Friday, January 22, 2010

An Old Chaos

“Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you, say what you've got to say, and say it hot.” - D.H. Lawrence

Nathaniel Hawthorne once wrote that each of us is required at least once in our lifetime to declare ourselves. By that I took him to mean not so much our epistemological stance on the universe as our feel for our precarious position within it, sharing the fear and joy of living in a benign or malevolent universe (take your pick), with others as fearful or joyous as ourselves. We are still sufficiently tied to our pre-literate, paleomammalian limbic system that anything which shakes the ground beneath our feet, shakes us to the ground of our being. This suggests a larger, pragmatic truth: Not only is it foolish to refuse the truth of our predicament on this planet, it might be sensible, possibly even heroic to embrace it.

And so several of us declared ourselves last week. Wearing our care and allegiance to poetry close to our hearts we took our respective stands on what we each felt should constitute the impetus of a poem. Beginning as a discussion about anger and whether it makes appropriate material for poetry, participants eventually seemed torn - wanting to strike a balance (a perfectly Canadian thing to do) between emotion and virtuosity, while resisting that balance, too. Emotion, whatever people claim is its correct place in poetry, has its primary pull.

And had its pull, John Pass chastened me, in poetry of the 1960s: Not only did poets such as Robert Bly express anger in poems like “Teeth Mother Naked At Last”, they did it with considerable power:

Artillery shells explode. Napalm canisters roll end over end.
Eight hundred steel pellets fly through the vegetable walls.
The six-hour old infant puts his fists instinctively to his eyes to keep out the light.
But the room explodes,
the children explode.
Blood leaps on the vegetable walls....

Do not be angry at the President?

Gary Geddess reminded me that anger played its part in W.S. Merwin’s war poems, too, anger morphing into something more contemplative, though no less painful in “The Asians Dying”:

Like ducks in the time of the ducks
The ghosts of the villages trail in the sky
Making a new twilight

Rain falls into the open eyes of the dead
Again again with its pointless sound
When the moon finds them they are the color of everything.

In “Advent 1966” Denise Levertov comes as close as anyone to disavowing our quainter, more patrician instincts in poetry. Here, Levertov’s “clear caressive sight”, given to her to “stir me to song” is suddenly interrupted by a “monstrous insect” that enters her head, and sees with her eyes:

And this insect (who is not there--
it is my own eyes do my seeing, the insect
Is not there, what I see is there)
will not permit me to look elsewhere,

or if I look, to see except dulled and unfocused
the delicate, firm, whole flesh of the still unburned

Is this anger or the fruits of anger? I’m not sure. If the latter, should we privilege the softer, mediating expression that remains over the igniting power of our original experience, our anger? John Pass suggests as much: “The practice of poetry, like any art, moves the practitioner quickly past the easy moral certainties that anger asserts. And anger is not communicative, is destructive of relationship, of metaphor.”

To which Adrienne Rich might reply:

Fantasies of murder: not enough:
to kill is to cut off from pain
but the killer goes on hurting
Not enough. When I dream of meeting
the enemy, this is my dream:
white acetylene
ripples from my body
effortlessly released
perfectly trained
on the true enemy
raking his body down to the thread
of existence
burning away his lie
leaving him in a new
world; a changed

From 'The Phenomenology of Anger'

Okay. Anger really can be destructive of relationship. But it also seems pretty creative, judging by its transformation into metaphor here. And while we need to be careful not to misrepresent her (Rich, like Pass, also talks about anger morphing into grief), Rich goes further. “Anger,” she states “can be visionary, a kind of cleansing clarity.”

Beyond the Insect’s Eye

Everyone’s right, of course; it’s not just anger we’re talking about, but emotion. What emotion looks like on the page. Which emotions belong there and how much of it. In 1924, Edmund Wilson praised Wallace Stevens for the “richness of his imagination” and “ingenious, charming and sometimes beautiful” poems, but demurred on the question of Stevens’ emotional investment in his poem:

“Mr. Stevens, who is so observant and has so distinguished a fancy, seems to have emotion neither in abundance nor in intensity....Emotion seems to emerge only furtively in the cryptic images of his poetry, as if it had been driven, as he seems to hint, into the remotest crannies of sleep or disposed of by being dexterously turned into exquisite amusing words.”

Run Wilson’s remark alongside an actual poem by Stevens, like the closing of “Sunday Morning”, for instance, and you begin to see a disconnect between what different people mean by emotion and where the actual experience of emotion in a poem resides.

We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free,
Of that wide water, inescapable.
Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

The emotional impact of this poem seems to me unavoidable, but where it is actually located is hard to judge. Whatever the poet might have felt while writing must remain a mystery judging by the exquisite control demonstrated. In the reader, then? Well, even that can be hard to pin down. Emotion for me is not generated by the image of those “casual flocks of pigeons” or by the argument against religion that permeates the rest of the poem. Instead, it seems to occur in the linking of the image and the thought, the shared tragedy of our “unsponsored isolation” and the inescapable freedom and sadness of those “extended wings”.

This is my bias. Read the poem in its entirety, check your own pulse and I’m betting you’ll find it’s yours, too. It’s also the only answer I know to the charge by Zachariah Wells and Harold Rhenisch that what we are most hobbled by is linguistic and cultural “blandness”. But at the end of the day we’re not asking that more writers express their anger, but to look inside themselves and ask “What, after all, do I feel? I know what I think. But what is the nature and scope of my emotional life and its relation to the world around me and, if it has a place in my work, how am I to embody it?”

Finally, this from Matthew Arnold:

But hardly have we, for one little hour,
Been on our own line, have we been ourselves;
Hardly had skill to utter one of all
The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
But they course on forever unexpress’d.

from “The Buried Life”
Next week, an interview with Governor General award winner, David Zieroth.


Conrad DiDiodato said...


I suspect most poets are too afraid to bare their soul either for fear or rejection or 'unsuitability' to publishers. Too many writers in Canada are caught in the trade winds of 'political correctness'.

I wonder also at Wilson's judgement of Stevens's poet as lacking in 'emotion'. Wow: I can't believe he said that. I wonder these days at the pronouncements of most literary critics (too many of whom are academics).

And congrats to David Zieroth! I look forward to the interview.

David Kosub said...

Thanks, Conrad. I'm not saying everything a poet feels should end up on the page, but that in addition to language poets might probe a little deeper to discover more about what they feel. And I suspect you’re right; there is a kind of collective suppression of emotion going on that has become an article of faith. I think it needs re-examining.


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