9/11 Again…

… and we go to poetry to make us feel and see it once more with its meanings intact.

It’s hard to write a poem about an atrocity. Many 9/11 poems are long personal narratives of the event: scenes witnessed in Lower Manhattan, the way the collapse looked from nearby windows. Some, like September Sonnet by Michael Salcman, are highly compressed lyrics in which physical descriptions also appear, but where the point is less to produce a verse record of one’s impressions than to capture, with small but heavily weighted lines, the larger fact of all of us having been immediately overwhelmed, and then permanently haunted, by the incommensurability and mystery of the battering.

Salcman begins by folding his poem into Auden’s 1st September 1939, which has emerged as the pre-9/11 poem, with its coincidence of month and theme as Auden assumes the full dread of war having broken out again in Europe.

********************

September Sonnet

Auden was right – our buildings grope
the sky for certainty but are dumb
and blind. In the fierce limbus of my eye
the plummeting birds burn still,
asbestos rains and twisted steel
falls in a broth of jet fuel,
cable wrap and mineral dust;
it bathes the snouts of corpse-hunting
dogs and spatters our helmeted Nimrods.
Who stoked these fires while we slept?
Who blew on the embers
Filling September with regret,
and who will be consoled if irony dies
a thousand deaths? Not you or I.

**********************

Buildings grope the sky, wrote Auden, and Salcman, struck by the same wretched irony of our high bright-edged monuments suddenly cringing as the sky goes blank and the world senseless, echoes the earlier poet. More broadly, importing Auden lends this poem historical resonance; and Salcman’s use throughout of simple beautifully balanced lyrical lines (Who stoked these fires while we slept?), lines that read like translations from Greek tragedies, sharpens our sense of the infinite profundity of events that can never be fully assimilated.

In the fierce limbus of my eye
the plummeting birds burn still,
asbestos rains and twisted steel
falls in a broth of jet fuel,
cable wrap and mineral dust;

Beautiful stuff here, conveying our inability to make memories of 9/11 stop. The falling objects persist on the edge of vision. The mind’s eye keeps seeing the “broth” (such a well-chosen word, with rich, witchy associations) of jet fuel, and the “mineral dust” (a great phrase, conjuring with horrific concision the organic particles in the air) also stays with us.

These lines remind me of a passage in James Merrill’s Santorini: Stopping the Leak, when the poet talks about what he calls his “psychic incontinence,” his uncontrollable tendency to summon to his mind, and somehow to have to account for, image after image after image:

churning down the optic sluice
… Faces young, old
… all random, ravenous images

… avid for inwardness

… The warm spate bears me on, helpless…

The event comes back to us unbidden, iconic elements of the awful day that want us to take them in, to do something with them.

And notice Salcman’s fantastic use of a kind of loose assonance: limbus, plummeting; birds, burn; falls, broth. It gives the poem an elegance, a sheer verbal beauty, at obvious odds with its subject matter, and this you could say conveys a sly sort of human triumph over the deathliness of the event. We are still to be found on the edge of the scene, generating beauty and even meaning out of it.

The dust

bathes the snouts of corpse-hunting
dogs and spatters our helmeted Nimrods.

Nothing of the horror is avoided here; and yet once again the combination of sheer verbal beauty (bathes) and ancient reference (Nimrod – the Biblical precursor of the New York City Fire Department) heightens – aestheticizes – the horror in a way that lets us retain the horror and at the same time somewhat transcend it.

who will be consoled if irony dies
a thousand deaths?

These lines bring us back to Auden:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages…

Ironic because almost comically at odds with, resistant to, the powerful darkness everywhere, our various points of light, our places of rebellion and affirmation in the face of atrocity, include things like poetry. Poetry brings harmony and form and powerful subjective utterance to a stuporous world.

Valedictory

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When orange hairs, or none, or few, do hang
Upon this brow which lately raged against the polls.
But now bare silent Tweets! where late my Twitter sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such ire
That on the ashes of my pride doth lie,
The reality-show whereon it must expire
Consumes that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes my spite more strong,
To love that well which I must leave ere long.

Remorse for Intemperate Speech

I ranted to the knave and fool,
I acted the obscenest tool,
To transform the polls.
Fit audience I found, but Clinton rules
The voter rolls.

I sought my betters: though in each
Fine manners, liberal speech,
Turn hatred into sport.
Nothing said or done can reach
My sadistic heart.

From a penthouse have I come.
Great pride, great rooms,
Maimed me at the start.
I carry to my bronzéd tomb
A sadistic heart.

The Darkling Campaign

La Bedlam Sans Merci

“Doth Roger Ailes avail thee, Donald Trump,
Alone and madly floundering?
Your edge has withered in the race,
And no birds sing.

Yet – Roger Ailes? Art thou that
Haggard and that woe-begone?
This pig’s ignominy is full,
And the damage done.

I see a fox cub on thy brow,
Its orange fades and lies askew;
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.”

***************************

“I face a lady in debate,
Full competent in policy
Her hair is blond, her foot is light,
And she will wipe the floor with me.

I have been lullèd all asleep,
I have been dreaming — woe betide!—
And now I must ascend the stage
By cold Hill’s side.

My campaign staff it spoke to me
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
By cold Hill’s side.

Thus desperately I turn to Ailes,
Thus sad and madly floundering,
Though the edge is withered from the race,
And no birds sing.”

The Constancy of Cruelty

Of all the denunciations of Donald Trump, UD finds most eloquent Senator Susan Collins’ set of reflections on his cruelty.

UD likes in particular one phrase Collins uses — his constant stream of cruel comments — because it is rather poetic and also quite simple. It assumes – correctly – that Collins does not need to define cruelty; it takes for granted the fact that all of us recognize cruelty when it occurs – in speech, in action – because we are all vulnerable human beings who have ourselves, in the course of our lives, suffered cruelty. We know intimately, deeply, historically, how it feels to be the object of someone else’s cruelty. That feeling never goes away.

