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?


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.


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]