Thursday, March 29, 2012

Between official and unofficial views of being

In the space between literature and politics, or between poetry and history, the possibilities for meaning and action are much less determinate and much richer than either construction allows. For unlike politics or philosophy, art offers what Stevens described as “an unofficial view of being.” One might also call this an individual view or a personal view, but with the emphasis on a shared reality in which the official and the unofficial views communicate. These “unofficial” worlds made from local, intimate objects have a rhetorical power. One function of poetry might be to bring that reality out of the official (normative, collective, general, abstract) and into the unofficial (eccentric, individual, particular, sensate) view, then send it back again. - Bonnie Costello

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Creating an amenable circumstance

We are preoccupied with events, even when we do not observe them closely. We have a sense of upheaval. We feel threatened. We look from an uncertain present toward a more uncertain future. One feels the desire to collect oneself against all this in poetry as well as in politics…Resistance is the opposite of escape. The poet who wishes to contemplate the good in the midst of confusion is like the mystic who wishes to contemplate God in the midst of evil. There can be no thought of escape. Both the poet and the mystic may establish themselves on herrings and apples. The painter may establish himself on a guitar, a copy of Figaro and a dish of melons. These are fortifyings, although irrational ones. The only possible resistance to the pressure of the contemporaneous is a matter of herring and apples or, to be less definite, the contemporaneous itself. In poetry, to that extent, the subject is not the contemporaneous, because that is only the nominal subject, but the poetry of the contemporaneous. Resistance to the pressure of ominous and destructive circumstance consists of its conversion, so far as possible, into a different, an explicable, an amenable circumstance. - Wallace Stevens, “The Irrational Element in Poetry “

Monday, March 19, 2012

Our door is open to the ferocious curiosity of the celestial bandit

...I slowly raised my mournful eyes, ringed with great bluish circles, towards the inverted bowl of the firmament, and dared to try and penetrate, young as I was, the mysteries of heaven. Not finding what I was seeking I raised my [terrified lids] higher...higher yet...until at last I perceived a throne built of human excrement and gold upon which was enthroned with idiot pride and robed in a shroud made from unlaundered hospital sheets, that one who calls himself the Creator!
     In his hand he held the decaying trunk of a [dead] man and he lifted it successively from his eyes to his nose and from his nose to his mouth, where one may guess what he did with it. His feet were bathed in a vast morass of boiling blood to the surface of which there suddenly arose like tapeworms in the contents of a chamber-pot, two or three cautious heads which disappeared instantly with the speed of arrows; for an accurate kick on the nose was the well-known reward for such a revolt against the law, caused by a need to breathe the air, for men are not, after all, fish!
     Amphibians [at the very most], they swam between two waters in that unclean juice! And when the Creator had nothing left in his hands he would seize another swimmer by the neck with the two first claws of his foot as in a pincers and raise him up out of that ruddy slime (delicious sauce!). - Comte de Lautréamont (his first view of God)

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

In Praise of Obsession

     A real diehard, indestructible, irresolvable obsession in a poet is nothing less than a blessing.  The poet with an obsession never has to search for subject matter.  It is always right there, welling up like an Artesian spring on a piece of property with bad drainage.  It is a pressing subject that subjectively expresses; it will infiltrate the innocent description of a cloud and inveigle its way into the memory of a distant city.  Emily Dickinson's critics say that death was her "flood subject," the theme that electrified her language whenever she approaches it.  A poet without a true obsession, a foundational fracture, a mythic would, may have too much time to think.  The poet without a compelling, half-conscious story of the world may not have a heat source catalytic enough to channel into the work of a lifetime.
     Passion is the greatest gift a poet can have, and nobody is mildly obsessed.  Violence of feeling can compensate for many other weaknesses in a writer.  Stanley Kunitz advises young poets to polarize their contradictions, which we might translate to mean, "cultivate your obsession." . . .
     In the work of a good poet, it is usually possible to discern one or two characteristic emotional zones in which he thrives: melancholy, rage, pity, vengeful rationality, seduction.  A mature poet may not know how to command obsession, but understands how to transfuse material into it and then to surrender.  The obsessed psyche knows unerringly where to go, like a Geiger counter to uranium, or a dog to his master's grave.  Lucky dog, to have a master. - Tony Hoagland

Thursday, March 1, 2012

"Sailing to Byzantium" - drafts of the first stanza

Original draft according to Curtis Bradford:

This is no country for old men – if our Lord
Is a smiling child upon his mother’s knees
And in the hills the old gods / Those – I know now
What names to call them by – still hunt and love
There is still a love for those that can still sing
All / For all the
Forever sing the song that . . . you have sung

Original draft according to A. Norman Jeffares:

All in this land – my Maker that is play
Or else asleep upon His Mother’s knees,
Others that as the mountain people say
Are at their hunting and their gallantries
Under the hills, as in our fathers’ day
The changing colours of the hills and seas
All that men know or think they know, being young,
Cry that my tale is told, my story sung.

Third draft via Marjorie Perloff:

This/ Here/ That is no country for old me – the young
Pass by me/ That travel singing of their loves, the trees
Break/ Clad in such foliage that it seems a song
The shadow of the birds upon the seas
The leaping fish, the fields all summer long
The leaping fish/ The crowding fish commend all summer long
Deceiving [?] abundance/ Plenty, but no monument
Commends the never aging intellect
The salmon rivers, the fish/ mackerel crowded seas
Flesh/ All/ Fish flesh and fowl, all spring all summer long
What/ Commemorate what is begot and dies.

Final version:

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
- Those dying generations - at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

- W.B. Yeats