Poetry about poetry and poetry about hunger

October 19, 2008

I too, dislike it, Marianne Moore writes in a poem she simply called Poetry: as if sensing the ensuing fate of poetry is to be genuinely ignored—but offers a quick apologia: poetry is a place for the genuine, she insists. It is useful.

One must make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not pretty,
nor till the poets among us can be
“literalists of
the imagination”–above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them, shall we have

it. 

 One is tempted to discount such things despite the good writing. Yes, an imaginary garden with real toads is one of the better characterizations of a poem, but we have real problems in this world, why spend a single iota of time worrying about, you know, meta-poetry? Like, if you can’t find something serious to write about…

Listen however to what William Carlos Williams is telling his wife:

My heart rouses

          thinking to bring you news

                    of something

that concerns you

          and concerns many men.  Look at

                    what passes for the new.

You will not find it there but in

          despised poems.

                    It is difficult

to get the news from poems

          yet men die miserably every day

                    for lack

of what is found there.

         

Landing fresh on the planet from Mars, one would want to know more about this thing called a ‘poem’—despised or not. Let’s try another one:

THE POEMS OF OUR CLIMATE

I

Clear water in a brilliant bowl,

Pink and white carnations. The light

In the room more like a snowy air,

Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow

At the end of winter when afternoons return.

Pink and white carnations – one desires

So much more than that. The day itself

Is simplified: a bowl of white,

Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,

With nothing more than the carnations there.

 II

Say even that this complete simplicity

Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed

The evilly compounded, vital I

And made it fresh in a world of white,

A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,

Still one would want more, one would need more,

More than a world of white and snowy scents.

 

III

There would still remain the never-resting mind,

So that one would want to escape, come back

To what had been so long composed.

The imperfect is our paradise.

Note that, in this bitterness, delight,

Since the imperfect is so hot in us,

Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

 

 

Wallace Stevens is nothing if he’s not subtitle: he seems to be recommending the ‘poem’ for its failures. Another meta-poem, the subject is the ‘poems’ of our climate. Why the plural? Okay, it’s got three sections, call each one a poem and you can move on. Three poems about the ‘climate’.

But try this experiment: draw a line underneath the line At the end of winter when afternoons return, and then draw one below To what had been so long composed, and then again after the next line—break up the poem into these four parts and then look at the climate as it flows through these new poems, poems buried in the top three. Turns out, there are a lot of poems in these ‘poems’, poems mutating and interacting and overlapping each other—an orgy of poems. Our climate, he’s saying, is poems.

You doubt this? Look at our new poem one: it’s all stasis and stillness, all parataxis and sentence fragment, flashes of light glancing around the room. There isn’t a proper verb in the lot. There’s no action at all. The poet is painting or flower arranging or taking snapshots of his bowl of carnations. Parataxis (from the Greek—the act of placing side by side) reigns. The poet is practicing poetry as a form of sculpture—light, a room, porcelain bowl, flowers—pretty as a picture, except…

 

…except that there is another poem here, a narrative poem—disguised perhaps, but clear as water when you look at it. It may seem like statuary on a shelf, but look at the thought process that is being mimed in these sentence fragments: a narrative of remembrance, a groping after the full picture as it forms in the mind: thoughts are qualified and refined, details and similes are added: after all, we’re reminded, it’s not a picture we’re looking at, where you see it whole, it’s a poem with information dispensed line by line—you see? The mind of winter, thinking it through, and then sculpting it for us, a poem about poetry, a poem about painting and sculpture, stasis and movement.

The second poem (or third) we should perhaps name: ‘More’. Surely it is symptomatic of something:  Sentences are formed. We get reflective and philosophical, and along with our afternoons, we get our verbs back—good, strong ones too, desire, want, and need—perhaps too strong.

‘More’ contains an interior argument, Stevens philosophizing for and against his poem. First reflect—pink and white carnations—a shrug, a sigh—one desires so much more than that. Say even, that this simplicity did something amazing, stripped and concealed the ‘vital I’, made it fresh—still one would want more, one would need more—want more, need more, desire more. One would want to escape…

Now hold on. Aren’t we putting a lot of weight on a bowl of carnations? Pretty, aren’t they? Simple—sure. But since when is a porcelain bowl supposed to satisfy all our needs and desires? 

                                  Cold Pastoral!

When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man…

 

We, it seems, are in the midst of a serious aestheticism. The contemplation of beauty can redeem us from our wretched state. Our needs and desires, like the needs and desires that John Keats brought to his Grecian Urn, can be satisfied by an ageless, timeless pastoral perfection: Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter…

There is autobiography inside this aesthetic. Harold Bloom in a podcast from Yale tells how Stevens used to sit in the evening, over a dry martini, and contemplate carefully arranged flowers. As a student of romantic poetry, Keats’ similar contemplation would naturally occur. No, Stevens shakes his head, one desires so much more than that; I don’t believe it.

 

At heart a poem is an aphorism, at least a lyric poem. One hidden poem is not hidden at all; it is one of the great aphorisms: The imperfect is our paradise. You can quote it tomorrow at work. The imperfect is our paradise. We don’t need exegesis here. It’s clear. A topic sentence for your essay, the perfect poem, and the perfect end to this poem: and so, this is the end of poem three. (four, five?)

 But of course, it’s not the end, is it? The poem and the poems go on.

What is an aphorism, exactly? In part, it’s a definition, in part it’s about concision and compression—but at heart it’s an expression of a general truth, one that should ring true when heard. The imperfect is our paradise. It does ring true. Perfect, a perfect end.

 

 Note that, in this bitterness, delight,

Since the imperfect is so hot in us,

Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

  

Harold Bloom in his Yale talk points out that one of the virtues of The Poems of our Climate is that it is carefully thought through. It’s not a casual piece. Everything here serves a purpose: the music, the thought, the poetry, the narrative structure (the flowers, the bowl, the snow), all in service to flawed words and stubborn sounds, an appeal to perfection where the imperfect reigns. Samuel Beckett on occasion does something similar in his novels: he builds the perfect arc of a narrative, a long sentence that despite all expectation, concludes flawlessly, a period come to exquisite fruition, amen—and then he tacks on a little phrase at the end that fucks up everything. So, Wallace Stevens—we can conclude—concludes the narrative of The Poems of our Climate with an illustration of his point: The imperfect is our paradise. The ‘poems’ in The Poems can be thought of as a kind of narrative experiment, a study in the way one might compose a poem, a poem that voices The Poems.

Gary Snyder will conclude our services today, writing in the October 20 issue of The New Yorker.

MU CH’I’S PERSIMMONS

There is no remedy for satisfying hunger other than a painted rice cake.

                                                –Dogen, November, 1242

On the back wall down the hall

 

Lit by a side glass door

 

Is the scroll of Mu Ch’I’s great

Sumi painting, “Persimmons”

 

The wind-weights hanging from the

Axles hold it still.

 

The best in the world, I say,

Of persimmons.

 

Perfect  statement of emptiness

No other than form

 

The twig and the stalk still on,

The way they sell them in the

Market even now.

 

The original’s in Kyoto at a

Lovely Rinzai temple where they

Show it once a year

 

This one’s a perfect copy from Benrido

I chose the mounting elements myself

With the advice of the mounter

 

I hang it every fall.

 

And now, to these overripe persimmons

From Mike and Barbara’s orchard.

Napkin in hand,

I bend over the sink

Suck the sweet orange goop

That’s how I like it

Gripping a little twig

 

Those painted persimmons

 

Sure cure hunger

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: