Small Demon
Nov 062009
 

I was reshelving a book in my office and noticed a volume on the shelf that I hadn’t picked up in a couple of years– a collection of selections from the work of Gaston Bachelard, On Poetic Imagination and Reverie (edited by Collette Gaudin). I remembered being disappointed when I first got the book that it was a collection of snippets rather than something more substantial. I pulled the book off the shelf anyway and flipped it open at random, coming to this:

From the standpoint of its will to shape expression, the literary image is a physical reality which has its own relief. More precisely, it is the psychic relief, the multi-leveled psyche. It furrows or it raises; it finds a depth or suggests an elevation; it rises or falls between heaven and earth. It is poly phonic because it is polysemantic. 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. (28) [Empahsis in original; original source: L’Air et les songes, 286.]

So sometimes the merest chance brings you something you need. (My mother used to half-believe this about the Bible, but felt it was a little too “superstitious” to be morally reliable.) I am less cautious about such things than my mother and I needed to be reminded about this middle path for poetry, which of course does not necessarily mean “mainstream.” I think I was drawn to the passage, too, because of the word will in that first sentence. I’ve been reading William James, whose philosophy is in some ways an exploration of the idea of the power of will to create meaning. Here, Bachelard attributes will to the “poetic image” and only by extension to the poet who “creates” the image, or discovers it. This conforms with my own experience writing poems, in which language wills itself into meaning as a kind of collaborator with the one holding the pencil or sitting at the keyboard.

During my poetic lifetime — the last thirty years or so — it seems as if the reactionaries have had a steady presence that continues the orientation of the New Critics but without the New Critics’ skills; and the theoreticians of language and power have had an opposing presence that claims at least sometimes to descend from Pound and Williams, but also from the Objectivists and Olson. (I’ve never got Olson and in fact published a poem against him in APR several years ago.) I’ve long felt bereft in this landscape. I trace my own descent from Pound and Williams, but I also acknowledge Eliot (despite Dr. Williams’ disapprobation). I also honor my teacher Donald Justice, though I write nothing like him and resemble him only in my failure to be prolific and perhaps in my general pessimism. Also in my poetic makeup are some voices I have tried to disown over the years: from early adolescence Kipling and Edna St. Vincent Milay.  I still have my mother’s volumes of these poets on my bookshelves and while they are no longer central, I learned traditional metrical practice from them, for which I am grateful. And from my later adolescence comes my continuing attachment to the so-called Confessional School of Berryman, Plath, Lowell, Sexton, and Snodgrass. A very unfashionable group these days, but also a group, I’d argue, that practiced a middle-path poetics, with a concern for both matter and meter, subject and language.

Bachelard’s definition of poetry, if that’s what it is, also insists upon a reader, but a reader who has the gumption to reread, who is open to the poem’s insistence on being reread. It seems to me that contemporary schools of poetry have either over-emphasized or under-emphasized the reader, either pandering or pushing away, didacticism or word play. I think the division reflects a  fundamental dualism we have been unable to get beyond in Western poetics (with some notable exceptions); we feel driven to be one thing or the other, completely; we are made uncomfortable by mixed states.

[Cross-posted to The Plumbline School.]

Jun 042009
 

I’ve been back in the US for the better part of a week now, but I brought back a head / chest cold from hell so I haven’t really felt like making any final comments about my time in Vietnam. I still don’t have anything coherent to say, but will get around to it in the next few days, I think, now that I’m feeling better. Lying in bed with a fever gives one lots of time to think odd thoughts, which I’ve been doing. Actually had an idea for a story and parts of two poems emerge from my febrile meditations, so it wasn’t a complete loss of time. And except for the first couple of days, I didn’t really feel that bad, though my fever was high enough that my doctor sent me to get tested for H1N1 flu — initial results negative, official results today, but I’m basically in recovery mode. I did make one resolution of a poetic nature while ill: To honor the repressed “confessional” side of my identity as a poet. Very unfashionable, of course, but I’m too old to follow fashions — I have also taken to wearing a a very nice navy blue beret I bought in Hanoi.

Feb 222009
 

As noted in a couple of previous posts, I have been participating in a discussion of poetics initiated by Henry Gould at a new blog, The Plumbline School, cross-posting a few of my comments here as well when they seemed detachable from their Plumbline context. There are, at last count, four participants in the project, which has generated a good deal of useful discussion in a short time, I think, though necessarily much of the talk at this point is range-finding and terminological in nature. The original idea, which has been undergoing a few modifications, was to initiate a discussion that would seek to find a new kind of center for poetic practice, and for the poem in this historical moment. (Or perhaps the intention was / is to rediscover an old center now obscured.)