(We have all inflicted cruelty too, and, if we are decent people, our recognition of our capacity to be cruel in the way of Donald Trump provokes things like shame, apology, and reflection on why we behaved that way.)

There is indeed something obscenely, intimately knowing in the way Trump stimulates Americans – even feeds them – with his cruelty, and makes his cruelty theirs. Commentators talk about the “nihilism” of Trump’s tea party followers, but don’t people really mean their cruelty? Trump leads them into a thrillingly disinhibited realm of communal disgust, horror, and violence – SHOOT THE BITCH – and the reason people attach “nihilism” to this is that, when you actually examine it, there’s nothing there. Nothing political. (This explains why his followers don’t mind that Trump also is a political black hole.) What’s there is inchoate inner rage, exteriorized into pleasurable cruelty by a charismatic sadist. (Pleasurable vindictive cruelty, as when Eliza Doolittle, having hurt Henry Higgins very badly, says triumphantly Ive got a little of my own back, anyhow.)

****************

In his poem, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” William E. Stafford notices how easy it is for human beings to give up the struggle to understand one another:

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the
world
and following the wrong god home we may miss
our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break …

That nihilistic shrug says I’ve tried to understand you – really understand you – but it’s too difficult or threatening or something so I’m going to betray you and my better self by letting the fragile human intercourse between us, our tentative conversations in the direction of mutual comprehension, break. I’m going to retreat to “a pattern that others made,” to regress to whatever my parochial upbringing might have been in regard to people outside my circle.

Cruelty, the root of cruelty, says the poet, is willful blindness to the vulnerability and complexity of the human beings around you. It’s the decision to shrug off the moral imperative to be careful what you do and say with vulnerable and complex people:

… I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something
shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should
consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the
dark.

This makes me think of Trump’s “Second Amendment people’ dog whistle the other day, his knowing what was occurring but deciding not to “recognize” it as it got transmitted to a fragile and complicated social world. He shrugged and “fooled” people rather than considering the darkness into which, with his careless words, he led them.


For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to
sleep;
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

Yeatsian Trump

The Don

We would be ignorant as The Don
That has looked down
And called us old and ugly clowns
Fat short grotesque buffoons
We love the withered man who saw
Past our pathetic ruse
And recognized our love of self-abuse
The girls freak out when The Don comes
And calls them animals and scum
We would be ignorant as The Don
Who upright stood loosing a gob of spit upon
Our raised expectant faces
We would be — for no knowledge is worth a straw —
Ignorant and wanton as The Don

English Professors for Kaine

[Senator Tim] Kaine quotes W.B. Yeats a lot … most recently when talking about the Syrian refugee crisis where he pleaded that ISIS was the enemy not the refugees.

… “Yeats wrote [The Second Coming] after World War I, surveying the wreckage … [A]nd he expressed a real concern about the state of society at the time because what he noticed was … ‘the best lack all conviction and the worst are filled with passionate intensity.'”

Haiku. (Trumper Warning)

We haven’t seen a
personality like his.
Privileged bully.

***********

Mark Kirk, Senator, Illinois.

Geoffrey Hill, A Poet, Has Died.

I discovered him via his memorial poem addressed to Gillian Rose, one of UD’s heroines. Hill uses her early death, her complex and botched love life, and her lifelong commitment to justice as idea and act, as a way into a restatement of his own “bleak ontology,” his lengthy depressive struggle to love a broken world and the souls that inhabit it. The long poem’s first stanza introduces you to its themes and its emotional attitude:


I have a question to ask for the form’s sake:
how that small happy boy in the seaside
photographs became the unstable man,
hobbyist of his own rage, engrafting it
on a stock of compliance, of hurt women.
You do not need to answer the question
or challenge imposture.
Whatever the protocol I should still construe.

One of the greatest challenges is to love one’s own particular soul, to figure out (but you can’t figure it out; you ask only “for the form’s sake” — not to mention that you’re asking someone not in a position to answer) your fallenness from primal joy in a fully satisfying natural world all the way down to obscure shaky neurotic rage in a world of hurt. The poet anticipates Rose telling him he’s full of shit, he’s posing the question in the wrong way (“challenge imposture”), but however she might take his opening gambit here, he intends to continue (“I should still construe.”).


There is a kind of sanity that hates weddings
but bears an intelligence of grief
in its own kind. There are achievements
that carry failure on their back, blindness
not as in Brueghel, but unfathomably
far-seeing.

Here Hill sketches Rose’s particular sensibility, her radical rejection of traditional, constraining rituals like weddings, yet her higher “weddedness” to humanity via her compassionate understanding of our weakness and pathos. All ontologizing is bleak (“grief,” “failure,” “blindness”), but humanity’s highest seers have the capacity to carry this comprehensive failure on their backs and achieve remarkable degrees of lucidity.

You asked not to be
cheated of old age. No kidding, it is an
unlovely parley, although you
could have subdued it and set it to work,
met it without embracing. Edna
with her prosthetic jaw and nose
prevails over these exchanges.

In her last book, written as she was close to death, Rose featured brief sketches of acquaintances who had managed to survive into old age even with profound impairments. Edna was one of these — a very old woman whose face had been disfigured by disease but who still sought out a life of passion and intensity. The poet acknowledges that if Rose had been more lucky, if she had not gotten a fatal cancer in her forties, she would have found a similar way to make “unlovely” old age work for her.

Your anger against me might have been wrath
concerning the just city. Or poetry’s
assumption of rule. Or its rôle
as wicked governor. This abdication
of self-censure indeed hauls it
within your long range of contempt,

unlike metaphysics which you had time for,
re-wedded to the city, a salutation
to Pallas, goddess of all polemics,
to Phocion’s wife — who shall be nameless —
in Poussin’s painting, gathering the disgraced
ashes of her husband. As you rightly said,
not some mere infinite love, a finite act
of political justice.

