Plumbline School closing

Dear friends & visitors,

The Plumbline School is closing. The postings in the archive remain available, as long as our sponsor (Blogger) stays in business.

Thank you for your interest and contributions. Perhaps the ideas which inspired this project will re-emerge in a new way.


Good Friday Valentine

Our work is clearer

and clearer seeing

until seeing becomes hearing

what one sees is saying

and then becomes the living

thing seen from within

as if seeing double

the self-made self

it will follow what we do

on earth was already done

in some equidistant heaven

try not to think of a thoughtless clock

only a mind that can’t hang

with its own thoughts

will fail to see

another future

in the prior fact

of thinking itself.


"Corn: From Anatomy to Poetics" by Giorgio Agamben

It's not often an essay can impress by the qualities alone of form, scholarly virtuosity and elegance but Agamben's "Corn: From Anatomy to Poetics" certainly does. I'll compare it to anything Derrida wrote at the height of his powers. I'll even venture to say Agamben, whose name can't be tied to any current literary movements, is a lot more generous with his sources and can segue into more scholarly categories than even the great deconstructionist. It's no coincidence that I discovered Agamben through the writings of another master essayist Robin Blaser (in The Fire: Collected Essays of Robin Blaser) who discusses Agamben's unique philosophico-literary contributions to language in his essay "The Irreparable" .

As belonging to a larger text entitled The End of the Poem: Studies in Poetics Agamben's essay is actually the record of a literary discussion with friends Italo Calvino and Claudio Rugafiori, all of whom had conceived together of a review, as he says, of "'Italian categories'... a matter of identifying nothing less than the categorial structures of Italian culture through a series of conjoined polar concepts." (The End of the Poem xi). The essay can be seen as a contribution towards an oeuvre of the scale, say, of Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism though the scope and design later narrowed considerably to a shorter discussion of "general problems in poetics." (xii) Agamben's work is part of that discussion.

The essay is a work of philology, translation and literary criticism that proposes a general view of meter seen as a break with the musicality of Troubadour poetry. That is its general design: Agamben's thesis develops skilfully through the details of a transition from anatomical (quasi-bawdy) reference to metrical innovation and then to all the semantic possibilities now opened to poetry on a newer (more contemporary) meta-understanding of the relationship between sound & sense. Its content almost amounts to a literary paradigm shift.

The form of the essay, on the other hand, looks strangely at odds with content: divided into Historia, Allegory, Tropology, Anagogy, Sensus Mysticus and Epilogue, it seems to follow a sort of scriptural or medieval Thomistic exegesis. Agamben's exposition can be read in one of two ways: a case of intentional (a poststructuralist sort of) 'irony' at the expense of serious academic reading—a view I'm inclined to adopt—or an ingenious synthesis of classical and contemporary criticism, one that traces out of an ambiguous translation of 'corn' (anus, clitoris or some other purposely ambiguous sense of bodily orifice?) no less than the origins of a veritable metrics revolution. The razo to Arnaut Daniel's Troubadour composition (in its original bilingual form):

Raimon de Dufort and Lord Turc Malec were two knights from Quercy who composed the sirventes about the lady called Milday n'Aia, the one who said to the knight that she would not love him if he did not corn her in the arse.
And here are written the sirventes.
(Raimons de Dufort e N Turc Malec si foron du cavallier de Caersi que feiren los sirventes de la domna que ac nom ma domna n'Aia, aquella que dis al cavalier de Cornil qu'ella no l'amaria si el no la cornava el cul.
Et aqui son escritz los sirventes.)
Thus the philological status of 'corn' in Arnaut's Provencal verses takes us initially to a contested moment in Historia: the historical fact of Arnaut's own substitution of corn for cul in the sirventes that follow the razo. The substitution does more than correct an embarrassing blemish: it creates a textual lacuna (or 'gap', as Agamben says) that becomes the occasion for a crucial "'body of the woman/body of the poem' equation, which constitutes the sirventes's theme" (31). Which in turn leads to Agamben's most developed view of the Arnaut text and Ayna figure as "[t]he site of a fulfillment and an impossibility, of a perfection possible through an imperfection alone". (42) Just the sort of purposeful but playfully ambiguous reworking of traditional materials that's characteristic of so much contemporary poetics.

A quibbling over bawdy terminology creates a textual split after which the history of verse is never the same. But how exactly: how does the essay's typology lead in this way from what Agamben sees as the "somewhat uninspiring interpretative exercises" (23) of the courtly poet's earliest critics to a point in literary understanding where "comprehension is darkened in speech and speech is silenced in comprehension"? (42)

Through scholarly researches that uncover a vital 'corn' to 'cors' transition the 'corn' debate changes female into poetic anatomy (28), the new term 'cors' or 'cor' now meaning a "metrical unit", a structural feature not of a female body but of the verse fabric itself. A nonconformist (more problematic) view of poetry and its constitutive parts arises where anatomy turns into a blemish in prosodic design. A lewd reference to the female body now translates into an equally troubling reluctance on the part of rhymes to do their job within the same strophe. 'Corn' is now understood as "a partially unrelated rhyme" that requires the presence of other stanzas to which rhymes must later refer if compositional unity is to be maintained.

By virtue of this asymmetry of design, and the necessity the reader is now under to regard the poem in its entirety, a new "metastrophical" view of courtly lyric poetry is born in which the appearance of 'corn' then 'cors' marks a continuity and experimentalism divide begun with a substitution of the initially ambiguous 'corn' for a patently obscene 'cul': so that a part of female anatomy in the early Arnaut sirventes now carries over into a new sense of poetry as the place of rhyme displacement. Freed from strophic constraint rhyme loosens like a free radical into the body of the text. Arnaut who "treats all verses as "corns" and...by thus rupturing the closed unity of the strophe, transforms the unrelated rhyme into the principle of a higher relation" (31 italics are Agamben's) is seen as a poet of unexpected novelty, more particularly of verses that always leave something else oddly mislocated within the same poem. The troublesomeness of 'site' makes the reading eye work a little harder, looking no longer for melodic verses to courtly ladies but a more interesting Allegory at work in all poetic texts. In Agamben's words,

If we return, therefore, to Arnaut's sirventes, the whole dispute surrounding Ayna's corn is displaced from its obscene literal sense to a question of poetic technique and from a problem of anatomical suitableness to a metrical matter. The "body of the woman=body of the poem" equation, which is not altogether unexpected but is still not a given, will find a counterpart in the equation of corn as bodily orifice and corn as point of rupture of the strophe's metrical structure." (30)

If the corn is a point of fracture in the unity of the strophe, and if the strophe's metrical structure is not to be irremediably shattered...the laceration must take place with a particular precaution: the unrelated rhymes must be joined in a new metastrophic formal unity. (23)
By linking rhymes within a wider textual body the poet (and reader) avoids the prurience of focusing on one aspect only of the "woman-poem", dispensing at the same time with the purely melodic signifiers that give prominence to the physical Lady: in short, a literal reading of corn as female anatomy must now subserve a higher "harmonic" part-to-whole ordering that now appeals as much to the eye as the ear. Here is the emerging idea of poetry as text. The rupture between rhymes and a Troubadour's sound devices stills the singing voice, the poem's allegiance to a dominant tradition of "oral performance" forever gone, and activates a new type of intellectual viewing such as is typified in the complex sestina form. The body of Ayna, no longer the object of coarse sexual play, is elevated to a more intellectually innovative Tropology: it is even perhaps a morally (or spiritually) edifying way to talk about how the female body can presage a distinctively novel view of textual poetry.

