Thursday, June 30, 2011

Hart Crane & Harriet Monroe debate the "logic" of poetry

In 1926, in a letter to the editor of Poetry, Harriet Monroe, replying to her complaints about obscurity in his poem "At Melville's Tomb," Crane set down his defense of his poetry and offered one of his most detailed and useful explanations of what his lines actually meant, while making it clear that their meaning, while concrete and direct, was a dull business indeed compared to what we might call their force. The first stanza reads:

Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men's bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.

"Take me for a hard-boiled unimaginative unpoetic reader, and tell me how dice can bequeath an embassy (or anything else)," Monroe wrote. Crane in his reply admitted that

as a poet I may very possibly be more interested in the so-called illogical impingements of the connotations of words on the consciousness (and their combinations and interplay in metaphor on this basis) than I am interested in the preservation of their logically rigid significations at the cost of limiting my subject matter and perceptions involved in the poem.

In his next paragraph he emphasized, however, that there was nothing aleatory in his method. "This may sound," he wrote,

as though I merely fancied juggling words and images until I found something novel, or esoteric; but the process is much more predetermined and objectified than that. The nuances of feeling and observation in a poem may well call for certain liberties which you claim the poet has no right to take. I am simply making the claim that the poet does have that authority, and that to deny it is to limit the scope of the medium so considerably as to outlaw some of the richest genius of the past.

He then took Monroe through some lines of the poem, including "The dice of drowned men's bones he saw bequeath/An embassy." "Dice bequeath an embassy," he wrote,

in the first place, by being ground (in this connection only, of course) in little cubes from the bones of drowned men by the action of the sea, and are finally thrown up on the sand, having "numbers" but no identification. These being the bones of dead men who never completed their voyage, it seems legitimate to refer to them as the only surviving evidence of certain messages undelivered, mute evidence of certain things, experiences that the dead mariners might have had to deliver. Dice as a symbol of chance and circumstance is also implied.

Monroe had commented as well on the opening of the last stanza:

Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides....

"Nor do compass, quadrant and sextant," she wrote, "contrive tides, they merely record them, I believe."

"Hasn't it often occurred," Crane replied,

that instruments originally invented for record and computation have inadvertently so extended the concepts of the entity they were invented to measure (concepts of space, etc.) in the mind and imagination that employed them, that they may metaphorically be said to have extended the original boundaries of the entity measured?

In the same letter, he quoted from Blake and T.S. Eliot to show how the language of the poetry he wrote and admired did not simply ignore logic, it sought to find a logic deeply embedded in metaphor and suggestion. This poetry, he made clear, did not follow the lazy path dictated by the unconscious, or allow the outlandish or the merely associative to triumph, but was deliberate and exact, even though it belonged "to another order of experience than science." He worked toward both "great vividness and accuracy of statement," even if it might seem to some, including Monroe, that the vivid triumphed over the accurate. - Colm Tóibín

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Van Gogh - a psychological perspective

We cannot say with certainty what would have helped van Gogh. We do not know what combination of alcoholism, epilepsy, and madness brought him down. The usual clinical picture offered is of a hypersensitive soul who was rejected by his father and who consequently suffered profound self-attack seizures. There is no question that self-hatred was a crucial element of his nature. But so was a deep faith in himself and, above all, the power of creation. Something in him persisted tenaciously with minimal encouragement and acceptance. He had to paint - and he did. It is often pointed out that his self-attacks and self-doubts slowed him down. He painted best when he felt good, or at least during periods of remission. But his stubbornness was the other side of his attacks and doubts. A rigidity and fixedness persevered with the same blind force as his attacks. It was as if his self-hatred fueled as well as suffocated him. Perhaps he needed the challenge of doing something against great and impossible odds in order to do anything at all. He needed debility as a foil to radiance.

Over and over his attacks sought to cancel him out and he emerged with fresh vision. He lived the rebirth archetype in a deformed and quasi-aborted way. He needed to break himself down in order to begin freshly and nakedly. If he could have found the help he needed, his self-attack system might have achieved its cleansing function more wholesomely. But given his temperament, family, and social conditions, he made use of the tools he had available. In his case, a distorted self-hate had to assume the function of ripping his personality apart in order to keep tapping into the primordial ground of his being. - Michael Eigen

Monday, June 27, 2011

Experiencing a poem

I do feel that people's expectations are misdirected when all they want is to understand a poem. It is one of the exasperating things about the way poetry is taught. It is assumed that an understanding of the poem is the same as the experience of the poem. Often the experience of a poem—a good poem—will elude understanding. Not totally, of course, but enough, enough to have us be close to what lies just out of reach. I think that for most poets in the writing of their poems there is a point when language takes over and they follow it. Suddenly, it just sounds right. In my case—and I don't like to bring myself up in this way—I trust the implication of what I am saying, even though I am not absolutely sure of what it is that I am saying. I'm just willing to let it be. Because if I were sure of whatever it was that I said in my poems, if I were sure, and I could verify and check it out and feel, 'yes, I've said what I intended,' I don't think that poem would be smarter than I am. At any rate, to get back to what I was saying a moment ago: it is 'beyondness,' or that depth that you reach in a poem that keeps you returning to it. I suppose you have to like being mystified. That which can't be explained away or easily understood in a poem, that place which is unreachable or mysterious, is where the poem becomes ours, finally becomes the possession of the reader. I mean, in the act of figuring it out, of pursuing meaning, of trying to characterize the experience of it, the reader is absorbing the poem; even though there's an absence there or something that doesn't quite match up with his experience, it becomes more and more his. And what becomes his is, of course, generated by language, language designed to make him feel connected to something that he doesn't understand. He comes into possession of a mystery, and instead of being frightened by it, he feels that he has some control over it. But does he? Or is it simply that language has permitted him the illusion of control? My own experience suggests that language allows me the feeling that it can go only as far as my consciousness will take it, even though I know the opposite is true, that I go where language leads. And it leads me again and again to the sense that it is holding something back, that it contains more than I can possibly grasp, that mysteries exist, and are encountered most seductively in poems. I even feel at times that poems are the protective shell of the seductiveness of language. What am I talking about? Even the meaning of the phrase I've just uttered suddenly eludes me. - Mark Strand

Joyce the prose poet

Jan Pieters Sweelink. The quaint name of the old Dutch musician makes all beauty seem quaint and far. I hear his variations for the clavichord on an old air: Youth has an end. In the vague mist of old sounds a faint point of light appears: the speech of the soul is about to be heard. Youth has an end: the end is here. It will never be. You know that well. What then? Write it, damn you, write it! What else are you good for?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

"Error" by Mark Strand

We drifted downstream under a scattering of stars
and slept until the sun rose. When we got to the capital,
which lay in ruins, we built a large fire out of what chairs
and table we could find. The heat was so fierce that birds
overhead caught fire and fell flaming to earth.
These we ate, then continued on foot into regions
where the sea is frozen and the ground is strewn
with moonlike boulders. If only we had stopped,
turned, and gone back to the garden we started from,
with its broken urn, its pile of rotting leaves, and sat
gazing up at the house and seen only the passing
of sunlight over its windows, that would have been
enough, even if the wind cried and clouds scudded seaward
like the pages of a book on which nothing was written.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Hart Crane's transformation

He came to New York at seventeen equipped with an hysterical and disorderly family, almost no formal education, and the cultural inheritance of a middle-western small town; his religious training had been in Christian Science. By the time he was twenty-five, before The Bridge had scarcely been conceived, he had written a body of lyric poetry which for originality, distinction, and power, remains the great poetic achievement of his generation. If he is not our twentieth-century poet as hero, I do not know where else to look for him.
- Allen Tate

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The life-enhancing tone of Hamlet

There is, however, more to be said about the tone of Hamlet than that its range of presented or represented experiences is great, vigorous, brilliant, and vital. As these qualities establish, the tone is also life-enhancing, if I may borrow a term from Berenson. That is, the quality of the sheer love of life, of being alive, is shared by all, including the melancholic Hamlet. Hamlet can gossip with the players, remind them of the rudiments of their craft, partake of the artist’s ecstasy over a good play well done; and he can jest with Polonius, the King, and the gravediggers. Of course it is true that he complains to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he has of late, he knows not why, lost his mirth; yet minutes before he has pulled off one of his delightful bits of bawdiness in his burlesque of Fortune as a strumpet in whose privates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enjoy her favors. Hamlet has lost his mirth, but clearly not quite all of it. He can still joke obscenely, yet harmlessly, with Ophelia later in the play. His wit, often expressed for the sheer love of it, is present throughout. Certainly he is bitter and depressed, but the natural delight in wit and humor shines through the darkness.

