Saturday, December 29, 2007

Some Thoughts on John Ashbery's "Some Trees"

John Ashbery's wonderful "Some Trees" seems in many ways a response to Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man.” In both poems, an object or group of objects in the material world, arbitrarily chosen and yet significant because of that choice, is the occasion for a med­itation on how to live in that world, how to make one’s way through a world not of one’s making. In Stevens’s poem, one “must” have a winter’s mind, the mind of a man made of snow (which is to say, a man who is not a man at all), to look out on the winter landscape and perceive no misery there, in the sound of the wind and the leaves in the wind. But what does “must” mean? That one should have such a mind, that one should turn such a colder eye upon the world, declining to invest it with feeling and meaning? Or that only an actual snow man, “nothing himself,” at one with his wintry land­scape (indeed, a feature of that landscape), could so see the world, perceiving “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” Given how much of something the poem presents us (nothing is nothing to see), asks us to behold, I would settle on the latter point of view.

“Some Trees” presents a friendlier landscape, although an equally contingent one. These are, after all, only “some” trees: there is no guarantee that any other trees will offer such muted epiphanies, or even that these trees would do so on a different morning. “These are amazing.” These and no other trees? Or would any group of trees so amaze, if looked at properly? (I am reminded that for William Carlos Williams, poetry was a mode of attention, and anything could be­come a poem if paid the right sort of attention.) These trees are amaz­ing in part because they are in relation, “each / Joining a neighbor.” As Nietzsche wrote, before there can be one, there must be two: that everything connects is a never-ceasing source of wonder. And these mute trees speak, their “still performance” a silent analogue of speech. In his sonnet “Correspondences,” another poem about rela­tion, Baudelaire wrote that nature is a living temple from whose pillars confused words issue forth. Are not these trees, some trees at least, such pillars in nature’s temple?

And we have arranged to meet by accident (a throw of the dice will never abolish chance, as Mallarm√© has reminded us) far from the world and yet wholly within it, agreeing with its speaking picture, its silent discourse. As far from the world as agreeing with it is very close indeed, though never fully there (can we ever be fully there, fully present?), on this morning that seems full of possibility, as beginnings always seem to be. And suddenly we are “what the trees try // to tell us we are,” though the poem never tells us what that is (to do so might shut down possibility), or even who “we” are. The poem is intimate (every reader is invited to be part of this “we,” like these trees, each joining its neighbor) and yet distant, from the world, from any reader (who is this we of whom we are not only invited but assumed to be part?). The trees, after all, are together yet apart: rooted in place, they cannot move any closer to one another or, for that matter, any further apart.

But these trees mean something, or so that is what they try to tell us, whoever we are. But how do we know what they are trying to tell us, or that they are trying to tell us anything? It is in this way that the poem responds to “The Snow Man”: it is, after all, “a winter morning,” and the days are “Placed in a puzzling light” not unlike Stevens’s “distant glitter // Of the January sun,” cold light in which one sees “the junipers shagged with ice, / The spruces rough” in that distant glitter. More trees seen in winter light, some trees and not other trees (pine trees, junipers, spruces). The trees in Ashbery’s win­ter morning are probably bare too, perhaps also crusted with snow, shagged with ice. And maybe it is morning in Stevens’s poem, the sun not rising far above the horizon all day.

We behold some trees and they mean to us, we hear some wind and it means to us. We are not snow men. In Stevens’s poem, what we see is the burden the bare trees bear, but also the beauty of that burden: cold pastoral. What we hear in the wind’s sound, in the sound of the leaves the wind carries and drops, carries and drops, is misery. One must have a mind of winter not to hear it, and who has such a mind? Not the speaker of this poem. In Ashbery’s, we see those trees and somehow hear them too. They mean, but what they mean is the possibility of joy: “soon / We may touch, love, explain.” Not now, and not certainly, but we may, and we may soon. (This seems a bright and sunny winter morning, cold but invigorating.) The words that issue from nature’s pillars are after all confused, but that’s to be expected when speech has become a still performance, or rather, when it is as though a still performance were speech, as though speech had become such a tableau vivant.

We have not invented such loveliness (the loveliness of hope, the beauty of potential), and we are glad not to have. It is some­thing beyond us, an outside that confirms and consoles us. It sur­rounds us, a comfort but also a constraint: contra Schopenhauer, the world is not all will and idea. As Stevens writes in his “Adagia,” “All of our ideas come from the natural world: Trees = umbrellas.” Or at least some trees do, a shelter from the rain or even from the snow.

