But that's by way of prologue. Carruth has been very important to me in charting my own course down the center. So I was pleased to find Henry's post with the long quote from Carruth the other day. Here is another part of the case for Carruth being made an honorary member of the Plumbline School: His 1970 mass-market poetry anthology (also still in print), The Voice that is Great Within Us. I'm just getting ready to return to Vietnam. When I go there, I usually try to take a couple of American books to give to friends there, many of whom are English teachers and professional translators, and poets. In browsing around Amazon, I ran across the Carruth anthology, which I have given away to many students over the years, but which I hadn't looked at closely for a while. I ordered a copy, which arrived yesterday. In his introduction, Carruth talks about getting an envelope of poems from Wallace Stevens on day and another from E.E. Cummings the next when he was editor of Poetry magazine. He goes on to sketch out the capaciousness of American poetry and his anthology selections reveal a very wide taste; more than that, they reveal a time in American poetry before the Fall.
A look at the Table of Contents of The Voice that is Great Within Us provides evidence of a prelapsarian paradise where Jack Spicer and Conrad Aiken have converse, where Yvor Winters and Kenneth Fearing meet on friendly terms, and so on: Lorine Niedecker, Richard Eberhardt, Louis Zukofsky, Kenneth Rexroth, Theodore Roethke, John Berryman, Thomas McGrath, William Bronk, Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Donald Justic, Richard Wilbur. . . Carruth's anthology suggests that American poets might have more in common than they realize. The recent divisions are largely political, I'd argue, rather than aesthetic. No, check that. I'd say that in the recent divisions into schools, a narrow politics drives aesthetics.
Over and above
old captains' houses
now fallen into
funk, the train
passes. Further, trucks
docked to load
manifest ramps, then
darkness of tunnel
and the passengers reflect
on each other.
Light nicks the
surface of the
globe, even under
On a train, someone describes what he sees (houses, trucks, a tunnel, passengers), then takes a first interpretive step in the third sentence, though still in a very descriptive mode.
But the diction changes in the next sentence, from a description to the word "description":
.... This lazy
description of the
way things are
tells more than
A "lazy" description might contrast with a "hard-working" or "serious" description, in which case the descriptive mode of the first 13 1/2 lines of the poem is being criticized. But "lazy" can also mean "relaxed," the opposite of "tense" or "stressed out," in which case the previous mode is not being criticized.
The phrase "tells more than / it knows" is also ambiguous: it might mean the description is more a matter of telling than of knowing (more mimesis than epistemology?). If this is combined with the critical reading of "lazy," then the poem would be arguing against that descriptive mode because description does not generate knowledge.
But "tells more than / it knows" might mean something like "says more than it realizes it is saying," in which case the "lazy description" is being given a positive value because of its suggestiveness.
Further, I also hear a play on "tells more than / it [shows]" here. In many discussions of poetry, "description of the / way things are" is privileged because it shows rather than tells, so this moment in "Seventh Street" could be understood as a counterargument: this "showing" mode "tells" as much as it shows; it "tells more than / it knows [it does]" not in the sense of being suggestive but in the sense of "telling" more than it is intended to, and more than it is aware of in its emphasis on "showing."
Now, the shift in the poem's diction (from "concrete" to "abstract") does suggest, at least at first, that the poem privileges its critique of "lazy / description" and of the mode of "show, don't tell." If that was all it did (without a possible counter-reading), it would be a matter of "lazy abstraction" arguing with "lazy description," and it would hardly be worth talking about at this length.
However, the next sentence begins to make clear that things are not that simple:
something about conditions
and you have
that to look
The diction remains "abstract" while also becoming self-referential: "something about conditions" is what the previous sentence brought into the poem. Such abstraction, this sentence concludes, is also something "to look at," just as the scene described earlier was something to look at. The poem makes "you" "look at" these modes and see them not as a hierarchy but as an interwoven pair that poems have to work with. "Telling" is not being privileged over "showing," in a critique of those who would privilege "showing" over "telling"; rather, the inevitable interaction of the two modes is being acted out, through both modes at the same time.
This interaction becomes completely clear in the poem's final sentence:
station stop is
this writing's end.
The "lazy / description" and the mode of saying "something about conditions" have been kept in separate sentences until now (hence my emphasis on sentences), but they meet here in the conclusion, as the train ride stops and the poem ends. The two modes are not opposed; they interact. And they are, the poem argues, both necessary to the making of a poem, and to its interpretation.
(I am enormously grateful to Ron Silliman for his review of The Messianic Trees a few weeks ago, which inspired me to buy Robinson's book.)
[cross-posted from my blog]
"Pound is the leader, at the very forefront. Yet because of that, paradoxically he is at the center too: so much - one is inclined to say everything - comes from him. We at the center have a difficult time, often enough; always defining and redefining our position, entering correctives to the debonair pronouncements of the extremes. Not rationalism, we say somewhat acidly, but let us at least be reasonable; not positivism, but not enigma either; and in the matter of fashion, yes, we are friends with Robert Lowell, but we are friends with Robert Creeley too. It is a difficult work. But we take comfort from knowing that Pound is one of us, a man of the center, and that the love of proportion and justice requires, not a baser passion, as some assert, but on the contrary, as in his writing, the strongest and purest passion of all."
-- Hayden Carruth, "On a Picture of Ezra Pound," Poetry, May 1967
Holding such views about the "center", perhaps Carruth should be made an honorary member (sadly posthumous) of the Plumbline School. I know Joseph Duemer has spoken of him.
“’What’s the matter?’ said Wilko Johnson, a musician, who, admittedly, always fills up his tracks with music. ‘Couldn’t you think of anything else to put?’ He has a point. Often I can’t. Or rather, I can’t think of the other thing which might be made to lean up against the initial burst of activity like a kind of dream neighbour. I love it when a poet takes a risk and hands you something impossible which you have to deal with on your own. The spark which jumps across the opposing terminals delivers a participative shock, which is poetry’s secret weapon. Who did that? You did! Unfortunately the times when the two halves ‘pay back’ are rare; more usually the leap seems fanciful, a try-on, so you put the second part on a new page and call it a new poem.”
Or you don’t. You let it stand and trust to the reader to make some sense of it when there’s a good chance the pay off will be inadequate to the effort, simply because you haven’t worked hard enough, you were being self indulgent, or as Williams suggests, your original impulse was slightly off base.
The ‘jump across opposing terminals’ doesn’t just happen at key structural moments, of course. In some poems every line is a leap of faith, every image, allusion or metaphor a hurdle, either because the source material is impossibly obscure or impossibly personal. The impossibly obscure category shrinks daily as cultural source material is so readily available that anyone with access to the internet can figure out just about any reference to anything that actually comes from the collective culture. A student approaching The Wasteland, for the first time, for example, could easily improve on Eliot’s own notes in a few hours. Even allusions that could reasonably be expected to belong to the collective unconscious are traceable, but no-one except your therapist can be expected to know that the ‘whip stitch’d boat shoes’ in your poem stand in for the fact that your dad regularly beat the daylights out of you when he took you out in the motorsailer on Sunday afternoons, and it’s just not cricket if the poem makes no sense without that titbit of information.
Joseph Hutchison's March 26th blog entry on Ivan Blatny provides a perfect example both of the structural neighbour from hell jump and the deliberately obscure one. Blatny may have had insanity as an excuse but we’ll bracket that and just look at the poem, which is a short one.
So restoration is not spelled au
I spelled it so thinking of the czech word restaurace
and go with a lady to the Room
like a unicorn in the mirror
all naked in the mirrors
so that I could see the blood trickling.