Scattered readings of philological speculation and an emerging transformation of the physical into a symbolic body through Allegory are now bound to veer off into more technical discussions. Leaving melos for metrics will mark the poetic text as a site of errant rhymes and verses that won't end uniformly at the end of every line: enjambments are now seen as a negotiable upper-limit to where poetry can be safely distanced from an encroaching prose, poetry's ghostly Other. Enjambment, the errant verse line, is to poetry at this stage what Arnaut's 'corn' caesura originally was to rhyme.The very "harmony between sound and sense" (35) is put into question.

The bifurcated textual body of the poem can now be reconfigured as a sound and sense, "metrical segmentation and syntactical segmentation" (34) battleground where the distinctions between them are becoming more vaguely defined. If the music of oral tradition has given way to a the poem's metrical unity, which in turn threatens to enter prose terrain through lines (enjambments) whose chief sense-carriers (rhymes) don't appear uniformly at the end, it's even hard to separate sound from sense (a topic that's received in Silliman's view of the New Sentence its only true contemporary post-avant formulation). The "metastrophic" unity signalled by 'corn' now marks a troubling divide between the poem as metrics and poem as site of meaning. This is poetry's Anagogy phase: a kind of even more ultimate & divergent reading of that always troublesome place ('corn' or unrelated rhyme) of the "woman-poem".

Citing Dante extensively (particularly Book III of the Convivio) Agamben draws the most controversial conclusion of all from this growing sense-sound separation: namely, that poetry resides in the ineffability of poetic meanings themselves. Intellect and language, having ruptured almost beyond any formal compatibility, now chase each other around tempestuously like cold and warm fronts, with meanings sometimes gaining the ascendancy over sounds, sometimes sounds over meanings. Again, a perceived imperfection in language (lack of stable rhymes & verse lines), site of potential embarrassment, turns into a new sort of literary perfection. In the hands of the great Dante imperfection is the beginning Inferno stage and the Comedy that ends in beatific vision becomes the Sensus Mysticus form of language itself. Arnaut as the prequel to Dante!

These two synchronous and inverse processes in the act of speaking (and listening)—that of language's movement toward comprehension and of comprehension's movement toward language—communicate with each other in their limitation, such that (as Dante will go on to say) their imperfection actually coincides with their perfection". (39)
And more emphatically still:

And is this not precisely what happens in every genuine poetic enunciation in which language's movement toward sense is as if traversed by another discourse, one moving from comprehension to sound, without either of the two ever reaching its destination, the one to rest in prose and the other in pure sound? Instead, in a decisive exchange, it is as if, having met each other, each of the two movements then followed the other's tracks, such that language found itself led back in the end to language, and comprehension to comprehension. This inverted chiasm—this and nothing else—is what we call poetry. This chiasm is, beyond every vagueness, poetry's crossing with thought, the thinking essence of poetry and the poeticizing essence of thought (41 Italics are Agamben's)
In my previous two posts on Timothy Steele's work on the decline of metrics I noted the author's linking its devaluation to the abandonment of meter for something perceived to be closer to language's natural rhythms. I wonder if Steele is aware of the Arnaut connection to the loss of melos in poetry evolution: perhaps even if he'd consider Dante's own Commedia as a valid testimony to the loss of song, & its decline into an opposing play of sound and sense as outlined in Agamben's essay. Whether the lament for 'song' is at all the same as the celebrated final Dantean paradox of the broken vision of the Trinity in Paradiso: XXXIII : where language, as elevated as this, can envisage a triune God only in fragments. In the terzina,

O luce etterna che sola in te sidi,
sola t'intendi, e da te intelletta
e intendente te ami e arridi! (124-126)
Dante, nearing the end of his journey, wants to celebrate and invoke at the same time this visione straordinaria of a divine mystery imparted to him in three parts: even at the celestial summits the divine essence grasped only little by little, restricted to only its diverse qualities. Intellect and poetic imagination battle it out to the very end. To avoid experiencing similar limitations with regards to other higher mysteries like the Incarnation & the contemplation of God requires a final divine grace (one that seems tantamount to a complete abandonment of poetic language itself):

A l'alta fantasia qui manco possa;
a gia volgeva il mio disio e 'l velle,
si come rota ch'igualmente e mossa,
l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle.(142-145)
Comprehension and language completely submerged in the divine "love that moves sun & stars."


Russian plumbline

Speaking of Acmeists, & conjunctions of opposites... on this date in 1966, Anna Akhmatova died. On the same day, in 1953, Stalin died. One lived by the word, the other by the sword. & the survivor outlived her mortal foe - leader of those who executed her husband Nikolai Gumilev, & sent her only child to the gulag. Gives another sense to those famous lines of hers:

Gold rusts, steel decays, marble
crumbles. Everything readies for death.
The firmest thing on Earth is sorrow,
and most lasting is the regal word.

In some of the early posts to the Plumbline, there was discussion of the "theatrical" dimension of human life and history, & how poetry is bound up inextricably with the dramatic fate of cultures & nations. You can see that clearly coming to the fore in the struggle between poetry & dictatorship in Russia : where Mandelstam's early affinity with Ovid played out in a foreshortened imitation (his poem about Stalin sent him to exile & death, as Ovid's poetry had gotten him shipped off to the Black Sea).

There's a thematic aspect to this particular confrontation, since the Acmeists (Gumilev, Akhmatova, Mandelstam et al.) had a conception of the project, the vocation, of the poetic Word, as a matter of humanizing, civilizing, and domesticating life on earth. They suffered and died for this vocation, in very dramatic (even iconic) fashion, in a battle with forces of violence and dehumanization : those ideological projects of the 20th century which were engaged in humiliating and defacing the human image.

Akhmatova at least outlasted her opponent. Stalin ["steel"] decays... & "most durable is the regal word."


Plumbline School on Facebook

Members of the Plumbline School now have an incipient group on Facebook. Hopefully it will be useful means of communication for the far-flung Plums.

& a reminder to visitors : we welcome eligible new members. Please see link at upper right, How to Join the Plumbline School.

Derek Mahon through an Acmeist lens

If Gumilev had somehow survived the Bolshevik firing squad, and lived another 90 years, I think he might have accepted this poem by Derek Mahon (in the current New Yorker) into an Acmeist canon.

How would he evaluate it? As I'm scribbling this at the office, it will have to be a quick sketch. How would Gumilev read & appraise "The Thunder Shower"?

First of all, it's clearly a poem, with rhymes & stanzas, not prose chopped up into lines. The Russians were (& often have continued to be) more conservative in this area. Gumilev wrote that "poetry wants to distinguish itself from prose." (I'm not making a judgement of my own here : I recognize & value some free verse. Nevertheless I agree with the general idea. Poetry is distinct from prose.)

Secondly, the diction & syntax displays some clarity and simplicity. Poetry, for Acmeism, is "the art of the Word." Language, speech - in its natural, everyday, vernacular, contemporary formations, its common usages - is to be engaged & built upon, not shattered & destroyed. In other words, the given language we speak is to be respected in its integrity. The integrity & wholeness of the word itself is the living ground out of which poetry emerges & effloresces.

Thirdly, poetry is organic - a living whole, in an Aristotelian sense. Gumilev (again, following Aristotle somewhat) conceptualized four basic elements of the living organism of the poem : phonetics, style, composition, and what he called "eidolology" (or what we might term "thematics" or "argument", though it means more than that). Gumilev even analogized these elements to complementary, interactive physiological systems (flesh, bone structure, circulation, nerves).