As artist, Shakespeare dramatizes the mystery; as philosophical artist, he also dramatizes the denial of any convincing solution to the mystery. In effect, in Hamlet, Shakespeare shows us that man lives, questions, affirms, doubts and dies. – Morris Weitz

Monday, June 13, 2011

Robert Frost on reading actively

(from a letter about his students and teaching at college)

They are too directly intent on their reading. They can't get started looking two ways at once. I think too they are afraid of the simplicity of many things they think on the side as they read. They wouldn't have the face to connect it in writing with the great author they have been reading...The game is matching your author thought for thought in any of the many possible ways. Reading then becomes converse - give and take. It is only conversation in which the reader takes part addressing himself to anything at all in the author in his subject matter or form. Just as when we talk together!

Friday, June 10, 2011

On Emily Dickinson's "One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—"

One need not be a Chamber—to be Haunted—
One need not be a House—
The Brain has Corridors—surpassing
Material Place—

Far safer, of a Midnight Meeting
External Ghost
Than its interior Confronting—
That Cooler Host.

Far safer, through an Abbey gallop,
The Stones a'chase—
Than Unarmed, one's a'self encounter—
In lonesome Place—

Ourself behind ourself, concealed—
Should startle most—
Assassin hid in our Apartment
Be Horror's least.

The Body—borrows a Revolver—
He bolts the Door—
O'erlooking a superior spectre—
Or More—

My love of Emily Dickinson’s poetry didn’t begin until I went to college. The woefully inadequate textbooks I had in high school seemed to favor poems like “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” and “I’ll tell you how the Sun rose.” I imagine the publishers found these poems to be ”safe“ and accessible for high school students, but at that time in my life, poems about nature and wildlife left me cold.

When I first encountered this poem, #670, I was absolutely floored. It spoke to me in a way that was powerful and immediate. I couldn’t believe that the quiet, frail, wide-eyed girl in the picture had written it. I looked back to that photograph, stared at it a long time, and wondered who she had really been.

When I began teaching high school English, it was a foregone conclusion that I would teach Dickinson—and not the poems that had been in my old textbook, but instead, the poems like this one that dared to speak “out loud” about the dark anxieties, even terrors, that haunt all of us—and perhaps teenagers, especially so.

There is a lot to “teach” in this poem. Dickinson breaks from her usual hymn meter here, writing the 1st and 3rd lines of each stanza in an almost-but-not-quite iambic pentameter, followed by 2nd and 4th lines in an abrupt dimeter and, ultimately, monometer.

“Why,” I ask my students, “might she have wanted to unsettle the rhythm of this poem? How do these techniques work toward the message she is trying to convey?” They always have a lot to say. We talk as well about diction, how Dickinson evokes the world of the Gothic with words like “chamber,” “haunted,” “midnight,” “ghost,” “abbey,” and “assassin.” She creates the landscape we know, the world of the intentionally frightening, to juxtapose it with the interior world that frightens us against our will.

The first year I taught this poem, it seemed to me that it had an impact on some of the kids—but, of course, there was no way I could be sure. That evening, a huge snowstorm was predicted, and snowflakes were already beginning to fall. Anticipating a day off from school, I went out to the local bookstore to get some fresh reading material. When I turned the corner into the poetry section, there on hands and knees, looking through books on a bottom shelf, was one of my students, Jessica. She was a girl who was not easy to know. She rarely spoke and her expression gave little clue as to what went on in her mind. Seeing her in her dance team uniform on game days, I had made some snap judgments about who she was, what she valued.

That evening, her mother was with her, tapping her foot and looking anxiously out at the swirling snow. Clearly, she wanted to get home before the roads got too slick. I watched as Jessica pulled out Johnson’s Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson and opened the pages. It made my night. Truth be told, it made my whole year.

– Melanie McCabe

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Part of a poem by Anne Carson

Red bird on top of a dead pear tree kept singing three notes
and I sang back. Bird added a flourish (four notes) and I
tried that. Bird's notes were on pitch mine not, we learned
this and tried a few more, bird had turned on its branch to
(perhaps) me and there being no exact way to end I bent and
took the paper and went in. It left me with a part open.
Little part. But I did not get at myself. A human always
wants to.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Excelling in the outer, failing on the inner

It's been said that a civilization or society has an outer and an inner life, and that when the society is flourishing, that's because the outer and the inner are working together in harmony.