The silence is already filled with noises (the noise of the wind, per­haps, of a few leaves in the wind, some leaves). The world around us, this little piece of it, this place in which we have arranged to find ourselves, to meet one another and our world by chance, is “A canvas on which emerges / A chorus of smiles” (the synesthesia is, I think, deliberate, the speech of a still performance, some trees’ soundless urgings). It is “a winter morning, / Placed in puzzling light”: we can experience but never wholly understand the world; the light discloses but does not explain. And it is moving: we are moved, whoever we are this morning, but the world is moving too, life is all motion. “Minute by minute they change,” writes Yeats; and Stevens reminds us that the blackbird whirling in the autumn winds (so close to winter, yet so far) is just a small part of the pan­tomime. The days are reticent, at least our days are reticent—or rather, our days have put on such reticence (the reticence that tells us so much once we choose to really listen, so much we have not invented but we have definitely interpreted). We may soon touch, love, explain (all these things that trees can’t do, not some trees, not any trees), but when we don’t know, or even if these things will happen at all. Right here, right now, these implications, innuendos, inflections of morning light seem sufficient: “These accents seem their own defense.” What else can be expected of the world but hints? That the world should speak at all, however reticently, in however puzzling a winter morning light, is enough, is amazing indeed.

Those sure are some trees.

This is an excerpt from my essay "Only in the Light of Lost Words Can We Imagine Our Rewards," which appears in the special section of Conjunctions issue 49 celebrating John Ashbery's eightieth birthday and also here on the Conjunctions web site.

Friday, December 21, 2007

On Richard Strauss’s Die Frau Ohne Schatten

Richard Strauss’s Die Frau Ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow) is one of my favorite operas, and though it is a complex work, I am nonetheless struck by how insistently even intelligent commentators misunderstand it. In his otherwise excellent A Song of Love & Death: The Meaning of Opera, Peter Conrad writes calls it “a top-heavy treatise on cosmic biology”; he writes that “the subject of…Die Frau is continuity, the extension of human life through childbearing.” In [Wagner’s] Ring the world’s salvation lay in love. In Die Frau Ohne Schatten, it can be replenished and saved only by procreation.” In his also excellent Opera in the Twentieth Century, Ethan Mordden explicitly equates the shadow that the Empress lacks with fertility, completely missing its obvious role as a symbol for or manifestation of the soul (a common association around the world) and thus for the true humanity that she lacks and must earn. To reduce the opera to a story about the necessity to bear children is completely to miss its deeper meanings (which are not so obscure or obscurely presented). In Die Frau, as much as or more than in Der Ring (in which, after all, the world is neither saved nor redeemed, simply destroyed in the hope of a better new beginning), love (not just eros, selfish sexual love, but agape, selfless love for and compassion for one’s fellow creature) is the means to salvation. The ever-insightful Paul Griffiths, in one of his two chapters on twentieth-century opera in The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera, gets it right when he calls the opera a “fairy-tale of quest and self-discovery.”

Die Frau Ohne Schatten is the story of two couples, the Emperor and the Empress, who live in a realm above the human but beneath the heavenly, and Barak the Dyer and his Wife, who live very much mired in the human and the material world. That Barak is the only character in the opera with a personal name (the others simply have titles indicating their roles or positions) is significant, for he is the representative of true humanity, a humanity toward which the other characters strive, should strive, or fail to strive, and are variously rewarded or punished for their ability or unwillingness to achieve it.

But though he is a person of virtue, Barak does not change over the course of the opera, and indeed, there is no room for him to do so. Beginning as a paragon of patient goodness, what else could he become? As for the Emperor, he is hardly a character at all. As the Nurse sings to the Spirit Messenger who has come to warn her that the Empress must acquire a shadow within three days or he will be turned to stone, the Emperor is a hunter and a lover, and for the rest, nothing. He is noble and regal, and that is all. Even his love for the Empress is abstract, since we never see the couple interact. He has two scenes and participates in the final ensemble, but spends most of the opera either out of sight or turning to stone.

It is the opera’s women who change, and by so doing they not keep the plot moving but undergo the transformations that are its meaning, each in her own way learning the meaning of love. If to be human is to change and to be capable of change, to be capable of willing oneself to change, then they are the opera’s true embodiments of humanity, as opposed to its static, unchanging heroes. It is the women who act; the men either respond to or are affected, positively or negatively, by their actions.