How does Mahon's poem reflect such an organic whole? First, the entire poem describes a single "action" : the coming & passing-away of a heavy thunderstorm. This is the unifying (compositional) plot which undergirds both the underlying theme, and the flights of wit & fantasy elaborated in the individual stanzas. The calm elegance of the everyday syntax, combined with images of a multitude everyday things (sirens, trucks, honks, beeps, muggy air, world economy, etc.) - equivalent to the Acmeist doctrine of accepting & celebrating the things of this world - are wrought, up, caught up, in the waves of wet & stormy sound. & suddenly the unity of recurrent sounds, images, figures & form begins to gather into the specific gravity of a strictly poetic magic : we begin to recognize the equivalence of the natural phenomenon (the storm) with the verbal action of the work of art. As the poem states : "all human life is there". We are caught up in a unity of natural/artifical life, that is, a creative fusion. The rain becomes a sort of fountain : the faint & subtle Scriptural allusions (Baal, the creche) reinforce a vague feeling of being in the presence of new Making itself. "...a thrush sings..."

The phenomenon I am describing here is an example of Gumilev's concept of "chasteness" : we recognize the integrity and independence of the strictly poetic event - the artwork's inherent value - in the very process of the poem's celebration of the "chaste" integrity of both everyday communication (speech) and everyday natural events.

Then the storm, that "angry downpour" (or Biblical deluge) fades away. "A few last drops drip from a broken gutter". It was only a rainstorm. Yet the concluding lines acknowledge, in a sort of backhanded undertone, the sense that, by way of this poetic/natural process, we have been swooshed into a dimension slightly beyond the ordinary everyday, to apprehend a subtle sort of creative consciousness :

"but the storm that created so much fuss
has lost interest in us."

The poem thus diminishes to a close with this sly understatement.

I would hazard to guess that Gumilev would not only approve this poem, but enjoy it a good deal. & I find it fitting to come upon this work by an Irish poet, so soon after reading that other Irish writer's edifying book (Justin Doherty, The Acmeist movement in Russian poetry). Maybe the ghost of that master guild-poet Yeats (whose work displays both Symbolist & Acmeist dimensions) hovers somewhere nearby.


Justin Doherty on Acmeism

"...there is an unchasteness of attitude in both the doctrine of "Art for life," and that of "Art for art." In the first case, art... has value only to the extent that it serves goals extraneous to it.... In the second case, art becomes effete, grows agonizingly moonlike..." - Nikolai Gumilev, "The Life of Verse" (tr. by D. Lapeza)

For 30 years or so, ever since I happened upon a book of Mandelstam's selected poems in a local bookstore, I've been fascinated with his work & that of other Russians he led me to : Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Gumilev, Brodsky... I think I've delved as deeply into it as someone who works in an academic library, & never gets past the beginner stage of learning Russian, can possibly delve... & then I come upon something new, & I realize how much I haven't really understood. Justin Doherty's excellent book has had this effect : The Acmeist movement in Russian poetry : culture and the word (Oxford UP, 1995).

One of the things this study has done is lift my perspective beyond a focus on Mandelstam, toward the underlying principles of the group of Petersburg poets with whom he affiliated. Acmeism grew out of various practical associations, especially the so-called "Guild of Poets" - who convened regularly in semi-formal meetings to read and discuss each other's work. This friendly proximity helped foster a kind of professional outlook - a "guild" mentality - which in turn helped the poets to establish some common principles, seen as grounding characteristic, universal elements of poetry, and allowing for a degree of critical objectivity.

I can't adequately paraphrase or even summarize Doherty's book. All I can do is try to point toward some of these salient principles. Nikolai Gumilev, one of the founders of the Acmeist group, can be credited with formulating them, while Mandelstam further elaborated their implications. Here's my rough sketch :

1. The Acmeist movement appeared in Petersburg around 1910, as a critique of the then-reigning but waning Petersburg phenomenon, quite accomplished & sophisticated, known as Symbolism. Russian Symbolism took a mystical view of art and poetry, proposing a categorical divide between the material and the noumenal or spiritual worlds; poetry served as a kind of cultic & mystagogic pathway from the debased world of time and the senses, to a supernal spiritual world of Beauty and Eternity. Poetry was equivalent to gnosticism : a way of knowledge. The Acmeists, on the other hand, committed themselves wholeheartedly to the real, visible, ordinary world of living things, time, and space. They firmly rejected Symbolism's otherworldliness, as well as its amalgam of art and cultic spiritualism.

2. A key defining term for Acmeist poetics is : integrity. Gumilev used a special word for this : "chasteness", or "chastity". We can speculate on his motive for this terminology : integrity (which he also used frequently) has primarily either a structural/physical or a moral sense; "chasteness", in Gumilev's usage, involves these aspects, but perhaps also adds an aesthetic element, a sense of beauty. What did the Acmeists mean by this? As a consequence of their rejection of Symbolism, they affirmed the inherent value, the wholeness of things : that is, of natural life, of language (the "Word"), and of poetry itself. "Integrity" meant that all these things had a "right to exist", and, as Gumilev put it, "on a higher level, a right to be of service to others" [inexact quote from memory]. Thus an acceptance and affirmation of life-on-earth displayed an ethical dimension, and under the umbrella of this overall stance of affirmation, a fundamental equilibrium was established, between the freedom of poetry to be itself, of value in itself, on the one hand, and, on the other, the inherent value of life & culture at large. The two realms were distinct, symbiotic & complementary, all at once.

3. Acmeism, from the Greek "akme" - the acme : perfection, fulfillment, flowering, wholeness... these qualities had more than an ideological or quasi-philosophical reference. For Gumilev and his associates, wholeness and fulfillment had a specific meaning for poetics. The approach was basically Aristotelian, with a strong emphasis on poetry's organic (living) wholeness. Gumilev built on Aristotle's sense of the poem as displaying a unity of beginning-middle-end, of proportion of parts & whole; he developed an "anatomy" of the poetic word with analogy to the systems of the living human body. & this focus on the organic qualities of poetic language helps distinguish such language from other kinds of discourse. The Acmeists began to build a series of interlocking "wholes" of this kind, into a synchronic sense of joyful "philology" - the expression of the poetic Word as a shared effort within a single world tradition, an "Hellenic domesticity" (Mandelstam) crossing all barriers of time & space - centered on the human, and human culture - as sanctioned, reflected, guaranteed by the freedom of the "Word".

4. Acmeism also displays a "reflexive" dimension : standing between Russian Symbolism and Futurism, they thematized (in the poetry itself) the special quality of poetic language as self-fulfilling, as of inherent value. The material of poetry was the living Word. Whereas the Symbolists subsumed poetic speech under the "higher" dimension of music, and the Futurists reduced language to the equivalent of a physical material, something to be smashed, split & distorted at will - the Acmeists accepted the simple denotative meaning(s) of the word as the core, the substance of its value. The inherited language of a culture was to be affirmed & loved along with all other things (in Gumilev's "chaste" vision); the shaping power of art worked in tandem with the given world of nature, not in isolation or alienation. To repeat : this clarity & firmness of expression, the recognition of the akme or beauty of the living language as such, became the bond which united the free & independent sphere of poetry with the actual & ethical world at large. Gumilev & the other Acmeists, again, called this state "equilibrium" (or "integrity") : a synthesis of ethics & aesthetics.

These are just a few very basic aspects of the Acmeist movement. What this suggests to me - as it has for years - is that these concepts, & this attitude, have relevance and application for poets today. We can learn from their shared sense of an objective standard - a "judgement about poetry", as Mandelstam put it. We can learn from their affirmation of the (meaningful, beautiful) Word, and the "world of which it was a part" (W. Stevens); we can learn from the complementarity they discover between the equilibrium of the poem and the normative ethos of civilization, the "teleological warmth" of "domestic Hellenism." The Acmeist's "judgement of poetry" is also a judgement of our own poetry, and the poetry being produced around us now...

Nikolai Gumilev, Anna Akhmatova, & their son Lev, ca. 1913


"H.P." postscript : Neo-Acmeism?

