New Project: Poems and Freedom

Having retooled an old website, I’m now preoccupied with writing for http://dailymetaxy.com under the title poemaspassport

Please pay it a visit and subscribe if you like. 

The concept is that poems “travel” well — and the difficulty of this notion is that to understand a poem is to understand it as representative of a thick particularity or set of contingencies. A poem is a parochial artifact. But the games poems play with words are real: they connect communities of language users to each other in multifarious ways. Poems use all sorts of means to transcend the fictions of univocal meaning: metaphor, rhyme, all sorts of echoings of intertextuality.  But by “seeing through” the language games AS games — perhaps this is one way to put it — poems travel lightly across communities. Poems are “transcultural.”

And the analogy with doctors-without-borders is that poems liberate their readers from their own cultural limitations. Poems have a healing power that suggests something other to fixed identities. The limiting functions of words, their power to specify what we mean,  which make everyday life possible, would not be comprehendible without countervailing freedoms — of conscience, of expression, of self-consciousness. Language is dialectical; it abounds with significant others.

Reading poetry closely builds a model identity that connects one with ethical others and ultimately with the Other as transcendent creator. That is: the creator whose existence is suggested by the fact that there is a creation to talk about. The logic of the distinction between creator and creation is crucial to the concept of poemswithoutborders.com

Or put it this way: The verbal play at the root of poetry suggests a primal energy, an original creative energy. The Taoist poets of China understood the Tao as the unnamable source of the 10,000 things; they experienced openings of “the fertile void” as source of “being happenings” to which their poetry referred, either by imagery or by its absence. In the West, a cross-cultural study of the idea of creation such as David Burrell’s Freedom and Creation in Three Traditions (Notre Dame 1993) makes explicit the sources of the idea of free creation in the faith traditions sharing Abraham as symbolic root. This kind of reading is not for everyone, but the cultural life made possible by it is, it seems to me, the “good life” if that phrase is to have any meaning.

So, in a nutshell, I’m exploring the idea of “poetry” as a primal energy which a poem taps into — to be crude. The “primal” aspect is what is universal and travels so well. Poetry is notoriously untranslatable, and yet what is reading but translating, with whatever faithfulness to the original we can bear.

The practical implications of this “theory” in the practice of a poet is explored in the essay on Denise Riley at http://dailymetaxy.com

 

 

 

 

The joy of rewriting while the Jury is on break

Having fun this morning doing rewrites of a bit of doggerel I posted on Twitter last night. It’s the Argument for my newly-designed blog poemswithoutborders.com

The blog is devoted to exploring the phenomenon of “freedom” in poetry, how a poem represents moments of acute penetration of a set of circumstances by principles drawn from literary tradition. Poetics as a branch of ethics; the workings of prudence in the mishmash of contingency that constitutes the world as such. In this sense the old notion of equity is paramount in poetics. I first learned about this from that grand old Stanford scholar Wesley Trimpi. I had failed my Masters exam at Berkeley and took a year off for rebooting in Trimpi’s seminar. Couldn’t have done a better thing.

Anyway, here’s the latest incarnation of the epigraph for the new blog:

 

ARGUMENT

The poem’s healing art

Invades the ragged (bleeding?) heart

Breaks down the stupid whole

Of self and frees the soul.

 

The original tweeted early this morning was

The poem’s hearing art

Invades the human heart

Breaks open the closed whole

Of self and saves the soul.

This  has a lot going for it: the rhythms of the final two lines are superior to those of the rewrite. There’s something to be said for the “natural” perhaps faux easiness of the first two lines as they lead into the crash of the last two.

The jury is out.

 

 

When the Words Won’t Flow

Part of the writing life is putting up with yourself when you should be writing but can’t. Tonight I read a little Jean Follain, a little Martyn Crucefix (Hurt). I thought a lot about the importance of relevant details– the contingent world– to any poem that manages to break the silence. The principle of relevance is the killer, otherwise you just have piles of this and that. Jean Follain was a master of discreet details:  his poems so arrange them that to read his poem is to climb a little hill only to suddenly look out over a burning city or a hidden garden.

Ode 1: Union Pacific

(Revised 10.6.16)

 

In the alleyway

cool breezes sleeping chickens

under ancient trees.

 

I linger. It’s noon.

They say smoke still hangs over

the derailed oil train

 

in the Gorge but no

crude stains the Columbia.

Fortune smiled they say.

 

No wind-whipped flames fill

the space carved from the Cascades

by Ice-Age meltdowns.

 

Sighs in the tree tops

say signs. To be good this life

needs many virtues.