Here Hill touches on the perennial poetry/philosophy tussle. It was metaphysics, Rose believed, that brought us to the clarity and courage that prompts actual real-world acts of political justice, while poetry could ventilate all it liked about “some mere infinite love,” but was always secondary to the world of polemic. She would see Hill as a complacent poet, someone who assumed the “rule” of poetry over philosophy, and she would find his attitude infuriating.

If there is a healing of broken love it is not
as dyslexia’s broken, learning to read signs.
In broken love you read the signs too late
although they are met with everywhere

Yes. See Gore Vidal on Edmund Wilson’s response to his young wife’s sudden death: ‘[T]he inevitable epitaph: “After she was dead, I loved her.” That is the story of every life — and death.’

So it continues,
the work, lurching on broken springs
or having to be dug out or jump-started
or welded together out of two wrecks
or donated to a good cause, like to the homeless

in the city that is not just, has never
known justice, except sporadically

Love’s Work was the title of Rose’s final memoir, and though I don’t recall her using Hill’s jalopy metaphor, she described an authentic life as a persistent messy headlong agon in the direction of unachievable justice, with the whiny retro business at the opening of Hill’s poem an unforgivable waste of time.

The odds are heavy-set against us all
though medics call the chances symbiosis
in their brusque insolent manner that denies
self-knowledge as the sufferer

Justice is ever in abeyance; and as for our own individual fate – the odds are heavy-set against us. When she was hit with her illness, one of Rose’s doctors told her, “You are living in symbiosis with the disease.” And Hill alludes to this comment in these lines, chiding medicine for trying to deny her her agon, her condition of higher understanding deriving precisely from lucid suffering, from a sense, if you like, of the “unjustness” of her fate.

Poetry’s its own agon that allows us
to recognize devastation as the rift
between power and powerlessness. But when I
say poetry I mean something impossible
to be described, except by adding lines
to lines that are sufficient as themselves.

Hill concludes with a pitch for his art as itself a powerful agon in its lyric measuring of our vulnerability. Yet unlike Rose’s lucid metaphysics (she attacked those she considered obscurantists, like Jacques Derrida), poetry can only enact itself endlessly, can only mysteriously elaborate itself. Like a coastal shelf.

Valedictory

[Trumper Warning]

Sunset and racist star,
And one last tweet for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too yuge for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the GOP
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out the bourne of our white race
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my God’s caucasian face
When I have crost the bar.

It just came to me.

The poet at Donald Trump’s inauguration will be Frederick Seidel.

A.V. Christie, a poet who died last month at age 53…

… wrote dreamy enigmatic poetry, “elliptical” poetry a fellow poet called it. A steady eye for nature and a sense of poetic and thematic history kept her work from untethered surreality, as in this poem:

FOREWORD

I was conceived in the cruelest month
in whatever spring California could muster.
A little rain — with some more likely.
And the buckeyes were they yet on the ground?
Damn my father’s smooth stone eyes,
other prevailing enticements and what Eliot called
the female stench. Damn the oaks,
their histrionics, struggling in the fog.
Spiderwebs lay in the grass, misted
and looking like misspent galaxies.
I cry into and out of this moment.
Pound told Eliot: strike this and this.
What was weak got dropped, and the poem
stood stronger without it.

****************************

You see what she does in this brief lyric, which amounts to a brief for brief lyrics. She begins and ends with T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, a long poem but not too long, since Ezra Pound edited away “what was weak” in it. So this is first of all let’s say a comment on Christie’s own poetic philosophy, in which your slender lyric results from a “strengthening” process of winnowing down to what really matters, to only those images and observations that really carry substance.

This sounds quite positive, poetically and existentially – the strong poem emerges from principled and strategic winnowing, and the strong self emerges from a similar process of self-definition that takes place after one’s birth into undifferentiated being.

Yet the body of the poem – a series of reflections on her conception, and on her attitude toward having been given life – is darker. California’s spring is cruel because it is arid, not rainy; she herself represents, by implication, merely what her parents could “muster.” The early-blooming buckeye tree had maybe, at the time of her conception, already dropped its toxic beautiful fruit, a fruit compared to her father’s seductive toxic eyes (Damn my father’s smooth stone eyes), enticing her mother into sex. Her mother’s “female stench” – a phrase Pound successfully persuaded Eliot to drop from his poem – in turn enticed her father.

(And why was Pound against female stench? Because the entire passage of which it was a part was unsuccessfully derivative of Alexander Pope. Again the idea that poetically or existentially the imperative is to go forward – note the punning title of Christie’s poem – as a radically self-fashioned being.)

So damn him and damn her, mindlessly conceiving the poet; damn the two of them, their erotic “histrionics,” their “struggling in the fog.” Damn the death already implicit in his stone eyes and in her stench.

Stephen Dedalus, imagining his own conception, perceives the same mordant morbid fogbound struggle:

Wombed in sin darkness I was … made not begotten. By them, the man with my voice and my eyes and a ghostwoman with ashes on her breath. They clasped and sundered, did the coupler’s will.

And now the poet’s parents lie back, post-coital, still entwined, their world-projection misspent:

Spiderwebs lay in the grass, misted
and looking like misspent galaxies.
I cry into and out of this moment.

On the simplest level, the poet will ultimately cry forth from the womb out of this moment. But she is also damning the moment, crying into it, feeling herself to be, let’s say, the “misspent” product of a damnable coupling.

Pound told Eliot: strike this and this.
What was weak got dropped, and the poem
stood stronger without it.

These lines now have an uglier, better never to have been born, spin: The poet herself might well have been edited out by a “better craftsman” of the sort Pound represented.

In this reading, the brief lyric she has written amounts to an argument for, a reflection of, a brief or maybe even nonexistent life. This is Eliot’s Waste Land of rapes and abortions, stripped even of what Richard Ellmann calls the poem’s “neo-Christian hope.”

