Tuesday, September 29, 2009

what's form for 1

A series of observations through which I hope to get into this subject.

Start, I think, with Aristotle. Form is a way of treating so-called chaos, as one would treat a patient. It was an accepted fact in fifth century BC Athens that reason could be applied to life so as to improve it, Plato's REPUBLIC being an obvious gesture in that direction. The underlying assumption of the Athenian mind (and much mind since) seems to have been that in its natural state life is disorganized and hence to a degree incomprehensible. Hence the need for form. Art may be an imitation of reality, as Aristotle says, but it is also an improvement on it, if only because it allows for an understanding of it. No surprise that the persons saying such things were thinkers, i.e., philosophers. The poets were not allowed in Plato's republic, as Stanley Diamond has told us, because poetry as practiced in Plato's time eschewed reason, in fact celebrated irrationality, believing I would gather in the viability of all that we know in imagination and fear in madness.

Two and a half millenia later, having come to many understandings of life, deep insights, and made many improvements on life or nature as given, we have begun to question the wisdom of human reason. Many scientists, Darwin included, have given us reason to think that nature is by nature logical and that it might be best for us to see the so-called chaos of life as something we have still not reached a sufficient understanding of. That there is form "out there." We even have a name for some of it: Chaos Theory.

This is starting from a long way out, I realize, but I want to suggest that form in poetry is tied to some of the oldest and deepest arguments we've had with ourselves. We have an almost instinctive sense that form is good and formlessness is not, and where we have our greatest differences is in knowing where the boundary between the two lies. It is perhaps a reasonable question to ask, Is anything formless? It is too soon to say, perhaps, but my sense is that if it occurs in language, it probably can't be.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

still looking

Still looking for the point of it all? Writing poetry, that is. The looking is either a sign of serious derailing, never having known to begin with, or, more likely, the point of it all.

Try this, from Stanley Plumly's latest book, POSTHUMOUS KEATS. "If poetry 'makes nothing happen' [Auden's lament] and if we despise any poetry 'that has designs' upon us[Keats's complaint], then what are we left with? If poetry is dreaming, what makes it real?" Plumly, of course, is trying to locate the function of poetry as Keats saw it, and since Keats thought of poetry as dreaming--waking dreaming, dreaming done with something like a purpose, not a 'design', behind it--, to what end? Plumly concludes: to see. "To see as a poet, a true dreamer, is to see as a healer and a knower." The seer being a visionary, not a photo-journalist. This idea has big arms, arms with which to clasp a great deal, hence room for not a little difference.

Which is why we have poetry.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

besmilr brigham

Every now and then you stumble into a poem that gets it right. I mean the kind of poem that wants to "tell" something and manages to do that with deftness and quickness. The nice irony in Besmilr Brigham’s "Our Sons," from RUN THROUGH ROCK, ed. C.D. Wright (Lost Roads, 2000), is that what she wants to tell us is that maybe the best thing you can do in bringing up boys is teach them to find out things, as she says, "by watching." Don’t tell them anything, she tells us. Ignore, or at least start by ignoring, the old ways and conventions. Sweep the over-riding abstractions out of the way, and just look.

Our Sons

tell them
it is best to start with

not the value of money
or power
or what it is to be a man

let us
find out a few things
by watching

aren’t we
getting tired of reproducing


it is best
to take the uninformed
look at the rock
how firm it stands
yet when the rain
touches its sides
how the hidden colors

it is best we tell our sons nothing

[Blogger’s comment.] Not too many parents have tried this, I believe.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

some thoughts on Garrigue's "Grand Canyon"

The poem that came to typify or best represent Jean Garrigue was one that tried to present essences or states of perception and feeling just beyond the reach of language, almost always of a kind that called for exuberant joy. To try to reach beyond language means, paradoxically, that what we finally hold in our minds is not so much a thing in nature as a construct of language or, as we used to call it, thought. "Grand Canyon," for instance, is not a portrait of that geological marvel. Rather, it is a rapture about being in the world, the occasion for which is experiencing this most unusual example of what she calls "the brute Sublime." That state is oxymoronic, brutal but sublime, as the condition of being is both exhilarating and terrifying. Garrigue makes no allusion to herself in the poem except the simple (and repeated) statement, "I am lonely," a bald utterance which looms larger once we know that she had just been diagnosed in California with cancer. Out there on a short teaching assignment, she nevertheless rushed back home to New York City to ready herself for what little life she had left. The poem, of course, turns immediately away from its bald utterance toward an elaborate, operatic performance of astonished joy.

Taking the switchback trail,
slipping and sliding,
forever slantwise descending
into new confrontations of parapets,
chimneys, mantels, segments of angles,
modelings of rock of slacknesses and accidental tensions
combined with the effects of its weight--
the total effect never total for never can you see it all, not even guess
at mazes of the proliferation...

To take an almost random sample which nevertheless conjures up a Dantesque descent into death.