As is usual with me, I started having second thoughts as soon as I finished the previous post ("Toward a Human Poetics"). Aside from the ponderousness and pomposity of the phrase Human Poetics, it occurred to me that all but one on the list of recommended books were produced by non-poets (that is, aside from Allen Grossman). Scholars, philosophers...

Anyway, I don't want to renounce everything I wrote yesterday. I still believe the general position laid out by these writers is aligned with poetry & the realities & immediacy involved with its making : offers a defense against determinism, abstractions, de-humanization.

But there's a problem with adding the full weight of an articulated ethic or philosophy (such as that of Levinas, or even Grossman) onto a theory of poetry; and a problem with arguing that poetic speech differs fundamentally from other kinds of language-use. I think there's one thing needful that needs to be added to that in turn, as a counterbalance. & I take this one thing from Russian Acmeism (on this, see Justin Doherty's fine book, The Acmeist movement in Russian poetry (Oxford, 1995). Or at least what I think of as an aspect of Acmeism.

I would call that one thing "inner freedom". Mandelshtam outlined what this means in an unfinished essay titled "Pushkin and Scriabin". Very basically, there is an irreducible "free play" dimension to poetry. Poets, makers of poems, are sharing in a mutual process of making (& sharing) free-standing, self-sufficient, works of art. "The word" in poetry creates its own dimensions, its own weights & balances - for its own sake.

Now if I said that this inner freedom was aligned also with a rejection or dismissal of life & the world outside of art - as in various modes of Decadence or Symbolism; or if I declared that the poetic word had no real meaning with reference to that world, no mimetic capabilities, no firm denotations - as with various modes of modernist & postmodernist detachment and autonomy - then what I would be sketching out would no longer be Acmeism.

The Acmeists boldly suggested that the free play of art, and the self-sufficiency (within its proper sphere) of the poetic word, was a normative response to certain basic normative dimensions of life and culture in general. Cultures at large produce the generative circumstances that undergird artistic freedom and its exchanges, out of their own wells of inner balance, or basic orientation toward the freedom and variety of life. That this is an idealization - that is, an idea of the normative - which artists & poets must strive & struggle to instigate & defend, is a good thing : because it means such norms are not simply determined by nature. They are the norms of the living conscience of a culture.

Maybe I'm confused & contradicting myself here. I'm not a philosopher... not a systematic thinker. What I want to emphasize is this concept of art as play. For some, this would only suggest poetry's fundamental childishness, its perpetual adolescence (in such terms Milan Kundera, in an essay of a few years back, belittled poets & poetry). But the joy of free play - like a witty rejoinder from the scaffold - can be a powerful thing : a reminder (to culture at large) of what life is really all about...

*p.s. "wells of inner balance"... sort of a plumbline phrase, no?

**p.p.s. Very apropos, with regard to this "inner balance" of normative culture, is Mandelshtam's famous (& witty) rejoinder, after a public reading in the 1930s, to an inquisitorial demand (from a Soviet apparatchik) for his "definition of poetry." Mandelshtam replied : "The poet's sense of being right [or, 'inner rightness']."


Toward a "Human Poetics"

Have been reading some new things... seem to be finding something of a philosophical ground for ways I have thought about poetry for some time...

ie. notions about the status of persons and real things... Levinas has a concept of ethics as the ground of philosophy, and the ground of ethics itself is the "face-to-face" encounter of self and another... that the human person is not determined or defined by language, that in fact the ethical encounter of persons is a kind of ur-language, the "language-before-language"... that poetry is fundamentally dialogical, & involved with a Bakhtinian (& Kenneth Burkean) sense of the dramatic Now...

Here's my beginner's reading list for a "Human Poetics"... (I haven't read them all yet myself!)

Harold Kaplan / Poetry, politics, culture : argument in the works of Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and Williams (Transaction Bks, 2006)

Michael Eskin / Ethics and dialogue : in the works of Levinas, Bakhtin, Mandel'shtam, and Celan (Oxford UP, 2001)

Daniel Schwarz / The case for a humanistic poetics (U. Penn., 1991)

Allen Grossman / Against our vanishing (conversations with Mark Halliday) (Rowan Tree Press, 1981)

Emanuel Levinas / Entre Nous (Columbia UP, 2000)

Here is Levinas, as quoted by Harold Kaplan in an appendix to his book :

"My view is opposed to the tendency (in)... contemporary philosophy that prefers to see man a simple articulation or a simple aspect of a rational, ontological system that has nothing human in it; even in Heidegger, the Dasein is ultimately a structure of being in general, bound to its profession of being, its "historic deeds of being", its event of being....
"Similarly, in certain trends in structural research, rules, pure forms, universal structures, combinations which have a legality as cold as mathematical legality are isolated. And then that dominates the human..." [think Foucault, etc.]

As Kaplan argues, the philosophical and theoretical trends that Levinas is criticizing have consequences for poetry; whenever the human person and the person's inner freedom, and inner ethical stance with regard to another (in which both persons in the face-to-face dialogue have substance, validity, actuality) - whenever these dimensions are dismissed, or subject to a determinist reduction of one kind or another (cultural, political, natural, etc.) - then poetry, and persons, are no longer there...


Mandelstam, by way of Michael Eskin


In an appendix to his book Poetic Affairs (on Paul Celan, Durs Grunbein, Joseph Brodsky, and the kinship each poet shares with Osip Mandelstam) Michael Eskin deftly draws together some logical threads of Mandelstam's "Acmeist" poetics :

1. aesthetic : "Mandelstam's notion of the 'living word' ties in with the overall Acmeist endeavor to create 'an organicist poetics... of a biological nature' - a poetics predicated on biology and physiology, on 'the infinite complexity of our inscrutable organism,' and on the basic notion that a 'poem is a living organism'" [Poetic Affairs, p.139]. More than that : "The breathing, moving human body is the ultimate ground of poetry. The 'poetic foot,' Mandelstam notes, is nothing but 'breathing in and breathing out.' The poem is literally animated into existence by 'the breathing of all ages' to the extent that it is the articulation of the breathing, moving bodies of countless poets 'of all ages' [ibid.].

The image of poetry projected here is strikingly reminiscent of the ecstatic "speaking-in-tongues" event on the day of Pentecost, as described in the New Testament : poetry here is akin to the descent of the Holy Ghost, by means of which people from "all lands" begin speaking together, each in their own languages, yet mutually understanding each other.* Poetry is a physiological embodiment, shared "inscrutably" across time & space.

2. ethical : The Acmeist movement developed in the early 20th century as a dialectical response to the otherworldliness of Russian Symbolism. Eskin explains : "'Acmeism is not only a literary phenomenon,' Mandelstam notes in 1922... This new ethical force... consists first and foremost, in the reversal of the Symbolist denigration of the real, phenomenal world of the here and now... Mandelstam emphasizes the world's very reality and materiality as the Acmeists paradigm and horizon...
"A love for the here and now, for 'all manifestations of life... in time and not only in eternity' - a love for this world and this reality, for one's 'own organism,' for one's singularity, cannot fail to bear on sociopolitics. What kind of sociopolitical setup will foster and secure the possibility of this kind of Acmeist existence?... Mandelstam lays out his own sociopolitical vision:

'There are epochs that maintain that they are not concerned with singular human beings, that human beings must be put to use, like bricks, like mortar... Assyrian prisoners swarm like chicks under the feet of a gigantic Tsar; warriors personifying the power of the state inimical to the human being shackled pigmies with long spears, and the Egyptians are dealing with the human mass as if it were building material... But there is another form of social architecture who scale and measure is... man... It doesn't use human beings as building material but builds for them... Mere mechanical grandeur and mere numbers are inimical to humankind We are tempted not by a new social pyramid, but... by the free play of weights and measures, by a human society... in which everything is... individual, and each member is unique and echoes the whole.'" [ibid., pp. 139-140]

Eskin notes how this stance had consequences for Mandelstam's personal fate, & which was echoed by Brodsky in his remark that the poet "is a democrat by definition" (& here we further note the shade of Pushkin, standing behind both Mandelstam & Brodsky).