If you’re lucky enough to be in Washington during this incredible spring weather…

… come to UD‘s final lecture in her series of lectures on poetry at the Georgetown Public Library tomorrow at 2:00.

The library is steps from the cafes of Georgetown, and steps from the gardens of Dumbarton Oaks. With all of that, you could put together a really nice Saturday afternoon.

Here’s the second in my three-part series of lectures on poetry…

… given at the Georgetown Public Library. Another good turn-out today, with a terrific post-lecture discussion.

**********************************

Lecture Two: Stirring dull roots with spring rain: Poetry as Life Itself April 9, 2:00 to 4:00 p.m.


I
DREADING SPRING, DREADING NATIONAL POETRY MONTH

Rather than begin with a summary of last Saturday’s talk, I’ll be referring to it throughout this one, reminding you of continuities if you were here last week, and laying out those continuities I hope sufficiently clearly for those of you who weren’t.

It’s April, and the world wants us to be happy.

The sun is out in a particularly thrilling way (at least it has been) – it emerges from the dark, from the overcast of rain showers. Cherry trees are animated by the wind; the world wants us to feel and see its aliveness. The morning bird chorus is like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Even the weird weather – full-on spring, then snow, then a wind storm, then spring again – is part of the thrill. Gaia – the earth as living organism – wants us to feel and hear and celebrate its aliveness – and our aliveness, as part of the living organism that is the planet. And here I’ll remind you of the quotation from the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips around which my first lecture revolved: “Everybody is dealing with how much of their own aliveness they can bear, and how much they need to anesthetize themselves.” The provocation toward aliveness is arguably most acutely felt in excitingly transitional April. October is wistfully transitional; April is excitingly transitional. Things are blooming back to life, not flaming out toward death.

I mean, that’s one way – a pagan way if you like – to put it, to put the way we and generations of poets seem to feel about the spring. Poets after all are people who put our emotional and intellectual intuitions about this season on paper. Poets duly note the feelings coursing through them as the winds exhilarate them and long drifts of tulips thrill them.

A Christian poet like Gerard Manley Hopkins (by the way, we’ll look at his most famous poem next Saturday, for my final lecture in this series) will see all of this as animated not by Gaia but by God, a God to whom we can pray and even with whom, as Hopkins says in one of his poems, we can “contend.” His poem, which I’ve distributed, called “Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend,” is an extended complaint about the disparity between the poet’s inner lack of aliveness and happiness and generativity, and the patent aliveness and happiness and generativity of the world in spring. Why should I be dead and the world alive? Everything in the world is blessed by God with vitality and delight and creativeness – everything except me.


… banks and brakes
Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build – but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

It’s the same deal we discussed last week in regard to the famous opening lines of TSE’s The Waste Land – winter kept us – the dead – warm; spring now hurts us with sharp reminders of our spiritual deadness relative to a living world.

Here’s a DH Lawrence poem that makes the same move, first marveling at the spring and then concluding

And I, what fountain of fire am I among
This leaping combustion of spring? My spirit is tossed
About like a shadow buffeted in the throng
Of flames, a shadow that’s gone astray, and is lost.

Indeed there are plenty of poems that contend with spring, that actually hate the spring because it brings the “lie” of life, the myth of repleteness and generativity. Edna St Vincent Millay ends her poem “Spring” in the following way:

Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
April
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

It is not merely that we may feel internally inert; we may have a metaphysical appraisal in play about life as nothing. We may be nihilistic, or we may have strong nihilistic tendencies. “It is not enough”; Millay wants more – and it is our too-much desire – our unsatisfiable desire always for more, for a spring and for a world and indeed for a poem that will not be nothing, that will not, after its invigorating language rouses us to something, that will not remind us with a crash that life in itself may be nothing, and any particular poem is in this all-deflating context in itself no big deal. We desire a poem that does not make us turn away in disappointment from beautiful things like the spring and like poems.

Another poet, Kim Addonizio, in “Onset,” ends her poem of spring-dread (and note that title – “onset” – like a disease) by saying

it’s spring
and it’s starting again, the longing that begins, and begins, and begins.

And never gets anywhere – a painful perpetual advent of desire, prompted by spring. Desire, Freud wrote, is always in excess; and desire in the context of spring, or in the act of reading a gorgeous vivid poem, is uncontrollably prompted to be excessive.

Or let me give you a musical example, an argument about something rather brilliant that Beethoven does in some of his late works according to Dmitri Tymockzo. Recognizing our “excessive” desires and the impossibility of any musical work fully satisfying them, the composer incorporates the idea of excess, of the impossible to reach musical apotheosis inside certain works.

One might say that Beethoven’s musical “idea”–that is, the thematic material, as originally presented in [one of his] Sonata’s exposition–is in conflict with the limitations of his instrument, as represented by the high D in the soprano voice. The music “wants” to reach a high B-flat, but it gets “stuck” on the lower note. Such conflicts between musical “ideas” and the exigencies of actual performance are typical of Beethoven’s music. Especially in his late pieces, Beethoven frequently wrote music that was difficult, if not impossible, to play: for example, the very high vocal passages in the Missa Solemnis and Ninth Symphony, or certain near-impossible leaps in the Hammerklavier Sonata, op. 106. In these passages, the musical score seems to be in conflict with the human beings who are trying to perform it.

What is unusual, even unique, about the Tempest is the way the music seems to portray its own limitations. Instead of a conflict between the music and its performers, or between the desire of the composer and the abilities of the players, the Tempest is a piece of music that is in conflict with itself… the drama of the passage is the way it symbolizes both desire–in the form of the chromatically ascending chords–and limitation, as represented by the fixed upper note. It is as if Beethoven were suggesting that, while no amount of effort on his part would enable him to leap beyond the limits of his piano, his music demands that he try–as if the world of sticks and wires, the ordinary physical realm in which pianos exist, cannot be reconciled with the world of Beethoven’s aspiration. Needless to say, this coupling of an exhortation to transcendence (here heard as an inexorable chromatic chordal ascent) with a warning about the impossibility of success (the stubborn pedal point at the top of the piano) recalls Kant’s conception of sublimity. Like the Temple of Isis, the music seems to question its own adequacy, giving with one hand what it takes away with the other.

