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“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

Terrifyingly Friendly

The terror of Compton-Burnett’s Manservant and Maidservant is not the terror of tyranny, as the blurb by Edward Sackville-West supposes, and the cover photographs of Rachel Whiteread’s negative casts of internal spaces are much too simplistic metaphors for the content of Ivy’s novels. The tyrannical father presiding over the social space of the Victorian family unit may be the figure drawn by the novel, but it is drawn with mirrors, colored glass, and light, not rigid plaster casts, and the canvas is not framed by an era.

Months ago, a co-worker asked me what I’d been reading lately, and I mentioned Muriel and Ivy. Recently, the same coworker asked me again. She said she’d read a few pages of one of them—couldn’t remember which—and found it much too confusing, that she’d had to reread those two or so pages to understand what was even happening. Ah; Ivy, I said, it must be Ivy. She should try Muriel, I said. Muriel goes down much easier. But Ivy! Yes, she can be obtuse—I told the anecdote of the editor who, nonplussed, explained to the novelist that she had forgotten to indicate that a character was talking on the telephone, to which she reacted by adding a ‘, he said.’

It is the terror and the comfort of relationships. The title of this book is mostly puzzling, until the last chapter. Until the last chapter, the servants, while prominent, do not reveal much.

The guest seemed uncertain of her purpose in coming, and he [Bullivant] resolved her doubt.
“You bethought yourself of our situation, Miss Buchanan, and came to say the word of a friend.”
“And so did the action of one,” said Cook.
Miss Buchanan sat down, as if doing so meant consent, and in her case it did.

The terror is balanced by its comforts, our submission to it, and the weight it takes from us. Bullivant has served for decades, as has Cook, and each tries to teach, respectively, the young George and Miriam the way of servitude. George gags on his medicine, and Miriam seems not ever to have had to think about swallowing.

There is a one-star review of this book on Amazon. The disappointed customer’s most specific complaint, as I remember, is that the children do not speak at all like children. But the adults, for that matter, do not speak like adults. No one speaks like this. The characters operate only in their relationship to each other, and their speech reflects this. Every word (and every silence) affects the social setting, and so explaining what a character meant, or describing their reactions, when they are the expected ones, is pointless. This is the foundation of the strangeness of the children’s language. The common is common and assumed; the expected reactions of children are expected, and so Ivy need not bother with telling you of them. It is the uncommon that Ivy deals in, and the extremity of her setups—the introduction by Diane Johnson is right about Horace’s superior villainy, if not much else—produces such uncommonness with frightening ease (but so do most situations we face, and we rely on social standards to pass over it). When George, late in the novel, makes a desperate, direct assertion of hypocrisy on his superior’s part, the response is laughter unexpected by all present (even by the two laughing, I believe). Where most novelists would give at least a sentence, if not a paragraph or a page, to the feeling of shameful inconsequence such a reaction would prompt in the accuser, Ivy does not even mention George. He does not reappear until the moment has passed and the topic changed.

Cousin Mortimer may be the funniest character I have ever had the pleasure of reading.

‘You told me not to write you, but I am never so malicious as to take people at their word. It is almost like telling them that they have made their bed and must lie on it. Thank you very much for your letter. It has broken my heart, but that is the natural result of the use of words. When human speech developed, it was a foregone thing. It allowed people to communicate their thoughts, and what else could come of that? And putting them on paper renders it a certainty. People can keep on returning to them.’

The “made their bed” bit is piquant  because Mortimer has been excommunicated, if you will, and resides in a room in a boarding house arranged for him by Bullivant. A middle-aged bachelor, older than his brother Horace, Mortimer is dependent, and yet Horace would be nothing to depend on were it not for his money by marriage. Mortimer, unlike most,  responds to his situation with wry acceptance (‘Thank you for your letter; it has broken my heart’). He cannot go anywhere but where he is put, so he do not go anywhere, and so he is amused by where he is.

It is one type of tyranny to expect all should act like George. It is another to expect all should act like Miriam. It is another to expect all should to act like Bullivant. It is another to expect all should act like Mortimer.