In discussing "Grand Canyon" in her excellent review of SELECTED POEMS [Parnassus, 18/19 (1993)], Lorrie Goldensohn reminds us that in line 11 Garrigue begins a sentence that doesn’t end till 108 lines later. This is one way to push beyond the representational purposes or boundaries of most language, loading it down with detail, qualification, and repetition to the point where we lose touch of what "point" is being made or even what the subject of the current verb might be. Or, we come to believe that the point is less to make a point than to sustain a rhythm, a feeling, a verbal equivalent of the thing which is brutal in being without consciousness or language and perhaps for that reason also sublime.

This is a strategy in several of Garrigue’s best poems and reminds me of an exercise Marguerite Young used to give her students in fiction, namely, to write a sentence that went on for two or three pages. Jean and Marguerite, of course, were old acquaintances from girlhood days in Indianapolis and roomed together for a while as students at the University of Chicago. Pure coincidence, I realize.

Monday, January 21, 2008

JEAN GARRIGUE: A Fitness of Things

Jean Garrigue’s "Amsterdam Letter" partakes of a number of ancient modes in the writing of poems, two of which are indicated in the title, the letter poem and the poem of travel, both of which received considerable impetus in the poetry she came to as a young poet. Pound’s "River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter" revived a kind of poem that certainly thrived in ancient China, though of course that particular poem was written not by the traveler but by the one who stayed at home. The letter poem may have gotten its impetus from Petrarch’s invention of the sonnet, a form that mixed description of the loved object with appeals to her. It also owed something to the dedicatory epistle poets wrote in the Renaissance hoping to secure patronage from the wealthy. "Amsterdam Letter" represents a sub-category of this genre in that it is addressed to no one, meaning everyone, in the manner of a journalist’s letter from a foreign capitol, Edward R. Morrow’s from London, say, during the Blitz.

Travel gave the writer an opportunity to report back on the marvels of distant lands, as in "Amsterdam Letter." A non-fictional genre originally, which still thrives, it also gave structure to the novel in its early days as the examples of Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, and Moby Dick would indicate. Poetical traveling, though perhaps begun in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, would have to wait for Wordsworthian rambles, journeys to Renaissance Italy conducted by Browning and, in Garrigue’s day, the post-World War II Fulbrighter who, having fought in Europe, returned after the war to study the culture he had tramped over only a few years before in uniform. Jean Garrigue had the additional desire to travel in wanting to recover as much as she could of her European, particularly French, heritage. In such poems as "Pays Perdu" and "Cortege for Colette," she did just that.

"Amsterdam Letter," however, is one of many (and one of her best) celebrations of travel alone. Her first publication, Thirty-Six Poems and a Few Songs, included "From Venice Was That Afternoon." Other poems followed, including "Swiss Altitudes," "Primer of an Italian Journey," "Soliloquy in Pere Lachaise," "For the Fountains and Fountaineers of Villa d’Este," "Discourse From Firenze," the whole of Chartre, and Prose Poems, "French Country Circus," "The Water Wheel by the River Sorgue," "St. Sulpice," "Of a Provincial City," "Country Junction," "Song for ‘Buvez Les Vins du Postillon," "Cannes," "The Grand Canyon," "Song in Sligo," "Grenoble Café," "Beaucaire," to which I would add "After Reading The Country of the Pointed Firs" and "On Going by Train to White River Junction, Vt." The little girl who grew up in Indianapolis in the 1920's wanted desperately to see the world, and a poem like "Amsterdam Letter," as we’ll see, was giddy with delight at what for her was the newness and particularity of that place.
"Amsterdam Letter" also participates in one of the most ancient of poetical practices, the list. From Homer’s catalogue of ships in The Odyssey to the present day, the list has served many poets well as an underlying structure. E.B. Browning’s "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways," for one. Garrigue’s letter begins,
Brick distinguishes this country,
And broad windows–rather, rectangles
Of wide and glittering scope--
And cabbages.
Cattle a specialty, and cheese, storks–if they are not all dead
Or abandoned–and flowers, oh, flowers!
Some say as well, quick humor.
Brick, windows (rectangles), cabbages, cattle, cheese, storks, flowers and humor. A capricious list, but that will be the form that her "delight" takes in the poem, reminding us not so vaguely of that other Manhattanite’s celebrations of the city, Frank O’Hara. Garrigue, for all her travel, was a lifelong citizen and resident of Greenwich Village, coincidentally once a part of Nieuw Amsterdam. "Amsterdam Letter" ends with another list, this time of words she was taught the Dutch versions of by an"old Frisian lady," "Horse, sky, cow, tree, thank you," followed by the two large abstractions that emerge from her experience of Amsterdam itself which come to anchor the poem, namely, "Beauty, and love." I take this as a small but serious correction to Keats’s famous ode, love replacing truth in his short list of "all ye need to know."

