12.22.2009

Heart & Plumbline

Quoting my own comment to previous post, courtesy of JH Stotts timely visit... :

Learned recently (from curious & deep tome titled "Hamlet's Mill", by G. Santillana & M. von Dechend) that Egyptian hieroglyphic writing often conflated the symbol for "heart" with that for "plumbline." One of the myths held that when a person dies, Osiris weighs the heart in the scales with the "feather" (symbol) of truth... there we have a kind of double measurement : the plumb-weight or plummet (of the heart), set in the scales of justice...

Anyway... nice to think of this valuation of heart, balance, measurement, & plumbline...

"In measurement began our might" (WB Yeats)

- Happy Holidays, everyone... !

12.04.2009

The humble sublime

Last month the online zine Digital Emunction posted a mini-essay I wrote, titled "Neglected Phd. monographs & the American Sublime". You can find it here. Speaking of neglect, I've been neglecting to contribute to the Plumbline. But the nice thing about websites is the archive : it's not hard to find what we've all contributed here. I hope the Plumbline will keep growing.

Anyway, the "humble sublime" might be something of a plumbline concept. The idea goes back to those great 20th-cent. critics MH Abrams & Erich Auerbach; my mini-essay begins to examine how this dimension of style has manifested in some American poets. Basically, the "humble sublime" has to do with writing that accentuates a conjunction of opposites : the "high", awesome, ineffable divine or transcendent, with the most ordinary, humble, "low" realities of human experience. (In Russian, I believe they call it something like bytye & byt - beauty & the daily grind.) Bringing the two together in some kind of Midway fairground.

11.06.2009

Gaston Bachelard on the Middle Path

I was reshelving a book in my office and noticed a volume on the shelf that I hadn't picked up in a couple of years-- a collection of selections from the work of Gaston Bachelard, On Poetic Imagination and Reverie (edited by Collette Gaudin). I remembered being disappointed when I first got the book that it was a collection of snippets rather than something more substantial. I pulled the book off the shelf anyway and flipped it open at random, coming to this:

From the standpoint of its will to shape expression, the literary image is a physical reality which has its own relief. More precisely, it is the psychic relief, the multi-leveled psyche. It furrows or it raises; it finds a depth or suggests an elevation; it rises or falls between heaven and earth. It is poly phonic because it is polysemantic. If meanings become too profuse, it can fall into word play. If it restricts itself to a single meaning, it can fall into didacticism. The true poet avoids both dangers. He plays and he teaches. In him, the word reflects and reflows; in him time begins to wait. The true poem awakens an unconquerable desire to be reread. (28) [Empahsis in original; original source: L'Air et les songes, 286.]

So sometimes the merest chance brings you something you need. (My mother used to half-believe this about the Bible, but felt it was a little too "superstitious" to be morally reliable.) I am less cautious about such things than my mother and I needed to be reminded about this middle path for poetry, which of course does not necessarily mean "mainstream." I think I was drawn to the passage, too, because of the word will in that first sentence. I've been reading William James, whose philosophy is in some ways an exploration of the idea of the power of will to create meaning. Here, Bachelard attributes will to the "poetic image" and only by extension to the poet who "creates" the image, or discovers it. This conforms with my own experience writing poems, in which language wills itself into meaning as a kind of collaborator with the one holding the pencil or sitting at the keyboard.

During my poetic lifetime -- the last thirty years or so -- it seems as if the reactionaries have had a steady presence that continues the orientation of the New Critics but without the New Critics' skills; and the theoreticians of language and power have had an opposing presence that claims at least sometimes to descend from Pound and Williams, but also from the Objectivists and Olson. (I've never got Olson and in fact published a poem against him in APR several years ago.) I've long felt bereft in this landscape. I trace my own descent from Pound and Williams, but I also acknowledge Eliot (despite Dr. Williams' disapprobation). I also honor my teacher Donald Justice, though I write nothing like him and resemble him only in my failure to be prolific and perhaps in my general pessimism. Also in my poetic makeup are some voices I have tried to disown over the years: from early adolescence Kipling and Edna St. Vincent Milay. I still have my mother's volumes of these poets on my bookshelves and while they are no longer central, I learned traditional metrical practice from them, for which I am grateful. And from my later adolescence comes my continuing attachment to the so-called Confessional School of Berryman, Plath, Lowell, Sexton, and Snodgrass. A very unfashionable group these days, but also a group, I'd argue, that practiced a middle-path poetics, with a concern for both matter and meter, subject and language.

Bachelard's definition of poetry, if that's what it is, also insists upon a reader, but a reader who has the gumption to reread, who is open to the poem's insistence on being reread. It seems to me that contemporary schools of poetry have either over-emphasized or under-emphasized the reader, either pandering or pushing away, didacticism or word play. I think the division reflects a fundamental dualism we have been unable to get beyond in Western poetics (with some notable exceptions); we feel driven to be one thing or the other, completely; we are made uncomfortable by mixed states.

[Cross-posted to Sharpsand.]

10.19.2009

Scorch the Sheets

I’ve been thinking about Joseph Deumer’s comment on my interpretaton of the last line of Don Paterson's 'Wind Tunnel’ - “I'm sort of sorry to learn that "scorch the sheets" is a slangy phrase for sex. I had in mind something closer to that cold pentecostal fire you mention earlier having simply consumed the poet without even waking his wife.” – and have come to the conclusion that he has a very good point. The phrase “scorch the sheets” certainly refers to the sexual act and I think Paterson means the reader’s mind to turn that way, and not just because -as my daughter told me she learned in English lit today –“if you don’t know, sex is always a good guess.” However, the grammar of the second half of the line – “you do not scorch the sheets, or wake your wife” – belies the obvious interpretation. “Scorch the sheets” has no onanistic secondary meaning that I know of. It seems to refer exclusively to super heated activity between consenting adults and, one would assume, would require waking one’s partner. So that “or” necessitates a rethink in mid line and Joseph’s suggestion seems to be the right way to go. Acts 2; 1-4 makes it clear that after the sound of a mighty wind filled the house the disciples saw what looked like fiery tongues moving in all directions, and “it sat upon each of them. And they were filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” It all seems like a fair description of a poetic epiphany and makes perfect sense in the context Paterson provides. So why didn’t I think of it?

10.11.2009

On a poem by Don Paterson

I wonder if my post on Don Paterson's poem "Phantom" might be of interest to the Plumbline School.

10.06.2009

R.P. Blackmur & "tradition"

Reading in & about essays of RP Blackmur, & really liking it. Unlike his more doctrinaire contemporaries, A. Tate, Yvor Winters, & other New Critics, who insisted on establishing strict moral-theological rules of order for the critical enterprise, Blackmur's approach reminds me of Eugenio Montale's "superior dilettantism".

Literature & poetry seem to be, at one basic level, the free play of human imagination. No matter how severe, serious, obsessed & tragic the writer may be, there's a form of "make-believe" going on which is irreducibly playful. & I think this dimension gives the critic a place to stand, an independence. The notion of "tradition" - literary tradition - is a purely critical notion. It has no application outside the sphere of criticism itself. But within criticism, it seems to me that tradition is rooted, not in cultural, religious, or any other kind of mores; rather, real tradition is grounded, paradoxically, in this free play of imagination. It's something grounded in aesthetics, in the sense of beauty.

I'd hate for my statements to be taken as an argument for art-for-art's-sake or pure aestheticism. On the contrary, I think most good art emerges from deep within the larger world of human behavior, history, experience, feeling & thought. It absorbs & reflects upon all those things that impinge upon our sense of beauty. This is the basic challenge to any art which would escape various forms of decadence, futility, desiccation. But the other side of that challenge is the goal of actually making something beautiful or meaningful from all those impingements. & criticism's call to evaluate the results of that challenge, in particular poems & works of art, is ultimately rooted in the tradition of the free play of the imagination. This grounding gives the critic a means to appreciate & evaluate the qualities of poems which may stem from values & beliefs very different from, even at odds with, his or her own.

(Incidentally, Blackmur, like any good critic, bases his commentary on patient, careful evaluations of individual poems - both good & not-so-good samples from a poet's work. This is a modus operandi which Mairi keeps practicing here at the Plumbline, thereby setting us a fine example.)

[cross-posted to HG Poetics blog]

9.24.2009

Wind Tunnel

Sometimes, in autumn, the doors between the days
Fall open; in any other season
This would be a dangerous mediumship
Though now there is just a small exchange of air
As from one room to another. A street
Becomes a faint biography: you walk
Through a breath of sweetpea, pipesmoke, an old perfume.

But one morning, the voices carry from everywhere:
from the first door and the last, two whirling draughts
zero in with such unholy dispatch
you do not scorch the sheets, or wake your wife.