Hutchison’s analysis is a much more rewarding read than the poem itself, and includes a defence of the work as well, but the main points are that leap from the discussion of a spelling error to the going somewhere with an unknown lady bit, and then the opacity of the images in the last four lines. It’s possible there is a connection between the two parts, and it’s possible that the images are directly related to it – perhaps the young Blatny failed a spelling quiz in eighth grade and his teacher took him into the next room and caned him till he bled, which reminded him of the school play, a version of Equus, starring unicorns instead of horses, set in the hall of mirrors at Versailles and directed by said teacher, because the English teacher always directs the play - it’s possible, but it’s not relevant or fair. The reader has no way of knowing what Blatny’s ‘tics’ or the poem mean, regardless of what Johannes Goransson claims to the contrary, and any guesses he might make won’t repay his efforts with comprehension. There’s no “participative shock,” as Williams puts it. Poetry, like religion, requires a certain degree of comfort in the presence of the unknowable, but it shouldn’t expect its devotees to live in complete darkness and isolation.
Reginald Shepherd talks, in a recent entry on his blog, about the unavoidable and legitimate difficulty of poetry addressing complex subjects and mentions Eliot’s remark that true poetry communicates before it is understood. He gives the example of reading Prufrock for the first time and says that it was the feeling of the poem, its language and emotions that led to a desire to understand it. Eliot however didn’t shirk the surely primary responsibility of actually being understandable once the effort was made. Shepherd uses the examples of Sudoku and crossword puzzles as an indication of the willingness of people to engage in considerable mental effort to no really practical end, but I think it’s highly unlikely that anyone without the incentive of professional or academic interest is going to expend as much effort on a poem as they would on a crossword puzzle. I’m not saying they have their priorities in order, I’m just saying it’s so. Hutchison could have done a month of Sundays worth of puzzles in the time he took to come up almost empty handed on ‘Misspelled.’ For most readers the ‘pay back’ has to be better than that. Yeats put it well.
The fascination of what's difficult
Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent
Spontaneous joy and natural content
Out of my heart.
He was ostensibly talking about theatre but the warning also applies here. It’s a sad end for a poetry lover.
"It’s odd to think of history’s most famous architect being as obsessed with animal smells as he was with scale and proportion. But not being afraid of the ordinary side of his job was a key component of Palladio’s genius. To him, architecture existed to solve problems, and he seems to have given equal weight to elevating the image of his clients, making their lives function more smoothly, and creating beautiful objects for the world. Figuring out where to put the farm animals and shaping designs of transcendent beauty were all in a day’s work."
"But poetry has lost its documentary rigor; even the sense of documentary rigor in the way John Ashbery conceives of it, as a flux of detail that is intensely particular but oddly impersonal, fundamentally aleatory. Marilyn Hacker achieves this same rigor. In her case the observing self is foregrounded, but held mercifully in check by traditional craft. In the cases of both poets, the aesthetic carriage is unimpeachable. Most of contemporary poetry’s interests, especially among the younger poets, range from disposable meta-poetic performance on one end of the spectrum to the anemic representation of the feeling self on the other. The world – as a subject – seems to have fallen through the gap in the middle."
This attitude - look for a balance between craft & "documentation", by means of which "the world" can emerge as "a subject" - seems near to some of the things we have been talking about here.
What does this poem communicate? If we are content with the answer that the poem says that we should enjoy youth before youth fades, and if we are willing to write off everything else in the poem as ‘decoration,’ then we can properly censure [modern poets such as] Eliot or Auden or Tate for not making poems so easily tagged. But in that case we are not interested in poetry; we are interested in tags.
This implies that what "modern" poets do is write poetry without such "tags," such simple messages that one can glean from a poem. And note that the three poets Brooks lists as "modern" could not be more different from each other.
What comes to mind for me is something I read sometime last year in which a non-reader of poetry responded to Carol Ann Duffy's poems by calling them "difficult." For readers of contemporary poetry, this is a bit of a shock: one may or may not like Duffy's poems, but they are not difficult (at least not compared to those written by the vast majority of contemporary poets with several books to their names).
But perhaps the difficulty in question is the absence of such "tags."
[Cross-posted, as Joseph D. suggested, from my blog.]