Both couples are childless, but their childless state is an indication that in neither case has their love been truly fulfilled. More significantly, the Empress has no shadow, which is to say, she has no soul. She is the daughter of Keikobad, the king of the spirit world, who in his absence is a portentous presence throughout the opera, the judge who sets the plot in motion in order to test the characters and see if they are to be found worthy. The Empress formerly had the power to transform herself into whatever shape she chose (which is perhaps an indication that she had no real identity in our terms), but then was captured by the Emperor when she took the form of a gazelle. The two married, but she still lives between two realms, no longer part of the spirit world, but not fully human either. In Conrad’s words, “the Emperor and the Empress are infertile because [they are] too loftily inhuman.” The Dyer’s Wife is a younger woman married to an older man, who dreams of a life beyond their modest hut. As Conrad writes, “the dyer Barak is denied offspring because his wife is disgusted by natural functions and the servitude of the body.” But she is disgusted by servitude in general: despite or perhaps because of her namelessness, she’s doesn’t just want to be someone’s wife, to live a life wholly circumscribed by others’ definitions. As director Paul Curran points out, the Dyer’s Wife is “surrounded by color but has no color in her own life at all.” She can almost be read as a proto-feminist: her rejection of motherhood is a rejection of social roles and expectations.

In Paul Curran’s words, the opera “centers on women and their consciences.…Strauss’s operas nearly all deal with the female state. It’s a fascinating mix of the fantastical elements of the Emperor and the Empress with the more earthy level of Barak and his wife. But both women have the same crisis of conscience—one’s about buying, and the other’s about selling. It’s about selling your faith and your fecundity.” The story of the opera is the story of the two women. As in most of Strauss’s operas, the male characters, especially the Emperor, are somewhat peripheral. Barak has a good amount of stage time, much more than the Emperor does, who has two big scenes and then the ensemble finale, but he is rather static, an embodiment of goodness and patience and love. Some of his music is very lovely and moving, but the character is a bit two-dimensional. It is the women who are genuine characters, because it is they who change.

The Empress discovers that if she does not acquire a shadow within three days, the Emperor will turn to stone and she will be returned to her stern father. Her Nurse (another nameless character identified only by her position and role, which is to serve), who accompanied her from her father’s court, finds this a delightful outcome. She despises even the elevated human realm the Emperor inhabits, and longs to return to the spirit world. But the Empress begs her aid in finding a shadow, and out of love for her charge and against her own desires the Nurse agrees to help her. But because the Nurse is utterly alien to humanity, she can only imagine stealing a shadow. The Dyer’s Wife, dissatisfied and discontented with her lot, seems the ideal candidate. She can easily be persuaded to sell her shadow for riches and a sexual liaison with a handsome youth the Nurse conjures up (a liaison the Dyer’s Wife finally rejects).

But in the end the Empress realizes that she cannot and will not save her beloved husband at someone else’s expense; she will not steal the Dyer’s Wife’s shadow, that is, her soul. The Dyer’s Wife realizes that Barak’s love is a treasure in itself, and that all he asks is her love in return. She realizes that her shadow, her soul, is not a possession that can be sold; she has earned the right to what was hers all along. The Empress knows love, but it is a selfish love—the Emperor makes her happy, and thus she wants to save him. When she discovers an altruistic love, one that demands that she give up what she wants for the sake of another—when she moves from eros to agape—then she is saved, and then she can save her beloved. It is at that moment, when she renounces the Dyer’s Wife’s soul even as her husband turns to stone, that her shadow suddenly appears and the Emperor is restored to life. “Keikobad pardons all [except the unrepentant Nurse who, having failed the test of empathy, is punished to live among humans forever] in a happy apotheosis, for his daughter has thus earned not the surface identity of humanity—the shadow—but its true shape, self-conquest” (Mordden). She has earned her own soul.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Do Some Good Today (And Every Day)

I've just started chemotherapy today (one day down, two to go--three days in a row, every two weeks for the next six months). So far it's not so bad, though it already burns my throat to drink anything cold. Once again, I appreciate all the supprt and good wishes readers of this blog have sent my way. It helps give me strength in this difficult time.

Speaking of giving, since this is the time of year of giving (as if there should be only one), I'd like again to post this list of web sites on which one can make free donations simply by clicking. It only takes a couple of minutes to do them all.