Don Paterson

In the ordinary course of things a vehicle moves forward and the air around it stands still. In a wind tunnel the usual paradigm is reversed - the air moves and the vehicle stands still. As the title of Don Paterson’s poem is “Wind Tunnel” I suppose we might begin with this idea in an attempt to unpack the piece. In the first verse the narrator envisions ‘you’ the reader walking. You move through the air, which carries a series of smells. In the second verse ‘you’ are stationary, apparently in bed, and suddenly exposed to two ‘whirling draughts.’ So we know the title is justified, even if we don’t know exactly what it means. It’s the paradigm shift, brought about, one suspects, by the opening of ‘the doors between the days’ that holds the key to what is actually going on here.
Sometimes, in autumn, Paterson claims, the doors between the days fall open. Why, one wonders, in autumn. The poem itself provides no clues, but as it’s a poem and not a loose baggy bit of prose everything in it must be relevant, must carry its share of the author’s intention. ‘You,’ the reader, could make a guess at the significance of the season. Something about the word play between autumn and fall, and the fact that “Sometimes, at the vernal equinox, the doors between the days spring open,” just doesn’t strike the right elegiac tone. You could leave it at that and you’d finish reading the work with a satisfactory sense of what the guy was going on about. Or, you could trawl through your brain trying to come up with connections from folklore or mysticism, or religion. You could put a few word combinations into your search engine. In this case you probably wouldn’t come up with much. Or you could read more of the poet’s work, on the assumption that there were thematic links of some sort in his oeuvre, or that minds tend to run in ruts.
If you did you’d find he was much taken with Dante in the collection following the one you were reading, and you might remember, or discover, Dante’s “Autumn Song” where he gives his take on the emotional weight of the season. “Do you not know at the fall of the leaf/how the heart feels a languid grief.../and how sleep seems a taking thing.../and how the swift beat of the brain/ falters because it is in vain.../ and how the chief/ of joys seems – not to suffer pain?..../ and how the soul feels like a dried sheaf/ bound up for harvesting. And how death seems a lovely thing... In a poem called “Waking With Russell” which appeared in this next collection, Paterson writes, “Dear son, I was mezzo del cammin/ And the true path was as lost to me as ever.” The Italian is from Dante’s Inferno. “Midway on our life's journey, I found myself /In dark woods, the right road lost,” and suggests that there is a safe connection to be made between the season of the poem’s setting and a spiritual, if not crisis, at least stalemate, of long duration.
Did Paterson actually have such an association in mind when he wrote the poem. Who knows? Perhaps not even Paterson himself. For the reader the association supplies, not the key to all mythologies but a form of acoustic resonance, the poem absorbing more energy and resonating with more force and subtlety when other, sympathetic frequencies are sounded with it. A poem reverberates according to the play of the reader's mind, the way a bodhran responds to the play of the hand under its skin.
“In any other season this would be a dangerous mediumship.” The term ‘mediumship, inserted as an almost casual warning, is freighted here. It suggests that sometimes the opening of the doors leaves ‘you’ open as well, to voices from another realm, spirits, or demons, or other immaterial things with knowledge beyond the commonplace, that they want to share, using you as their spokesperson. As soon as the idea is introduced however it’s as good as dismissed. We’re assured that now, at this time of year, the opening of the doors is safe. The narrator is not quite reliable though. He says the opening of the doors will result in nothing but a small exchange of air, ‘as from one room to another’ but in the next line you find yourself out in the street. The moving air wafts you into a dreamlike, almost Proustian moment, back through your life on a series of evocative smells. It is the messenger Peter speaks of in “Mairi’s Valentine,” passing “a note right under your nose,” and allowing a glimpse of “the real ahead.”
What are these doors then, and what is their significance? That they are liminal spaces is obvious at first glance, the threshold between wakefulness and sleep, the altered consciousness of a dream state, ambiguous and indeterminate ‘not here’ and yet ‘not there’ places. Paterson suggests what it is that lies across the threshold in a comment in The Book of Shadows. “The realm of the infinite states, those ineffable, discrete, impossibly various moods of my childhood, I neglected to cultivate simply because I could not apprehend them in language. I wander in, occasionally, through the usual open doors – the edge of consciousness, the sense of smell.... The spell of music can sometimes raise them. But if I could make just one reproducible – even the bleakest and most melancholy – its quality of the eternal would make for a richer life than the one I endure.” Tellingly he refers to the means of access to these states as “the usual open doors.”
In the second, shorter verse, the previously dismissed danger involved in this channelling is made apparent. It may be safe enough in autumn, but presumably time has passed without you noticing and one day, instead of a harmless exchange of air you find yourself inundated by voices “from everywhere.” From the first door and the last,” a phrase reminiscent of the biblical “I am the first and I am the last” usher “two whirling draughts.” In a description of the four lives or stages of life of the poet Paterson compares the poem to a building, first a house and then a tiny fane, or temple, with doors capable of shutting the poet out, or of opening again, at a later stage, to let him in again. “Now he must pass through that dead zone most poets enter in midlife. By now thoroughly suspicious of the entire enterprise, he leaves the tiny house of the poem to inspect the facade, and learn something of the architectural mysteries he once had no desire to penetrate, such was his dumb faith in their ability to shelter him. .. It looks like a tiny fane to a banished god, he thinks to himself, fatally, as the door shuts in his face.” This opening and shutting of doors has to do, I believe, with a conflation of the spiritual and the poetic, the house of poetry with the house of God, and signals, as in the nineteenth psalm, an ushering in of the spirit – “be ye lifted up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in” – and the draughts seem to be something akin to the sound like a mighty wind that descended on the disciples at Pentecost, allowing them to speak to everyone in the world in his or her own language, despite the “unholy dispatch” with which they zero in. Dante’s angel also arrives in a sound like a howling wind that "strikes against the forest without let." (Inferno, IX, 69-72). The final line qualifies the unholy dispatch. Whatever the message is it is so urgent that you do not “scorch the sheets.” That is, you don’t indulge in any of your perhaps usual early morning sexual recreations. But why not?
The sexual act, for Paterson, is a way out. He says, in The Book of shadows, “There were times, moving slowly inside her in the dark, when I would pause, and realise I was not there. Only the movement again restored some flicker of allegiance to the here-and-now from which we had all but been all but exempted.” The mediumship allowed by the opening of the doors then, has put him in touch with something of such import that the poet narrator can’t risk an activity he knows will take him out of either himself or the time and place of the revelation. Paterson has spoken of poetry as “a private transaction between the author and God,” and Wind Tunnel seems to be explaining, insofar as such a thing could be explained, the mechanics of the interaction.
I was perfectly content to leave the interpretation of this final line there until Joseph Duemer, a fellow writer on this blog, said - “I'm sort of sorry to learn that "scorch the sheets" is a slangy phrase for sex. I had in mind something closer to that cold pentecostal fire you mention earlier having simply consumed the poet without even waking his wife.” – and I realised that he was absolutely right. The phrase “scorch the sheets” certainly refers to the sexual act and I think Paterson means the reader’s mind to turn that way, however, the grammar of the second half of the line – “you do not scorch the sheets, or wake your wife” – belies the obvious interpretation. “Scorch the sheets” has no onanistic secondary meaning that I know of. It seems to refer exclusively to super heated activity between consenting adults and, one would assume, would require waking one’s partner. So that “or” applies the brakes and necessitates a rethink in mid line. Acts 2; 1-4 makes it clear that after the sound of a mighty wind filled the house the disciples saw what looked like fiery tongues moving in all directions, and “it sat upon each of them. And they were filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” It all seems like a fair description of a poetic epiphany, reinforcing Paterson's comment about a private transaction between the poet and God.
Are all, or any, of these scraps of information necessary to enjoy the poem? They are not. They can’t be. The poem is never constituted by its meaning alone. It wouldn’t be a poem if it was. Paterson’s use of language and poetic device is as important here as the meaning.
The opening phrase, for instance – Sometimes, in autumn – introduces a strange ambiguity to the piece. Sometimes – now and then, occasionally – in autumn, that is, in a short season of any given year, something happens. This framing of time in terms that are both open and closed sets a very different tone than the more direct “once or twice a year.’ The Counting Crows song ‘Hard Candy has a similar opening – “on certain Sundays in November when the weather bothers me” refuses to actually place the action in the same odd way. Compare these phrases to the opening of Hardy’s “The Return of the Native” – “A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight,” which feels very particular. It doesn’t use the deictic ‘the’ to specify the time but it feels as if it did. It isn’t any Saturday, in any November, but the particular Saturday that the action of the novel began on, at a particular time of day. The end result, in Paterson’s poem, is to begin by disorienting the reader.
There’s an interesting use of pararhymes in the piece– the second syllables of sometimes and autumn, doors/days/dangerous/draughts, faint/first, such/scorch, street/sweet, that add to a slight sense of disjunction. The ear hears the almost rhyme but the eye doesn’t see it. It’s almost subliminal. There is some noticeable use of alliteration – pea pipesmoke perfume, wake wife whirling walk, a half rhyme in biography/draught, and then the surprise, after the mystical ambiguities and the religious allusions, of the sharp slang of “scorch the sheets.”
Paterson said, in The Book of Shadows, “Poetry is a mode of reading, not of writing. A poet is someone skilled in manipulating that innate human capacity to make things sign. They advertise the significance of the form in its shape or speech, build in enough strangeness and intrigue to have the reader read in, enough familiarity to repel them, and calculate enough reward for their effort. But so much poetry now is all advertisement, or all familiarity, or all strangeness, or all calculation.” Wind Tunnel seems to have struck a nice balance.

.

9.18.2009

Critical Valentine

Prose that keeps
trying to remember
to be poetry
is prose
not poetry
poetry’s sent to get past
these unrhymed
broken lives
while prose
always wants to settle
somewhere here
what makes
that star falter
but a state
of wonder?

9.06.2009

The Poetics of Being

I just came across an interesting question, posed by Paul de Man - “Can we find out something about the nature of modernity by relating it to lyric poetry, that we could not find out in dealing with novels or plays?” According to Adrian del Caro, in his introduction to “Holderlin: The Poetics of Being, Heidegger believed the question could be answered affirmatively even if it were to include philosophy. Contributions toward an answer anyone?

9.03.2009

More on the Reader's Role

A few comments on the reader's role in poetry, from Don Paterson, taken from 'The Book of Shadows,' one of his collections of aphorisms.

"Poetry is a mode of reading, not of writing. A poet is someone skilled in manipulating that innate human capacity to make things sign. They advertise the significance of the form in its shape or speech, build in enough strangeness and intrigue to have the reader read in, enough familiarity to repel them, and calculate enough reward for their effort. But so much poetry now is all advertisement, or all familiarity, or all strangeness, or all calculation."

"The reader may be witness to the exchange but can never participate in it; poetry, in the end, is a private transaction between the author and God. The true poem is firstly a spiritual courtesy, the act of returning a borrowed book."