Apologies for not posting here for a while. I'm preparing to go to Vietnam for several weeks beginning next month, but I have been thinking about the issues central to the Plumbline School's project, as I understand it. What follows is just a couple of quotes with brief comments, but perhaps they will be of interest. I expect to have several more things to post her in the next few days, then there will be a period of silence while I travel. Since I'm going to be hanging out with poets in Vietnam, perhaps I'll have some things to share. Anyway, here are some notes posted earlier this morning on my own blog:
I'm not big on biological reductionism when it comes to the arts, especially when the evolutionary biologists start talking about the "evolutionary value" of this or that cultural practice, making up their little just-so stories. But I was intrigued the other day by this article describing the way the brain processes jokes. It occurred to me long ago that a lyric poem and a joke share certain structural similarities -- ones Michael Theune could no doubt elucidate in detail -- but in simplest form, the punchline, the payoff, the turn or the pivot that surprises. So here we have the human brain, which loves pattern and repetition, music:
This process, of memory formation by neuronal entrainment, helps explain why some of life's offerings weasel in easily and then refuse to be spiked. Music, for example. "The brain has a strong propensity to organize information and perception in patterns, and music plays into that inclination," said Michael Thaut, a professor of music and neuroscience at Colorado State University. "From an acoustical perspective, music is an overstructured language, which the brain invented and which the brain loves to hear."
But the joke, which the brain also likes, depends on variation and timing and detail:
Really great jokes, on the other hand, punch the lights out of do re mi. They work not by conforming to pattern recognition routines but by subverting them. "Jokes work because they deal with the unexpected, starting in one direction and then veering off into another," said Robert Provine, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the author of "Laughter: A Scientific Investigation." "What makes a joke successful are the same properties that can make it difficult to remember."
In poetry, then, one is forcing the brain to operate on more than one level. In an older paradigm -- that of the left and right hemispheres of the brain -- it was possible to imagine something similar going on: the left hemisphere's interest in and control over meter and pattern combining with the right hemisphere's interest in novel arrangements. The physiology is of course much more complicated that the metaphor, but the metaphor is still suggestive. Poetry integrates different kinds of cognition, even kinds that might seem to be in conflict with each other.
A good joke or a good poem has a ground of pattern against which a specific path is picked out and that path has turns and surprises concealed in it, sometimes using the camouflage of pattern to conceal itself until the right moment. Question: What does the surprise -- the punchline -- yield in terms of knowledge? Insight? Understanding? Can a punchline or a surprise be empty?
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.
- Robert Frost, "Two Tramps in Mud-Time"
Some discussions over at the Harriet blog have distracted me from the Plumb, but also got me ruminatin' again.
To whit : do poets take poetry too seriously? Is there a perceptual disjunction between poets & readers? Do readers read for pleasure, & poets write for something else? Is what is play, for the reader, rather serious work for the poet? Or is the reader passionately searching for sustenance (as Franz Wright recently claimed), while poets are playing effete games?
A possibly related question : what happened to the ancient "dignity" of the poet? Dante thought of his poem as a work of moral edification. The works of Homer & the Greek dramatists served as benchmarks of public morality, the source of proverbial sententiousness, the foils for the Platonic Academy. Has poetry devolved to mere entertainment - diversion - pleasant pastime?
Is there such a thing as "serious play" anymore (a conjunction of opposites, there)?
This is a question which bears not only on poetry per se, but on the place of literature & literate culture in the world at large.
It also bears, I suppose, on the old mystery of the Person, the "status of the individual", "subjectivity" and common life. Is the individual person a phantasm of biological &/or economic forces, an accidental product of necessity? Or is the individual Person the measure of all things, the pivot of both freedom and responsibility? This bears on our conception of art : is it a purely social product, with a public function & a set of common, shared dimensions? Or is it the purest expression of individual personality, rising from the depths of (Proustian, say) subjectivity, and (Freudian, say) psychology? From the hidden places of childhood, of personal memory & desire, our emotional roots?
