Here are two points on Oppen’s poetry that have made a significant impact on how I think about my own work.
On the multiplicity of voices that speak in a single poem:
“Quotations are everywhere in Oppen’s poetry, especially in his later work, where he began to distinguish them by using italics rather than quotation marks, thus marking them not as speech but as another layer of text. Increasingly, the incorporation of ‘foreign’ materials does not point outside the poem, but functions rather to disrupt any sense of unified poetic ‘voice’ even though sources are often obscured.”
On poetry as a form.of knowing:
“The poet may recall a past experience, then, but that experience is fundamentally recast, perhaps so as to be almost unrecognisable, when caught up in the force-field of present perception. We are dealing not with a situation in which a given subject appropriates something other as an object of knowledge, but rather one in which (as for Heidegger) thinking and being are somehow elided. In this sense, the poetic imagination intuits rather than knows…”
I’m pretty sure I’ve come across Rivard before, but most recently, it began with an essay evocatively entitled “The Interrupted Now.” It was a great read with several insights that make so much sense to me, like the following on syntax:
For me to be fully inside the body of the poem I have to feel a flex and alertness in the syntax. Otherwise I go around slumping and round-shouldered, and the poem flops. The syntax has to be muscular enough to hold together in the midst of shifting speeds, but flexible enough to make the turns. That speed, that variable propulsiveness, is a thing I trust. The speed gives me a way of narrating experience that depends on elision and compression; but it also mimics the way that one moment of interruption fades into another.
And just as I was struck by the title of his now out-of-print debut collection, so too am I with Otherwise Elsewhere, the title of his latest collection. (Notice how that review links to “The Interrupted Now”?)
And this not-so-recent interview has Rivard talking about the fragment, which has long interested me, but here’s a bit about syntax and line in Torque:
I can see how I’m using a line to parse out sentence rhythms as the line moves down the page. It’s not a book that depends on the line to articulate a rhythm; it depends on the sentence. The line makes you more aware of how phrasal units counterpoint the sentence, or how the complications of syntax are being released, how the syntax tracks.
And finally, for now, Heather McHugh, whose work as critic and editor I like, has nice things to say about him. Discussing one of Rivard’s poems from Wise Poison, she says–in her typical way–the following, which I like because some common words that pop up in my poems include sin, sing, and singe, poems which I aim to work as “song-sense”:
To sin, to be singed, ever to have sung a single thing–such links are forged, not on the anvils of deductive reasoning, but rather in the spark-bed of song-sense itself.
I recently mentioned Brenda Hillman, whose Loose Sugar (scroll down for review) I own and love, and how I feel distant from her Gnostic sensibilities, even as it profoundly shape her poetics, which I find resonant. Yes, there is a contradiction here.
I might be coming close, thanks to “On Song, Lyric, and Strings,” a piece she wrote that clarifies my recent reflections on the lyric. You can see her argument in Section 2, where she offers lyric as “an element in poetry, not a type” and talks about how “once lyric meant unbroken music, but since the nineteenth century, it may be broken.” I now realize my position, which is close to this, isn’t so much anti-lyrical after all.
Hillman also provides what I thought was a hilarious though insightful comparison between Emily Dickinson and Eminem, which I’ll quote here for certain key terms that mean a lot to the work I do (emphases mine)
In lyrics, identity quests might be aided when the certainty of a rhythm is crossed with a question; Dickinson’s poem “I’m Nobody—who are you?” and Eminem’s line “I’m Slim Shady I’m the real Shady” have in common the fact that their speakers present contradictory riddles as deflections for saying who they think they are—Dickinson in iambic and Eminem in trochaic rap. Much pop music has this gnostic quality, making animate assertions about losing the self while finding it. To the complaint that contemporary poetry is too musically inaccessible, I’d note that the temporary difficulties of such poetry instruct us about possibilities of meaningful expression of the quotidian…
A lot of this makes sense to me, except for the question of how essential it is to Gnostic thought that it is about “losing the self while finding it.” If left at that, then it’s something that fits with my own poetic sensibilities. I may even accept the idea of knowledge as revealed in a-logical mystery, but I feel close to an understanding here.
I think I like the way Loose Sugar and other work by Hillman presents dualities without resolving them in a synthesis (Hegelian or something else). I think I can appreciate her use of Gnostic thought and alchemy as specific forms of negative capability or as a way to still function even when holding two fundamentally opposing views (I’m referring to the is-it-Fitzgerald-or-not bit in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). I’m just not sure it’s my way of doing so, since there are a whole lot of other approaches to the binary, such as apophenia.
Hillman’s article, which I only read last night is eerily in sync with a lot of what I’ve written in an essay I just finished, so much so that I am compelled to revise my essay and mention the Hillman to avoid being suspected of plagiarism.
I first came across Marvin Bell when I read his opening remarks to a conference on camouflage held five years ago. In some ways, his linking of camouflage to poetry was somewhat formative in my own thinking as well, how “poetry doesn’t easily reveal itself,” how “it can be the lie that tells the truth.”
At the bottom of that page was a Dead Man poem of his, which I felt was an interesting figure the first time I read it. That Bell’s Dead Man is both alive and dead seems to have inspired my Heidegger short story, I now realize.
But because of the HTML coding of the Web page and how it ended up looking, I misread an important formal characteristic of the structure of Bell’s Dead Man poems, namely, how “each line of poetry in a dead man poem is a compete sentence, long or short,” which means enjambment is set aside as a device. The impression the poem left on me then was based on a misreading: I admired what I thought were long lines dramatically enjambed into shorter chunks that seemed to be hanging on for dear life.
If one looks at “The Book of the Dead Man (#70)” as printed in the Introspections anthology, Bell’s formal choice becomes even more interesting as it happens on the printed (albeit virtual) page. With the leftmost margin reserved for the start of a new sentence, sentences too long for the width of the page end up indented in the next line. Here, enjambment seems (forced) to take place, even if Bell says, “[L]ong thought and practice lay behind my decision to let the sentence determine the poetic line.” He continues:
“Free verse” is not a form, nor an absence of form, but a method for inventing new forms. In the Dead Man poems, I redefined the free verse line by discarding many of its material particulars: the common emphasis on enjambment, for example. … I have always felt that the key to free verse is the sentence. That is, syntax provides the opportunities to enjamb or not, and syntax determines the character of the line. The free verse line without reference to syntax is like a train without reference to tracks.
While there may be quibbles about the definition of free verse as a method (metaphorical though it may be, it seems oddly more precise to borrow Umberto Eco’s notion of the novel as “a machine for generating meaning” and call free verse a machine for generating poetic form), Bell’s assertions are fascinating, especially given my love of enjambment, an amour fou that led to my mistake of reading the line ending as a yellow light to beat, rather than a place to pause for a beat.
The other thing point of interest is Bell’s figure of the train. A train may be derailed from its tracks, and certainly the tracks it normally must move on become more emphasized when that happens, but it’s interesting trying to link this with Bell’s recognition of and hesitation towards the “well-wrought urn.” Bell says, “The very sanity of the polished lyric is its own reward,” but follows this with a caveat: “Though I came to writing through the lyric tradition, I am not wholly of it. For I came to understand that I was crazier than that.”
A few days ago, I updated my Facebook and Twitter accounts with two lines from W.S. Graham that were cited in the essay I linked to in my last entry (yes, sorry, but I’m the type to do stuff like that!):
Somewhere our belonging particles Believe in us. If we could only find them.
Not only did those two lines resonate with me, I also liked how it supposedly both opens and closes “Implements in Their Places,” the title poem of his final book. (I say “supposedly” only because I haven’t read it in its entirety, though what excerpts there are online have been tantalizing, to say the least.)
Atkinson’s context for those lines also had to do with their appeal to me, when she talks of Graham’s late work as a demonstration of
the torque of writing poetry; the exponentially maddening, tantalising relationship between the desire to wield language, and what really only ever amounts to a more finely articulated appreciation of its fundamental unwieldiness.
Now, in another essay on Graham called “Elegy For The World,” this time about loss as “a significant feature” in his work, I find those two lines cited in terms of the recurring appearance in his later work of
a lonely figure grappling with the difficulties of language, trapped in a place where the real world has been replaced by a world of language, which is for the writer as tangible as that that has been lost.
(Here, though, I find a certain oddity at work, in terms of what we might call a spiritual sensibility in the poetics. Like Jane Hirshfield‘s Buddhism, I don’t think Hillman’s Gnosticism speaks to me. And yet, I hear a voice there. I’m not sure about Graham’s spiritual beliefs, but there too seems something lurking there as well.)