"We read according to an undeclared handicap system, to the specific needs of the author. We meet the novelists a little way, the poets at least halfway, the translated poets three-quarters of the way; the Postmoderns we pick up at the station in their wheelchairs."

8.30.2009

Steve Fellner on Accessibility in Poetry

Steve Fellner posted on accessibility in poetry this past Friday. While Fellner's qualms with accessibility take a turn towards comparative queer theory, he deftly uses rhetorical question to raise many points about what we mean by "accessibility" and just what, exactly, we want to access. I responded with a quick post on my thoughts regarding the poet's responsibilities. You can read it at the bottom of his post.

What's the Reader's Role?

So it's been something around nine months since I made my last contribution to the Plumbline School. Let's just call it a sabbatical from blogging and move on.

Like my last post, I'm going to take the lazy way out and do a re-blog. I just finished reading a good post on what makes a poem over at Jim Murdoch's blog. Rather than re-hash what he said, I'll just point you toward it. Murdoch, a novelist, makes some excellent points about the reader's tasks when it comes to poetry. Be sure to read the whole thing, and also check out the links at the bottom of his post.

8.27.2009

How to Read a Poem

I gave the following one-page handout to my Intro to Poetry students on Monday. It of course contains all sorts of assumptions about the nature of poetic language that I don't spell out -- it it a set of instructions, not a theoretical statement.

Instructions: Begin, in so far as it’s possible, without preconceptions and do not rush to make a judgment about whether you like or dislike a poem, or whether it’s good or bad; most of all, do not dismiss mysteries or difficulties as weird or incomprehensible (at least) until you have worked through the steps below. Read the poem aloud. Now read it again to yourself without (yet) trying to understand it in order to get a feel for the whole thing. As you go through the steps below, write notes on the page the poem is printed on, or in your reading journal.

1. Read the sentences (not the lines) for the basic, literal meaning of the poem. What is the setting? Who is speaking? What is the tone? (Tone is usually defined as the speaker’s attitude toward the subject matter as revealed through the speaker’s word choices, rhythms, etc.) Are there words you don’t know the meanings of? If so, look them up. Does the title of the poem offer a key to the situation the poem describes or enacts?

2. After you understand the basic meaning of the text, including the definitions of any unfamiliar words, look at the images (clusters of words that represent a sense impression: sight, sound, taste, etc). Do the images suggest anything more than their literal meaning? Do they rise above simple description? Are there patterns of images? Does the author use figurative language, i.e., metaphors or similes, etc? If so, what is the effect of these figures?

3. Stick to the actual text of the poem and do not import “explanations” for things you don’t quite understand from outside the poem. Not yet, anyway. For instance, say you are reading a poem in which the speaker seems to shift from one subject to another without transition. It might be tempting to say, “Well, maybe the speaker is drunk.” But unless there is a glass of whisky in the poem, you have no warrant to make such an assumption. Sometimes you have to simply “bracket” certain parts of the poem and save them for later analysis; this is far better than trying to “solve” every mystery on first (or second) reading.

4. Now look at the ways in which the lines break up or coincide with the poem’s sentences. Does this patterning affect the rhythm (and thus the tone) of the poem? Is the poem broken into stanzas? If so, are the stanzas integral to the organization of the subject matter? Do the lines of the poem seem to have a regular number of syllables? (Alternatively, do stanza contain lines that vary in syllable count according to some pattern?) Do the lines have a regular number of stressed syllables and if so are they evenly distributed in the line? If the lines do not show patterning of syllables or stresses, is there some other principle of patterning at work? Does the poem contain rhymes? If it does, do they fall into a particular pattern? If there is a pattern, is it simple or elaborate? What are the effects on the reader’s understanding of the patterns you have discovered?

5. Are there any hints about the larger context in which the poem was created? Time period? Author’s biography? Major historical or cultural events? Does the poem allude to other works of literature?

6. Now read the poem aloud again. At this point you are prepared to begin to make judgments about the poem’s meaning. Whether you “like” the poem or not is of interest to you personally, but not very important in the larger scheme of things. (Another way of saying this would be: Until you have read a lot of poems in the manner outlined above, your like or dislike of a particular poem is uninformed and thus not very valuable to the wider conversation about poems.) At this point it can be useful to write a brief summary of the poem in your reading journal.

8.24.2009

Spirit of Poetry, Companion of Conscience

Helen Vendler, in a piece in the NY Times Book Review yesterday, on a newly-edited selected poems of Wallace Stevens, quote this passage from an award speech Stevens gave before the Poetry Society of America (when he was 72) :

"Individual poets, whatever their imperfections may be, are driven all their lives by that inner companion of the conscience which is, after all, the genius of poetry in their hearts and minds. I speak of a companion of the conscience because to every faithful poet, the faithful poem is an act of conscience."

This chimed somewhat, for me, with a previous post ("Ethos of Wayfaring").

8.15.2009

Best of My Summer Reading

Poetry
Body Traffic by Stephen Dobyns (contains some great poems about aging, some very original looks at various body parts, and a sequence of sonnets about Cezanne that's really about writing poetry)
And by Michael Blumenthal (wow, I'd never heard of this guy before a friend recommended the book. Lyrical, discursive, classical and innovative at the same time, truly hybrid in the way that the Norton Hybrid poets fail to be, mostly)
Money for Sunsets by Elizabeth J. Colen -- This was Denise Duhamel's judge's choice for Steel Toe Books' contest this summer. In the foreword, Duhamel compares Colen's prose poems to David Lynch's Twin Peaks and Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons
Zephyr by Susan Browne -- This was my editor's choice for Steel Toe Books' contest this summer. Press release here: http://www.wku.edu/~tom.hunley/steeltoebooks/news.htm

Textbook
Ordinary Genius by Kim Addonizio -- Great exercises and discussions. I plan to use this and Michael Theune's Structure and Surprise with my grad students this fall.

Novels
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn -- The most twisted, constantly-surprising, disturbing thing I've read in a long time. It's the kind of strangeness that Chuck Fight Club and Brett Easton Ellis strain after, but I never felt like Dunn was straining, just presenting her own way-out vision of the world.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Euginedes -- Dreamy, lyrical, mysterious, and a nice quick read

Strange Drapes Valentine #54

On the luciferic side
of the issue the drinkers
and talkers and other kinds of
ecstatic folks I go back and
forth between the Vikings

and the monks of the kells
the holy inlets where the
elves and pale sylphs
were last observed
and written down

and those who don’t trust words
lost in the art of sailing around
them and the plunder of time
and place the more violent
side of the argument takes.

I'm Just a Poor Wayfaring Stranger

I'm glad to see the blog starting up again. As I mentioned in comments to Henry's post, I'd like to urge my fellow Plumbliners to pitch in and contribute. I'd be willing to commit to posting something at least once a week and would invite other members of the blog to make a similar commitment-- if once a week is too often, then twice a month. Whatever suits. I make the request because I have found the discussions we began with useful and stimulating and I'm looking for more of the same. I'm just a poor wayfaring stranger looking for a few companions to join with me. By the way, I'm not looking and I don't think Henry is either, for any kind of party-line agreement here. There are some fundamental tendancies most of the Plumbliners share, but those patterns of agreement are, I suspect, pretty loose. Here is a challenge, then: I invite each of the plumbliners, over the coming couple of weeks, to post a statemnt of their poetics, however brief or elaborate; or, if that's too much or too abstract, then how about following Henry with a list of recent reading, perhaps with a bit of annotating hinting at how the reading connects up with one's larger ideas about poetry. I'll put something up along these lines within a day or two of posting this.

8.14.2009

Hybrid Nation

Am reading fine book by J. Stephen Russell, Chaucer & the Trivium (along with trying to read original Canterbury Tales).

Russell analyzes the differences between modern & medieval thinking. He talks about the influence, on the medievals' sense of language, of a dual, hierarchical culture (Latin & vernacular). & of the importance of systematic, Aristotelian logic : the 10 defining "categories" of a thing, & their adaptation to medieval school-learning (by Boethius, Porphyry, others). Here's a quote :

"What emerges from this dense enumeration is a pair of distinctions. First, of course, are species, genera, and individuals, material that was amplified in [Porphyry's] Isagogue. Second is the distinction between 'of' and 'in', that between necessary (essential) attributes and accidental ones.

"This second distinction is, with only a bit of overdramatization, the cornerstone of medieval philosophy, the taxonomy that held (and, some would say, still holds) the world together." (Russell, p. 35)

The difference between of (what can be said of a thing) and in (what is integral to the identity or substance of - definitive of - a thing). Substances and accidents - how important this concept was to the Middle Ages is indicated by these lines of Dante's final vision, at the end of the Divina Commedia (Paradiso 33) :

I saw that in its depth far down is lying
Bound up with love together in one volume,
What through the universe in leaves is scattered;
Substance, and accident, and their operations,
All interfused together in such wise
That what I speak of is one simple light.

Today hybrid cars are all the rage (focusing our attention on the species "automobile", to the neglect of the genus [mass] "transportation"), as well as hybrid poetry (see the Norton anthology American Hybrid - a politic fusion of "old & new") & hybrid art forms (or product diversification) of all kinds...

I wonder if there's a way to recuperate this distinction (between "of" & "in") for poetry criticism. Today the "impure" holds the positive valence, whereas the "pure" is under suspicion (logocentrism, racial "purity", essentialism, etc.). But the political manipulation of racial hatreds, for example, could be analyzed as a version of logical category-confusion (ie. the "purity of the (German, white, black, take your pick) race" posits a substantial aspect (race) for what is in truth an accident (race is an accidental aspect of the genus human being). & the proposition of "hybrid" poetries - ie. Ron Silliman : "there is no such thing as poetry, there are only kinds of poetry" (I'm quoting from memory) - referring to such things as, I guess, slam, post-avant, "SOQ", elliptical, neo-objectivism, Slow Poetry, Investigative Poetics, conceptual, flarf, & all the other USA schools-tribes, etc. etc. - might also be a kind of category-confusion. Cui bono? Who benefits? Is it possible that these hybrid forms offer a sort of brand diversification, a way simultaneously to make inroads in, & to maintain (or re-vivify), the academic industry of teaching poetry-writing? & in the pursuit of "accidental" qualities, are we obscuring (or denying) poetry's more basic, integral substance?