For the moment I just want to toss these questions out there... often however I sense this underlying unease or nervousness in American poetry culture, which might have something to do with an uncertainty about what is the right balance of seriousness & fun, responsibility & freedom. (Or maybe it's just me...)
"Greatness isn't the problem; irresponsibility is. The avaricious banker's greed is matched by the self-centered poet's solipsism. Neither cares about the social context; neither even conceives that success depends on the aptness of the work's social function and a discipline's formal power. From reading a book of poems we should have an idea of the basic nature of a society and its culture. Ignorant of and indifferent to their useful roles, however, the banker grabs all the bonuses possible and the poet concocts endless, irrelevant lyrics. Bankers who value this conventional poetry contribute to the foundations that support it, and poets who want to be published provide the material. Now, perhaps, if enough banks fall and enough publishing comglomerates collapse, we'll discover our oddballs, our different voices, our adequate innovators, who, like Dickinson, like Melville, like Whitman in their time, have been invisible in ours."
When I was in graduate school, I was fully absorbed in literary theory—which is not a surprise, since the program I was in was called "Comparative Literature and Literary Theory." I had a period in which I was quite fascinated by Jacques Derrida—especially by his studies of those writers whose work is especially susceptible to deconstruction because their ambitions for completeness are so especially extreme: Stéphane Mallarmé and Claude Lévi-Strauss, for example, or Edgar Allan Poe (at least as Jacques Lacan read him).
Even then, I was struck by something odd about those postmodernists who held up Derrida as a reason to write fragmentary, incomplete texts. Such writers thought that the lesson of deconstruction was that one should not try to construct anything complete. Even then, that seemed like nonsense to me, even at a simple logical level: works which do not aim at wholeness are not interesting enough to deconstruct. A "fragment" that is intended as a fragment does not "try and fail," as Joseph Duemer puts it; instead, it tries to fail. The fact that attempts at wholeness or completeness will fail in ways that are inevitably invisible to the author but can be spotted by alert analysis is not grounds for fragmentary, incomplete work, be it anthropology, linguistics, fiction, or poetry. (There are, of course, many other putative reasons to be "postmodern," to which this critique does not apply!)
[Cross-posted on my blog, too.]
Note: Cross-posted to Sharp Sand.
You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.
But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.
- Bob Dylan
No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon.
- Gospel of Matthew (Sermon on the Mount)
Around 1930, when Stalinist repression was closing in around poet Osip Mandelstam, he was asked by an interviewer for a definition of poetry. He replied, in typical pithy fashion : "the poet's sense of being right" (or sense of "inner rightness").
M's adage planted itself in my mind years ago, & keeps returning, like an unsolved puzzle. About 13 years ago I wrote a couple of impressionistic essays for Chris Reiner's spunky little magazine Witz, which attempted to come to terms with it; I will try to come up with an online copy of the 2nd one ("Sense of Being Right"), which raised more questions than it answered. (The 1st Witz essay can be found here, & here.)
The crux of the puzzle is that M.'s defining characteristic for poetry comes not from aesthetics but from ethics and morality. In the latter Witz essay, I wrote that M. had asserted that poetry's purpose - its end, its telos - resided beyond itself : in a realm of the moral imperative, an ethical Absolute. "Rightness". And I said that it was a mistake to separate this moral telos from some hypothetical (aesthetic) beginning - in creative nature, in process or praxis, etc. Rather, M. is saying that the "beginning" is in the end : they cannot be separated. And he bolsters this position by suggesting that poetry (at least, Acmeist poetry - his poetry) has, as its subject, "the idea of Man". Not Man as Citizen (or subject of history or the State), but the idea of Man in its most universal and inclusive (& non-gender-specific!) sense :
"It's not Rome the city that lives through the centuries
But man's place in the universal scheme."
In other words : our human being, our nature as individuals and as species, is constituted and characterized by moral conscience. Our consciousness is a moral consciousness : our inner compass or gyroscope, our "sense of being right", is an expression of inherent justice (or the seeking thereof).