Filed under: Uncategorized

A Woman and Her Narrator

I have not withered out and blown away.  For the past few months, I have been indulging a visual life, and after brief strife to say it, began to indulge the averbal nature of it.  Let it suffice for now to say that it involves, in roughly this chain of order, painting and its texture, representations of the clothed (or un-clothed) body, Edouard Vuillard’s women and their dresses, fashion, sight and touch, Blanchot’s notion of the immediate and the prevalence of sight and light in metaphors for knowledge and thought, the comparable ubiquity of language and dress in human culture and their evaluation based on utility and/or appeal, as well as their unavoidable influence, and is a spider-legged, sprawling mess that resists all modulation into writing.  Aren’t I the bee’s oh-so-intellectual knees.

I am only this week toeing the waters of words again, both as writer and reader.  Having been keeping my eye out for any Ivy Compton-Burnett book, I finally found one in Green Apple Books: A House and Its Head, published in the NYRB Classics series.  It is a densely beautiful book, and refreshing to read someone for whom every word counts because every word cannot but count and therefore might as well not; they cannot possibly be counted.  I have never read anything which so successfully conjures the half-meanings that crowd the edges of dialogue, and admirably so in that Compton-Burnett does so without recourse to narration.  Whereas most narrators, it seems, attempt to shade shadows into the rough outline of dialogue, this narrator does not clarify what her characters could not convey in their spoken words.  After all, one cannot narrate without needing a narrator, so instead, the speech and its narration end up being wry comments on each other: what little narration there is, beyond speech tags, often mockingly doubles the line of dialogue it frames.  This calls attention to either the mundanity of speech or the fecklessness and absurdity of narration:

“It has been so terrible to be able to do nothing: I have felt so helpless,” said Mrs. Bode, in some consternation at having been unable to prevent Ellen’s death.

Each line of dialogue strikes its antecedent, and shale flints scatter from both stones. (Yes, I am aware of the oxymoron.)  I am too lazy to type it out, but you should know that the the book begins with a quarrel over breakfast, and then read from “Yes” to “no reply,” across the page break from 67 to 68.  Of course, the careful weight one must apply to wring out all the inferences (that are often only revealed by a response to the statement) is balanced by levity: this is also one of the funniest books I’ve read in a while, in that delightfully understated English style of humor:

“There will be a great blank in our midst [now that Ellen is dead],” said Mrs. Bode.
“Yes, Mother dear, but that goes without saying.”
“And like many things that go without saying,” said Florence, “may truly be said.”
“That is so, Mrs. Smollett: I feel duly snubbed.”

Even the simple “said Florence,” placed so awkwardly as to interrupt the flow of the sentence and flush the mental pronoun from the palate, forcing the reader to summon again the thing which need not be said, works double duty.  Or there is:

“Ellen’s family! What a beautiful and intimate sound! That is how I shall think of them.  I shall not feel it presumptuous [to use her Christian name], kept to the confines of my own mind.”
“It will be narrowly restricted,” agreed her brother.

The polite Southerner in me has a deep and abiding love for the obliging insult.

Between Muriel Spark, Clarice Lispector, and Ivy Compton-Burnett, all of whom I have read only in the past few months, this looks to be the year of seriously humorous writers.

Filed under: Uncategorized

“Who could possibly tell them they had nothing to be ashamed of?”

The particular draw of Handke, what was so strange in that first book, Slow Homecoming, that I could not put my finger on, is that Handke’s protagonists are not subject to the inertia that most literary characters are.  It seems that, compared to Handke’s, most protagonists are sinking stones, solid objects, and any change of emotion or action comes only as the result of some mythically proportioned event, or else the stone just settles, eventually, at bottom.  These characters have an awareness of their context, an awareness they’ve reached through a sort of unacknowledged, static relationship with their author, who knows who they are, what they eat for breakfast, what their face looks like when they come, what childhood secret they have, etc.  But Keuschnig, for example, in A Moment of True Feeling, is only ever deeply aware of, and only ever capable of reacting according to, his immediate feeling.  Handke even embodies this sort of queer relationship with context in the composition of his sentences (assuming, as always, good translation).  The first sentence in A Moment of True Feeling:

Who has ever dreamed that he has become a murderer and from then on has only been carrying on with his usual life for the sake of appearance?

Not only are we not sure whether the life ‘carried on’ is within the dream or without it, the peculiar passiveness of the action makes one question how valid an emotional reaction this is.  He did not murder—he became a murderer, but whether this becoming a murderer has a dreamed effect or real effect, its effect is already in effect, and the stark separation of reality and dream is undermined.  The next sentence offers little purchase, beginning “At that time, which is still going on…”  The time in which this event has its effect is simultaneously distant (“that time”) and present (“is still going on”). Whatever the relationship presently is, however unstable it is, we can be sure that there is something back there with which we have a relationship (and I’m tempted to say that our relationship to the book is like Keushnig’s relationship with his dream, but I think that’s another post).

This type of dream-logic relationship comes up several times.  One of the more easily excerptable ones:

As he ran up the stairs, he was surprised to find himself reenacting a run that had happened in a dream.  Then, for the first time in a dream, there had been actual motion in his running.

What does “then” do?  Does it mean he now realizes that, more than just the abstract concept of “I was running,” he actually remembers the dreamed, physical sensation of running? Or does it mean that, with Keuschnig’s realization of this conjunction of real activity and dreamed activity, the dream motion takes on significance as a simulated “actual”?  What does sequentiality mean here, where what happens as a consequence is a relationship between the present and the past?  And what does the relationship between reality and dream mean for either?

I haven’t read as much Kafka as I should have, certainly, but even someone who hadn’t ready any, I think, could figure out that dear Gregor K. has taken a lot from him.  His story is, in a way, more unsettling than waking up as an insect, though, which we can safely assume will never happen.  Where Kafka begins from a strange place and proceeds apace, Handke is constantly reinjecting the uncertainty that starts this story, and that monumental, grounding uncertainty that makes Kafka’s narratives so shockingly stable pervades Handke’s throughout.

He sat in the square for a long while, one among many, with no thought of the future.  He expected nothing; just once he had a vision of all these people taking on a strange look and beginning to sob heartbreakingly, but all the while excusing themselves on the grounds that they hadn’t slept the night before, that the sun didn’t agree with them, and that their stomachs were empty.  Who could possibly tell them they had nothing to be ashamed of?—When for once he turned away from himself and looked up, he was at a loss to understand why everything hadn’t changed in the meantime.

It could be a weakness, that its method is more apparent—Slow Homecoming is certainly the stronger one—but the ephemeral nature of our position in reality Handke portrays like no one else I’ve ever read, if a bit too hamfistedly in this book.  (Though I still think it does Remainder better than Remainder.)

Filed under: Handke

The Lines of Williams and Creeley

Between Walls

the back wings
of the

hospital where
nothing

will grow lie
cinders

in which shine
the broken

pieces of a green
bottle

For a brief second, I thought this might be the poem that convinces me to give Williams a solid second try.  But it still succumbs, I think, to Poirier’s criticism that Williams’ poetic ideology is too simplistic to be convincing of anything.  The line is the same as his Famous Poem, with the ending of each line in the two-line stanzas standing in contrast to the other, the first ending on an accented syllable (“the back wings”) and the second on an unaccented (“bottle”), but the incidental-ness of the green of the artificial object positioned “where/ nothing// will grow” and obviously mimicking the thing that should grow there—grass—seems just that: incidental, ignorant that putting this in poetic form makes this no longer just incidental.  In attempting to avoid the high-falutin’-ness of literary language in favor of “real experience,” it unwittingly emphasizes the linguistic structure which mediates our experience of the poet’s experience.  That structure is the real that it tries to bypass so it can return us to the ‘real,’ whether that be green glass glinting on dirt or demotic language. The only thing this poem refers to, as a poem, is the emphasis on “green” and the diminishing of “bottle,” which is, in its innocence, more of a gimmick than a completely ‘artificial’ rhyme or rhythm.

That said, the elision of the preposition that relates the cinder blocks, from which the glass shines, to the back wings—by? at? near?— is a dismantling stroke that I’ve never encountered in Williams before, and it is surely too prominent to be unwitting.

Contrast Creeley’s frustrated, diminished lines, where the breath and syntax of the lines becomes asthmatic, constricted, even as it propels its speaker and its reader to the end of the poem:

Kore

As I was walking
I came upon
chance walking
the same road upon.

As I sat down
by chance to move
later
if and as I might,

light the wood was,
light and green,
and what I saw
before I had not seen.

It was a lady
accompanied
by goat men
leading her.

Her hair held earth.
Her eyes were dark.
A double flute
made her move.

“O love,
where are you
leading
me now?”

It relies on that same deemphasized propulsion, with the ends of most lines—especially that bewildered last line—ending in an unaccented syllable.  The normalized experience (“As I was walking/ I came upon…”) develops into an abstract and mythological relationship, which immediately causes us to question— or causes me to question, what otherwise run-of-the-mill experience, specifically, could possibly underlie this monumental event, out of which the mythological breaks into the daily life of the author?  When the poem pivots on that perfectly iambic line describing the stereotypically “poetic” experience of chance revealing love at first sight—”before I had not seen.”—it reveals implicitly that what could underlie that experience is just that: the poetic, the “artificial.”  After the speaker encounters chance in the first stanza, that quintessentially absurd machinist, he decides to sit down for a spell, and, importantly, retains the right and the freedom to move “if and as I might.” His decision to sit down and stay is just as artificial—willed—as the poem, which would not have received its impetus without the initial artificial decision.  (Similarly, the “song” is not the song: stanza three, which uses a song-like rhythm, sets the stage for the quoted ‘song’ that does not follow a usual, song-like rhythm.)

Rather than simple contrast with an equally artificial emphatic ending, the under-emphasized line-endings of Creeley emphasize the contrivance of the poem, as well as its thematic cliché (“before I had not seen”) in the face of necessarily not cliché experience-itself of an unexpected encounter with the beautiful to which one then submits:

“O love,
where are you
leading
me now?”

And there is true chance’s place in poetry: the poem one sings and the poem one hears are suddenly indiscernible.

Filed under: Poetry

More On Merrill

After the last post about Merrill, I set about to read Merrill’s Collected Poems more systematically, or at least as systematically as I can get when talking about an 850 page volume, by a notoriously involute poet.  I’d previously only read here and there, as I have with most Collecteds, though I am now beginning to sit down and fight the feeling of being overwhelmed by choosing individual books to get through.

With Merrill, I’m reading the books from the sixties, before the supernatural begins to intrude, in the 70s (publicly, that is; he began using the ouija board in the 50s), and when his mature style of playing with form more freely begins to develop.  Rather tWater Streethan the strict rhyme or blank verse of his earlier books, you have his well-known modulation in and out of strict form within the same poem: “An Urban Convalescence,” for example, one of Merrill’s most famous, has eight stanzas of differing lengths, with occasional slant rhymes, and then eight quatrains of rhymed iambic pentameter.  The two poems that I have been spending a lot of time with, to tease out the imagery and its interplay throughout each, are “After Greece” and “Prism,” from his 1962 collection, Water Street, and they are also, interestingly, two where Merrill drops formalism entirely and lets the complexity of imagery, instead of the felicities and coincidences of rhyme, carry the poem.  It’s interesting also because you see Merrill begin to learn how his own chains of logic and imagery work; his early poems typically pick apart a single image very methodically until it becomes either the apotheosis of an idea, or its antithesis, narrowing its focus so tightly because rhyme seems to restrict his ability to move laterally to another idea.  When he drops the rhyme, he is allowed to develop some complex relationships, even if they are left slightly muddy through their lack of the scalpel-like precision that form usually forces—for better or worse—on his poems.

The first instances of the deep anxiety I mentioned in that last post on Merrill are beginning to creep in, with the escalation of the Cold War (Feel free to correct my dating. I have no mind for the subtlety of history, sadly, but Water Street was published a few months before the Cuban Missile Crisis.).  In “After Greece,” some Greek minor deities “seem anxious to know/ What holds up heaven nowadays” and the poet halfheartedly responds, “well, Art, Public Spirit,/ Ignorance, Economics, Love of Self,/ Hatred of Self, a hundred more,/… each dedicated/ To sparing us the worst; how I distrust them…”  But here, it is interesting to see how the cause of that anxiety oscillates between impending doom and that ever present dis-ease I brought up last time.  Here he begins to explore how the common Modernist theme of dissatisfaction and loss can be yolked to the more personal and emotional reactions one has to one’s era, as well as the ultimate (and ultimately dominating) fear that the annihilation we face is physical, and spiritual, and intellectual. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Merill, Poetry

Bernhard in Mann

This is the first of Thomas Mann’s work I’ve read—and I’m only sixty pages in, at that— and I’ve only read a handful of Bernhard, but even this early in Doctor Faustus, it seems that one of Bernhard’s blatant tactics is a reductio ad absurdum of Mann’s style.  That may or may not be a product of my limited reading, but I’m finding it impossible to ignore Bernhard as I’m reading Mann.