[crossposted to HG Poetics]

My plummy summer reading

Following up on Joseph's idea. Recently read or reading :

the newspaper (NY Times, Providence Journal)
New Yorker
The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins
a mystery by Josephine Tey
Saint Louis (in French) by Jacques le Goff
Canterbury Tales, by Chaucer
Chaucer & the Trivium, by J. S. Russell

(No, I don't smoke a pipe, wear tweed, or work for Left Overbie University...)

8.13.2009

Ethos of Wayfaring

Have been pretty absent & absent-minded around the Plumbline lately. Partly due to personal circumstances (a strange summer), & partly due to somewhat of an impasse in my thoughts about "plumbing" (constipation, Henry?).

Joseph D. & Mairi have offered us some models, here, for moving beyond a general terminology of "the middle" - showing how "plumbline" values are manifested in particular poets & their poems. I've been too scattered to do that, myself. & too involved in poetry website discussions/squabbles (especially at the Poetry magazine Harriet site) - among various hotheads, wannabees, nobodies, & cranks (like me).

But this morning it occurred to me that I might be able to salvage something for the plumbline from a few of those controversies - if only to add another layer of generalization to our field of interest....

Two of the topics of interest (to me) on those websites have been 1) the rise of "hybrid" forms of experimental poetics - Flarf, Conceptual Poetry, etc.; and 2) the nagging debates over the purpose & value of the "poetry teaching industry" (MFAs, etc.).

I would like to try to propose a statement of (my) principles which addresses BOTH of these topics, together, in a unified way. I've done this in a piecemeal way in various comment streams on said websites; but here's how I would summarize my position :

1) Poetry is One Thing (with tremendous variations). It is not whatever anybody decides to name as poetry. For example, when Kenneth Goldsmith, the main proponent of "Conceptual Poetry", copies an entire day's issue of the NY Times, and calls it "conceptual poetry" - I would, au contraire, describe this as an oxymoron, or contradiction, rather than a description. It is not poetry. Poetry is a verbal art with its own distinct characteristics (some of which Aristotle began to analyze, way back when).

2. Poetry and poetic making are inseparable from experience at large. The aphorism which Keats assigned to the Grecian urn - "Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty; - this is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know" - is a perennial challenge to every artist and maker : ie., where & by what means comes to pass the conjunction of beauty and truth, art and experience? (& this is perhaps one of the bases underlying our "plumbline" concept of the poem as an equilibrium, a balance of forces).

3. With #2 above clearly in mind : the social vocation & role of the poet can be best summarized as the companion. The aspects of artist, craftsperson, fabulist, musician, performer, scholar, etc. - all these are subsumed under the primary role of something like wise fellowship. The poet is our companion - Whitman's camerado/camerada - on the "road of life". A poem is a testimony : bears witness to felt & comprehended experience. A poem which achieves the status of art - which fulfills its aesthetic purpose - is one which faithfully comprehends & reflects some aspect or value of that shared experience. (& to say this is not, on the other hand, to rule out the most baroque & parodic fabulations & gleeful take-offs & lethal/tragic ironies & vicious satires & zithery re-makings of same.)

It seems to me that when this (traditional) ethos of the poet - the poet's social role - is better understood, then some of the gnarly ethical problems of "teaching" poetry & writing might be re-formulated (& maybe redeemed). Writing will be subsumed under the ethos of language-use in general; poetry-writing will be integrated with the study and practice of literary history; "creativity" and "self-expression" will be re-valued in relation to elementary education (& arts education) as a whole.

One need only reflect on some of the great "engaged" poets of the last century - Spanish, Russian, Italian, French - Char, Montale, Akhmatova... we could each make our own list - to recognize a common thread in their verse : an evocation, an expression, of the shared experience of living through those brutal & tumultuous decades. The ethos they represent seems distinct from the image of the poet as experimentalist or craftsperson; and the influence of ethos seems like a kind of undercurrent which has all kinds of implications for literary style...

7.17.2009

Charm vs. Riddle

Have been reading remarkable book by Eleanor Cook, Enigmas and Riddles in Literature (led there by way of her writings on Wallace Stevens).

In a chapter on modes & genres, she contrasts ancient charm poems with riddle poems, & discusses how charm as a mode (hypnotic, mellifluous, enigmatic, highly-wrought) held sway during the 19th century (Keats, Poe, Tennyson) "up until about 1915". Its counterpart, the riddling manner, she sees as akin to the "line of wit" - cites Dickinson as one exemplary "riddler".

I guess the proverb falls somewhere in between. Charm poetry aims to cast a magic spell; the proverb or adage is gnomic wisdom, hortatory & didactic; the riddle confronts the reader with a quiz-problem. (& maybe charm/riddle ends meet in an enigmatic middle.)

The riddle shades over into the enigma, which is not quite so cut-&-dry : edged with profundity & mystery. In terms of rhetoric, the enigma is a simile, or metaphor, in which one half of the figure is hidden, missing, encrypted.

Cook suggests that some of the disputes over style in poetry are rooted in this generic (or modal) distinction between charm & riddle - & that the disagreement is mostly a matter of taste, rather than quality...
Joel Brouwer on Hayden Carruth, at the Harriet blog.

7.15.2009

a new Plumbliner

Pleased to welcome Laura Harriss to the Plumbline School! (yes, we have summer classes!)

Saturday update : I mean, welcome, Laura Johnson! (see Laura's comment below)

6.17.2009

The Rewards of the Obdurate

In June 3rd's TLS Christopher Reid presents the entirety of Ian Hamilton's "Untranslatable" and offers a short account of it, in the context of a discussion about how much 'human detail' to put into or leave out of a poem, and how that decision might affect what we here have referred to as the transparency of the work. He gives a perhaps convincing account of the rewards to be found even in poems you don't 'get'. The relevant paragraphs follow, for the benefit of anyone who missed the review.

"Some of [Hamilton's] very shortest poems have, in the interest of concentration, had circumstantial detail so efficiently purged from them, they all but resist penetration. At their best – “Memorial”, for instance, or “Home”, or “Awakening” – they can deliver espresso-sized shocks of intimate revelation; otherwise, when they are reduced too far and the human detail has been more or less obscured, reading them can be as frustrating an activity as unpicking tight knots in damp string. In Lowell, it was the high-handed squandering of human detail, the careless, even callous, spilling of beans about those who had loved and trusted him, that Hamilton rightly deprecated; but in seeking not to commit the same sin, he sometimes forfeited the very quality that would have allowed a poem to live and speak.

He was too sharp an operator not to have known the dangers. Nonetheless, there is a poem thought to be from the 1970s or 80s, “Untranslatable”, which Alan Jenkins has included in a short section of “Unpublished and Uncollected Poems”, and which suggests a diehard attitude to the whole business. Its obvious difference from most of Hamilton’s work is that it is outwardly addressed, almost a public pronouncement – which may, paradoxically, be why he withheld it – but it has its own obliqueness of attack and is defiantly terse. In its totality, it reads:

There are certain lines – whole poems even:
I have no idea what they mean;
It’s what I can’t grasp that draws me back to them.”
Yours used to be like that, and so did his.

The speaker of the first three lines, to which the fourth is, I take it, the poet’s reply, or rebuke, in propria persona, could be expressing any friendly reader’s misgivings – as well as his or her undiminished fascination. Because the rewards are there in even the most obdurate poems. They exist in isolated subtleties of versification, deftly placed line-breaks, choiceness of phrasing, fleeting plangencies, beauties that seldom depart from the range of the ordinary speaking voice, never advertise themselves loudly, and yet suggest that the “platonic” poem is indeed within the writer’s grasp."

Clive James in Poetry (July '09)

Fine, wide-ranging essay by Clive James in upcoming July issue of Poetry (should be online soon). Among various interesting topics (James Merrill, free/formal verse, US/British crossovers, what makes poems last, "command", etc.), he writes about Michael Donaghy, American/British poet/critic/musician who died in 2004 - & Donaghy's book of essays & interviews, The Shape of the Dance. I don't always agree with James (his snipe at Whitman in a previous essay bothered me), but I enjoyed this one...

6.10.2009

A Modest Book Proposal: The Norton Anthology of Prime Time Poetry

It seems to me that Norton has put out three anthologies featuring various types of poetry that aim at difficulty, following up on the work of Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, and other modernists who championed difficulty in poetry. In previous posts I basically positioned the two-volume _Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry_ as their right wing book, their _Postmodern American Poetry_ as their left wing book, and their new _American Hybrid_ as their decidedly left-leaning bipartisan effort. What I’d like to propose is a comprehensive anthology of the third party poetries that are left out. The poets I have in mind flow from what Richard Gray refers to as “Whitman and American Populism: Sandburg, Lindsay, Masters.” I would add Don Marquis as another forbearer of the kind of poetry I have in mind, also proletariat poets such as Kenneth Patchen, Kenneth Fearing, and Charles Bukowski. Looking to French masters, I would say that the poets I want to champion take their cues more from Jacques Prevert than from Stephen Mallarme. I thought about calling this proposed book The Norton Anthology of Populist Poetry or The Norton Anthology of People’s Poetry, but those terms have political implications that I’m not interested in pursuing here. I also thought about The Norton Anthology of Accessible Poetry, but the cover would have to have a wheelchair ramp on it, and that would look stupid.