Much poetry as well, let us say, folds its knowledge of our impossible desire and the reality of its own inadequacy into its mode of expression. That’s another reason people hate it. Recall that I began my first lecture in this series with the following quotation from the film The Big Short:

“Truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hate poetry.”

The critic Ben Lerner suggests a related reason why people hate poetry:

There are varieties of interpenetrating demands subsumed under the word ‘poetry’ – to defeat time, to still it beautifully; to express irreducible individuality in a way that can be recognised socially or, like Whitman, to achieve universality by being irreducibly social, less a person than a national technology; to propound a measure of value beyond money, to defeat the language and value of existing society etc – but one thing all these demands share is that they can’t ever be fulfilled with poems. Hating on actual poems, then, is often an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the persistence of the demand of Poetry, and the jeremiads in that regard are defences, too, protecting the urgency and purity of the poetic impulse … Poets are liars not because, as Socrates said, they can fool us with the power of their imitations, but because identifying yourself as a poet implies you might overcome the bitter logic of the poetic principle, and you can’t. You can only compose poems that, when read with perfect contempt, clear a place for the genuine Poem that never appears.

Don DeLillo, in his novel Point Omega, says something similar in a more gentle way:

“The true life is not reducible to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever.” Poetry simply cannot encompass what our excessive desire – here, for the truth – desperately wants it to encompass. And when poetry does try to convey a truth – the truth that perhaps life is nothing, or, as John Updike wrote in a poem composed on his deathbed:


For life’s a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.

when poetry tells us stuff like this – we hate it.

We perhaps mind a little less philosophers pulling the rug out from under us. It’s an intellectual point, rather than an emotionally felt and beautifully – persuasively – rendered truth, when the philosopher Thomas Nagel writes:

[There is an inevitable collision] between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpetual possibility of regarding everything about which we are serious as arbitrary, or open to doubt.

This might be the point in my talk to remind you that April is National Poetry Month. For this universal doubt may extend to a certain sort of faith we have may in poetry itself.

While not a government initiative, NPM is celebrated by federal as well as private institutions – and the orientation of NPM activity is of course celebration. Yay, poetry! Yet the poet Richard Howard calls NPM “the worst thing that’s happened to poetry since the advent of the camera and the internal combustion engine,” while his fellow poet, August Kleinzahler asserts that – contrary to the NPM ethos – “Multivitamins are good for you. Exercise, fresh air, and sex are good for you. Fruit and vegetables are good for you. Poetry is not.” The complex and often dark interiority that serious poetry expresses has no place, these poets argue, in the typically affirmative, very public, and, they believe, inevitably trivializing NPM setting. Kleinzahler worries that the difficult and even hateful truth, if you will, that significant poetry so often conveys, is at odds not just with the ethos of NPM but with the folksy upbeat popular presentation of poetry that we get from national figures like Garrison Keillor of Prairie Home Companion.

There is also a UN-sponsored World Poetry Day (March 21), by the way, which is even more celebratory. If you go to the UNESCO WPD site, you read this:

Poetry reaffirms our common humanity by revealing to us that individuals, everywhere in the world, share the same questions and feelings.

I wouldn’t call this a revelation; I’d call it a platitude.

So is that the poetic choice for us as readers? Platitudes we hate or truths we hate?

One way to answer this question is to consider whether our experience or intuition of a certain arbitrariness or even nothingness underlying our existence has to be bitter or disappointing as we meet it poetically. Do we have to go again and again to the poet and hate her because she rouses a desire that there be something and then suggests that there may be nothing? Could it be the opposite – could poetry be one important place where we go to feel, grapple with, explore, play out, the problem of the arbitrary?

The poet John Ashbery indeed argues for a different approach to all of this; in talking about his love of Rothko and Pollack paintings, he asks:

Does their work amount to anything? There’s a possibility that it doesn’t, although I believe in it and want it to exist.

Ashbery goes on to call avant-garde art in general “reckless,” and he notes that

Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibilities that they are founded on nothing.

In other words, the possibility that life and the various – call them convictions of substance – that we bring to it are founded on nothing – that all of this is a shabby subterfuge, or a shell game, or a big short – means that positing something — faith in God, faith in beauty, faith in humanity, faith in poetry — can be seen as a kind of beautiful and bracing recklessness, a heady, blithe, risky, radical assumption of freedom. Art is one of the major places this free play plays out. Thus Ashbery invites us to enjoy the substance – the stuff that we as human beings make come into existence – even if it has or is very likely to have no substance. He invites us to expect the artist’s positing of this sort to be done in a tentative playful vague messy not quite there way – Pollack, Rothko, or take another great 20th century painter, Cy Twombly. Or take the greatest modern writer of fiction in English – James Joyce. The critic Hugh Kenner says of Joyce that he wants to capture in his prose “the haphazardly evidential quality of life.” We’re not arriving at firm conclusions; we’re gathering and narrating and witnessing the suggestive (evidential) but pretty random flow of experience. Ashbery thus invites us to expect precisely the sort of poetry he and his friend James Schuyler write – sketchy, associative, slangy, inconclusive. So let’s look at our Schuyler poem, the absurdly long Hymn to Life.

II
HYMN TO LIFE

Maybe idiot babbling and flower-strewing of the sort Edna St Vincent Millay complains about at the end of her spring poem is the best a poet who doesn’t want to disappoint us – or to simply register her disappointment – can do. Maybe what our best poets can offer on the spring – on life as a felt bubbling up within us of desire, of longing – is a sort of organized babbling, if that makes any sense.

