Saturday, October 4, 2008

From the sublime to the meticulous

The principles underlying reading groups are pretty straightforward. People get to introduce their favourite poem to the general delight and approval of others, or occasionally hear with some surprise or disappointment that the poem is not everyone’s cup of tea. Views are expressed, positions defended and occasionally modified, with the usual democratic consensus achieved that, no matter how much I agree or disagree with you, no single interpretation can be or should be exhaustive.

In short, the process is intended to be inclusive. Set aside for a moment the contention that while everyone has an opinion some opinions are worth more than others. Then consider the poems themselves. If we walk away with one more poem to enjoy and share with others we're all the better for it. If not, then we console ourselves with increased understanding about what works or doesn't work for us and look forward with hope to the next meeting.

But might there be larger things afoot, larger responsibilities and heaven forbid more work to be done? That was the gist of our last meeting, the idea that perhaps there’s a greater purpose to be served within this community of readers. i.e. raising the level of discourse around contemporary poetry by increasing the understanding of readers and poets for the conventions that exist between them, enabling the one to communicate with and be understood by the other.

Because to say, as many do, that poems are conjured up and understood intuitively is not the same thing as saying they happen accidentally. The fact is all poems – good and bad - rise from certain impermeable foundations, foundations that are mostly technical and historical in nature e.g. rhythm, and emergence of the foot or “iamb” from ancient Greek dance, up through and including traditional metrical forms embodied by Anglo-Saxon, syllabic and accentual syllabic verse and influenced by both French and American experiments in free verse. So why not raise the level of discourse by increasing our understanding of how the poetry we read today has evolved from the rhythms and forms, the images and sensibilities that constitute poetry’s historic legacy?

Poetry by its nature is subjective, often ambiguous, and prey to wildly varying interpretations. But it’s also something that can be better understood, with a little application, and a little thought given to its antecedents.

Julie Bruck’s Sex Next Door: Compassionate Re-enactment or Tonal Condescension?

It’s rare, slow as a creaking of oars,
and she is so frail and short of breath
on the street, the stairs – tiny, Lilliputian,
one wonders how they do it.
So, wakened by the shiftings of their bed nudging
our shared wall as a boat rubs its pilings,
I want it to continue, before her awful
hollow coughing fit begins. And when
they have to stop (always) until it passes, let
us praise that resumed rhythm, no more than a twitch
really, of our common floorboards. And how
he’s waited for her before pushing off
in their rusted vessel, bailing when they have to,
but moving out anyway, across the black water.

Julie Bruck writes with detailed and careful attention to her landscape. She also helps us to see objects anew by giving them a fresh or different perspective, i.e. by turning then slightly - in much the way we turn a prism and see a raft of colours along a shifting spectrum. The Russian formalists called it “defamiliarization” or making familiar objects “strange” so that we see them as if for the first time.

In fact, an entire section of Bruck’s book The End of Travel is devoted to “The Strange Familiar” In this poem, however, Bruck has mastered more conventional skills such as the ability to re-enact, through her rhythms, her poem’s meaning. Thus, the last three lines of this poem replicate the act of sex - using a central metaphor: rowing a boat, and converting the short, halting, broken rhythms that occur earlier in the poem to longer, more even strokes of a boat’s oars, i.e. rhythms that are analogous to the motions of sex.

I was also struck by Bruck’s enormous compassion for the people she writes about – here and in other poems like “Cafeteria” and “Kate’s Dress.” But not so for everyone. Someone else in the group felt Bruck’s tone to be condescending, even arrogant, toward the old people in the poem, citing people who continue to enjoy sex well into their 90s. To which another responded that, to the contrary, the tone was respectful, even reverential as it celebrates the enormous courage to love of the two people in the poem.

The point is also made that just as we question whether an author’s biography should factor into our reading we might ask how large a part a reader’s biography should play in understanding and appreciating a poem – not just the sentiments and biases that we naturally bring to a poem, but very specific autobiographical circumstances of the reader, which may or may not have direct bearing upon something created by someone else.

Death be not proud…or even present - Louise Gluck’s The Wild Iris

At the end of my suffering
there was a door.

Hear me out: that which you call death
I remember.

Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing. The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.

It is terrible to survive
as consciousness
buried under the dark earth.

Then it was over: that which you fear, being
a soul and unable
to speak, ending abruptly, the stiff earth
bending a little. And what I took to be
birds darting in low shrubs.

You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:

from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater.