Finally, Eskin reiterates Mandelstam's supremely dialogical concept of poetry. M's famous essay "On the Interlocutor" likens the poem to a message in a bottle, set afloat on the sea toward an unknown friend/reader in the future; when conjoined with the charismatic ("Pentecostal") sense of poetry outlined above, we understand that each reader, each one of us - when we truly encounter a poem - has become the intended recipient of the message. We are conjoined - in a kinship of friendly dialogue & companionship, across the sea of time & space - with the poet in person.

[*Note : these references to the Pentecost are my own interpolations, not not discussed in Eskin's text.]


& how would I relate all this to our Plumbline?

I feel a sense of weight : of the earthly weight of material things, and the weight of lived experience. & I relate this first of all to all those dimensions of poetry which remain unspoken : the submerged portion of the iceberg, so to speak : all the overtones & undertones & inexplicable feeling-tones & hidden meanings & unknowables which help give a poem its resistance, its resonance, its own specific gravity. & further, I relate this to living specificity and particularity, that vividness and local accuracy which are part of the glory of poetry - a synthetic brilliance of referential & evocative vision : faculties of Mandelstam's "infinite complexity of our inscrutable organism." These are dimensions which weight the "middle path" of our plumbline : tied deep down in the heart of faithful utterance, Wallace Stevens' "spirit of poetry" as the "companion of the conscience." & then I think of all this as impelling the poet to strive for a poetry that can speak... like this :

It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice. It has
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one.
(- Wallace Stevens, "Of Modern Poetry")

Heart of my Plumbline

What is the Plumbline School? The answer is sketchy and schematic. And this is not a bad thing : its inchoate character offers an opening for each of us, & for our readers, to articulate a variety of perspectives & insights.

But the amorphousness may also be contributing to the sort of halting, dormant feel of this weblog (though the prime factor, I'm pretty sure, is that we're all mighty busy...). & I must here register my disagreement with the position of Timothy Steele, at least as presented in previous posts by Conrad. I view Steele's stance as simplistic. First of all, he sets up a rigid binary between what he is terming "form" and the free-verse experiments of Modernism (and postmodernism). Secondly, he develops his polemic by laying the blame for an assumed decline in contemporary poetry at the feet of "the schools". It is exactly this kind of superficial polemic - so familiar on both (illusory) wings of "experiment" & "tradition" - which the Plumbline School was organized to overcome. So I'm going to try to re-formulate some of my own basic ideas about this project, in hope of stimulating others - to comment, or to join as new members. (Note : the basic orientation which we share, the organizing ideas, can be found in the early posts to this site - for which please visit the archive.)

I'll try to be a simple & clear as I can. The Plumbline School, as I see it, is interested in the underlying nature of poetry, its ur-form, beneath the layers of specific techniques and styles. Thus, we are exploring a hypothetical middle ground, where "form" emerges, not as one half of the traditional duplex "form-&-content", but as a new, living shape derived from the fusion of style and subject-matter, of art and experience.

In this we would follow some of the directions outlined by Aristotle in the Poetics, in which he describes the form of poetry as a new, distinct shape, not reducible to its words alone, but analogous to 3-dimensional sculpture : resulting from, emanating from its language - a new & distinct dramatic/conceptual/sensible/affective unity. Out of this amalgamating, fusing process, something paradoxical happens : now content is form; & the formal dimensions - the words, the music, the spectacle (in dramatic poetry, at least) - are actually its material content, the building blocks out of which this new & previously-indefinable shape in born.

In this scenario, the old cliches about "form & content", style & subject-matter, which have provided fodder for all the literary battles of at least the last 100 years, are set somewhat to one side. We are looking at a middle ground whose substance is form-as-fusion, in which style & subject-matter are both inalienable and interchangeable. "The Word is Psyche", as Mandelstam put it : a physiological, psychological organism : an experience.

& yet I think the battles will never completely disappear, because this form/content binary is rooted in a more fundamental dichotomy : between experience and art. The balance of Aristotelian form, which we are proposing, is itself grounded in a more basic balance : between reality and its representations. This is where the "plumbline" search for balance, harmony, and modesty of means (Ars est celare artem, as Horace says : Art camouflages art) becomes a modus operandi : a means by which the poet opens the channels between a new, unknown creation (the work of art) and the matrix of shared experience and intelligibility from which it emerged, and within which it discovers shared meaning. In this way the poem can be likened to a gyroscope : spinning & wobbling, magically centered on itself - yet at the same time subject to the horizontal thread of the tightrope along which it travels, and to the vertical weight of gravity holding it to a deeper center (the earth).

In a follow-up post I'll try to describe how this orientation has developed, for me, from an absorption with Osip Mandelstam's life-work...

& thinking thus of Mandelstam, I realize now that my image of poetry-as-gyroscope is itself insufficient. Yes, in poetry, we seek this free-spinning balance between opposites. Yet the poem is not a gyroscope : not simply an object, or a toy. The poem is bread : the poem is wine : the poem is flower. The poem is the offspring of a dialogue. The poem is lovingly communicative : it is fundamentally diaological : a form of love.

Rachel Wetzsteon on Philip Larkin

In some comments on recent posts here, I mentioned the late Rachel Wetzsteon as a poet who negotiated, in her poems & essays, a middle ground between "form & content" (that old two-faced griffin) - between experience & art. The Contemporary Poetry Review has just published a posthumous essay of hers, which provides some evidence for this. Here's her concluding sentence :

"In 'Born Yesterday,' Larkin finds a happy medium between 'Nothing and paradise,' joy’s absence and its fragile or otherworldly abundance; and if we are skilled and vigilant and flexible enough readers to pay attention to this important, quietly profound poem, we will be enthralled."


Timothy Steele's Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter: the case for a new Formalism

Part 2

Steele's thesis is valid: vers libre is a more hybrid, complex and structurally vital element of poetry than even its most conservative practitioners have realized, with even Pound and Eliot having to word their own formulations of it in as exact a language as possible. Eliot is even said to have favoured the elusive ("musically indefinite") meanings of poetry, the effect of conveying poetic meanings only piecemeal and indirectly, to the dull straightforward senses of metered verse. The result for us of this shift away from meter is not its displacement by anything that equals it in poetic strength: rather metrics and imaginative freedom become vital components of poetry that won't be torn out of each other's arms without the loss of something vital in the creative processes. We seem to have inherited a bifurcated notion of poetry that won't ever be restored  to anything like its more classical Aristotelian sense.

Steeles cites even Coleridge as saying that without meter the genius of poet (and poetry) would remain hidden (Missing Measures 190) There have been those, too, like Emerson, Blake and Whitman who've openly espoused abandoning the rules, making the poet both writer and technician after his own heart. Which is not to abandon meter but to rework it in an entirely individualistic mode. And in the case of Eliot and Pound there's the call to write not with the accentual-syllabic line but as if the poem were rather sheet music and words musical notations likes staves and bars. In Steele's estimation, the die's been cast for a persistent verse/Poetry opposition conditioning our understanding of the nature of verse in general:

To say that poetry exists in a realm of its own is not necessarily to say that meter should be abandoned. Yet meter's rules are not individual but comprehensive: they ask the same obedience and offer the same rewards to all poets. This quality brings meter into conflict with views which stress the self-sufficiency of the individual poet and poem and with views like Williams' which hold that even private legislation is not to interfere with the poet. (192)

Even if the act of writing poetry is spontaneous, inspired by the world or emotions & ideas, there's a lingering sense that without rules or acknowledgement of writing 'technique' poetry would be too rambling and disconnected to work. It's interesting that by eliminating categorically a division of poetic composition called meter, a whole host of competing 'rhythmical structures' always hurry in to fill the void. Traces of a classical literary 'influence' that won't go away: the invisible void lying hidden beneath the fragments and revealing itself primarily as prose poetry.

