Thursday, July 21, 2011

Poets creating a world of their own

You don’t read poetry for the kind of truth that passes for truth in the workaday world. You don’t read a poem to find out how you get to Twenty-fourth Street. You don’t read a poem to find the meaning of life. The opposite. I mean, you’d be foolish to. Now, some American poets present the reader with a slice of life, saying, I went to the store today, and I saw a man, and he looked at me, and I looked at him, and we both knew we were . . . thieves. And aren’t we all thieves? You know, this is extracting from everyday experience a statement about life, or a moral. But there is another type of poetry, in which the poet provides the reader with a surrogate world through which he reads this world. Wallace Stevens was the twentieth-century master of this. There’s no other poetry that sounds like a Wallace Stevens poem. But then, there’s nothing that sounds like a Frost poem, either. Or a Hardy poem. These people have created worlds of their own. Their language is so forceful and identifiable that you read them not to verify the meaning or truthfulness of your own experience of the world, but simply because you want to saturate yourself with their particular voices. - Mark Strand

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Beckett distancing himself further from definition, but endearing himself further to us

But, see above, have they not already bent over me till black and blue in the face, nay, have they ever done anything else, during the past - no, no dates for pity's sake, and another question, what am I doing in Mahood's story, and in Worm's, or rather what are they doing in mine, there are some irons in the fire to be going on with, let them melt. Oh I know, I know, attention please, this may mean something, I know, there's nothing new there, it's all part of the same old irresistible boloney, namely, but my dear man, come, be reasonable, look, this is you, look at the photograph, and here's your file, no convictions, I assure you, come now, make an effort, at your age, to have no identity, it's a scandal. (from The Unnamable)

Monday, July 18, 2011

Emily Dickinson abhorred boundaries

Just lost, when I was saved!
Just felt the world go by!
Just girt me for the onset with Eternity,
When breath blew back,
And on the other side
I heard recede the disappointed tide!

Therefore, as One returned, I feel
Odd secrets of the line to tell!
Some Sailor, skirting foreign shores – 
Some pale Reporter, from the awful doors
Before the Seal!

Next time, to stay!
Next time, the things to see
By Ear unheard,
Unscrutinized by Eye – 

Next time, to tarry,
While the Ages steal – 
Slow tramp the Centuries,
And the Cycles wheel!
Dickinson dwelt in prolepsis.  Her 1844 Webster’s defines the word as “anticipation”; our own describes it as “a figurative device by which a future event is presumed to have already occurred.” As in I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –; as in And Finished knowing – then –.  From the beginning, her vision was trained on the other side.
Just lost—when I was saved is a glimpse of and a grasp at the proleptic. An early work, from 1860 (#132 in the Franklin numbering, which I’ll use throughout; #160 in Johnson’s) it anticipates—in its theme, its narrative, its lexicon, and its meter—the poetic terrain which Dickinson would fully stake out over the next couple of years. It conveys the calling, but doesn’t yet announce the election.
The reader can tarry a while in the old-hymn sway of those first lines, sussing out the figure/ground of lost and saved.  It’s a near-death narrative: at the point of crossing over, within view of Eternity, breath blows her back. The poem is charged with almost, with this close; her vision of what is beyond infuses what is caught betwixt-and-between the Just Now and the Next Time.  There are hints, too, of future poems here: those centuries will wheel again in #151, and there’s a hovering of #340 I felt a Funeral in my Brain in the tread of centuries, and in And Being, but an Ear.
If it’s a proleptic primer, it’s also a metrical sampler, stitched in dimeter, trimeter, tetrameter, and—that rarity for Dickinson—pentameter.  The method is unique and deliberate:  a metrical advancing, a kind of tacking leeward and then skirting—disappointing—the pentameter shore. Cynthia Griffin Wolff  has provided a useful historical context, citing the tales of seamen who had “sailed the line,” whose instruments had suddenly became unreliable along the equator (238).  Dickinson’s moored / unmoored calibrations similarly shift.  The first stanza of trimeter (I’ll count line 3 as trimeter twice; she wrote it as two lines in manuscript in fascicle 10) resolves into split and then full pentameter.  The second stanza’s Therefore anchors us in hymn meter, ‘long meter’—tetrameter— for three lines before sailing once again into a five-beat line:  Some pale Reporter, before the awful doors –) and closing with emphatic dimeter: Before the Seal! The third and fourth continue again in split pentameter, couplets cleaved in twos and threes.
Before the Seal:  Faced with that barrier, confined to before, anticipation subsumes the poem.  The bottom drops out in the simultaneous motion (steal, tramp, wheel) and suspension (to stay, to tarry) of that next-time.  Present tense turns into infinitives; the glimpsed and lost become the vast and boundary-less Imagined—the interior universe she would continue to explore for the next 26 years.
Therefore, as One returned, I feel  / Odd secrets of the line to tell.  The haunt and freight, the so-cold-no-fire-will-ever-warm-me of those lines (the isolation of One, indeterminate agency of returned, inchoate inarticulate feel, the expansive echoing interior of the entire next line)—that’s what returns me to this poem.  Here is where the poem’s spinning compass points true north; here is the plumb line.  It feels burdened and ignited both, disoriented and exhilarated. “One has to imagine that Emily Dickinson was inhabited,” Charles Wright has said. “How else could she know those things (31)?”
Dickinson abhorred a boundary.  Just as the seal as limit (closed door, barrier) will by poem #411 become the sign of her election (Mine – by the royal Seal! ), she rewrote the restrictions imposed by her time and her poetic inheritance, and anticipated something new.  In crossing the line between lost and saved, earthly existence and death, traditional verse or “spasmodic gait,” obscurity or immortality, she inhabited and subverted it, told it from within.  Sailor and Reporter, her line became circumference. – Debra Allbery