 

Idyll

Over the empty

foothills clouds shed luminous

shadows of rainfall

 

as a boy I played

in the bright dry Kern River

alone and happy

 

in desert silence

songs of unnameable birds

communicate care

 

 

Beyond Portlandia

 

VOLUPTUOUS LIGHT

When I arrived in Portland’s east side after moving out from Portsmouth New Hampshire, I was immediately struck by the light. Wind-washed, rain-washed: the light was oceanic. As I come to know the area I understand some of the geological reasons: the constant flux of air from the Gorge to the East and the Pacific to the West gives the area its distinctive freshness and even, at times, the scent of the sea.
Compared to the light of New England, dominated by extreme weather, especially the snow fall, the light here is both easy and generous, even bountiful. Somedays as I wander around I feel like a voluptuary. I had studied New England light for many years; I especially took in Yves Bonnefoy’s reflections on New England snow. In my lexicon there’s a dualism to New England light. Portland’s light is, on the contrary, a kind of transcendent immanence.

Which makes it a seductive light, a sponsor of Romantic moments of fusion of self-and-other. In the myth of America, if New England is a kind of new beginning, Portland is a perpetual ending.

But this area is historically rich with tales of violence, greed, imperial fantasy, on the one hand, and decidedly thoughtful human planning on the other. It is a dialectical place, desire flooding the spaces with dream and hope. Politically, it is loathed by Republicans and loved by Democrats. At least from afar. It is for all that, a real place, packed with stories. The light makes a big difference but the transformations must be seen in light of an overarching human fate of life lived between the limits of the beginning and the end, the light never quite transforming the chiaroscuro of life in the between.

Summer morning narrative (why I write)

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a dewy rose

in a shady corner

summer morning

I wrote this today in homage to so many classic Japanese haiku with simple kigos like “summer morning.” The simplicity seemed right for the image. But the narrative is clear to me: the rose, still wet with dew, has so far — it’s still early — been protected from the heat of the sun. It’s in a shady corner of the garden. Later the dew will dry and the sun will search it out, as it were. I felt this way myself this morning: I could feel the summer coming on. Yes, I identified with the rose but not so much with the rose-thing as with the process, from cool morning to something quite other. The movement is the thing.

 

Haiku: “The dandelions” and Excess

the dandelions

in the field more numerous

than I remember
I write about meaningless things or rather the meaninglessness of things because in order to “represent” how such things appear to me I have to dislodge them from the hierarchies and grammars of the every day world. The lilies of the field . . . The fall of a sparrow . . Is this to see things in the “to be” of creation as opposed to the traditions of men?

It’s not to deny the archaeological or evolutionary narratives of things but to capture what is “excessive” in their appearance, their appearing, and we are used to think of this as Romantic or Mystical.

Put it this way: if all the discourses–the sciences — we have at our fingertips fail when we focus, say, on “the dandelions” in their bright numerousness, it may be that a certain degree of difficulty must be admitted, and the tropes or turns of phrase, the rhythmic patterns, of poetry may be resorted to in this crisis of representation. The other commonly resorted to strategy is simply to say that THAT is an illusion.

So why is all this bother worth it? I think it is a matter of our concerns about the “self.” Poetry in this case speaks to the “self” that has a double structure of self/other. In distinction from the self of deconstruction, this self does not disappear into the other, but knows its limits in terms of the other. The problem of representation we have been discussing would be no “problem” if it were possible to erase the self. At the same time, one may say that there’s something “excessive” about the self.

The poem gives voice to this excess. Rowan Williams writes (The Edge of Words 134): “The simplest poetic forms have the same purpose at their heart — the contemplating of what seems normal in order to uncover what “normal” perception screens out.”

Poppies in a Disused Lot: Perfection?

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In a disused lot

the perfectibility

of golden poppies

Learning NOT to “see” the world as objects somehow projected into our minds but as the world itself may strip the world of value; there’s a long modern tradition that argues that values are “subjective.”  But the dualism of mind/world is unsustainable. The “I” just does not look out on the world from its lonely balcony. We only know the world as we learn to talk about it: language is always part of what we observe. And so we talk about the “grammar” of experience and the “textuality” of experience.

And we still do “experience” value in the world. Words like “good” perform well in many contexts: a good cake, a good person. “Good” is a “perfection term.”  Perfection terms adapt to many circumstances without losing their usefulness– quite the contrary. As models of excellence (“paradigms” in Stephen Mulhall’s THE GREAT RIDDLE), they are “indefinitely perfectible (without ever reaching a state of perfection), and they are inherently capable of being projected into new contexts” (82).

I think certain “images” do the work of perfection terms. Like such terms, the images have contexts; they are paradigms, or models of excellence, within a “world.” But they project “perfection” and so connect the scene they appear in to a larger and larger frame of reference. Poems showcasing such imagery are fascinating.

Placing the golden poppies in a “disused lot” allows the force of perfectibility to act on the emptiness of the lot. This is a trope we see in Wordsworth; the overlooked flower. A forgotten spot nourishes “perfectibility”; because we are wandering and not focussed on practical tasks at the moment, we discover the poppies and in the poppies experience a kind of perfection. Wordless, it would seem; but as we understand the use of perfection terms, the difference between word and image becomes equivocal at points. This is to be discussed! Anyway:  The poppies act on the analogy of a perfection term. Haiku is particularly given to such experiences since it springs from a meditative state of mind, but that’s, again, another story.