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.


Conrad DiDiodato said...
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Conrad DiDiodato said...


I just posted at my site a consideration of Agamben's own view (as found in his essay '''Corn': From Anatomy to Poetics") on what he considers a fundamental shift in poeticizing language from 'musicality' (in Troubadour poet Arnaut Daniel's love lyrics) towards a more daring (text-based) poetry of unrelated rhymes and errant enjambments, a style whose greatest practitioner was Dante himself.(I'll leave out the details of my discussion here)A viewpoint that reminded me a lot of Steele.

The final line of the 'Commedia' is testimony to that essential incommunicable ground between 'sound' and signification that is, as Agemben says in another essay, "the experience of the originary event of speech itself", and that without the aid of direct signifiers to the 'divine', can only be seen in Dante's final vision as a type of 'love': "l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle". Poetic language as a force that moves the heavens themselves! Without any direct signifiers to take poet-narrator directly to the divine source of speech, there's only the 'will' to know it: a poet's solitary voice even as s/he scales the heavenly mountain towards the object of all love.

What I'm saying is that Mandelstam's 'psyche' seems to be the same sort of troubling synthesis of experience and art as characterizes the emerging 14th century poetics of "Dolce Stil Novo".Art may conceal itself but that only means it'll reappear later as haunting resonances of a displaced voice. Perhaps it's this displaced voice or "rhythms" that Olson and Williams wanted to restore in their writing.

A Troubadour notion of poetry as sound-performance, with its reliance on 'melos',evolved into something that retained both the "originary" speech of oral tradition and considerations of metrical structure as newer, more problematic carriers of signification. The 'middle ground' shifts seismically in this way at key moments in literary history but nothing entirely 'original' really can remove it.In the case of the Arnaut to Dante transformation of "poeticizing thought" Agamben calls this move from 'melos' to metrics a "metastrophic" understanding of poetry, one in which the singing voice stills and lets other riskier free radicals loose in the body of the poem.But the 'voice', torn from its lyre—that still remains.

The poetic voice, neither sound nor logical signification alone,is, as you say,precisely this "free-spinning balance between opposites". But that's not to say that we ever dispense with it altogether.Even Williams saw the need to put 'ideas in things'.

Henry Gould said...
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Henry Gould said...

Thanks for this, Conrad. I missed it somehow.

You & I seem to have a lot of productive disagreements. If you have an opportunity to take a look at Justin Doherty's book, "The Acmeist movement in Russian poetry" - well, I recommend it highly. I have to say I think you're misreading Mandelstam & his Acmeist principles of composition : maybe becuase I mis-described them in the first place...

Acmeism was an orientation toward the "Word" as the basis of poetry. But "word" in a very complex sense. I'll try to amplify more on this in another post. But I think the most basic way to describe this is a devotion to the "integrity" of the poetic word. That is, the integrity of both poetry-in-itself - as something of inherent value; and the integrity of the ordinary meaning of words (ie. meaning itself is the word's "music" - not some other kind of "musicality"); and finally, the integrity of the poem's organic verbal form - an Aristotelian notion of aesthetic wholeness, of beginning-middle-end, which should be respected. Thuis Acmeism stood in opposition to the Symbolist's musical mystification of poetry (as pointing always toward some otherworldly, non-aesthetic higher reality) as well as to the Futurists' attack on the formal, intelligible, and cultural integrity of language (treating words as pure material, to be torn apart & re-shaped at will).

Conrad DiDiodato said...


you're right: I need to look at Doherty's book and offer a better interpretation. I thought I saw some parallels with Agamben's reading of the Troubadours, particularly his idea about the loss of "musicality" (melos), the emphasis poetry after the 14th century seemed to place on a more problematic 'prose' of literary signification. It was nice to read some Dante with Agamben!

And it's nice to keep the discussion going here: I'm always grateful for the opportunity to learn new authors, new poetic ideas.