Poetic Discursiveness and Lineated Prose: Some Questions

Though his discussions of J.V. Cunningham’s “Epigram #1” from Doctor Drink and Frank Bidart’s “Golden State” in the essay aren’t bad, I find Robert Pinsky’s “Two Examples of Poetic Discursiveness” rather unconvincing on a conceptual level. I’m not sure I can do better and perhaps the problem’s with me when I fail to understand how he proceeds

  • from identifying the contradictory senses of “discursive” in how it “describes speech of writing which is wandering and disorganized” but “can also mean ‘explanatory’–pointed, organized around a setting-forth of material (133)”
  • to reconciling those opposites by referring to the figure of “motion over terrain…going through or going over one’s subject” (to which he adds, “Such a method tends to be inclusive; it tends to be the opposite of intuitive,” which confuses me partly because I’m not too clear about the relationship he makes between “inclusive” and “intuitive”)

And I can’t quite articulate why I’m so bugged when the preceding discussion finally leads him to describe “poetic discursiveness” as:

It is speech, organized by its meaning, avoiding the distances and complications of irony on one side and the ecstatic fusion of speaker, meaning and subject on the other. The idea is to have all the virtues of prose, in addition to those qualities and degrees of precision which can be called poetic (ibid).

When I think about it, perhaps this is rooted in differences between Pinsky’s poetic and mine. The promise I see when he asserts, “Much of the work of the so-called ‘New York poets’ could be described as mock-discursive (134)” is defused when he follows that with: “Moreover, much of the memorable writing by these poets seems to emerge when there is the least amount of ‘mock’ statement, the largest element of open discourse (ibid.).”

And I guess I also had some problems of expectation. I thought Pinsky would look at something that would illuminate, say, Zukofsky having been “moved by the fact” of how Stevens’s “music thruout has not been impaired by having philosophized (97).” I also thought Pinsky might address the common problem of poems that seem more like “lineated prose,” but that doesn’t happen either.

Now if I could do it, that is, if I could go through the subject matter of poetic discursivity, to, as it were, discourse on discursivity, I’d like to look into:

  1. John Ashbery’s “Definition of Blue”
  2. portions of Frank Bidart’s “Advice to the Players” and the whole of “Young Marx” (both found near the bottom of this page)
  3. Matthea Harvey’s “I Would Have Stayed,” which lineates the sentence from Giorgio Vasari that begins with “The vinedresser of the Belvedere having found a very strange lizard…”
  4. Butterflies, Lineated,” where Jeffrey Robinson lineates a phrase from one of Keats’s letters, with other examples of such “found poems” here

I’m one of those willing to quote “without irony” from the Ashbery poem, so I think I’m missing something when I read it, as I do, with a straight face. The same goes for the prose portions of Bidart’s “Advice to the Players. “Young Marx,” however, apart from “attribution of source” at the end, does gain something from the lineation, as does Harvey’s poem and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Robinson’s lineation of Keats.

So, once again, lineation, and what it does to syntax, especially the syntax of prose. It’s also a matter of diction as well, I suppose. The result is some kind of “discursive transformation,” I guess, but what kind? And more importantly for people who write poems, how?

Rhythms Of Richard Cureton, Shapes Of Keats

I met with my thesis adviser today, and in one of the moments during consultation when we were talking about music, meter, and rhythm, he told me to look up Richard Cureton. His wasn’t a name I heard before, unlike some others mentioned (Philip Hobsbaum and Derek Attridge, for instance), so I looked up Cureton online and found this:

“Cureton’s may be the most convincing and comprehensive treatment we have of rhythm in English verse.”

a set of abstracts of books he may have already written:

and his paper “Rhythm and Linguistic Form: Toward a Temporal Theory of Poetic Language.” It’s got charts and tables (I like those a lot), so I hope it makes sense to me, and also to my thesis.
On an unrelated note: although “To Autumn” isn’t my personal favorite of Keats’s 1819 odes, it’s hard to deny its mastery. The PoemShape blog I recently discovered and am really enjoying has entries on the poem’s form and imagery. (There’s also a discussion of “Bright Star” that makes me wish there were more of Keats’s sonnets there.)
EDIT: Oh-ho! The Spring 1996 issue of Poetics Today (“Metrics Today II”) hosts a discussion between Cureton and Attridge. I took a quick look and failed to understand a thing. Still, a slower and more careful reading should be more helpful, I hope.

