2.18.2009

Playful Restraint

For those of us wired to the internet, it's so easy to spin out the discourse. The trouble is, this can hinder real communication sometimes. There is a problem with the overwhelming avalanche of chit-chat out there. The 24/7 poetickal news cycle can encourage all kinds of breezy nothings. I'm sure I'm one of the prime offenders.

But there's something in this image of the plumbline - especially after Joseph vivified it in his post before last - that possibly could act as a sort of counterweight to all that. This image, or symbol, comprehends (for me, anyway) a lot of things & behavior which come under the heading of "slow, modest, prudent, restrained" (maybe restraint is the most apt here).

The plumbline seems to bring together two notions : gravity and balance. And if we do another thought experiment, & set this symbol beside the concept of mediation - as outlined in previous posts - I think what results, in terms of poetry & criticism, is an orientation toward restraint and care.

How so? Well, as we said, the suspension of a plumbline, from some (physical, intellectual) point on high, produces a sense of gravity united with measured balance. "Gravity", to my mind, evokes a cluster of ideas involving actuality, necessity, nature, the earth, weight... - which, in a sense, trigger a need for balance or equilibrium. Gravity is serious, cautionary (as well as something to be defied or played with, sometimes). And this necessity (for balance) in turn triggers an awareness of differences : a making of distinctions. This is where the concept of mediation, "the golden mean", the synthesis of contraries, comes into play. A recognition of differences demands an establishment of relationship between them.

So where am I going with this, in terms of poetry? I think perhaps the conceptual center of the "Plumbline School" might hover around a notion that has been raised here repeatedly, in different ways : this idea of finding a balance between the style and the subject; writing and the real; the verbal and the non-verbal; what can be said and what cannot be said; representation and actuality. I think Joseph put it very pointedly, in one of his comments, here :

"I've long had the sense that language yearns toward the real without every being able to reach it. This is the paradox of representation, which some sorts of contemporary poetry collapse by focusing on the "materiality of language," turning out poems that aspire not to be representations but things in themselves. That's a move I tend not to trust even when it produces interesting results."

Although I would not want to oversimplify, and reduce poetry & the current scene to yet another binary, still, I think this is a useful distinction - and it helps me, anyway, to imagine what we are about here. For me, it's a both/and situation : poetry does aspire to be a thing-in-itself - yet also, somehow, to be rooted in that which it is not. So if I were to put it in more of a nutshell, I might say that the Plumbline School is about (1) recognizing - & acknowledging - what is beyond poetry : and (2) attempting to orient both poetry-making & criticism toward that chastening (or inspiring, depending how you take it) recognition.

In other words, we of the Plumbline School are going to register an awareness of these differences, these differential realities - and seek ways to balance them. Because poetry that (whether due to style, ideology, professional place-seeking, or some other reason) turns its back on what is non-poetry, eventually dries up & withers away.

2 comments:

Henry Gould said...

On Joseph's quote above, see this passage from essay by Louis Menand in this wk's New Yorker, by Louis Menand :

"He thought that the goal of writing was access to the ineffable. 'If there is any word I detest in the language, this would be it,' he said at the fiction symposium in 1975, but 'I believe that's the place artists are trying to get to, and I further believe that when they are successful, they reach it... an area somewhere between mathematics and religion, in which what may fairly be called truth exists.'"

I'd be surprised if Donald Barthelme (one of my favorite writers) would want to join the Plumbline School... but maybe this is one of those conjunctions of opposites.

Henry Gould said...

Did I say Louis Menand? I hope I mentioned it was by Louis Menand, the article. The article was by Louis Menand, a critic for the New Yorker. Louis Menand, the critic. In the New Yorker.