Hymn to Life – our central spring poem here – can feel like babbling – rather than the song of praise that the word “hymn” prepares us for – and this is for a number of reasons. It goes on and on and on. Its pace never changes – it’s all a collection of neat, complete non-metrical sentences – very few exciting dashes, no mysterious ellipses. No rhyme, no really beautiful or new language. No drama here. It offers no clear symbolism or indeed recurrently meaningful figurative language of any kind. It seems without structure – its words don’t gather up into some moment of truth, epiphany, climax, revelation, acceptance, wisdom. The poetic persona is quite flat – no ecstatic Wordsworth or neurotic Sylvia Plath here, just a pleasant ordinary guy calmly woolgathering. Its lines are long and conversational and rather meandering. Some of its language is strikingly, well, platitudinous – its register often dips into dippy. Dippy or obvious or obviously inadequate or vague.

If it has a discernible form, this poem is a kind of back and forth between objective immediate descriptions of things the poet sees around him as he writes – daily ordinary stuff like trucks delivering goods and dandelions coming up – and what I’d call weak existential questions. The poet doesn’t pretend to be a philosopher or to have anything new to bring to our basic inquiries having to do with being, with knowledge, and with the passage of time. Rather, he seems to want to record faithfully the way these unsettling and pretty much unanswerable questions emerge randomly, and again rather weakly, out of the ordinary moments of our lives. Those of you who know Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway might think here of Peter Walsh slowly falling asleep on a park bench while Woolf’s prose follows his faltering stream of consciousness which, like Schuyler’s, turns out to be a combination of quotidian immediate observation and the sudden odd unanswerable existential inquiry.
In short, Schuyler seems to be trying to embed our accurately rendered mental experience in its present-time natural setting; he wants to show how our questions emerge – in real time – out of our experiences. We are not monks retreating to a hermitage in order to prompt meditation; nor are we like monks in already having a transcendent belief framework within which to experience existential questions. So the tension, for instance, between Gerard Manley Hopkins and God that we saw in the poem of his that we looked at earlier – that sort of poetic drama – just isn’t there. Which means that among the risks Schuyler takes in writing a poem of this sort is simply boring you. I’ll be interested, in the discussion after my talk, in finding out how many of you were able to read this poem all the way through.

So here’s its beginning – obviously we’ll only be able to jump about in this poem by way of analysis.

The wind rests its cheek upon the ground and feels the cool damp
And lifts its head with twigs and small dead blades of grass
Pressed into it as you might at the beach rise up and brush away
The sand.

An awkward first sentence, no? A bunch of simple clauses strung together with the word AND. He begins by personifying the wind, which, catching up in its energy twigs and grass, is like a person whose cheek grazes a surface and picks up things from that surface. It’s a strange, strained equivalence – the head of a person, the movement of the wind. And the likeness becomes even more strained when he compares the wind to a very precise human movement – getting up from the beach and brushing sand away from your skin. There’s a kind of defiant silliness to this comparison, made even sillier by the next line.

The day is cool and says, “I’m just staying overnight.”

The day, like a terse house-guest, assures us that the coolness of its air will soon be replaced by something warmer… These lines seem virtual satires of what traditional poets do as they hunt out appropriate metaphors and personify the world around them. (In terms of wind, for instance, think of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.”) Schuyler has just taken them a bit too far – his comparison is overwrought and his personification is childishly extreme. Mr Day says I’m just staying overnight. Something from a children’s book.

Yet one of the things I think Schuyler’s trying to convey throughout this poem is the hopelessly and wonderfully human world in which we live. We can’t help humanizing everything; it’s not really childish, it’s just the way we are. We constantly project our attributes onto inanimate objects (the melancholy moon), and here the poet is simply being playful with that impulse by way of making us aware of it – by way of making us see how we actually think. Back to the poem.

The world is filled with music, and in between the music, silence
And varying the silence all sorts of sounds, natural and man made:
There goes a plane, some cars, geese that honk and, not here, but
Not so far away, a scream so rending that to hear it is to be
Never again the same. “Why, this is hell.”

Note the lack of sense (between the music?), the again rather childishly awkward and simplistic formulations (geese – that – honk), and the absurdly abrupt shift of mood – from pleasantries about our musical world to the fact of hearing a hideous (human?) scream. It must be a human scream, because we suddenly get a quotation from Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus: Mephistopheles saying that yes, he is in hell, stuck in hell. So in a few lines we have jumped from pleasant naive nature imagery to the darkest evil. Yet nothing is being brought to this strange jumble by way of a sensibility – and think of last week’s poem, The Waste Land — all of its strange juxtapositions and literary quotations there are made coherent, from the poem’s title onward, by the depressive, cynical, disgusted, and at times elegiac mood of the speaker.. But here is a poem that announces itself as a song of praise to life and in the first few lines we have the statement that we are in hell.
The lines that follow these make clear that the speaker is – among other things – remembering a childhood in Washington DC, and he’s in particular remembering April here, which means cherry blossoms and other iconic spring settings. Let’s continue with another section of the poem.

Tomorrow
Will begin another spring. No one gets many, one at a time, like a long
Awaited letter that one day comes. But it may not say what you hoped
Or distraction robs it of what it once would have meant. Spring comes
And the winter weather, here, may hold. It is arbitrary, like the plan
Of Washington, D.C. Avenues and circles in asphalt web and no
One gets younger: which is not, for the young, true, discovering new
Freedoms at twenty, a relief not to be a teen-ager anymore.

The feel of this – and the feel of the whole poem – is laconic, mildly contemplative, with language that gestures toward the possibility of higher and clearer perceptions of things but never quite gets there. Again, this is a mind in the present-time process of thinking about things and describing things: we can’t expect non-sketchy, fully formed thoughts and arguments. Further, given what I’ve so far suggested, we shouldn’t be surprised to encounter the word arbitrary early on. Spring may well fail to satisfy our expectations of it, either romantic or weather-related, and we should accept that failure and the larger arbitrariness of reality in which it occurs – as we ourselves right here accept today that snow of all things was in today’s forecast.

The final lines of this excerpt point again to the loose free associational movement of this poem – how can he go from our city’s circles in asphalt to no one getting any younger (a platitude), after which he says – paradoxically – that actually one can get younger in the sense that the transition from teenage years to one’s twenties tends to be one of greater freedoms (i.e., you feel younger). These are the squirrelings of a real mind in real time. And a mind dealing throughout the poem with time passing, with getting older – he is now, we gather, fifty, and he’s not happy about this.

The turning of the globe is not so real to us
As the seasons turning and the days that rise out of early gray
—The world is all cut-outs then—and slip or step steadily down
The slopes of our lives where the emotions and needs sprout. “I
Need you,” tree, that dominates this yard, thick-waisted, tall
And crook branched. Its bark scales off like that which we forget:
Pain, an introduction at a party, what precisely happened umpteen
Years or days or hours ago.

Pedestrian, yes, and sort of winsomely lame or lamely winsome; yet this is the mind, it is life as it is lived and this poem is a hymn to life. Life as it is. This is the recognizable human mind, thinking true and it seems to me occasionally rather insightful things. That we can be told all our lives about earth’s rotation and never “realize” this – never feel it as any kind of reality – seems intriguing and worth thinking about, as does the fact that what we can grasp tends to be what’s closest to us, like obvious seasonal changes and of course the movement of the sun across one full day. I mean, this is the theme of our smallness, our incapacity in the face of large terrestrial and large metaphysical challenges – but the feel of the poem, again, is not one of disappointment or longing or bitterness in the face of our limitations, our parochial lameness. This is a poem that shows us how it would look not to write like the embittered spring poems I quoted from in the first part of this lecture, but rather to write poetry out of the rather unevolved apprehension of a world of “cut-outs” – a very partial and simple form of world-apprehension, but perhaps a form of world-apprehension with empirical reality, and with much to recommend it.

As this excerpt proceeds, we once again get the almost-comically childish humanization of nature. “I need you,” tree, because you’re tall and solid and permanent and I’m small and insubstantial and transient. Gazing at you, I can begin to sense the history of my own growth – what has remained in place, what has scaled off – what is important, what is unimportant. Gazing at you I can strengthen my sense of both the sameness of my life and my impermanence, and maybe come to some sort of peace with these things.

Time brings us into bloom and we wait, busy, but wait
For the unforced flow of words and intercourse and sleep and dreams
In which the past seems to portend a future which is just more
Daily life.

The life that Hymn to Life is celebrating and praising is – let’s argue – the very unforced flow of its own language, the life of one human being’s forward poetic energy. This is why Michael Hofman calls this poem “a long, tangent-driven poem-fleuve.” It is a long babbling river of words, exhilaratingly (or maybe boringly) unforced. In this passage, Schuyler rightly notes that all our lives, even as we’re busy making a life, we wait for a moment, we idealize a moment, when everything will fit and flow together with ease and naturalness. We dream of a time when we’re not anxious about time, not weighed down by the business of desiring a certain future for ourselves, but instead freed to think of the passage of time as a calm “just more of the same” sort of thing. Schuyler’s poem I think wants to exemplify this perhaps better way to live – a long unforced freeing of consciousness in which we are able to perceive that we should – uh – go with the flow.

A
Quote from Aeschylus: I forget. All, all is forgotten gradually and
One wonders if these ideas that seem handed down are truly what they were?
An idea may mutate like a plant, and what was once held basic truth
Become an idle thought. like, “Shall we plant some periwinkles there
By that bush? They’re so to be depended on.”

Note how the movement of this excerpt is toward the more and more trivial, the more and more minute, as we “slope” down from Aeschylus to a vague invocation of “ideas” to the degradation of basic truths over time to little more than idle daily pragmatic thoughts. This is clearly a poem distrustful of ideas and great thinkers — they are to be forgotten.


III
THE RECOVERY OF APPETITE AND THE NEED NOT TO KNOW YOURSELF

To conclude: I have, in this lecture, offered you two models of spring poems, which is to say poems about the recovery of aliveness, felt seasonally and – as a personal possibility – internally. One model of poem – inaugurated for our time by Eliot’s The Waste Land, but as I hope my examples showed, succeeded – and to some extent preceded – by countless other similar poems – one model is essentially a complaint having to do with the disparity between one’s sense of one’s own meager inner sources and supplies of aliveness and the profuse aliveness of the natural world around you in spring. Lord, send my roots rain.

I don’t deny that there are other poems – some of them by Hopkins himself – which are straightforward celebrations of the advent of spring and of the sense of one’s own aliveness returning in the spring. I am arguing that the complaint mode tends to dominate in our time as we become oppressed by our sense that the sources of meaning and value that have traditionally kept human beings reasonably buoyant whatever the season are perhaps in modernity and postmodernity no longer there, whether these sources were pagan (we are part of nature and therefore as subject to its recurrences and exhilarations as nature itself; and by the way if you want a version of cutesy modern paganism, I’ve included in your handouts e e cummings’ poem, in just spring) or religious (the spring is a gift to us from God, and to be celebrated as such).
I have also suggested that a certain sort of twentieth century poem represents a rather intelligent and workable alternative to the complaint mode, and that James Schuyler’s Hymn to Life is a strong example of that kind of poem. Rather than note the spring-inspired recurrence of desire, longing, aliveness in oneself and then – recall our poetic examples – shake your fist at nature for having stirred atavistic energies within oneself that will never be allowed to run as free as the wind — or let us suggest along with Adam Phillips that you will never allow them to run free — rather than doing that, perhaps you could, like Schuyler, stop fretting that “life in itself is nothing” (quoting Millay) or contending with God for having unjustly singled you out for nothingness, and instead perhaps you could adopt the rather more fun ‘acrobatics’ of John Asbery, who, you will recall, says this:

Most reckless things are beautiful in some way, and recklessness is what makes experimental art beautiful, just as religions are beautiful because of the strong possibilities that they are founded on nothing.