Remember when there were only three TV networks and all the shows with mass appeal came on at 7pm, 8pm, 9pm? That was called prime time. Does TV Guide still refer to that time slot as prime time? I don’t know. I think there are several strands of contemporary poetry that could fall under the umbrella term of prime time poetry, poems that are “written in the language actually used by men” (Wordsworth), poems that attempt to clearly address the day-to-day concerns of ordinary people, rather than disdaining poetry’s potential audience and being happy to write for a pocket audience, poems that are written for the whole family (David Kirby, for one, says he writes with an intelligent sixth-grader in mind).

What follows is a very rough table of contents. Michael Theune has pointed out that Stephen Burt and Ron Silliman don’t always like the poets that they champion. This has made me feel like I have permission to propose an anthology that includes some poets that I don’t necessarily enjoy. (I’m not saying which.) Why would I do that? The best explanation I know of is a statement of Forest Gander’s that actually appears in _American Hybrid_: “Like species, poems are not invented, but develop out of a kind of discourse, each poet tensed against another’s poetics, in conversations, like casts of wormtrails in sandstone.” The following are some types of poetic discourse communities that I would like to link together and champion as prime time poetries.

Stand Up: Charles Harper Webb, Ron Koertge, Lisa Glatt, Gerald Locklin, Denise Duhamel (who shows in Michael Theune’s _Structure and Surprise_ how she has written poems using the structure of a standup comedy routine, Edward Field (the term “Standup” comes from his book _Stand Up Friend With Me_, prose by Webb, who has edited two fine anthologies devoted to this type of poetry

Ultratalk: David Kirby, Barbara Hamby, Mark Halliday, Jason Bredle, Nin Andrews, Thomas Lux, Stephen Dunn, Robert Wrigley, Kim Addonizio, Tony Hoagland, Dean Young, Bob Hicok, Lawrence Raab, David Clewell, Martha Silano, essays by Kirby/Hamby, Halliday, and David Graham

Expansive Poets: Molly Peacock, Marilyn Nelson, Greg Williamson, A.E. Stallings, Kelly Cherry, Catherine Trufariello, Chelsea Rathburn, Timothy Steele, excerpts from Kevin Walzer’s prose book _The Ghost of Tradition_, Dana Gioia’s essay “Notes on the New Formalism,” and Mark Jarman’s essay “Robinson, Frost, and Jeffers and the New Narrative Poetry”

Slam Poetry: Taylor Mali, Saul Williams, Patricia Smith, Jeffrey McDaniel, Karyna McGlynn, Robert Bonair-Agard, Grace Bruenderman, Marc Smith, Buddy Wakefield, Jack McCarthy’s essay “Note From The Poetry Underground,” and Susan B.A. Somers-Willet’s essay “Can Slam Poetry Matter?”

Performance Poetry (poets who regularly read their work aloud at places like Seattle’s Red Sky Poetry Theatre, Portland’s Cafe Lena’s, San Francisco’s Cafe Babar, and New York’s Bowery Poetry Club): Hal Sirowitz, Bob Holman, Leanne Grable, Marion Kimes, Alan Kaufman, A.D. Winans, Antler, Chocolate Waters, June King

Laureates (just the ones who have taken seriously their roles as representatives of the poetry community): US Laureates Billy Collins and Robert Pinsky, a few state laureates (Jack Myers, David Bottoms, Kevin Stein, Greg Pape, Fleda Brown); San Francisco Poet Laureate Lawrence Ferlinghetti (his “Populist Manifesto”), former Seattle Populist Poet Bart Baxter


Singer/Songwriters: Leonard Cohen (he's already in one Norton Anthology), Bob Dylan, Nick Cave, Regina Spektor, Eminem, Coner Oberost

Cowboy Poetry: J.V. Brummels, Red Shuttleworth, Lisa Lewis, Jennifer Malesich, Paul Zarzyski, and Rod Miller’s essay “A Brief Introduction to Cowboy Poetry, Or Who’s the Guy in the Big Hat and What is He Talking About?”

6.05.2009

Plumbline to Kenosis

I sketched out a very personal (& probably very local) take on poetic "impersonality" over at my blog this evening... perhaps one way to conceptualize an escape hatch from the American (in particular) cul-de-sac of competing styles...

6.04.2009

Tom C. Hunley’s second blog post: American Hybrid (Part II)

Norton now has three Contemporary American Poetry anthologies in print. First, there’s their mainstream anthology (as if any American poetry were mainstream, as if we weren’t all living in exile within our own culture, some more gleefully than others), which is now the second volume of _The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry_. This anthology, according to its introduction, is “characterized by its pluralism, by its welter and crosscurrents,” including both “the raw and the cooked” (Robert Lowell’s phrase), Black Mountain poets, Beats, New York School poets, deep imagists, confessional poets, poets associated with the Black Arts Movement, and some poets from across the pond. One thing that binds these disparate poets, according to the book’s introduction, is the shadow of the big Modernist poets Pound, Eliot, Yeats, etc., which “loomed like a massive edifice over postwar poets, who sometimes worried that all routes to innovation had already been explored and exhausted.”

Next, there’s Norton’s anthology of experimental poetry (as if all serious poems weren’t experiments) _Postmodern American Poetry_, which actually appeared nine years before the revised _The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry_. The Beats are again represented, as are the New York School poets (two generations’ worth, as Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett enter the Norton canon here); Deep Image poetry factors into this one too, in more breadth; there’s the Language poetry of Jackson Mac Low, Michael Palmer, and others; and there’s a nod to performance poets, represented by David Antin, John Giorno, Wanda Coleman, and others.

Though the rhetoric may have led readers to think that _The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry_ represented a kind of mainstream canon while _Postmodern American Poetry_ anthologized otherstream poets mounting a bold challenge, we can see that there’s a lot of overlap. Both anthologies start with Charles Olson, for one. John Ashbery made both books, as did Charles Bernstein, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Frank O’Hara, Gary Snyder, and quite a few others. It seems to me that all of those poets who are represented in both anthologies are “raw,” according to Lowell’s formulation. While the editors of Norton’s “mainstream” anthology made pains to include “experimental” poetry, the editors of _Postmodern American Poetry_ aren’t about to go anywhere near John Hollander, James Dickey, Elizabeth Bishop, Lowell himself, or anything that would have been on the Hall/Pack side of the 1960s anthology wars, rather than on Donald Allen’s side.

But a new release would reconcile the division “between the experimental and the conventional,” we were promised, and this year Norton released its hybrid (as if all serious poems didn’t arise from a mixture of styles and influences) anthology. I was excited about this at first, thinking the editors were sincere about pursuing their thesis. Unfortunately, reading the book was like listening to a compilation album that promised to fuse the best of mainstream and alternative music but that quickly revealed its mercenary purposes: the mainstream artists needed indie cred and the alternative artists wanted a larger audience. I didn’t get as much pleasure from reading the poetry as I had hoped, and I don’t believe it fulfilled its middle child promise of reconciling differences.

Like _Postmodern American Poetry_, this anthology seems to be skewed in favor of the “raw.” Okay, Robert Haas has made the trek from the mainstream anthology to this one; he’s married to Brenda Hillman, so he’s accepted into post-avant circles by association. Norman Dubie is also granted both mainstream and hybrid status, as are Charles Wright, Amiri Baraka, and Jorie Graham (a surprising omission from the pomo anthology). That’s five who appear only in the mainstream anthology and the hybrid anthology. The following poets appear both in _Postmodern American Poetry_ and _American Hybrid_ and not in Norton’s mainstream anthology: Rae Armantrout, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Kathleen Fraser, Barbara Guest, Paul Hoover, Ann Lauterbach, Nathanial Mackey, Alice Notley, Anne Waldman, Keith Waldrop, Rosmarie Waldrop, and John Yau. That’s twelve. Also, the younger poets in _American Hybrid_ seem to uniformly proceed more directly out of “raw” poets such as Michael Palmer and Gertrude Stein, say, than out of “cooked” poets such as Theodore Roethke and Louise Bogan. It seems to me that the very people who commandeered the word “experimental,” which belongs to all serious poets, have now also commandeered the word “hybrid,” which properly describes all serious poets.

Don’t think that I’m writing this to prop up “mainstream” or “cooked” poetry; I, too, dislike (much of) it. I think what we have here is something distinctly American: two parties (out of many) declaring themselves THE two parties, and then coming together in a mercenary bipartisan spirit of mutual backscratching, reinforcing their own power bases and leaving everyone else out. In my next post, I will write a modest book proposal for the anthology I would like to see Norton do next, one that defies these false binaries and the false compromise of their hybrid anthology.

6.03.2009

Pith and Gist

I'm afraid Joseph H's discussion of his personal poetics is in danger of being overlooked in the comment section so - in case anyone missed it, which they don't want to do - it's over at Perpetual Bird.

Confused Valentine

Modernism is clinical depression
post-modernism is deranged depression
a normal reaction to an unfortunately
now normal variation on plangent
themes of madness

in my family everybody fought
with everybody so escape
got confused with peace
and rape with theft
but I refuse to be intimidated

by the present moment anymore
my goal in life
is to eliminate the egotism
of writing a poem
in the very act of writing it.

6.01.2009

Relevant, accessible and coming to a television station near you.