Mandelstam elaborates on this in another essay, on Pyotr Chaadev, a 19th-cent. thinker perhaps somewhat comparable to Emerson in the U.S. Chaadev's theme was that Russia's destiny depended on a quality (represented by the choices & acts of individual Russians) which he called "moral freedom". Roughly speaking, he was reminding Russians that individual conscience - and not the forces of the collective, the State, or history - is the anchor of civilization.
In another place, M. portrayed this general view of things as "the gold coins of humanism" - a Renaissance-vision of civilization as a kind of personalized, human hearth. Nothing is outside the human spirit, which makes the world a "home" ("domestic hellenism") : and yet Man is the measure of all things only so long as she/he remains devoted to a consciousness of rightness & justice - to an absolute, standing beyond our willful grasping. To a "plumbline", in other words. So this allegiance to something beyond ourselves is actually our defining, distinguishing characteristic - that which makes us human.
What I am suggesting here, is that our "plumbline" is not simply a kind of critical tape measure, a tool we can apply in some detached technocratic fashion. In Mandelstam's view, poetry is a living tradition, a distinct emanation of our humanness per se : it is far too engaged and intertwined with the moral & existential choices facing individuals and peoples, now & every day, to support the arrogance of mandarins, aesthetes, jobbers, technocrats. Poetry is the living speech of the Personal and the Human - the Individual and the People; that which reaches deep, grasping & mirroring our common nature with a piercing, proverbial intensity.
& if culture, civilization & poetry are built on the expressions of individual conscience & spiritual freedom, then, for working poets, issues of theme, rhetoric, & mode of address become both problematic & more pressing. None of the partial measures of value - populism, programmatic engagement, aesthetic autonomy, style for its own sake, canonicity, etc. etc. - can be deemed either absolute or even substantial. Rather, the measure of value seems to return to a kind of independent affinity of whole persons - a line of ethical/aesthetic communication - established between poet and reader, dramatist and audience. Here the ethical can be distinguished (analytically) from the aesthetic - but they cannot be separated. Poetry returns to humane expression between integral and individual persons. Concrete & unique, because moral-historical existence is only apprehended in the incomparable particulars of changing life.
Thus we are reminded that a plumbline dangles from a point of leverage (related, perhaps, as Joseph mentioned in a comment, to Pound's Confucian notion of the "unwobbling pivot") which stands in its own firmament, and firmly beyond the reach of those changeable circumstances to which it is applied as measure. This is an image of human conscience aligned with justice, the moral absolute. The fact that both poetry and human life generally dangle from the same spiritual pivot is what makes possible the various syntheses, on various levels (ethical, aesthetic, political), of the mediating "golden mean". And this same pivotal situation holds out a perennial promise to the artist, that her labors will find an echo with an understanding audience.
Robert Archambeau has also written in various places about documentary, "investigative poetics" of the 90s(?) (Kristen Prevallet, & others) - a trend in poetry that also shows some affinities...
On the other hand, I don't want to identify what we're just starting to do here, with any particular tradition or stream. I'm well aware that many of my own initial February posts on this blog come across as incredibly abstract, pedantic, turgid... but in my own defense, I'd say that we are trying to establish very basic foundations for new ways of reading poetry (our own & others').
The "plumbline" represents a jumble of building blocks, corresponding to elementary structural aspects of poems - functions which are often displaced in the ongoing discourse of reviews, polemics, chit-chat & so on. When you start to distinguish between these elements - when you mediate between them, analytically, with something like a plumbline - you set them in play : you make it possible to recognize balances & relations, discords & concords, in the making/reception of different works. It becomes possible to see how a poem can be both an integral work of art, and a reflection or re-invention of experience (the non-literary).
Here's Zukofsky, from his 1931 statement on Objectivism -
"An Objective: (Optics)—The lens bringing the rays from an object to a focus. (Military use)—That which is aimed at. (Use extended to poetry)—Desire for what is objectively perfect, inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars."