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

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.

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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

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

The World in the Earth: A Response to “The Taste of Silence”

This response is a bit late in coming. It took me quite a while to figure out just what it is that I disagreed with about the essay in question, and for a while I gave up on actually putting it in readable, coherent form; but given some time, I think I see now more clearly what it is I take umbrage with. I was initially simply rooting for the underdog, because I was appalled that something I find myself so concerned with (the tenets of what the author calls ‘poetry of world’) should be implicitly linked with imperialism, racism, and other assorted evils. But I began rereading Heaney’s Seeing Things for pleasure after having my interest piqued by the article, and Heaney became my guide back to an underlying disagreement. Anyway, I ought not preface my thoughts on the article with themselves, so off you go. I tried to include the relevant quotes within, so one need not have read the article before reading this, but it probably wouldn’t hurt to have done so.

Adam Kirsch has an essay in a recent issue of Poetry magazine that uses Heidegger’s essay “The Origin of the Work of Art” to establish a dichotomy of poetry, that “of the earth” and that “of the world.” I admit at the start that my understanding of Heidegger is limited to the discussions of his work I’ve read by Rorty and Derrida, and I am ill-equipped to make judgments about Kirsch’s interpretation of him. My problem, however, is with the judgment Kirsch makes by employing Heidegger’s distinction in the present tense. By claiming that only poetry “of the earth” is “our poetry,” and that we have turned away from poetry “of the world” because of its seeming impossibility, Kirsch (not-so-)subtly imbricates “poetry of the world,” now or whenever, between Naziism and Imperialism— a move I would find offensive did I not first find it misled and based on a contradiction of which Kirsch’s essay seems marginally aware. “And that [contradiction, Kirsch] reveals in spite of himself, can have sinister implications.”
Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Heaney, Heidegger, Kirsch, Poetry

On Stevens’ “Add This to Rhetoric”

After a little over-indulgence on my part in wide-ranging and free-flowing rants for the past couple of posts, I’ll stick to a specific subject this time. This is one of my favorite poems by Wallace Stevens that, if not one of his most polished or succesfully ‘artful,’ is still an unbelievably powerful example of the man’s skill and intellect.

Add This to Rhetoric

It is posed and it is posed.
But in nature it merely grows.
Stones pose in the falling night;
And beggars dropping to sleep,
They pose themselves and their rags.
Shucks . . . lavender moonlight falls.
The buildings pose in the sky
And, as you paint, the clouds,
Grisaille, impearled, profound,
Pftt . . . In the way you speak
You arrange, the thing is posed,
What in nature merely grows.

To-morrow when the sun,
For all your images,
Comes up as the sun, bull fire,
Your images will have left
No shadow of themselves.
The poses of speech, of paint,
Of music—Her body lies
Worn out, her arm falls down,
Her fingers touch the ground.
Above her, to the left,
A brush of white, the obscure,
The moon without a shape,
A fringed eye in a crypt.
The sense creates the pose.
In this it moves and speaks.
This is the figure and not
An evading metaphor.

Add this. It is to add.

Though Harold Bloom is probably correct on both points when he says that “Add This to Rhetoric” is “a kind of footnote to the greater poem, [‘The Poems of Our Climate’],” I still find it to be one of my favorite of Stevens’ poems. “The Poems of Our Climate” seems to belie the imperfection which it claim is “our paradise.” Admittedly, it does this beautifully; but that is part of why I prefer “Add This…,” which, instead, eschews beautiful, meditative images for simplistic ones that depict their subjects while demonstrating the poem’s premise, and which uses a grammar that demonstratively appropriates “…of Our Climate”‘s paradisiac imperfection for its own purpose.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Analysis, Poetry, Stevens, Writing, , , , ,

Kenneth Goldsmith

Kenneth Goldsmith is an itch I can’t scratch. That’s probably exactly what he wants to be, too. So I think I’ll try to figure out why he itches me and what about his work I need to unpack to scratch. I don’t remember where I encountered him first, whether it was UBUweb, PennSound, the Poetry Foundation’s blog, or heaven knows where else, but he’s an artist I haven’t been able to shake.

The issue, see, is that Goldsmith really does for language, for speaking, and for writing the exact same thing that Cage did with the audience in 4’33’, Eno did with a broken leg and a too-quiet record player, and Warhol did with Marilyn; and this is a very conscious effort for him. He’s reiterating what Duchamp did with the infamous urinal, Magritte did with “The Treachery of Images,” etc. The examples are countless. What I find conflicting about this is that Goldsmith isn’t really catching us up to what’s happening now. Thus, it annoys me that Goldsmith is considered so profoundly avant-garde, and not in the sense of the “anyone can do it” dilemma. Because yes, anybody can transcribe all the text of one day’s New York Times. Authenticity is not the issue, a tenet Goldsmith so conveniently founds his ideas on. He’s being blatantly unoriginal, not only in the fact that his works are direct requisitions of other texts, but that his ideas are nothing more than the past century’s theories of visual and musical art applied to text.

On the other hand, I think Goldsmith’s work is fascinating and necessary. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Goldsmith, Poetry, Tangents, Writing, , , ,

Loosely Organized Thoughts on Oppen’s “Return”

“In the flow of traffic
The family cars, in the dim
Sound of the living
The noise of increase to which we owe
What we possess. We cannot reconcile ourselves.
No one is reconciled, tho we spring
From the ground together-”

from “Return

This particular passage of “Return” by Oppen is for me a wonderful depiction of a conflict I am beginning to recognize in a new light. I’ll get back to the poem momentarily to explore how this is related, hopefully, but the passage is particularly moving because it dovetails nicely with a new understanding of what “atheism” implies, though I hesitate to use the word with all its connotations, but that’s for another time. The juxtaposition of humanity (a term I am, yet again, antsy about using in this context because it has to me a connotation of placing humans somehow above or outside of “nature” and thus in turn unwittingly invokes something (e.g. god) to do the elevating) with the beautiful image of the tree that appears in the next stanza struck me strongly. Oppen preempts the next image of the tree a bit and tells us that “we spring/ From the ground together” which is a newly fascinating idea, one I’d always grasped and indeed believed, but to which I now hold firmly and with a new touch.

This first stanza’s natural hum of life, this “dim sound” which you hear in time-lapse shots of rain forrest foliage growing, or on the parkway, with which Oppen and I cannot reconcile ourselves is itself (though I believe the inability to achieve reconciliation in this poem is twofold, both between the individual and society as well as and man and nature), or at least points directly towards in its own synthetic nature-ness, a contradiction. It is both entirely natural, in the sense of its being indirect, feedback, the remainder of unintentional overabundance, the “noise of increase;” as well as entirely synthetic, man-made, man-made yet appearing between the edges of what is “man-made” and what is “of nature.”

This passage is juxtaposed against, first, the opening lines which declare ownership and possession of the earth (“But we drive” implying the problematic response to this ownership), and second, the next stanza’s passionate description of a sequoia seed’s imagined growth. The grand declarations of a king are likened to such now-common claims on the earth as laying a road or sod, and then the imag(in)e(d) of the tree bursting forth even though it is in a “room without soil” next to “the tremendous slab/Of the tree.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Oppen, Poetry

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