The Plumbline was pulled out of the old tool box, frankly, in reaction to a number of current trends that seem out of kilter, so there is an element of the polemical in our discussions, though they are secondary to our main purposes. Henry has explicitly named Flarf as one thing he’s reacting against; my own frustration with current practice stems from the cultural configuration that sponsors an all-or-nothing divide between the so called “School of Quietude” and the so called “Post Avant.”  I’m already on record as preferring something like Seth Abramson’s ecology as a starting point. On of the things that attracts me to this effort, as I’ve said, is that the polemical intent is subordinated to an exploratory, tentative approach to poetic practice and theorizing about poetry – our own as well as that of others. Speaking for myself, I am more interested in charting my own practice, which has grown stale, than in convincing others to join a movement.

Thus, the Plumbline: An attempt to chart what is actually going on in current poetry and to develop a terminology more descriptive than the one we have got with which to discuss the cultural landscape and the poetic practice located in that landscape. And, yes, an attempt to promote a particular sort of poetry, or poetry based on a particular set of (broadly defined) principles that orbit around the idea of the middle voice. A still point, an unwobbling pivot, amidst the static and random noises of current American literary culture. Or that’s how I read — and continue to read — the intentions of the Plumbline. If there are poets out there who would like to join the conversation, email me or follow the How to Join link at the Plumbline blog.

Sep 232008
 

Instructions: Begin, in so far as it’s possible, without preconceptions and do not rush to make a judgment about whether you like or dislike a poem, or whether it’s good or bad; most of all, do not dismiss mysteries or difficulties as weird or incomprehensible (at least) until you have worked through the steps below. Read the poem aloud. Now read it again to yourself without (yet) trying to understand it in order to get a feel for the whole thing.

1. Read the sentences (not the lines) for the basic, literal meaning of the poem. What is the setting? Who is speaking? What is the tone? (Tone is usually defined as the speaker’s attitude toward the subject matter as revealed through the speaker’s word choices, rhythms, etc.) Are there words you don’t know the meanings of? If so, look them up. Does the title of the poem offer a key to the situation the poem describes or enacts?

2. After you understand the basic meaning of the text, look at the images (clusters of words that represent a sense impression: sight, sound, taste, etc). Do the images suggest anything more than their literal meaning? Do they rise above simple description? Are there patterns of images? Does the author use figurative language, i.e., metaphors or similes, etc? If so, what is the effect of these figures?

3. Stick to the actual text of the poem & do not import “explanations” for things you don’t quite understand from outside the poem. Not yet, anyway. For instance, say you are reading a poem in which the speaker seems to shift from one subject to another without transition. It might be tempting to say, “Well, maybe the speaker is drunk.” But unless there is a glass of whisky in the poem, you have no warrant to make such an assumption. Sometimes you have to simply “bracket” certain parts of the poem and save them for later analysis; this is far better than trying to “solve” every mystery on first (or second) reading.

4. Now look at the ways in which the lines break up or coincide with the poem’s sentences. Does this patterning affect the rhythm (and thus the tone) of the poem? Is the poem broken into stanzas? If so, are the stanzas integral to the organization of the subject matter? Do the lines of the poem seem to have a regular number of syllables? (Alternatively, do stanza contain lines that vary in syllable count according to some pattern?) Do the lines have a regular number of stressed syllables & if so are they evenly distributed in the line? If the lines do not show patterning of syllables or stresses, is there some other principle of patterning at work? Does the poem contain rhymes? If it does, do they fall into a particular pattern? If there is a pattern, is it simple or elaborate? What are the effects on the reader’s understanding of the patterns you have discovered?

5. Are there any hints about the larger context in which the poem was created? Time period? Author’s biography? Major historical or cultural events? How about connections to other literary texts, especially the bible or other mythological texts; also Shakespeare.

6. Now read the poem aloud again. At this point you are prepared to begin to make judgments about the poem’s meaning. Whether you “like” the poem or not is of interest to you personally, but not very important in the larger scheme of things. (Another way of saying this would be: Until you have read a lot of poems in the manner outlined above, you like or dislike of a particular poem is uninformed and thus not very valuable to the wider conversation about poems.)
______
*Notes prepared for my freshman Humanities students.