Ecology Fund

These six sites are all linked to one another:

The Hunger Site
The Breast Cancer Site
The Child Health Site
The Literacy Site
The Rainforest Site
The Animal Rescue Site
(this site features rescue stories with photographs of cute animals)

Please try to visit all these sites on a daily basis (one click per computer is counted each day). It's a quick and easy way to make the world just a tiny bit better. Which is better than making it worse, which so many with power I seem to want to do these days.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Impossibility of Representation

It's been pointed out to me that on the Poetry Foundation's Harriet blog Major Jackson lists this blog as being both "In" and "Out." I suppose this shouldn't be surprising, as people have often responded ambivalently to me. On the other hand, I rarely have the opportunity to be "In" under any circumstances, so I suppose I should be pleased. As Oscar Wilde didn't quite say, it's better to be talked about ambivalently than not at all.

I am still not up to writing new blog entries, especially after having had to go the emergency room again with complications from my cancer surgery, but I did want to post something, so I am putting up this older piece which I was pleased still seems to hold up to scrutiny. I hope that you agree.

Gerard Manley Hopkins is, in critic Denis Donoghue’s terms, and despite his spiritual preoccupations, an erotic rather than a sacramental poet. The sacramental poet lets the object be, celebrating it in its own terms, whereas the erotic poet can never let the object be: for him, it is an occasion for the definition of his own powers, "and he is tender toward it for that reason" (Donoghue, William Butler Yeats). This has something to do with the nature of Hopkins's language in particular, and something more generally to do with the possibilities of carrying the thing-in-itself into language without transforming it into something else: something rich and strange, perhaps even something more wonderful than the object it was before it was taken up into language, but nonetheless, something always no longer itself.

This is the nature of the aesthetic act. Critical theorist Herbert Marcuse defines art as that which effects a transformation upon the natural and the phenomenal. But this can present a grave conundrum or even contradiction for the poet who claims a primary allegiance to “the thing itself.” Such an avowed allegiance or desire is the basis of much of twentieth century American poetics.

The aesthetic transubstantiation of the object is particularly clear in an 1871 passage in Hopkins’s journals describing the processes of steam-rising and evaporation over a cup of hot chocolate. I will quote only the first portion of the rather lengthy entry here:

“I have been watching clouds this spring and evaporation, for instance over our Lenten chocolate. It seems as if the heat by aestus, throes/one after another threw films of vapour off as boiling water throws off steam under films of water, that is bubbles. One query then is whether these films contain gas or no. The film seems to be set with tiny bubbles which gives it a grey and grained look. By throes perhaps which represent the moments at which the evener stress of the heat has overcome the resistance of the surface or of the whole liquid. It would be reasonable then to consider the films as the shell of gas-bubbles and the grain on them as a network of bubbles condenses by the air as the gas rises.”

Hopkins’s effort to accurately observe what is before him, and to precisely notate what he observes, is palpable. Yet the passage abounds in such qualifications as “seems,” “can be perceived like,” “perhaps,” “represent,” “as,” “may look,” “I think,” “possibly,” and “It would be reasonable to consider,” all of which indicate an approximation rather than an exactness of re-presentation as well as a scrupulousness about the lack of “fit” between object and description. These are the words and phrases we use when we are not certain either that we have seen rightly or that we are capable of properly representing in language what we have seen. But is it ever possible to adequately embody the object-in-itself in language, or is such an idea as “adequacy” of word to thing itself a product of language? Hopkins clearly aims at such adequacy, such a justness of relation; he seeks, as it were, to make the flesh word. But in all his efforts to celebrate the object in, of, and for itself, and even against his own will (though not against the will of language), Hopkins finally celebrates only his own recreation of the object.

Hopkins sets himself the task of communicating the incommunicable in visual terms: yet, because language is not mimetic, he is attempting to name that which cannot be named, if we take a name to be a word to which its bearer responds when called. (Though language induces visual images in the mind, there is no necessary relation between those images and the language which has prompted them, nor between those images and the referent which may be considered their final cause if not source.

Poetry has often been considered the calling of things by their true names, the renewal of Adam’s task, but things do not have names, except insofar as we bestow them. Hopkins searches for essences in the realm of contingent entities; locating the transcendent in the immanent in an almost pantheistic manner (“The world is charged with the grandeur of God”), he sees the visible as the evidence of things unseen. Confident that the divine inheres in the created world (whatever his professed religion may tell him about the fallenness of that world, or about the absolute difference between creature and creator), Hopkins is free to locate his faith there: like Stevens, Hopkins makes the phenomenal world an item or at least a postulate of belief.