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The strangeness of the world refreshed

Sometimes poems aren’t literal representations of anything. Sometimes a poem just exists as something else in the universe that you haven’t encountered before. If you want a poem to say what it means, right away, clearly—and of course the poet who writes that kind of poem is usually talking about his or her own experiences—well, what happens when you read that kind of poem is that it puts you back in the world that you know. The poem makes that world seem a little more comfortable, because here is somebody else who has had an experience like yours. But you see, these little anecdotes that we read in these poems and that we like to believe are true, are in fact fictions. They represent a reduction of the real world. There’s so much in our experience that we take for granted—we don’t need to read poems that help us to take those things even more for granted. People like John Ashbery or Stevens do just the opposite—they try to explode those reductions. There’s a desire in Ashbery, for example, to create perfect non sequiturs, to continually take us off guard. He creates a world that is fractured. It doesn’t imitate reality. But, looking at it from another point of view, you could say that it’s simply a world that is as fractured and as unpredictable as the world in which we move every day. So there’s an element of delight in these people who rearrange reality. We usually hang on to the predictability of our experiences to such an extent . . . and there’s nowhere else where one can escape that as thoroughly as one can in certain poets’ work. When I read poetry, I want to feel myself suddenly larger . . . in touch with—or at least close to—what I deem magical, astonishing. I want to experience a kind of wonderment. And when you report back to your own daily world after experiencing the strangeness of a world sort of recombined and reordered in the depths of a poet’s soul, the world looks fresher somehow. Your daily world has been taken out of context. It has the voice of the poet written all over it, for one thing, but it also seems suddenly more alive—not as routinely there. - Mark Strand

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The subversive character of prose poetry

I would have placed emphasis on the subversive character of prose poetry. For me, it is a kind of writing determined to prove that there’s poetry beyond verse and its rules. Most often it has an informal, playful air, like the rapid, unfinished caricatures left behind on café napkins. Prose poetry depends on a collision of two impulses, those for poetry and those for prose, and it can either have a quiet meditative air or feel like a performance in a three-ring circus. It is savvy about the poetry of the past, but it thumbs its nose at verse that is too willed and too self-consciously significant. It mocks poetry by calling attention to the foolishness of its earnestness. Here in the United States, where poets speak with reverence of authentic experience and write poems about their dads taking them fishing when they were little, telling the reader even the name of the river and the kind of car they drove that day to make it sound more believable, one longs for poems in which imagination runs free and where tragedy and comedy can be shuffled as if they belonged in the same pack of cards.

Naturally, one of the main impulses for writing such a piece is to escape all labels.

Prose poetry is a monster-child of two incompatible impulses, one which wants to tell a story and another, equally powerful, which wants to freeze an image, or a bit of language, for our scrutiny. In prose, sentence follows sentence till they have had their say. Poetry, on the other hand, spins in place. The moment we come to the end of a poem, we want to go back to the beginning and reread it, suspecting more there than meets the eye. Prose poems call on our powers to make imaginative connections between seemingly disconnected fragments of language, as anyone who has ever read one of these little-understood, always original and often unforgettable creations knows. They look like prose and act like poems, because, despite the odds, they make themselves into fly-traps for our imagination. - Charles Simic

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Kafka's humor & pathos

I shall never get home like this; my flourishing practice is lost; a successor is robbing me, but to no purpose since he cannot replace me; in my house the loathsome groom wreaks his havoc; Rosy is his victim; I refuse to imagine it. Naked, exposed to the frost of this most wretched of times, with an earthly cart and unearthly horses, I roam about, an old man. My fur coat is hanging from the back of the cart but I cannot reach it, and no one from the agile rabble of patients lifts a finger. Duped! Decieved! One response to a mis-ring of the night-bell - and there's no making amends. - Kafka (from "A Country Doctor")

The country doctor ends up, as do other Kafkan protagonists - the bucket rider, the hunter Gracchus, most of all K. the land surveyor - neither alive nor dead, neither in true motion with a purpose nor in stasis. Expectations - theirs and ours - are thwarted by the literal, the realm of fact. We do not know whether Kafka is or is not allegorizing the Jewish condition in his time and place, or his own situation as a writer. Somehow we apprehend that Kafka gets away with his own mode of ngation: cognitively there is a release from repression, and the country doctor's fate is exemplary in a Jewish way, or has some relation to the experiential cost of Kafka's confirmation as an author. - Harold Bloom

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

"Monologue" by Eugene Jolas

I sleepwalk through the city and plunge into a golden smoke. What is my love for you, magical space and sinister time, when the dusk settles into marble and the owl is a categorical imperative? I left dream-staring puppets in a room, where the Ethiopian trembles at a blasphemy, and the sketch-book holds the contours of an atlas. The mother had a child in the dust and the lonely woman cried in a cafe. Then came a girl from out the autumnal solitude of her rooms, where she had stared at mirrors, and her silence was the dream of a midnight. Cool waters flowed under bridges and electric wires brought decay of flowers, tempests, portraits of mightmares, broken violins. Comrades walked tired into hurricanes. When the philosphies panted, and the symphonies ended in a shriek, stallions ground fire, and the bandits swilled brandy in an hallucinated den. The organ at the fair whimpered love-songs, but the funeral of the poor went past us with memories of loam. The trees became brass shining in sun. My waiting gulped bussed, tears, dust, drinks and sparrows.