And if the leap from metrics to music could work on aesthetic grounds only, innovators wonder if a similar kind of artistic foray into experimental science weren't feasible. Since poets seemed to despair, as Steele argues in his most interesting chapter "Sciences of Sentiment", of ever matching the classical authors for literary freshness & vitality—poetic models, materials and techniques all but already taken— they looked to improving on the process rather than product of their writing. The desire for a more scientific attitude to writing stems, once again, from the association of meter with an antiquated literary past and non-metrical verse with the progressive bent of modern scientific method (240).

Metrics was envisaged as the terrible link to the past that had to be broken for new art to emerge. Whether in the form of Pound's "Make It New" slogan or Marinetti's notion of the " revolutionary" overthrow of the traditional means of literary production or Whitman's equating true poetry with the spirit of science and democracy in his own day—a kind of 'ageism' crept into the literary consciousness whereby novelty and experimentalism always now came to be more highly esteemed than the old classical models. A bewildering array of "isms" also made their way into literary parlance: the zeal (present still today!) with which bands of poets always strive in literary competition for the newest name, newest manifesto is testimony to this emerging 'scientism' in letters. As Steele wryly puts it,

This imperative [to adopt science as model of artistic composition] contributes to the "isms" characteristic of the poetry and art of the early decades of this century; the champions of each "ism" pronouncing themselves the embodiment of the newest New and the rightful successor to the next-to-the-newest-New-but-nonetheless-now-old New. These isms reflect not only a concern with making art novel, but also with securing scientific validation for it (246)

The need to return to tradition is more necessary than ever, the author concludes, especially as contemporary poets seem to have made a Faustian pact with radical novelty, their artistic spirits compromised by this incessant idolization of experimentalism for its own sake, and led to embrace, among other things, qualities of "superstition" and "irrationality" in artistic work (274-276). And to replace isosyllabic measures with a new metrics (however that was envisaged by Pound, Williams, etc.) is something that never really happened either. Leaving poets (and the academic-poets who had a direct stake in vers libre milieu) with just vaguely defined notions of personal intention and subject-matter as the only compositional principles to guide them. Metrics seen as an accessory to the predominantly anti-meter culture: a related but largely irrelevant subspecies of poetry writing.

I'd like to end with a plumbliner's estimation of the anti-meter debate and  may offer an opinion of my own. If just to add a little clarity to the discussion. As someone who's been pulled in two very distinct traditions and literary styles (British and American), I've always tried to resolve inner-tensions through a typically Canadian syncretism (as Atwood would say): namely, by taking the best from both, and trying to align my own personal sympathies along a sort of sensible middle ground, not too rigidly 'formalistic' nor too wildly experimental, a good style always the result of sound familiarity with the great literary canons of the past and their historical developments, as well as the odd tampering with tradition and the established tools of the trade (like meter, diction).

Canada has experienced its fair share of poetry innovation. The radical Tish poets of 60s Simon Fraser University in Vancouver (Canada), a movement very much inspired by the active presence of Americans Olson, Creeley, Duncan and Blaser, probably represented the most significant era in Canadian experimentalism. Poets Frank Davey, bpNichol, bill bissett, & Daphne Marlatt for a time turned the Canadian literary establishment on its head, rearranging elements of visual, aural and First Nations iconography to create distinctively (very unCanadian) dissonant, 'otherstream' styles. News of bpNichol's winning the Governor-General's Award for best poetry even caused a stir in the House of Commons.

Not that Canada hadn't seen poetic innovations before Tish but just not to that radical degree. In 20s and 30s Montreal, for example, writers like Robert Finch, F.R. Scott and John Glassco, working out of McGill University, were at the forefront of a distinctively tamer 'modernist' movement in which Canadian innovators found elements of a European Aesthetic/Decadent movement more congenial to a distinctively Canadian poetics, for which reason (among others) they never really took to what they considered the inhospitable Imagist poetry of their contemporaries Pound and Williams. Even if the young McGill writers chose to emulate authors who opted for unbridled 'subjectivities', the result was a loosely 'formal' or lyrically self-defining Canadian style.

I suppose I'm a product of both these versions of literary iconoclasticism. By nature and educational upbringing tied conservatively (and perhaps a little sentimentally) to my Dryden, Browning, Tennyson and Swineburne, taking notes mostly from the standard Oxford Anthology of English Verse, I regarded literary individuality as a little alarming & chose, in my daring moments, to be conversant with a sort of wild-eyed Romanticism instead. In typical early Canadian modernist fashion, I followed the poetic impulses of Page, Layton, Pratt and Souster.But with exposure to more radical European and American poetries came, of course, intellectual maturity and a more settled appreciation of literary différance so that I can recall even now the exhilaration at discovering the heterodoxies of Tzara, Mayakovsky, Verlaine, and the postructuralist theorists ( Deleuze, Kristeva) who seemed to justify radical 'otherstream' poetics. It's been my own writing goal to infuse a Canadian-style modernism that shied away from Pound and Williams with the more personally satisfying 'fragmentariness' of postmodern verse ushered in (and made popular) by the radical Tish experiments. And to believe that the synthesis still makes for a meaningful poetic expression.

The question, therefore, of whether to restore meter to its former prominence in contemporary verse (in some new Formalist style), if only in outline, to me really amounts to something like what Ron Silliman's perhaps proposing for prose poetry: a New Sentence configuration of the verse line "altered for torque, or increased polysemy/ambiguity" ; or perhaps what visual poet Geof Huth's thinks of as a poem's most essential stand-alone constituents— the 'pwoermd'— that's given him, as he says in his most recent blog post, the very flexibility to write "thaumatrope poems, planned zoetrope poems, and...various visual poems meant to take advantage of various optical illusions"; or perhaps what "polyartists" Richard Kostelanetz, Aram Saroyan, Gary Barwin and Ed Baker regard in their practices as primary multimedia sources of art (ranging from computer graphics to pictograms to the barest minimalist typography).

Or what any number of poets will say is significant poetic 'form' or a verse line's key rhythmical nature if asked just what is worth preserving in their work. Steele stresses that legacy-making power of metrics throughout his book, even enjoining young poets to follow the examples of poets like Larkin who may have produced relatively little in their lifetime but whose great popularity and legacy will be keyed directly to their metrics. But I'm inclined to think that Huth's 'pwoermds' or Silliman's New Sentence or Baker's exquisitely spare visual poetry may make them just as memorable. I do believe, in fact, that something will always take the place of traditional 'meter' (and anything else regarded as enduring and worth preserving)and make any departure from it not so much a rupture as a kind of released "intensity" of the original metrical paradigm. I believe 'meter' is a property of language that is destined to spring, as by a natural l evolutionary process, into differentiated uses: a spontaneous tendency of artist and their materials to 'deterritorialize' poetic practice.

I guess in this way I've tried, in typically Canadian fashion, to bring together what's to me seemed to be the best tendencies in two poetic traditions.


Beauty & the Concrete Mix

Jeanne Gang, an architect for the Plumbline School...

Timothy Steele's Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt against Meter: the case for a new Formalism

Part 1

I've held almost as a sacred truth that academics make the worst poets, and generally they do. Examples are too numerous to mention. Convinced as I've been for the longest time that 'creative writing' professors, with the mainstream publishing industry at their beck and call, have literally dictated to the rest of us the terms of poetic style and suitability. And if there's anything we should have learnt from this debacle it's that teaching verse does not a Poet nor student of poetry make!