The outer life is manifest in science, material artifacts, political economy. The inner life is that of its members - their human flourishing and spiritual wellbeing. What determines how the two are linked is the values or ethics of the day. When the values are right, both aspects thrive and the society has vitality. When the values are wrong, one aspect dominates the other.

So, the analysis would be that we live in a period that has excelled in the outer and has become detached from the inner, because the vitality of the age - growth, consumption, etc - precludes it. Hence, our outer lives - work, politics, economics - have become detached from our inner lives, and so life often feels dehumanizing and appears to be heading for some kind of destruction.

That said, you see all kinds of situations in which you see a desire to link the outer and the inner.

- It's the appeal of ecological philosophies that try to re-enchant nature and the material (funny how the materialist age is one that values the material less and less).
- It's why complementary therapies thrive, no matter how flaky they are, because they don't just promise welfare but wellbeing.
- It's why narratives, stories and myth-telling dominate entertainment - from novels and history books, to online games, to films - because they address the inner need for imaginative resources to tell us who and what we are.
- Conversely, you might say it's why politics has become so managerial, because it has no vision of what it is to be human.
- And, I suspect it's why the law based upon rights is becoming unhinged, and is undermining as much as promoting human flourishing, because it is gradually replacing human relationships with contractual relationships, mutual respect with solipsistic demands, sympathy with suing etc.

The focus on the outer also generates a culture that finds it hard to hear the harsher truths of our inner lives, that it's as much about pain as pleasure, limitation as freedom, commitment as choice, trauma as tranquility. But the paradox is that meaningfulness is only found when individuals can embrace both sides. There is no love without suffering, no beginning without ending, no life without death.

What to do? I'm not that sure! However, key and rather disparate questions are beginning to emerge for me.

- How can we construct a rhythm for the day/week/year that is not determined by work or consumption, and so allows our inner lives to shape the outer, not just the outer the inner?
- What virtues do we need to pay attention to the inner again - patience, attention, a tolerance of doubt/uncertainty, courage (I'm reminded of Pascal's, 'man's sole problem is his incapacity to stay quietly in one room.').
- Clearly education is crucial, as the virtue ethics approach, with which this inner/outer analysis chimes, is all about character formation, habits, practical intelligence.
- I'd say we need less fix-it politics and more one that might be a little like faith.

- Mark Vernon

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Shakespeare keeping his head on his shoulders

One sight in particular would certainly have arrested Shakespeare’s attention; it was a major tourist attraction, always pointed out to new arrivals. Stuck on poles on the Great Stone Gate, two arches from the Southwark side, were severed heads, some completely reduced to skulls, others parboiled and tanned, still identifiable. These were not the remains of common thieves, rapists, and murderers. Ordinary criminals were strung up by the hundreds on gibbets located around the margins of the city. The heads on the bridge, visitors were duly informed, were those of gentlemen and nobles who suffered the fate of traitors. A foreign visitor to London in 1592 counted thirty-four of them; another in 1598 said he counted more than thirty. When he first walked across the bridge, or very soon after, Shakespeare must have realized that among the heads were those of John Somerville and the man who bore his own mother’s name and may have been his distant kinsman, Edward Arden…the sight on the bridge was the most compelling instruction yet: keep control of yourself; do not fall into the hands of your enemies; be smart, tough, and realistic; master strategies of concealment and evasion; keep your head on your shoulders.

Hard lessons for a poet and an actor aspiring to be heard and seen by the world. But some such lessons may have caused Shakespeare to reach a decision that has since made it difficult to understand who he was. Where are his personal letters? Why have scholars, ferreting for centuries, failed to find the books he must have owned or rather, why did he choose not to write his name in those books. The way that Jonson or Donne or many of his contemporaries did? Why, in the huge, glorious body of his writing, is there no direct access to his thoughts about politics or religion or art? Why is everything he wrote—even in the sonnets—couched in way that enables him to hide his face and his innermost thoughts? Scholars have long thought that the answer must lie in indifference and accident: no contemporary thought that this play—wrights’ personal views were sufficiently important to record, no one bothered to save his casual letters, and the boxes of papers that may have been left to his daughter Susanna were eventually sold off and used to wrap fish or stiffen the spines of new books or were simply burned. Possibly. But the heads on the pikes may have spoken to him on the day he entered London—and he may well have needed their warning. – Stephen Greenblatt