet Michael Anania called in a note to me elegy as felix culprit), and about the vicarious participation in the pain of others.

In one passage of his book’s notes, Grossman writes that “Any NEW poetry must be aware that there is nothing that will suffice. Any new poetry must be aware of insufficiency, unanswerability in response to what anybody knows, with respect to what consciousness is conscious of. There is, in this matter of poetic thinking (poetic realism), no distinction possible to be made between consciousness and moral consciousness.” I tried to get something of that sense into the poem, to have the poem itself critique poetry’s relentless urge to turn the world into elegy, another occasion for song, music however mournful. My own work has tended to be much about that mournful music, so there was definitely a self-critique involved. The church sign, by the way, is real, as are the songs.

In an interview with The Harvard Advocate, Grossman says that “A strong poetry would be a poetry that discerns and finds a poetically adequate means of bringing to mind the catastrophe of history.” “Objects in Mirror Are Closer than They Appear” was my attempt, perhaps foredoomed by definition, to find such a poetically adequate means of confronting rather than simply surrendering to history.

Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

I stow this moment with all the other baggage
too heavy to be carried or left
behind. Roadside church sign says The Lord
is the Lord who made us the way we are us
He scatters the remnants and collects
them at a later date (unspecified): sorts them
into neat piles. I have watched twin towers fall
a dozen times. An absence moves through
the wreckage while the light stays put; the rats
will have to find another home.

Song keeps repeating I watched you suffer
even after the song’s turned off.

History picks her way in high heels
through the structural redundancy (still shimmering
with its recentness, its haze of airborne ash
and grit), compassion makes his way through the structured
inequality in blue serge suit to interview survivors of
the structural adjustment, the combined
and uneven development that bursts into flames
at half an hour intervals, implodes
in slow motion with a televisual sigh
(catches up with photogenic falling bodies).

Song wants to soothe the sidewalk misery
into grief, smooth the debris into a shroud.

Lamed truth hobbles into another dark
through crumpled girders and concrete, calibrating
ruin and song, ruining the song
for the sake of what was life: hands out these
glass splinters, mercies and atrocities
that can’t be lulled into music,
the ignorance we call innocence.
They taste like burning (a violent antidote),
incapable of caring if it harmonizes, or
unwilling to succumb again.

Song won’t shut up, keeps saying Don’t look
. Justice tries to listen for a low tapping sound.