The only thing worse than academic-bards with their flatlined verses is the 'imitator'-poet, of which there are many in creative writing classes, who slavishly work primarily to conform to prevailing 'aesthetic tastes. The result, in Canada at least, has been a proliferation not only of middling (state-sponsored) literary magazines catering for academic and imitative writing (Arc, Fiddlehead, Malahat Review, etc) but a flood of dull, insipid verses anthologized and served up as models of good writing by the poet-teachers who perpetuate a vicious cycle of teaching, writing and publishing: the result of which is a product whose cultural hold on the general public is almost non-existent.

But there are exceptions and Timothy Steele, a poet writing in an emerging new Formalist tradition and a first-rate literary scholar, is among the few who admirably practice what they preach since in their writings there isn't the glaring disconnect between theory and writing proficiency (James Wright, John Berryman, Robin Blaser and perhaps today Louis Dudek, Rosemarie Waldrop and Annie Finch are other examples of skilful practitioners). In Missing Measures Steele outlines a history of a very basic verse/poetry misunderstanding (or perhaps misreading) to which can be attributed, in his view, the almost vehement hatred of anything in contemporary poetry that smacks of metrics, rhyme and traditional poetrywriting in general. And because deep, sensible scholarship is everywhere wedded to appreciation of the effect of literary tradition on contemporary practice, Steele's own case for a sensible second look at the "anti meter revolt" is a very convincing one. There's a lot at stake. I don't think there's anyone at present who seems more qualified, in both theory and practice, to revive interest in traditional poetics.

I don't think Steele's intention is polemics but his handling of literary history and specifically his interpretation of the most important texts, modern and classical, tend to point to a vital reappraisal of the role of prosody in contemporary writing (or those elements such as rhyme, rhythm, and other figurative devices most serviceable to poets). Steele is (and always will be) not a little antithetical to the modernist revolution in poetry (as his disparaging comments on Marjorie Perloff's reading of Aristotle's Poetics attest (168-170)) but he does answer the call to base the antimodernist(-postmodernist) case on pretty sound scholarship:

As will become evident in this study, certain confusions in modern discussions of verse have resulted from the fact that the legacy of the Greeks has not been adequately recognized and that the difference between their situation and ours has not been sufficiently appreciated. We cannot ask of others or ourselves absolute precision when we speak of "poetry," and we should not damn such terminological imprecisions as must inevitably attend any general discussion of the art. Yet we should be aware of something of the history of the word and should bear this history in mind when we use the word. (Missing Measures 21)

Not just citing sources ( from Aristotle, Quintilian, Plutarch to Pound, Eliot and Williams) but drawing vital connections between theory and poetic practice everywhere is Steele's métier. I get the feeling as I read him that this may have been the way the Victorian defenders of traditional prosody felt when confronted with the modernists: always a little overawed by the attractiveness of novelty conjoined to sound literary understanding and, as a result, even a little disoriented.

The modernist contention (as expounded in varying forms by Eliot, Pound, Ford Madox Ford and Williams) is, simply put, that meter is stultifying, a gross distortion of the looser, more natural 'rhythms' of poetic language. In Eliot's and Pound's formulations it amounts to saying that instead of meter and syllables crammed into place (Pound's famous "ti-tumming" parody of iambic lines) the poet's primary concern should be with the natural 'rhythms' of language itself, subordinating form to subject matter at hand. Metrics came to be disassociated from the modern world in which they lived. Poetry as a vehicle of real life and language, unfettered by Victorian diction and mannered sensibilities. Always something approximating well-written prose. In Ford's words,

I wish I could take for granted the Reader's acceptance of the doctrine that Poetry is a matter of the writer's attitude towards life, and has nothing in the world to do—nothing whatever in the world to do—with whether the lines in which this attitude is put before him be long or short; rhymed or unrhymed; cadenced or interrupted by alliterations or assonances. One cannot expect to dictate the use of words to a race; but it would be of immense service to humanity if the Anglo-Saxon world could agree that all creative literature is Poetry; that prose is a form as well adapted for the utterance of poetry as verse (cited in Missing Measures 160)
But it's that crucial substitution of meter for 'rhythm' Steele finds problematical and worthy of the detailed historical study that forms most of Missing Measures. Problematical because all too many interested readers and writers of poetry take for granted a distinction that's had to endure many flights, reformulations and digressions throughout literary history to arrive at its present form. To trace that anti meter rhetoric to a verse/Poetry dichotomy is the book's primary task: beginning with the Poetics and chronicling the myriad ways in which the primary Aristotelian verse/imitation dichotomy gets reappropriated (and at times reinvented) by scores of writers, theorists and literary exegetes. So that by the time we get to the age of vers libre it's hard to pin down what exactly is in 'prose' that's preferable to verse, Eliot referring to it in his celebrated essay on Kipling as "the musical impression upon the sensibility" (cited in Missing Measures 162), Williams as a "variable foot" & Ford as the "intimate ear.

Scholar Timothy Steele is an invaluable resource for a correct understanding of the scope and nature of the verse/Poetry distinction on which his work hinges: so many misdirected notions of the nature of poetry, as he rightly claims, have resulted from not acquainting ourselves properly enough with the classical sources.

But as poet he's also faced with elucidating a predominant free verse milieu to which traditional metrics is almost considered anathema. As practitioner of a new Formalism in America there's a lot at stake here for him. How do history and literary theory resolve the tension in the poet's soul? How does the academic keep a cool enough distance from the subjectivities of his craft to write in a form that, as Eliot says, reconfigures and revolutionizes the very paradigms he eschews? To lose that crucial arm's-length separation from self-promoting theory is to produce a highly compromised poetry, such as characterizes the literary output of many academic poets & their students today.

So in a remarkable way Steele's book is directed as much against a shoddy understanding of 'free verse' as against the shoddy writing that results from it: a silent condemnation, after all is said and done, of the writing institutions to which he belongs. The greater the critique, the greater the demands placed on the teacher to offer a markedly superior poetry. And, of course, it follows only the very best teachers can combine the advancements made by their own exemplary researches with the creation of greater writing standards. Ironically our greatest modern poet-teachers (Pound, Eliot, Williams and Yeats) weren't academics at all.


The almost perfect poem: Robin Blaser's "Image-Nation 2 (roaming"

we are journeying in company with the messenger

     but there, it was
there     'you' saw
the head of a horse burn,
its red eye flame    'you' stepped
to the fireplace where the meta-
morphosed log lay without a body
and put 'your' hand over the seeing

turned by that privacy
from such public peril as words
are, we travel in company with the messenger

the name of the bird who fell
from the hands of O-moon
is Naught     if following
angels, shaped tears, nourished by
Sodom apples, we draw darkness,
a kind of mud     (in the moonlight
white blossoms hastening to fall
are cut free)

then we, the apparatus, burned by a night
light, are travelling in company with the messenger

To continue the Deleuzian reflections on poetry and poetics.

If a poet draws a line between two points, any beginnings tied to ends, or readable coordinates we gather along a horizontal plane, won't really amount to much. Even the conquering vertical that is a poem's title, standing stanchion-like over the text and reader, leaves us cold in its shadow. Best not to erect it like a cross. And because Blaser's poem won't connect the dots in this way nor obey straight linear impulses—primary cause of weak poetry!—nor even give an unbroken title it leaves us "roaming" instead. Perfect and impervious to the punctuality of mediocre writing.

Better to be nomadically errant in Blaser's perfecting sense than predictable. After all, if you follow the footsteps, laid fresh in the morning snow, do we find the poet or "Naught"? No, the poem. Flawlessly knit, with no single "flight" here (or messenger) that doesn't at the same time open up one of a myriad sites, such as that ranging from invocatory 'you' to the "O-moon". The first of many but it's always best to work somewhere between that 'you' and the moon to find the true poem.

What counts as "flight" anyways? It's the turn toward the initial view of a flaming red-eyed horse or the transforming fire itself. Marvelous epic origins but resulting in the death of origins. The fire, for instance, is not a cause of real horses, imaged or not in the sacred flames: any more than to pass your hands over Blaser's embers is to feel the heat of divination, "kindling the heat of the father" as he says in his translation-poem "Pindar's Seventh Olympic Hymn". The impulse is divinatory but nothing rises through the smoke, not even "the name of the bird".

What doesn't exist can emit only shifting particles or make meaning out of "metamorphosed logs", fading to the point of becoming imperceptible, as already a new assemblage is about to be released over the poem's plane of immanence. Now fake birds of paradise appear in the moonlight: hearth embers dimmed into a late day of transgressed hope, "Sodom apples" and fields turned to mud. White embers are a becoming-blossom hurrying to their fall.

The reader, intuiting the poem's own machinic assemblage, or because it takes one to know one, is also an "apparatus" of sorts, every bit the molecular (never a 'molar') text that is the measure of the poem's speed and significance. So that we end with an apparently ironic inverse of heatless fire: a night light that actually burns. Unopposed by daunting titles (verticals) or sweeping localizable events (horizontals), Blaser's "Image-Nation 2" cares only to run diagonally between (& through) the most disparate languages, myths and cosmologies.

A perfect block. Without beginning or end, always at work in the middle, the poem that roams is perfect. Initial mythic pulsions become "nonpulsed", memories fade since travelling with the messenger dispenses with permanent sites and opts for a regime of molecular becomings: as how else is it possible to move from the red-eyed horse to metamorphosed logs to dying blossoms.

In fact, the log lying without a body may be a quasi-true symbol of the unorganized, disarticulated body the poem is: in fact, Blaser's poem may be in the most generalized sense possible the only body it has, a body without organs (logs, heat, names), destined only for pure abstract movement. And the poem that roams completely unhindered by bodily trappings of time, memory and sense (the broken, curvy and ruptured poem) is perhaps the most perfect of all.


Reading Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird: I"


Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

Some procedural principles of my own:

(a) a reading shouldn't exceed 500 words;
(b) I randomly chose the following passage from Deleuze-Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus to serve as a general 'paratext' for my reading of Stevens's opening verse:

"But to break the becoming-animal all that is needed is to extract a segment from it, to abstract one of its moments, to fail to take into account its internal speeds and slownesses, to arrest the circulation of affects. (p. 260 from Chapter 10. 1730: "Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible...");

(c) I don't like to talk about linguistic units but rather about more interesting lines of flight or deterritorialization;
(d) I view the poem (and its first verse) as a map "with multiple entryways and exits";
(e) I regard the critic's language as always "acentered, nonhierarchical, nonsignifying"; and
(f)  I offer my first reading of Stevens's "Thirteen Ways: I" as a general description only.


Twenty mountains and thirteen ways. Snowy habitat and a solitary blackbird distinguishable not by wing, tail but eye only. The poet's first verse is a bird's moving eye. The significant question is whether the poem's a "program" for transformative viewing or a lyricist's plain and simple address.

To me it's clear. We don't ever dare to take from the bird's true motion a single identifiable (read codifiable) moment and treat it as Stevens's true poem (haecceity): we continue the rêve, transported by the object's physicality and potential to move freely over the white plane of true flight. It's potential to mix flight and feeling at the same time is something which will be eventually regarded as its primary "becoming-animal" experience.

Snowy mountains don't form a backdrop for flying blackbirds as much as simple speeds do, & rates of descent and slow-moving flight formations across the sky. An interiorized type of flight, in particular, that can't be expressed initially as anything but a synecdoche. But more than that. Landscapes over which the eye of flight roams can't (as in aerial photography) really be plotted as points, depressions or peaks for a bird's eye in flight is a total of "speeds and affects". Stevens's first way is then an assemblage and not a set of decipherable coordinates.

Furthermore, it's a question of eye for eye: the slowing, transformative power of bird-vision in place of an authoritative (which in the case of humans may even become voyeuristic) viewing that's always centered, always full of meanings. Eye does not co-opt eye. Slowing with the blackbird in mid-flight over snowy valleys is not a type of arrested activity, tracked on the viewer's sensory radar And since this type of moving has been interiorized, the only way to distinguish the "moving thing" from its environment is to see the bird's body as a smooth planar surface over which the viewer and viewed pass as flights towards a new deterritorialized 'site' .

Stevens's bodiless eye is permissible only because of a truer body of which it is part. The moving eye can be said to belong to a much more general Body, organless, smooth and always tied to flows, a site for traces of flights rather than a knowledge grid. Lines in Stevens's opening verse are striations ("schizzes"). The flying eye is where one among many entryways into (and exits out of) the essentially heterogeneous Body of flight can be envisaged: with space always for one more ( n+1) Viewing the blackbird's flying eye is a becoming-animal, a radically liberatory sense of engaged reading.

What does "the eye of the blackbird" signify? Nothing that frees us this easily from the rooted strictures of 'text' need fear stoppage of bird flight (poem's primary flow) or the threat of lexical units supplanting  flights and entryways altogether. Or even twenty mountains and thirteen ways.


Some reflections on the Bachelard quotation:

"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."

Avoiding profuseness and a too clean, too neatly compressed language use is a poet's mandate. True. The danger is in not allowing language to skirt middle options since the middle is always the poem's true origin (in medias res).. But I'd like to make distinctions—though none exist really— preferring to see the poem as a "body without organs (BwO)" (after Deleuze) and the desires a poem awakens as flights and intensities skimming lightly over its smooth planar surface. Intentions and works always intersect transversely. Even if thoughts cause unseemly striations, the effect is too free us from stultifying "totalizing" designs and delight in the almost infinite multiplicities the text can now reveal to us.

Wherever you begin in a poem both a beginning and potential for infinite flows and "reflows" can be assured. In Deleuzian theory (as in my acceptation of that term) the BwO is not a metaphor: it's rather an 'abstract' machine universally applicable to any concrete writing project or, more properly speaking, a radical text-becoming that unleashes creative vectors (after Charles Olson) or can, if necessary, disclose the turning or twisting force of prosodic language (after Ron Silliman). I believe Bachelard may have anticipated this postructuralist rethinking of the primacy of "flows" in poetrywriting, pointing the way to a true radical heterogeneity of meaning.


A warm thank you to Henry for approving my request to join 'Plumbline School'!

The idea of a "mean between extremes" to me says that the potential orneriness of poststructuralism needs to be tempered by a respect for traditional form and content (and unfortunately what's been sacrificed in much contemporary poetry, especially in Canada, is the lyric voice).

I've recently written (at my blog) a poetic 'paratext' on Canadian poet bpNichol's The Martyrology: Books 1 & 2. Using a single page from Gilles Deleuze-Felix Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus as a palimpsest, I've composed a series of poetic reflections on a single line from Book 2: "saint of no-names" against both the text and illustration found on Deleuze-Guattari's page. It is, of course, a work in progress. I'm a poet driven by theory (whether I acknowledge it or not), and deleuzian theory articulates wonderfully the essentially liberatory nature of language and of the creative "flights" it offers the poet.

I invite everyone to take a look at the last five blog posts in my http://didiodatoc.blogspot.com/. I also manage (with another poet/visual artist) a blog ( http://deleuzecanada.wordpress.com/) devoted to a strictly deleuzian reading/critique of all things Canadian.

We're now a Poet's Dozen

Happy to welcome Conrad DiDiodato to the Plumbline School.

& Happy New Year, too!