Here we simply fly above the possible nothingness; yet more, we find beautiful our own recklessness – our artists’ recklessness – in doing that. A poem like Hymn to Life could be understood as endless flight above the abyss, with the poet’s endless words a way of staying aloft not by finding sources of support like religion and other forms of steadying, transcendent belief, but simply by maintaining verbal altitude. In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce’s hero Stephen Dedalus says that as a writer he’s going to “fly by those nets” – he’s going to soar above the nets of religion, nationality, and all the other inherited foundational beliefs that have oppressed him. But that’s a different model; in our time the nets have been folded away; they can no longer save – or entrap – you. Our artists fly above an abyss.

Asked why one writes, the critic Harold Bloom responds:

One writes to keep going, to keep oneself from going mad. One writes to be able to write the next piece of criticism or to live through the next day or two. Maybe it’s an apotropaic gesture, maybe one writes to ward off death. I’m not sure. But I think in some sense that’s what poets do. They write their poems to ward off dying.

Dying here can be understood not merely as physical death but the spiritual, affective, drying out, the personal enervation, the inability to be adequate to the life of the world, about which so many of the poets of our time write. The ongoingness we noted in Schuyler’s poem – our sense that what moves it forward is not a myth, an organization of symbols, a narrative, a sensibility, or even much of a point – turns out to be life itself, the poet’s reckless pouring out of song which is his life, his particular mode of being an individual in the world at a particular time, with a certain unresolvable set of memories, confusions, regrets, and so forth and so forth and so forth, all of which being a poet, he turns into poetry. Such a poem will end anywhere and anyhow; it will begin anywhere and anyhow; one can excerpt from it anywhere and anyhow. It is the ongoingness that life is, life understood as the sort of thing that doesn’t work over time toward great moments of insight and acceptance and reconciliation and triumph and vindication and utter collapse and whatever you’re hoping and dreading it works toward.

It’s like that great poem by Philip Larkin – arguably England’s greatest mid-twentieth century poet – called I Remember, I Remember, when he thinks back on the town in which he grew up. Here’s part of it:

Our garden, first: where I did not invent
Blinding theologies of flowers and fruits,
And wasn’t spoken to by an old hat.
And here we have that splendid family
I never ran to when I got depressed,
The boys all biceps and the girls all chest,
Their comic Ford, their farm where I could be
‘Really myself’. I’ll show you, come to that,
The bracken where I never trembling sat,
Determined to go through with it; where she
Lay back, and ‘all became a burning mist’…

No, apparently the lives of most of us don’t work that way.

But they do! I hear you protest.

Well, maybe. But how about the possibility that we project narrative neatness – rising action, climax, denouement – on lives that actually look more like Schuyler’s poem? That we secure our foundations via plot points? Let me quote again from Adam Phillips.

Analysis should do two things that are linked together. It should be about the recovery of appetite, and the need not to know yourself… Symptoms are forms of self-knowledge. When you think, I’m agoraphobic, I’m a shy person, whatever it may be, these are forms of self-knowledge. What psychoanalysis, at its best, does is cure you of your self-knowledge. And of your wish to know yourself in that coherent, narrative way. You can only recover your appetite, and appetites, if you can allow yourself to be unknown to yourself. Because the point of knowing oneself is to contain one’s anxieties about appetite. It’s only worth knowing about the things that make one’s life worth living, and whether there are in fact things that make it worth living.

If Phillips is right (and maybe he’s not, but let’s go with this), then one function of a certain sort of art – poetry, painting, music – would be to accustom us to the suspension of this baleful project of self-knowing, to pleasure us into the sort of acrobatics that would do away with whatever coherent, narrative, foundational sources of knowledge – self-knowledge, world-knowledge – are tying us down and starving us.

This is not know-nothingism. As Phillips says, the project of knowing now would become one in which we try to know not who we are in some coherent plotted sense, but “about the things that make one’s life worth living, and whether there are in fact things that make it worth living.” By “things,” I don’t think Phillips means ideologies and philosophies and shared transcendent convictions. I think he means, more or less, personal projects, activities, relationships, conversations, forms of inquiry, that you for one reason or another happen to find engrossing. This model of life might imply, as it seems to do in Schuyler’s poem, a modest, reasonably selfless, present-time orientation toward questions of value. What do I see right now as I look around me? What among the things of the world I’m looking at compels in me particular? Yet this “appetitive” model of a life, as I understand it, as Phillips evokes it, doesn’t have to be particularly moral, or at least conventionally moral — what makes your life worth living might be wasting time, or being ruthlessly ambitious. The point is that whatever you’re engrossed by you’re not hastily, impatiently, even bitterly, insisting on some larger fulfillment, some larger structure, within which the thing that engrosses you, the thing that excites your appetite has a larger payoff than things in the sort of world we now inhabit tend to have.

If I can conclude with a return to the problem with things like National Poetry Months and International Poetry Days. The objection that quite a lot of poets have with a day or a month all for them (you’d think they’d be grateful) is precisely the pre-formed, socially affirmative, morally uplifting, publicly acceptable, character of poetry under the sign of on-command-inspirational large-group events. Public poetry in our time tends to be exactly what Phillips is objecting to – a statement of who I am, an affirmation of my roots, my story. Perhaps we should fly above those very unreliable nets.

Tomorrow is UD’s Second Lecture at the Georgetown Public Library.

If you’re in the vicinity, a perfect day would begin with a stroll around Dumbarton Oaks, a very short walk from there to the library for UD‘s talk (see details here), and then a walk down the steps in the library’s back garden.

At the bottom of the steps, you’ll find Georgetown, full of spectacular cafes.

So come to UD‘s talk!

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