The narrator of Faustus is always tentative about first-hand material.  When speaking of his home town, he says, “I really would rather speak in the past tenses, since it is the Kaisersaschern we knew in our youth of which I speak.”  When speaking of his biographical subject, Adrian Leverkühn, he sticks mostly to transcriptions of conversations and to physical descriptions of reactions, and usually throws in a comment about how unwilling he would be to suppose the motivation of such a great artist.  (Interestingly, the narrator also says that, “thanks to my friendship with Adrian, the artist’s life functions as the paradigm for how fate shapes all our lives, as the classic example of how we are deeply moved by what we call becoming, development, destiny—” but you can probably figure out what I’d have to say about that, harping as I do on intention and interpretation and the role of art and all that.)

And here is where my Bearnhard hypothesis enters: The more layers between the narrator and the subject discussed, the more wild the description and supposition become. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Bernhard, Mann

On Merrill

Andrew Seal posted a bit about James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover recently, which I’m always glad to see be written about.  Merrill’s work, Sandover included, has been a big influence on me, and Sandover is an unduly neglected book; no one’s quite sure what to do with it.  Except Harold Bloom, and that should tell you something (but don’t let it scare you away).  Masterpiece I’m hesitant to say—I would much rather see Merrill’s collected poems receive their due than Sandover, because Merrill seems to have fallen out of poetic favor—but I do indeed think Sandover should be read by many more people.  Andrew’s idea to reposition the book in the class of fantasiac world-building, rather than modernist masterpiece, is an interesting one. The overwhelming sense the book provides, of a fundamental unease in the world as it is (well was, then, but it’s hardly dissipated, though the sources have changed), does indeed open up a nice way to read the book as a sort of desperate gamble at world-building and could certainly find some fellow-travelers, at the very least among dystopian novels.

I think that could be a valuable way to read the book, and, though I think the poems themselves are not as amenable to the idea of building another world (however much one could say Merrill did this, in the process?) as they are to the quest aspect Andrew looks at, he makes the valid point that, in order to consider the poem in any way other than along the axis of belief and disblief that it usually is, the work has to be dislodged, in a sense, from the question of whether or not Merrill believed in the mythology of it.  Indeed, rather than belief, what Andrew notices is the emphasis on a “process or a practice” is certainly more key to my reading of it.

The simple way of trying to dislodge the work from this question is by pointing out that, with one always skeptical eye on its inherent absurdity, Merrill’s other eye is investigating faithfully that idealistic, irrational impetus at the root of all religion and, I think for Merrill and many writers, Yeats and Stevens included, all their creativity.  That dis-ease Merrill feels about the state of the world, which can be relayed into a fantasiac or dystopian reading, has its twin or reflection in Merrill’s dis-ease in the logical, rigorous, Western mindset that has absolutely no questions about the validity of a long poem dictated via Ouija board.  Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Poetry

A Rustle or A Fall

Commentary and translation stand in the same relation to the text as style and mimesis to nature: the same phenomenon considered from different aspects. On the tree of the sacred text both are only the eternally rustling leaves; on that of the profane, the seasonally falling fruits.

In the guise of a singular aphorism, Benjamin presents these two divergent assertions, and worse than misleadingly simple condensation, he buries the lead.  The truly unexpected assertion is that style and mimesis are different views of the same natural phenomenon, an assertion which he buries between two less unexpected ones, but two which are more truly aphorisms, pithy sayings whose pith is as important to them as their saying. Even that meatiest of points about the relationship of style and mimesis to nature immediately points back to commentary and translation, illuminating their relation to each other instead of to its own more interesting observation; more interesting because I wonder how exactly mimesis enters into “nature.”  Can we say the butterfly’s faux-owl’s face is mimesis?  If so, then it is certainly clearer how style and mimesis are the same phenomenon, and in turn how translation and commentary are balanced in the same relationship.

I wonder, then, about the unconscious evolutionary motivation for style and mimesis, translation and commentary.  I have been bothered by the recently growing frequency of treating non-sentient objects as “using” us the way humanity has used them.  In Michael Pollan’s otherwise interesting documentary, The Botany of Desire, his repeated pretension—the speciousness of which he acknowledges even while he continues to use it as the key to making his subject interesting—that these plants (tulips, potatoes, apples, and marijuana) have used us as unwitting accomplices to their own secret plans for world domination, is absurd, almost as if it were an unconscious attempt to exculpate ourselves by saying, if only they had their wits about them, tulips would have leveled the rain forests, melted the icecaps, and poured uncountable gallons of oil into the Gulf, too.

And then there is the tangentially related, but no less interesting observation, that translation and commentary, style and mimesis are— but to which pair does “both” refer?  In condensing his subject to a metaphor of nature, the first two assertions are overlaid and made to say much, much more.  Not only is this a thesis about translation and commentary, it is a thesis on the evaluation of literature over time, on, not why, but how literature survives, on literary fame and value— and perhaps a tentative guide to evaluating contemporaneously what will continue rustling and what will wither with its fruit.

Curious, though, that Benjamin’s aphorism minimizes the commentator and translator, the styler and mimer, and says virtually nothing about authors, perhaps only saying anything at all about creating by mentioning style and mimesis.

Perhaps most important is that, rather than vaulting everything into the realm of the artificial, to the realm of the natural everything is returned.  Our avarice is indeed natural, and one could even call it, safely, I think, “tulip-like” in this regard, but progress is not by default good and does not raise us above the natural into some self-sufficient human realm, nor does the tulip transcend its vegetal self and enter, even metaphorically, some ‘separate, human realm.’  I am reminded of the peculiar tension I found in reading “The Storyteller,” where Benjamin so clearly and strongly disagrees with the movement of literature and modern society, its proliferation and speed and constant aversion to the past and death, and yet he struggles so fiercely against any automatic condemnation of it.  One’s own anomie is not a valid reason for condemning that from which one feels disconnected (and that, I would toss off offhandedly, is the failure of most contemporary art).  The present is not worse than the past simply because it comes after the past, however much some aspects of the past may be preferred.  Now is simply, to steal from Roubaud, what will have been.

Filed under: Writing

On Roubaud and the Troubadours

In the collection of essays The Troubadors: An Introduction, edited by Simon Gaunt and Sarah Kay, Stephen G. Nichols argues that, though there are indeed some salient features of the troubadour lyric which support modern ideas about troubadours by harmonizing with the modern conception of the artist (such as a ‘high seriousness’ of style and the distinctly individualized voices of the poets), the traditional conception of a continuous and homogenized school of poetry is more than a little misleading in its development from ‘early troubadour’ Guilhem de Peitieu, through the golden age of the ‘classic period,’ and then on to the end of the tradition in the 13th century (I wonder if Nichols was told that this first essay, entitled “The early troubadours,” would appear in a series of three within the volume, the next two of which are “The classical period” and “The late troubadours”).  One rupture emphasized by Nichols to spite this homogenized portrait is the transition from oral performance at a court, by the troubadour himself or by a “joglar” sent in his place, to the “chansonnier” or manuscript tradition.  A “chansonnier” is, essentially, an anthologizing of popular, well-known, or significant lyrics by various troubadours into one collection, and Nichols opposes this tradition’s importance to what he sees as the usual depiction of oral performance as the definitive means of presenting these poems.

In the midst of this discussion, Nichols drops this choice— especially for anyone reading Roubaud— morsel of information:

About the same time that secular poetry began to be recorded in manuscripts in the early thirteenth century, Geoffroy de Vinsauf wrote his Poetria nova (The New Poetry, c. 1210) which became one of the most popular and influential poetic treatises of the high Middle Ages.  [This work] reveals the new concerns with ordering narrative for written presentation.  Reading him, we can seize his excitement in the face of a new aesthetics, and his awareness of the need to create a new poetics for dealing with the innovation.  He makes us sense that writing was not simply a tool for remembering, but a technique for thinking.

Whereas classical rhetoric was concerned primarily with the immediate rhetorical effects of oral delivery… Geoffroy’s Poetria nova stressed techniques for organising and presenting the narrative of writing.  Consequently, for Geoffrey, the order of the book as arrangement or dispositio becomes paramount.  The poet has two choices: to follow the natural sequence of events, the historic order, or to invent a synthetic order based on aesthetic or other principles.  {I should mention here that, though he certainly implies that the principles may apply more broadly, Nichols probably intends to reference manuscript ordering here: i.e., ‘naturally’, Peitieu should come before Marcabru, but not necessarily thematically.} Geoffroy writes that the latter ‘strives on the footpath of art’, while the former ‘follows the highway of nature.’  Natural order renders an unimaginative sequence flatly.  The same brief space may be made at least pleasing and perhaps even interesting by a synthetic style: ‘skillful art so inverts the material that it does not pervert it; art transposes, in order that it may make the arrangement of the material better.  More sophisticated than natural order is artistic order, and far preferable, however much permuted the arrangement be.’

Geoffroy speaks about arranging or transposing existing materials.  The artist or poet ‘finds’ (in the medieval sense of trobar, trouver) his material already in the world and makes his poetry as a construction, a reconstruction and a reordering.  As Guilhem de Peitieu had already put it so brilliantly, the flowers of rhetoric are the product of artistic construction in the poetic workshop or obrador.  The song ‘Ben Bueill’ thematises Guilhem’s poetics… :

{The Occitan poem is followed by this prose translation:}

(I want all to hear if a song that I’ve produced in my workshop is of good quality [color = sign of quality in refining or smelting].  For I possess the flower of my métier, and that’s the truth.  The song itself will testify to this, once it’s finished [lit: ‘laced up’, meaning that the versification has been worked out satisfactorily].)

When Guilhem de Peitrieu and later Geoffrey of Vinsauf place the art of trobar at the heart of the poetic process, they are also describing exactly what the manuscript matrix invited the scribe to do with the material he sought to include in his chansonnier. From this viewpoint, the work of the scribe is not so very much different from that of the poet, since the art of the manuscript is the art of dispositio: artistic arrangement and construction.  …  The difference is that the chansonnier gives a meaning – or a sense of a whole – to a large body of pre-existing works, and in the sense of the whole lies the ‘intelligence’ of the chansonnier.  The poet creates a sense or an identity – a poetic logic – for a single poem; the scribe for an entire corpus.

And ‘corpus’ becomes a provocative pun when I consider the images Roubaud is conjuring, of the childhood body in various positions throughout his childhood home and its grounds, positions whose sequence of presentation is determined by a rigorously synthetic set of principles, so rigorous as to prevent any possibility of its appearing to be ‘natural’ in Vinsauf’s sense, a ‘synthetic order’ which is, by Roubaud’s argument, all the more natural for its caveat emptor depiction, in prose, of the experience of memory.  A double negation.  “the great fire of london” is not a poem, or an autobiography, or a fiction.  It is a manuscript which will have been written, and will continue to ‘will have been’ as long as there are readers to read its present of composition.

It is also important, for anyone not familiar with the troubadours, that the printing press was a few centuries off when this transition from sung song to manuscript happened.  Even if we consider writing as a “technique for thinking” to mean mainly thinking out one’s own thoughts, Nichols must also stretch such a meaning to include the scribes of the chansonniers, engaged in a mostly rote copying process, with a little of the artist’s flourish in the illuminations and choice of order.  The concord with Roubaud’s rigorous compositional method, writing his writing before dawn each day until the sun rises, is significant.  Even when the “moment of prose” written does not have a place in the developing format until the ‘inter-branches’ proposed (discovered?)  in branch two, The Loop, we learn in the midst of his discussion of them that he still writes every morning.

Filed under: Roubaud, Writing

from The Loop

There is a particular and astonishing thought process at work in this passage, linking a memory ‘snapshot’ and the conceit of a poem.  Roubaud tissues his writing throughout this book with asides and parentheses, not even counting the Insertions.  To get to the particular path of reasoning I want, I’ve elided bits (Roubaud loves his digressions) and passages (Roubaud really loves his opinions) quite frequently, and I’ve left out the ellipses for the sake of my period key.  If you want the unadulterated stuff, you can read the entire section (and the entire book, it seems) here on Google Books.  At the end of the post, there is a link to a translation of the poem which Roubaud discusses.  A few of Roubaud’s comments may be more interesting if you know that the poem is the precursor to the sestina.  Instead of the sestina’s weaving pattern of end-words, Raimbaut “repeats the same words at the rhyme, in the same order, in every stanza.”

from §3 My returning to this image

Seeing that nocturnal windowpane covered with its flowers of frost has become habitual for me, very familiar.  And sometimes the image appears to me on its own, at random, removed from its natural setting, without any particular thought of this memory preceding it.  But I recognize it immediately—I can hardly fail to recognize it, since it resembles nothing so much as itself.

But one day, one day I managed to associate this image with a spoken word, a word from a poem (if I grant for a moment that poetry is speech, a “music of the mouth proffering speech in meter,” as Eustache Deschamps said), a word spoken, then, and put down on paper centuries ago, and now caught on this paper between the blank spaces, the “margins,” that define verse:

Er resplan la flors enversa

These words make up the entire first line of a canso (a “chanson,” a music-poem) by the troubadour Raimbaut d’Orange, written more than eight centuries ago: “Now shines [is resplendant] the inverse flower.”  Raimbaut d’Orange wastes no time in revealing the primary sense of this strange grouping: “quals flors” he says (“which flower?”). And he answer himself, taking the spontaneous and absolute solipsism of all verse even further: “neus gels e conglapis” (“snow, frost and ‘conglapi‘”), introducing, with this last vocable—so rare that it appears only here—who knows what sort of frozen thing.  I have decided to understand it, according to the needs of my own composition, as a vitrified conjunction of neus (snow) and gels (frost): as the condensation of a mist-noise and a cold substance, emblematic of the cold itself; and I hear in it an entire “glapissement,” a kind of screen, along with the scratching sound made by those transparent pellets of cold as they were scraped up, crying out under my nail:

Er resplan la flors enversa
Pels trencans rancx e pels tertres.
Quals flors neus gels e conglapis
Que cotz e destrenh e trenca.


(Then shines the inverse flower
among sharp cliffs and hills.
Which flower? snow frost and ice
that cuts and torments and slices.)

Now, every dawn is a new spring, even a dawn covered in frost.  And in this paradoxical beginning of a lover’s canso, Raimbaut d’Orange—instead of following a tradition that would have him echo the sweet and didactic love songs of the teacher-birds, the teachers of the song, essenhadors del chan—gives voice instead to abstract nightingales.  The poet sees blocks of ice in place of the craggy red mountains, which are now invisible; in place of the orioles or larks, whose throats are now numb; in place of their song now dead from the cold:

Vey mortz quils critz brays siscles
(I see dead calls, cries, noises, whistles)

For Raimbaut, invoking the great aviary cold of the hills, now gripped by frost , is a way to make the three-in-one flower of song, poetry, and love still more brilliant— the inverse flower absent from every bouquet (and here the absence is double).  When I read this image, when I found myself gripped, transfixed, and benumbed by these words, flors enversa, I recognized them as my own (this was near the very beginning of my reading of the Troubadours, I still knew virtually nothing about them), and I spontaneously and sentimentally placed myself, implicitly and without at first realizing it, in one of the two camps—each devoted to a certain method, simultaneously antagonistic and interwoven—of the trobar, the art of the Troubadours.

For this is not simply an insolent metamorphosis of the tradition’s “spring-time” metaphor (the beginning of poetic singing, in the spring, identified with the love songs of the birds), but also the affirmation of a certain way of speaking in poetry, which goes far beyond the privileged moment in which the singing flowers of the frost are discovered.  One could dub this the Way of Double Negation (which has its related and parallel forms in philosophy, theology, and even logic): the frost negates both the flower and the song.  But in the desert of first, a paradoxical flower blooms—in its silence an insistent disharmony resonates, and from this “hirsute” blossoming, as from this polar atonality, are reborn, in the vibratory evocation of the verse, both a happy music and its simultaneous and hopeless disappearance.

The poetic method called “obscure” and “closed,” according to Raimbaut d’Orange and Arnaut Daniel, never forgets that beneath love’s greatest “joy”—its “joi“— lurks the frost of fulfillment, the ferocity of a reality mingled with death.

This is why, even if it wasn’t within my power to dissolve this association between childhood and a fragment of poetry, I did not for a moment refuse it.  As I progressed (slightly) in my knowledge of the trobar, as I formed a clearer idea of it, this association became deeper and still more necessary, losing the sudden, fortuitous, and arbitrary character of its origins.  The memory image of the square pane made hazy with frost, the night that it hid and then revealed, and the bedroom around me all acquired from this association a greater force of conviction (the conviction of being an authentic and significant revelation of the past) and a greater legitimacy.

The poem which Roubaud discusses may also be read at Google Books, in a translation by William D. Paden and Frances Freeman Paden, here.

Filed under: Quotes, Roubaud

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