For one with such a worldview, observation of the visible world becomes a variety of spiritual exercise. Yet to approach an object from such a standpoint is to approach the object wanting something from it: it is to decide beforehand the nature of the object and to require that it disclose itself as of such a nature. Herein lies the advantage of language to the pantheist: if the object will not cooperate sufficiently, in and by means of language it can be transformed into whatever is required of it. A splendor of language may magically (Aldous Huxley asserted that magic is always a species of poetry) become the splendor of the object spoken of in such language.

Unlike Stevens, who seeks at least to “postpone the metaphysical pine” (though the very phrasing admits the impossibility of banishing it forever: the summer will be anatomized, whether we so choose or not), Hopkins does not mistrust metaphor, for by means of metaphor he may “carry over,” or at least to seem (that word again!) to carry over, the object into his language. The fact that the language is so very much his, however, shakes one’s credence in the object-in-itself which he claims to (re-)present. For Hopkins, what appear to be transformations of the object enacted in language (“Stars like gold tufts. Stars like golden bees. Stars like golden rowels,” et cetera) are actually attempts to bring one closer to the object’s quiddity. Things can only be described in terms of other things (language is a tissue of relations without substances: or rather, the relations are language’s substance). If one can find exactly the right things to which to relate the thing in question, then one can successfully carry over the unique particularity, the acceity, of the thing into language. As Jack Spicer hopefully claimed, things correspond.

But things do not correspond: or rather, things-in-themselves relate to other things-in-themselves but can never be conflated with or assimilated to those other things-in-themselves. How can a rock be like another rock? In language I can say it is, but what is the meaning of this “likeness”? Furthermore, the relations among things are not the relations between the words by means of which we speak of those things. Only in language do things correspond. In this view, simile (“seems,” “like,” “as”) is the admission of the inadequacy of all comparison or speaking in terms of; while metaphor attempts to conceal this failure, or will not concede it at all, simile admits that in language one can speak of things in no other way.

Language is system, and the function of system is to place things in relation. In itself every object is absolutely unique; language works against this absolute uniqueness, must work against it if language is to be possible at all. How can we call both this and this “rock”? Yet how could we communicate verbally if we were to call each thing by an absolutely unique name corresponding, or so we hope, to its absolute and individual uniqueness? You will note that there are no rocks in this essay, although there are “rocks.”

In any act of verbal description or representation there is a tension between words as corresponding to things in some concrete fashion (the immemorial search for the absolute language Pound thought he had found in the Chinese ideogram) and the arbitrariness of any relation between a word and an object (which have nothing in common save that they are both objects of the sensible world). Can one truly represent the thing or can one only concatenate a series of words-in-relation that one presents as analogous in the universe of verbal discourse to the object in the wordless multiverse of the “book of nature”? And how is one to decide whether this series of words is analogous, let alone adequate, to that toward which it gestures? In the language of Hopkins’s journals and poems this tension is reflected in the coexistence of bafflement and charm: the alterity, the utter otherness, of the object exists in tension with its apparent amenability to being appropriated into language and thus into the familiar. Hopkins addresses this in his distinction between the true and false instress of the thing. But if we cannot know what the thing is, then how are we to know what it is not?

What one first notices about Hopkins’s language is its extreme oddity: of vocabulary, of syntax, and of rhythm. This verbal idiosyncrasy, what amounts almost to a private language, is the product of the tension between absorption into the thing observed and the contrary determination to carry over the object intact into language, to represent silence by means of speech: which latter task makes it impossible for one to treat language as if it were a transparent medium. The claims of language are chastised by the deformation of language, which both highlights and utilizes the incommensurability of language and object.

When Hopkins describes tiny icicles in the frost covering the ground of a winter garden as “like a little Stonehenge,” the understated hyperbole ironically indicates the impossibility of a verbal simulacrum which would be adequate to the natural object. Similarly, the length at which Hopkins describes the steam over a cup of hot chocolate and the extravagance of his comparisons (the steam is implicitly equated with clouds in the sky, for example), through the very incongruity of the juxtaposition of such a tiny event to such elaborate description, undermines the idea that anything can be described at all. The passage on Lenten chocolate both embodies and confesses the paradox of representation in the course of its representational project.

The strain under which the language is put in Hopkins’s writings demonstrates both the attempt to match the absolutely unique quality of any given object and the resistance of language to any such matching. What one remembers from these passages is not the object ostensibly under description, but the language. The oddity of language betrays the object, for the object is neither odd nor familiar, known nor unknown: it simply is, and that dasein is impermeable to words. In Hopkins’s language we read not the object seen by Hopkins but language trying to persuade that it is the object. And indeed it is, for the original object has vanished, and what we are left with is language.