Maybe we’ve been taking the wrong tone in our discussions. The inimitable A.A. Gill commented in yesterday’s Times on the Oxford poetry scandal – don’t you love the idea of being able to work up enough interest in poetry to create a scandal? For those of you who missed it I offer the following excerpt from ‘ Poetry’s turn for the verse.’ It introduced a discussion of the BBC’s verse off to find the best poet in the land ever (Contenders are Donne, Milton and the author of Beowolf), and the question of whether poetry belongs on television. The answer is no, at least according to Gill, but it’s his contribution to the problem of accessibility I wanted to draw to your attention.
“ It has been rhyme-and-reason week. You go 100 years without ever thinking about a poet, then all of a sudden they are everywhere. The scandal at Oxford managed briefly to elbow venal MPs off the news. There was something hopelessly, Wodehouseianly English about these stories. The greatest crisis in democracy since the Reform Act brought about by duck houses, tampons and moat cleaning, and then Oxford dons reaching for the smelling salts with one hand and a stiletto with the other, all over predatory libidos, and bluestocking innuendo. You wonder, would they ever have managed to elect Byron? Precocious, strong on classics, popular verse, shags everything in a corset, including his sister. Or Dylan Thomas? Or Catullus? The poet Michael Horowitz was on the Today programme with a voice that sounded like a wax cylinder tiptoeing out of a brass speaking tube. He explained that poetry had caught an infection from the rest of the ghastly, pustular, commercial world. Poets, he readily said, should be solitary, distanced, and possibly consumptive and sexually ambivalent. The BBC has been doing its best to bring poets and poetry kicking and screaming, or perhaps mincing and weeping, into the nation’s green room; to turn them into the culture’s footballers. Which means poetry has to be played out under the arc lights of the Tristams’ favourite culture words, which are – all together now – “relevant” and “accessible”. What rhymes with relevant and accessible? Patronising and explanatory and simplified and unenthusiastic? Can you all go away now and make a poem out of those wonderful words? Use your coloured crayons. Relevant and accessible actually means mediated by a friendly, classless autodidact who can josh and cajole you through the tricky business of pentameter and sonnet form and make sure you don’t feel culturally embarrassed or aesthetically humiliated. . . I’ve always vouched that there was no human activity that was above, below, or beside the box, but after this week I’m beginning to think maybe poetry is the exception. Television is a show and tell medium, and so, in a completely different sense, is poetry. The BBC has been confronted with the quandary of what you actually show when the poetry is showing itself. The visons collide, and what you get is the equivalent of old masters printed on T shirts. Bad art and bad fashion. Poetry won’t be filleted into sound bites. The words remain, but the poetry evaporates. Poetry is hard. It exists at the ceiling of comprehension and feeling, and when when you come down with the sense of it, it’s miraculous as anything man has conceived. Having it delivered like pizza by Fiona Shaw isn’t quite the same thing. It’s not television’s job to tease and trick reluctant folk to open poetry books, just as it isn’t poetry’s business to make people watch television. We get to poetry by our own circuitous routes, and the enjoyment and awe are greater for it. Finally though, poetry doesn’t belong on television because it isn’t a mass medium.”

5.28.2009

New Things? (or Spring Fashion?)

Critic Stephen Burt declares a shift in American poetry style, toward a new "restraint" & "objectivity". John Latta (in his post of May 27th) takes exception.

I've always found something faintly pedestrian in "objectivism", "imagism", & the WCW rubric "no ideas but in things" etc. Though I guess now & then such doctrines offer a needed counter-balance to facetious poetic solipsism, decadence, self-indulgent mannerisms, etc. I'm drawn more to Wallace Stevens' constant exploration of the riddles of imagination & reality, his oscillations between "the ideas about the thing" & "the thing itself".

The best Stevens scholar I know of is B.J. Leggett. His recent short book Late Stevens (Louisiana State Univ. Press) is just superb. Shatters much of the received wisdom about where Stevens received his wisdom, & what he made of it all...

5.12.2009

Tom Hunley's Teaching Poetry Writing

I'm really glad Tom Hunley's a part of the Plumbline School. I'm discovering, as I'm reading more and more of his work, that he's an excellent, adventurous, energetic poet. But what I already KNOW is that he's thought deeply about poetry writing pedagogy, a subject on which he's written an excellent book, Teaching Poetry Writing: A Five-Canon Approach. In this book, Tom argues that those who teach poetry writing need to do away with the traditional workshop model and should consider embracing instead a pedagogy inspired and structured by the five canons of classical rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. This is vital, big work, and work that I think would appeal to all those intrigued by issues taken up on this blog.

I've thought a little more about this over at the Structure & Surprise blog, trying to link up some of what Structure & Surprise tries to do with the big paradigm shift Tom argues for, encourages, and helps to make possible.

5.07.2009

I'm experiencing such sensory overload here in HCMC that it's a little hard to pull my thoughts together. Nevertheless, I wanted to at least make a few notes in response to some recent posts here, with the intention of extending my thoughts and perhaps revising them later.

First, a note of gratitude to Henry and the group he has assembled here. It has been a long time since I have felt around me such a sympathetic community of interest in issues that have bedeviled me. Thanks to one and all. Here then are some random jotting from a Saigon cafe, numbered for easy reference:
  1. In comments to the previous post Joseph Hutchinson suggests that we cannot get outside the problem of relativism. Everyone's golden mean is different, individually determined, he says. There is certainly a good deal of truth in his assertion, but I don't think it has to be debilitating to our project. The charge of hard relativism only holds up, I think, if you focus on the individual to the exclusiin of his / her social context. Human forms are, as Henry remarked, pretty durable and they tend to root practice in a social matrix that, while not immutable, is stable enough for practical purposes.
  2. For me, a poetic middle ground and middle voice would look something like the following: A) a poetry that records and investigates experience. [Individual experience is always located within sets of overlapping social practices: no private language.] B) A poetry that while acknowledging and even encoding the limits of language to express experience, refuses to fall into relativism or nihilism. C) Constant reinvention of older forms. D) A respect for grammar, at least at a "meta" level. Ordinary grammar is already so full of breakages and switchbacks that it seems irresponsible to add to the difficulties. E) Style: a play between loose and tight, between freedom and restraint, between perception and wit.
  3. A concern for the connection between the aesthetic and the ethical, the poetic and the political.
I make these notes as much for myself as for others, but I am very much interested in hearing responses from one and all.

5.06.2009

Critical Situations

Just a not-so-brief (& probably wayward) response to Joseph's recent post from Vietnam (Situations). His travel report seems like a parable of the relation between poetry and its social/ethical ground. And as such, it is relevant to Michael Theune's latest post on the ethic of the middle.

Joseph paints a picture of the tentativeness of the stranger in a foreign place - the heightened awareness of the role of social forms, the mutual process of recognitions and mis-recognitions - the sort of happy/tense apprehensions of both traveler & host. & then he recognizes this as an experience of the context which saturates & informs art and poetry. Poetry's "forms" (stylizations) can be seen as isomorphs of social customs.

There's an implied warning here, about an over-emphasis on novelty for its own sake. The exaggerated focus on technical innovation obscures the context of complex social forms already in play. It sets art off in a world of its own, of merely technical specialization & sophistication.

One can imagine the experimentalist's retort : social context is the very ground and motive for our innovations! We're doing it to fight the oppressive boredom of conventional art - on behalf of social and artistic freedom!

Recently I've been trudging my way slowly through a monograph by British thinker Gillian Rose, on the 19th-cent. German philosopher G.F. Hegel (Hegel contra Sociology). Very rough sailing. But I think I understand some of the very basic aspects of Hegel's Aesthetics. Hegel's "severe", critical philosophy of history is built on notions of human alienation from, & mis-recognition of, a true comprehension of "absolute Spirit" (the source of creation & history), and the ethical bases of (ideal, normative) human mutuality and freedom. (Writing in Prussia, around 1800, his universal history appears to give little weight to the new democracy rising across the Atlantic.)

What does this have to do with our "situation"? As philosopher, Hegel stakes out a perspective somewhat outside (& critical of) the sphere of art & poetry itself. Artistic forms are "epiphenomena" (my quotes) determined by more general & basic social formations, undergoing the historical process of realization and self-recognition. (One can see why Marx took Hegel as his theoretical template.)

For Hegel, there are only 2 types of art : "classic" and "romantic" (not to be confused with "romanticism"). His "classic" art is equated with ancient Greek epic and tragedy. The art is rooted in the self-reliant, organic freedom of Greek democracy : law, culture and art are one whole (as opposed to both Oriental & Roman societies, where law is allied with dominating administrative power). Neither politics nor religion are alienated from this self-determining community. And Greek art expresses this cultural context : "beauty has for its inner meaning the free independent meaning, not a meaning of this or that but what means itself and therefore signifies itself [my italics]." According to G. Rose : "The classical form of art is a unity of meaning and configuration [ie., content & form]. Meaning and configuration are distinct but not separate; configuration does not re-present meaning but presents it." Rose relates Hegel's example of Greek tragedy, in which real ethical conflicts (between the authority of family vs. community - ie. Antigone, or the Oresteia) - recognized by the whole community - are ritually & dramatically - & severely, simply - presented in the theatre.

Hegel does not merely idealize Greek art & culture. He describes the role of slavery & violence in creating the Greeks' "concrete" forms of democracy. But the "classic" offers a kind of template for integral, "non-alienated" art : art which presents a unity of "meaning & configuration".

In later historical eras, art & poetry reveal themselves to be a sort of index of the distortions of freedom present in society at large. "Romantic" art - emerging from societies in which both religion and the state have been removed from free consciousness & self-determination, and turned into forms of illusion & oppression - becomes strictly sidelined, irrelevant to the inner workings of those societies (except as further forms of illusion). They become "subjective" : mirroring the private concerns of deracinated individual "subjects", or representing art's own processes in a solipsistic hall of mirrors. For Hegel, "romantic" art has lost touch with both reality and beauty : strictly speaking (in his terms), it is no longer art at all.

Clearly this is a grim & "severe" perspective indeed. On behalf of a supreme abstraction of historical world-process, Hegel slights the (partial) ethical integrations of both the medieval & modern eras, and characterizes them as a wilderness of error (a learning-process, nevertheless, for the historical World-Spirit). Greek art is idealized, while contemporary democratic culture & its arts are outside the analysis. The individual is described as "subject" to the inescapable illusions of larger, determining historical forces...

So what does this have to do with us? Hegel's underlying argument - that art is a reflection of the social forms (& inhumanities, injustices) of the culture from which it emerges - applies a critical lens to contemporary debates about the role of poetry & its style. & his characterization of the "classic" - as a harmony of "meaning" and "configuration" - parallels the Plumbline notion of the norm or the middle. We are circling around this recurring concept of the dual aesthetic/ethical "golden mean".

Of course, some strains of sophisticated contemporary poetry incorporate social theory into their stylistic forms & processes. Postmodern, NY School, "Language", elliptical, "investigative"... all of these styles offer some self-conscious critiques of poetry & art themselves. Various more-populist styles also offer examples of both social and artistic protest. Does this mean, by evoking an admittedly very primitive notion of Hegelian social critique, we are offering here merely an amateurish and anachronistic re-delving of an over-worked ground?

Possibly, I don't know... but in response, I would suggest the following :

1) The ancient, vernacular forms & customs of both poetry and culture-at-large tend to be very hardy & long-lasting. The forms are (sometimes, as Joseph suggests) tools for consciousness - which outlast or partially repeal the deformations of oppressive social structures.

2) Hegel's template of the "classic" (as a harmony of meaning and configuration, or theme and form) is only possible where art is simultaneously free & contextualized : both aesthetically integral & socially engaged. Art, on the other hand, which depends on theory - which reflects a critique which negates art's independent validity - seems to be ultimately self-cancelling. It fulfills its own prophecy.

5.05.2009

The Middle and Aristotle's Ethics

I've been thinking a bit about Henry's post from April 22, about the Plumbline and the broken middle. I have two responses.

1.

I know the middle gets a bad rap (as Henry notes, it's often thought to be the site of the middling, the mediocre), but I think there's some thinking we can turn to for some direction regarding how we might disentangle the agonistic but hopeful middle from the notion of mediocrity: Aristotle's Ethics.

For Aristotle, the right action was to be found in the middle, between two extremes. For example, between the problematic positions of cowardice and foolhardiness is the virtue of courage.

What intrigues me about this view of ethics is that the extremes are a site for unthinking. One simply is cowardly; or, one simply is foolhardy. The middle requires that one both be informed and be prepared to act in the face of danger. That is, one knows risk, but is prepared to act, anyway. Far from being the cite of middling mediocrity, the mean in Aristotle's Ethics is the site of risk and transformation.

Perhaps the poetic-aesthetic middle the Plumbline School considers and pursues has much less to do with stereotypical ideas of the middling and much more to do with Aristotle's thoughtful, energetic, engaged, critical middle...

2.

When mystico-ethical thoughts such as the above fail me, I turn to a simple formulation: the middle already is being theorized by Elliptical and Hybrid theorists, so it is clear that the middle simply is a site of much theoretical interest, and, thus, we at the Plumbline need not worry too much about thinking about the middle. But we do need to think about the middle in new and revelatory ways, or at least in fuller and more sophisticated ways than those already proposed by Elliptical and Hybrid theorists. A lot of this more-sophisticated thinking already is happening on this blog, I think, and much more is to come, I'm sure. (For example, I very much look forward to Tom Hunley's idea for a new Norton anthology...) We need to continue to work to show what the middle can do...

Very good to be skeptical and self-critical, certainly, to be thoughtful (especially when one is full of thoughts as smart and careful as Henry's), but also good to realize that what's happening here already is and needs to continue to be lively, insightful, and productive.

5.04.2009

Tom C. Hunley's first blog post: American Hybrid (part I)

This is a hybrid like the Toyota Prius is a hybrid. All of your hip, socially-conscious friends are driving them. You feel vaguely good about yourself, like you’re doing your part for the planet and like you’re in with a good crowd. At the same, you’re in physical discomfort, you secretly fear that your girlfriend will leap out at the next red light, into the passenger seat of a Vette or Porsche – and you wouldn’t blame her.

I bought this book with high hopes, having just read two new collections bearing the fruit of some serious cross-pollination: All-Night Lingo Tango by Barbara Hamby and Ka-Ching! by Denise Duhamel. The former is filled with utterly un-stodgy formal poems. Hamby is playful with form the same way Kenneth Koch and some of the Oulipo writers could be. All-Night Lingo Tango reads like an intelligent, exuberant stylistic melding of Expansive Poetry (itself a melding of New Narrative and New Formalism) and the Whitmanian Ultra-talk poetics that Hamby has helped champion. Ka-Ching! gives the lie to the notion that experimental poems must be obscure. Duhamel’s poetry is highly experimental. She is a mad scientist, but a fun, accessible one. In addition to formal, playful poems similar to Hamby’s, Duhamel has cross-pollinated Russell Edson and Robert Lowell in some of the best confessional prose poems I’ve come across.

In American Hybrid, Cole Swenson and David St. John oversimplify the current poetic landscape, just as Stephen Berg and Robert Mezey once did with Naked Poetry and Elliot Weinberger did with Outsiders and Innovators: American Poetry Since 1950. Rather than the old Raw versus Cooked or Outsiders versus Insiders, now it’s Post-Avant versus School of Quietude or Elliptical versus Mainstream, but it’s still the false binary choice of a two party system that divides the world between two entities and sells everyone else out. The editors pretend to consolidate differences between two warring factions and pat themselves on the backs for being so inclusive, but there’s a lot more poetry out there than is dreamt of in their philosophies.

5.02.2009

Situations

Going around Hanoi and trying to speak Vietnamese (with my limited vocabulary and grammatical resources) has made me acutely aware of the social contexts in which language operates. In a restaurant, certain kinds of words and sentences are used; in a shop, different words and sentences. In fact, this makes it easier for me to communicate because I know what to expect in different places. I've also learned to expect several stock questions: How long have I been in Vietnam? How old am I? What work do I do? What country am I from? And because I expect these questions, I don't have to think quite so hard, but can fall back into language I already know. Such acts of communication always take place within some social context. Aren't poems the same, in some respects. In poetry, the shop or restaurant might be replaces with a mode or genre -- an elegy or a sonnet. So the conventions of conversation or poetry are not something -- at least initially -- to be gotten outside of, but something to be used. The actual language of a conversation or a poem can only be extracted from the context by an act of critical violence, an act of Abstraction, to adopt Blake's terminology. But surely we don't want to be limited to conventional subjects and modes. True enough. I offer my observation only to make the point that such conventional situations can carry a good deal of satisfaction and even emotional power. They ought not be sneered at or avoided in favor of novelty or originality, I think. Such moments of mutuality can be deeply significant. Poems, like my primitive conversations, start in such places and such moments.

_____________
Cross-posted at Sharp Sand.

5.01.2009

Debating on the "hybrid" in poetry continues here. See more recent posts at this blog too.

New on the Line

Very pleased to welcome Tom Hunley to the Plumbline School!

4.28.2009

Who Does Poetry Belong To?

Nothing terribly profound to report from my Vietnam sojourn, but I have been thinking about that old question of the relationship between poetry and the society that produces it. In my meetings with poets here, that's an area I'm trying to explore. I've read a fair amount of Vietnamese history and a great deal of Vietnamese literature, both ancient and modern, and the conventional view is that poetry is very important to Vietnamese society. In fact, that is the view with which I began this loose and gangly research project. My thesis -- at least my implied thesis -- would run something like: Vietnamese society values poetry whereas American society does not and that tells us something about the relationship between the arts and society more generally. Underneath that is Henry's agon, of course, the cry of the Americna poet for some sort of recognition, a role to play. But be careful what you wish for.

Vietnamese people will point out to you that many of their statesmen have also been poets, that poetry is taught in school, and that books of poetry are to be found widely distributed in modern Vietnam, but the more I look, the narrower this distribution seems to be. Now days, it often looks like a sentimental social construction maintained as part of an overall Vietnamese self image. Which, I guess you could argue, is more than we have in the US. But in the US there are hundreds if not thousands of literary institutions -- reading series, small presses, etc. -- whereas in VN there is not so much of that, partly because the official Writers Association stands as an official literary institution that is supposed to facilitate such matters, but often doesn't. What you have instead are networks of literary friends who find ways to make a literary life sometimes in and sometimes out of official channels.

At any rate, those are some rough impressions about the comparative sociology of American and Vietnamese poetry scenes. I hope to see a lot more and refine my thoughts over the next month as I travel around. As it happens I'll be having dinner tomorrow evening with the president of the Writers Association and I want to ask him how he sees that institution's role in a modernizing Vietnam.

4.22.2009

Plumbline & Broken Middle

Here is my confession : since setting the Plumbline School on its merry airy erring way, I've had unspoken doubts & misgivings about what it all means. It began in a reaction : against what I perceived as a certain exaggerated or parodic or intentionally superficial or "facetious" atmosphere in the contemporary poetry realm (manifested at the time by "flarf" poetry - but this is only one example). But a simple reaction tends toward the reactionary : & I've worried that an emphasis on the "normative" and the "center" in poetry is a recipe for a staid, conventional stance (Joseph Hutchinson made this quite clear in his response to an invitation to join, a while back).

A second problem, for me, hovers around the idea of labels and abstract categories. To claim a poetry of "the middle" seems to homogenize & standardize a great deal of difference and variety; to look at it from another angle, it seems an awfully vague measure - so abstract as to be incapable of actually characterizing much.

I've tried, in various ways, to sharpen the idea, to make it more interesting : exploring such things as the relationship between mediation (the "golden mean") and ancient concepts of aesthetic and natural beauty; the issue of Metaphysical "wit", the yoking of opposites in a pithy metaphor, image, or aphorism; the differences between a poetry of experience and a poetry of discursive knowledge (Eliot's "dissociation of sensibility"); & finally, the notion of "the middle" as an ethical category, and its relation to poetry (Mandelstam's "sense of being right", etc.).

These are indeed some curious facets of the middle : but I don't think they answer either of the problems I've raised. We are still left with the question of how this concept of the plumbline relates to our poetry, and to contemporary poetry generally - if it does, at all! & we are still left with the 1st of my problems - that is, the slippage between the notion of "the middle" and mere, bland, complacent mediocrity (conventional, middle-brow or uncritical art).

Other members of the Plumbline may feel differently about these issues : perhaps I'm exaggerating the dilemma. But recently I've come upon some writings that might help me move forward. I was reading the final essay in Geoffrey Hill's Collected Essays (the essay title escapes me at the moment - something about modernist poetry). There he makes a reference to the late British thinker Gillian Rose, and her concept of "the broken middle". The phrase betook me to her book of that title, from the late 90s.

I'm not very well-read in philosophy & "theory" generally, and I found much of it hard going. So I welcome corrections to the following inadequate paraphrase. But basically Rose's book is a reflection on the status of contemporary philosophical thought, in the post-modern era. With deep readings of Hegel, Kierkegaard, Arendt, Luxemberg, Adorno, Heidegger, Lacan, Levinas, & other modern & postmodern authors, Rose describes the agon of "authorship" in a post-Enlightenment, and post-Holocaust era, when post-structuralist theory has attempted to critique and dismantle "instrumental reason", the ideological underpinnings of Western society and governance, and to replace them with various alternative modes of discourse and social (non)structure.

Rose's very basic countering concept is formulated as "the broken middle" : a term describing the human condition, and the condition of human mediating social institutions, as always both sin-ridden and redemptive; violent and law-ful; and that this "compromised" (my term) condition is not escapable by way of verbal or ideological sleights-of-hand, but must be endured, deeply & critically evaluated, and lived. Surprisingly, she adds a small "lyric" toward the conclusion, which goes :

I am abused and I abuse
I am the victim and I am the perpetrator
I am innocent and I am innocent
I am guilty and I am guilty


(a poem which seems to echo both Whitman and some ancient Sanskrit passage)

I will have to go back to G. Hill's essay to see how he relates Rose's work to poetry in particular. But it occurred to me today that this notion of a "broken middle" - a mediation which is inevitably conflicted, compromised, endangered, guilty, and above all implicated, engaged - might offer another way to think about our "plumbline". The middle, here, is not simply a form of "instrumental" discursive management or technical flair, transposed to the sphere of aesthetics. The middle in this sense doesn't offer a "solution" to anything : it is not necessarily a resolution, or even always "peaceful" : in Rose's terms, it is more like an agonistic arena. Such a concept, in fact, might be applied to an interpretation of the contemporary poetry scene in another way : if the middle is conflicted, unresolved and agonistic, then the poetry scene - full of broken, distorted, and mistaken or incomplete formulae for competing styles - none of which seem to find much favor with an indifferent or uncomprehending public-at-large - the scene itself seems to reflect, to offer some evidence for, that agonistic state of things. Agonistic - yet still offering an elusive promise (or dream, or possibility) of reconciliation.

4.17.2009

Hybrids & the Allegory of Poetic Motoring

Mark Wallace & Mike Theune are taking up (again) issues of schools, camps & technique, over at Mark's Thinking Again blog.

*

Meanwhile, John Latta brackets "Hybrid" hype with the bleak, disillusioned analytic of Adorno (JL's post of Tuesday the 21st).

4.14.2009

Life Under Water

Maura Dooley’s new collection, Life Under Water, arrived late last week. I ordered it after I read Ben Wilkinson's review in the TLS a few weeks ago. Ben was a little ambivalent about the collection but his comments, especially the phrase “unreliable histories, human frailties and emotional distortions of memory recur,” led me to an internet search, a live reading and a click here to purchase. He deals at some length with the opening piece, The World Turned Upside Down, and to my taste that poem was worth the price of admission.

Whether consciously or not, Dooley reverses the point of view Auden presents in “Memorial for the City.” Her narrator looks out through a pane of ice, “To break and lift a frozen pane/ And see my city made strange...” instead of seeing the city, as Auden’s narrator does, “from the public side of her mirrors.” Instead of the city’s speeches and statistics, which fail to impress Auden’s speaker, Dooley presents, with what Ben Wilkinson calls “deft specificity,” things that emphasise the traits of Auden attaches, in “The Dyer’s Hand,” to his historian, rather than his poet– ‘an interest in human beings, and their lives, which he believes are not preordained by fate but depend on the choices they make, for which they are fully responsible, an interest in the present only insofar as it relates to the past and to the future, and interest in actions, great or small, which reveal the direction in which the actors are moving. ‘All of the historical moments Dooley presents involve the choices made by individuals and the consequences of those decisions.

She begins by evoking the Frost Fairs held on the Thames when it froze, and the way gazing through a waver of heat distorts the vision as much as looking through a pane of ice-“The way fires at Frost Fair once/ made all that was constant tremble “– a reference to the great fires that burned on the ice during the fairs, to warm the revellers and spit roast whole animals for their suppers. The fairs were well known for the numerous disasters and near disasters caused by the failure of the populace to heed the warnings that the ice was about to break. In Feb of 1814, for instance, the last of the frost fairs, a four day event that featured an elephant walking across the river, ended when the ice began to thaw suddenly and crack. In spite of several obvious warnings and an intermittent drizzle of rain the festivities continued until, on a sudden the ice “floated with the printing presses booths and merry makers, to the no small dismay of publicans, typographers, shopkeepers and sojourners.” The sudden breaking up of the ice had been recorded at least since the thirteenth century, and often enough resulted in loss of life and property, but none of these precedents or warnings seemed to make much of an impression on the crowds.
Halfway through the first stanza the imagery slides quietly into another event. The ‘tremble’ induced by the fires of the frost fair is followed immediately by “a shiver of flame, fire on ice, 1643, the country shook as it watched.” It is unclear where the frost fires end and the events of 1643, as the parliamentarians gain the upper hand over the King, leading eventually to his execution, begin but it does seem clear that Charles’ long series of provocations and ill judged decisions is behind the reference. The “Welsh prophetess” made the connection between fire and these events explicit in the publication of “Wonders foretold by her great prophet of Wales: which shall certainly happen this present year 1643 by strange fires, and great waters.” “That there shall also be many great fires in many parts of the city of London (mark you that now) for her doth very well understand there will be many hot fires.” I don’t mean to say that Dooley is referring directly to an obscure seventeenth century soothsayer, only that images of conflagration and flood were used, even at the time, to express the dire political situation.

The second stanza takes the phrase “fire on ice”, away from the concrete meaning attached to it in the opening lines and utilises its metaphoric aptness to the visual distortions of snow blindness, as in Josphine Johnson’s “As men who once have seen/ White sun on snow,/white fire on ice,/ And in a wide noon, shadowless,/ Gone blind with light, “ to move from the frost fairs and the civil war into the story of Berentz’s expedition to find a northern route to China. “The glint of refraction/ distorts the story handed down” of his winter in Nova Zembla after his ship was caught in the ice. Berentz chose, after their progress was thwarted, to separate from Corneliz, his expedition partner, and to proceed south-easterly, intending to round the northern point of Nova Zembla, a decision that led to his imprisonment in the ice. The details of the crew’s efforts to survive the bitter cold in a driftwood hut, combating polar bears, depression, and the constant darkness became, as Dooley suggests, refracted, over time, until, by the nineteenth century, Dutch nationalist poets promoted the story of the arduous winter in nova Zembla as a legend of national heroism. By the time it was translated into English, the story was already known as an adventure “so strange and wonderful, that the like hath never been heard of before.”

Dooley’s "bitter weeks of past and future/ held in the long cold of the moment,” vividly conjures the disorientation of the men huddled in their hut. The cold had stopped all of their clocks and they had no idea, in the long arctic darkness, whether it was day or night. Eventually they made a twelve hour sand glass to estimate with, but the feeling conveyed by Dooley’s phrasing, with its echo of Eliot’s “time future contained in time past, if all time is eternally present,” and of Auden’s historian with his interest in the present only as it relates to the past and the future, is of the long suspension of time in the cold and dark. Her image of "everything drained, thinned/ to a blankness, pattern that lost all pattern,” not only captures the dense snow falls and the two inches of ice on the walls around the trapped men but it echoes Auden’s vision in Memorial for the City, where “The humor, the cuisine, the rites, the taste, The pattern of the City, are erased.” Dooley, however, turns away from despair. Perhaps she knows that as the ice began to break around Berentz’s men in the spring “the piles resembled the houses of a great city, interspersed with apparent towers, steeples and chimneys,” rebuilding the civilization the cold and dark had torn down. The same “glint of refraction,” that distorted Berentz’s story also caused him to see “the sun at Nova Zembla on the 20th of January, 1597, fifteen days before he was expected,” a point of optimism and hope perhaps alluded to in her phrasing, and certainly in line with her next image. After a lifetime of looking, William Bentley manages to isolate, from the bleakness of snow, its individual flakes, and discover “no two ice flowers are alike,” moving from winter to spring inside a single phrase.

The final stanza turns back to the warming streets of the opening lines, and the anticipated melt, to make apparent the vision of the poem and justify what Wilkinson calls the “ambitious ecological tone” of the work. The attitude of Auden’s historian is important here. He believed that this historical world is a redeemable world. The sleet and slush that confronts Dooley’s narrator when she looks out of her ice window is a “damp longing for silence,” “that might be a city made strange, life under water,” life after the untempered fire of the sun does its worst, life after the flood, but it predicts, as the Welsh prophetess predicted, an impending disaster that the right choices on our part might avert.

Dooley’s imagery is lyrical, concrete and metaphorically apt, at the same time as it is so richly allusive that in twenty-five short lines “it orders into a possible community a crowd of past historic occasions,”* and encapsulates Auden’s idea that “historical foundations are crucial for supporting a contemporary poetry which is itself meant to play a crucial role in the act of living.”**


*Auden
**Daniel S Holder on Auden’s “Writing.”