Finally: Jorie Graham

After years of reading whatever I can find online by and about Jorie Graham and making do with what few poems by her I have in this or that anthology, I finally bought a copy of her now-15-year-old collection The Errancy yesterday. I’m surprised it’s taken me this far, given how I echo her twin interests in philosophy and film studies.

Although I’m not sure how The Errancy ranks with her other books, I was won over by reviews that mention Lacan and Deleuze, that listen to Graham’s “heady, improvisational music” and “accretionary syntax,” and that cite bits from her “mutated love poems.” It also helped that I’m preoccupied with errors, secrets, and lies–all those different ways one swerves away from capital-T Truth–and the very title of The Errancy certainly points to that.

(I should also mention that Emily Galvin, Graham’s daughter with James Galvin, has published her own collection with a strong basis in mathematics, also an interest of mine, poetically speaking. I think I should read James Galvin’s work sometime, just to complete this little family circle.)

I’ve posted a link to this interview before, pointing out Graham’s remarks about Michael Palmer, but this time, I think I’d like to paste the relevant excerpt here, as a reminder to myself about the work I’m (supposed to be) doing (all emphases mine):

keeping the song alive is keeping alive a world in which song is possible. You have to keep hope alive. Any kind of truth you might arrive at that hasn’t contended with hope is going to be very partial. [pause] Michael Palmer is very interesting in that regard. He has extraordinary music. I think he’s learned better than anyone the Stevens trick of making the poem disintegrate on the surface but stay totally alive musically. To me he’s very important in that regard. The way he uses repetition. The particular way he will bring certain images back without that turning into structure. Pure desire kept alive in the act of writing by the way fragments recur.

I also like how Graham talking about silence (“Making the silence come awake in the poem is important to my process. The silence – or anything else that resists the impulse to imagine, own, transform.”) leads her to a really brilliant disquisition on her use of the poetic line, one where I’m hard-put to emphasize any idea as more important than another:

…lines of breath-length, say, lines that contain up to five stresses, sometimes feel to me like measures that make that silence feel safe. A silence that will stay at bay for as long as it takes to get the thing said. Writing in lines that are longer than that, because they are really unsayable or ungraspable in one breath unit for the most part (and since our desire is to grasp them in one breath unit) causes us to read the line very quickly. And the minute you have that kind of a rush in the line (emphasized perhaps by the absence of commas and other interpretive elements) what you have is a very different relationship with the silence: one that makes it aggressive – or at least oceanic – something that won’t stay at bay. You have fear in the rush that can perhaps cause you to hear the fearful in what is rushed against.

What you feel – this is Romantic of course – is the pressure of a silence that might not wait until the end of the line to override you. And so you have to rush those words into it. In this new book, I’m writing mostly in traditional lines again, with less counterpoint from such prose-length units. But the calm assurance of the standard English line has always interested and troubled me. In Erosion, the line-length tended to be much smaller than the norm. The voice in that book was, in fact, so aware of the overriding presence of the white space that it just tried to mash words into that space. With great pressure. To create the sensation of that gravitational weight. Sternness. Solemnity. As if to build cell by cell a fabric that could take the weight of eternity into it – like human tissue.

And here’s a bit from a poem that isn’t in The Errancy but in a later collection called Never. It moved me this morning when I read it, out of the context of the entire poem:

from the 2002 collection Never

from "The Taken-Down God" by Jorie Graham

Jorie Graham On The Region Of Unlikeliness

In this excerpt from a 2003 interview with Jorie Graham that appeared in The Paris Review, she talks about several of my preoccupations–autobiography, parenthood, lineation, philosophy in poetry, addressing the reader, confession, etc–and how they played out in her collection Region Of Unlikeliness:


In Region—after using works of art, then myth, in the previous books—you turn to autobiography. The poems were all your own stories, at that point. Why was that?