I wasn’t so familiar with W.S. Graham’s work when I first came across “The Uses of Difficulty, Written in the Margins of W.S. Graham,” though I was already, given certain interests, looking forward to reading the essay. Three lines into the excerpt from “Approaches to How They Behave” however, I found myself entranced by the themes of presence (speaking) and absence (death) as well as Graham’s lineation and his use of “exact” as both adjective and verb (the latter being a device I’ve been using more and more in my own work lately).
So I went on Google, and one of the first items to turn up was this old blog entry discussing the translation issues raised in the Paul Celan article from which I just quoted. It’s a discussion that takes its its blog entry title and much of its content from Graham. Oh, apophenia, I love you.* (And from there I came across this wonderful bit from George Steiner: “Uncertainty of meaning is incipient poetry.”)
“Approaches to How They Behave” is apparently a long poem, so only excerpts are available online. This one has six sections, and the same blogger has put up Graham’s “Penzance/London” and “The Gobbled Child.” Poetry Nation has “What Is The Language Using Us For?” in what seems to be its entirety, as well as “Imagine a forest” and “The Secret Name.” I need more time with these works–the essay on difficulty suggests an hour–but from what I’ve read so far, I feel a certain affinity for the shapes in Graham’s work, the shapes of his thought and the shapes of his verse.
The language of Schneepart is not merely purged of inherited content or meaning. It has shed all logic. The very title is an error of logical category. Schneepart, Fairley reminds us in his introduction, does not mean “the part that is snow” but rather “the part or role that is given to snow” as if a phenomenon of nature had gained the power of speech or music. Fairley is not at all troubled by these Kategorienfehler, which are now commonplace. Lichtdung is, brilliantly, “light soil”.
I do not think that Celan was a sort of verse Heinrich Böll, who set himself to rid written German of National Socialist patterns of speech and writing. Rather, Celan’s German is like a modern fighter aircraft that must be made absolutely unairworthy before it can perform its allotted task. (An F-15 without power will not glide but plummet.)
Only when language is utterly disabled, it seems, can it articulate, in some abandoned region at the end of space and history, a fugitive echo of reality.
This is Chesterton, and I prefer these ideas to the ones in the response from Tolkien that also appears in the same blog entry. As odd as it may be to link Chesteron with M. John Harrison, this reminds me of “A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium,” which I love. Anyway, emphases mine:
Herein is the whole secret of that eerie realism with which Dickens could always vitalize some dark or dull corner of London. There are details in the Dickens descriptions – a window, or a railing, or the keyhole of a door – which he endows with demoniac life. The things seem more actual than things really are. Indeed, that degree of realism does not exist in reality: it is the unbearable realism of a dream. And this kind of realism can only be gained by walking dreamily in a place; it cannot be gained by walking observantly. Dickens himself has given a perfect instance of how these nightmare minutiae grew upon him in his trance of abstraction. He mentions among the coffee-shops into which he crept in those wretched days one in St. Martin’s Lane, “of which I only recollect that it stood near the church, and that in the door there was an oval glass plate with ‘COFFEE ROOM’ painted on it, addressed towards the street. If I ever find myself in a very different kind of coffee-room now, but where there is such an inscription on glass, and read it backwards on the wrong side, MOOR EEFFOC (as I often used to do then in a dismal reverie), a shock goes through my blood.” That wild word, “Moor Eeffoc,” is the motto of all effective realism; it is the masterpiece of the good realistic principle – the principle that the most fantastic thing of all is often the precise fact. And that elvish kind of realism Dickens adopted everywhere. His world was alive with inanimate objects.
I am in the habit of saying: “Every poem is an opportunity to destroy my career.”
When I say it, I imagine completely new work. Maybe I abandon the typographic experiments of The Black Automaton in exchange for a more traditional sonnet crown. Or I leave behind my investigations into manhood for poems about birds. I mean to surprise readers who have come to expect a particular kind of poem from me. I mean to surprise myself as well.
I want it to mean that I am not afraid of trying something different, that I am not privileging my previous gestures, hiding behind what I know.
But what it doesn’t mean, necessarily, is that I write the poem that demands to be written. You can spend a lot of time not writing such a poem.