Garrigue’s poem, of course, is written in free verse with lines ranging from four to twenty-one syllables, a liberty with line-length that mirrors the wandering and distracted delight of her attention. But, rather than producing a poem that operates at a purely sensuous level, seeing, smelling, tasting only what is put immediately before her, she draws past–perhaps the word is "through"–such experiences a series of observations that reflect an enlarged, abstract sense of what the good life contains. Out from behind a surface arbitrariness emerges something resembling an essay on right living, one conducted in an abstract and formal diction that contrasts with the concrete imagery of the poem. Beginning with the word "distinguishes" in the first line, we are gradually introduced to features of life in Amsterdam that make it highly civilized. The windows of line two are said to be of "wide and glittering scope," a quality that one could easily apply to many aspects of life catalogued here. The old Frisian woman becomes a model citizen of the city in being "affable," "amusing and helpful." Even the cab driver proposed to her, an act she likens to a "specimen of humor." The sky is "dense, heavy, fragrant," the water "rich." While the gabled houses are "sedate," the bicyclists, six abreast, "skimming around corners like swallows," display quickness, as the Dutch do humor, and quietness. "How quiet they are! Even the trolleys!"

The list of enviable qualities goes on. The "bravura" of carved animal heads, the "elegance" of panels, "the clear meaning" of glass. Bravura, elegance, clarity of meaning. What more could there be in such a world of perfection?
...that delicacy of manner, that responsiveness to many,
That prevalence of what seems self-possessed, contained, and easy--
Not only that, but the Dutch are "Amiable conversationalists...
Who by a manner suggested
What I have no word for--
Unfeigned it is and unblighted,
That "generous, free disposition"
That so strongly confirms
A fitness of things.
Here we enter Shakespeare’s great romance of love, Twelfth Night, where Olivia corrects the vain, curmudgeonly Malvolio (act I, scene v) to remind him of the greatest of human dispositions, one which if practiced widely enough "confirms/ A fitness of things," as Jean Garrigue found it in the city of Amsterdam. "There by the water beds/ And the ancient, calmed passions of their reflections," she (re)learned the meaning of not only beauty and love, but of calmed passions, bravura, elegance, amiability, sedateness, quickness, all summed up as a fitness of things.

"Amsterdam Letter," in other words, becomes a grid on which Garrigue can bring together a real place and her sense of a personal utopia, the real and the ideal. Notice, though, that the speaker is only a visitor to this place and that she does not speak the language. She is, in fact, the merest initiate to its secrets and, without saying it in so many words, must be content with a brief encounter, however insightful and intense.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

ending and stopping II

Strange how a subject once entered turns up around the next corner.

From C.D. Wright's COOLING TIME: AN AMERICAN POETRY VIGIL(2005): "I am not sure of where it is I am going. Important, I believe, to resist finality in one's own work while assiduously working toward its completeness." And, "Closure can be avoided by as many strategies as can beginning. 'Endings just drag me,' Miles Davis said in a DOWN BEAT interview."

Not being sure where one is going, but going. What is it Eliot says in FOUR QUARTETS? Does he say it in the QUARTETS? "Fare forward. The rest is not our business." Stopping is a part of continuing, just as sleep is.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Davenport, still life, the image

Finally got around to reading Davenport's OBJECTS ON A TABLE, his study of still life in art. As always with Davenport, the writing is lively and the learning is vast and often arcane, assembled as one would a collage. He seems uninterested in constructing historical narrative, believing instead that the past is present and can be cherry-picked at will. So, his scholarly procedure is analogous to those artistic procedures he admires most and considers most modern.

"The art of our century is that of collage, involving quotation, parody, cultural inventory. Collage is by genre and by strategy the art of the still life, which begins as a duplication of reality in an image [Aristotle said art was an "imitation" of reality. The same thing?], grows into an enduring depiction of symbolically interacting objects in the service of one sentiment or another..."

"We can see this spirit of recycling forms and subjects in literature's propensity to follow Nietzsche in his saying that, human nature being unchanging, the same things must happen over and over again." Other bon mots include: "Reiteration is a privilage of still life denied many other modes," i.e., conserves its subjects and forms better than other modes. "It is an art that is symbiotic with civilization." Early in the book, he speaks of doing "iconographic inquiry," of which of course he is a dazzling master. But, this would seem to validate art especially (only?) as it reiterates the past, echoes it, alludes to it, cites it. As I said, art resembles and, in its extreme forms, becomes a kind of scholarship, preserving by reiterating the past. Such art is implicitly conservative, in all senses of the word. For Davenport still life is the highest form of art because it is so traditionally self-reflexive, more so than other modes. Self-relexivity in art ("recycling forms and subjects") keeps the past alive. So, when it comes to modern art, he praises first (only?) what is old in it, not what might be new. But, as Nietzsche said, human nature is "unchanging." Nothing is new. Rather, what is new is old (made new).