Perhaps because once you’re a parent, you enter into a completely different relationship to time. History becomes dominant, and then, perhaps, personal history becomes dominant. You are suddenly at that point where facts—both the facts that your child is learning, and the facts of your life your child wants to know, needs to know—become important. You become a bit of story that needs to be told.


The lines in these poems are shorter. Why?


Many things made the line shorter. Once you begin talking from the position of being a social creature, you go back to the line in which social discourse takes place, the pentameter. It’s a more exterior line, which, since Shakespeare, we associate with people speaking to one another. On either side of it stand more unspeakable lines—longer lines for the visionary; shorter and more symmetrical ones for song, spell, hymn; and shorter yet for the barely utterable, the shriek, the epitaph.


And the second line?


The indented line became a very useful place to negotiate and control the music of the poem. I was still very interested in the sentence, in the kinds of energies the sentence awakens—desire for closure, desire for suspension of closure, desire for simultaneity in a stream of temporal action that defies simultaneity. I guess I still am. For example, what happens along the way of the sentence that you’re in the process of undertaking, the thing you can’t put alongside but that has to actually happen in the sentence as a “dependent” phrase? If you’re telling the story of your life, in a way, or if you’ve gone back to autobiography or history, you’re in a place where sentence-making is connected to time, as opposed to those epiphanic escapes from time which would employ a different kind of syntax—in Erosion for example.


So, the indented line . . .?


The indented line allows you to modulate the sentence and keep it capable of carrying so much without collapsing. It’s all a matter of freight carried to speed of carriage, to mangle Frost’s quote. It gave me a kind of lift—and three musical units: the full line; a shorter fragmentary line that condenses stresses on very few words (often words that would never carry a stress—prepositions, articles, conjunctions) words that if stressed truly alter the nature of what the actual inquiry of the poem is; and the “landing,” the oftentimes single word on the left margin, which takes the strongest stress of all. Those “landing words” gave me a kind of propulsion that made a rather long poem continue to feel like a containable lyric utterance. I wanted to pack a lot into the lyric, but not go beyond its bounds. Some have written that I wanted to expand what the lyric could do. I just want the hugeness of experience—which includes philosophical discursiveness—to move at a rate of speed that kept it (because all within one unity of experience) emotional. Also, often, questions became the way the poems propelled themselves forward.


And that does what to the reader?


It brings the reader in as a listener to a confession? A poem is a private story, after all, no matter how apparently public. The reader is always overhearing a confession.

Peter Nicholls on Objectivist Poetics

This is from Nicholls’ book on George Oppen, an expansion I imagine of, among other writings, the essay I quoted from previously:

T. W. Adorno has a precise formulation for the kind of shift I am suggesting here when he speaks in an essay on Bach of ‘the emancipation of the subject to objectivity in a coherent whole of which subjectivity itself was the origin’. The subject is liberated from an impotent privacy into a world of material beings through the objectified form of the artwork. For the reader, such ‘emancipation’ derives not from some identification with the poet’s feeling, but from the syntax of the work, from a particular arrangement of words which, like the conjunction of planes in a painting, produces a sense of a materiality resistant to conventional grammars of thought and design. And, rather like the relation of abstract art to representational art, a language of ‘objectification’ amounts to a reconfiguring of the semantic field so as to accent particular items in a non-discursive way. Prominent features are inverted word order, indeterminacy or ambiguity attaching to pronouns, the emphatic use of prepositions to substitute for usual narrative markers, heightened attention to ‘minor’ parts of speech such as conjunctions, and a resulting disfigurement of anticipated speech-patterns. Such devices assure us that we are dealing not with ‘a performance, a speech by the poet’ but rather with ‘the poet’s self among things’ and a ‘thinking with the things as they exist’.

David Rivard

And speaking of…

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 despite / because of my difficulty with what he calls “The Minimal, the Miniature, & the Little-More-Than-Nothing,” I found riveting a piece that offers, among other things, a discussion of poems that “depend upon indirection and a sort of Wi-Fi networking.”

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.