Everyone loved this poem. Notice the relative absence of adjectives, the presence of distinct, concrete nouns and direct verbs. The line breaks are notable, too, pausing to support the meaning of each line so that each stands on its own, without losing connection with the lines that follow - and occasionally offset by enjambment:

Then it was over: that which you fear: being
a soul and unable
to speak, ending abruptly, the stiff earth
bending a little

This is a poem about death – with ready comparisons to other poetic turns, such as Dickenson’s famous phrase “Because I could not stop for death, death kindly stopped for me.” I felt Gluck’s poem suffers in the comparison, while another reader felt it hardly fair to compare the two poems, as Gluck’s intentions seemed to be quite different: more a gesture towards reincarnation than a lamentation for the end of life or for human mortality generally. Another agreed: this poem is not just about death, but about personal spiritual growth and life that emerges out of loss. And about how life re-invents and re-kindles itself.

Karl Shapiro – well who is he anyway to criticize? - Yeats' Among School Children

Interestingly, Shapiro would likely agree. The American poet doesn’t have much time for critics, if his book of essays In Defense of Ignorance is any guide. He serves up most of his wrath for the two critical luminaries of 20th century poetics, Eliot and Pound, accusing both of ushering in the “academic” poem, devoted by turns to resurrecting “taste” and “religion” but not so much concerned with the advancement or success or good health of poetry. Culture and history, not poetry, seem to be the main driving points behind their cultural disciple, Yeats, who Shapiro claims to have lost his way in poems like “The Second Coming”, an iconic favourite of most, most will agree, and who saved his chops for “Easter 1916”, a better poem to be sure for its heart, immediacy and sheer rhythmic beauty.

Where our third submission for this week’s meeting fits in all this is unclear. Yeats’ “Among School Children” is certainly a crowd pleaser. History and philosophy and our misguided reverence for both are satirized early in the poem, in contrast to the sundering of intellectual endeavours at the end of the poem, in lines which embrace immediate, holistic, non-intellectual experience:

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

His views on history and nature aside, the sheer beauty of Yeats’ lines and turns of phrase are what most captivated the group:

What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed…

Both nuns and mothers worship images,
But those the candles light are not as those
That animate a mother's reveries,
But keep a marble or a bronze repose.

Still, the mood which underpins the beauty in Yeats’ poem goes to his main intent, which is contrast the frailty of human thought and endeavour with the power of renegeneration within human and universal nature. To this extent, this poem is reproof to Shapiro’s contention about Yeats’ preoccupation with history and culture. It is, as few other of his poems are, a powerful foil to the politics of "Easter 1916" and should temper the general enthusiasm for Yeats’s foray into occultism and mythology, in favour of more immediate and tactile, more human poems like this one.

Karen Connelly’s “Voula” - What's a body to do?

The submission of Connelly’s paean to Greek dance and to those who embrace it was accompanied by genuine appreciation for its imagery and syntax, but also questions about its limitations. Is this just a travel story “dressed up in poetry’s clothes?’ Has the poet challenged herself enough? Do her line breaks serve a purpose or are they mostly arbitrary?

The poem’s force derives from the narrator’s voice, one of those old world, Mediterranean voices you find in the poems of C.P.Cavafy. Joyful, self-deprecating, playfully visceral, Connelly’s poem seems intended as an antidote to the rationale crudeness of the ordinary world:

"She is ugly," they'll tell you,
"a dirty-dog woman, a junkie
covered in sores
and a bitch besides,"

but look at my young lovers,
Sonia from Brazil,
Katerina from the north,
Sinead from Ireland with
all her silk and lace….

With these scuffed boots
I sway hard and slow inside
the music, my arms in the air,
elbows crooked above my head:
I am balancing each star high
above the plane trees.

This last stanza answers the question about Connelly’s use of line breaks, line 2 easily standing on its own, while at the same time enjambing nicely to line 3. Otherwise, Connelly is not averse to using conventional punctuation and uses it well. The concluding two lines in the stanza are especially beautiful.

In fact, the entire poem is beautiful, marked by an incantatory sweep from line to line that is sensual and compelling.

The accordian and I
breathe the warm night wind.
The mandolin has my curves,
the same thin hardness and dirty
fingerprints all over her body.

Sweat shines like oil on my forehead.
I dance so slowly, a snake
without legs, without arms,
held up by the taut nerves
of music.

I have given my limbs to you.
I have given my eyes to you.
I am naked in my dance,
in this night
under the plane trees.

Curiously, the poem’s strength may also be its weakness, though perhaps a weakness of taste and therefore not entirely under the control of the poet. As beautiful as this poem is, how often would you return to it? Is there not something just a little archaic about it? Compare it with the last stanza in Yeats’s poem above (also a theme of dance), written decades earlier, and ask Which resonates more, which is more "contemporary", which is more likely to endure?

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