Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Saying Blackberry.

Essays in Criticism

Winter 2005


Poetry’s Touch: On Lyric Address. By WILLIAM WATERS. Cornell University Press, 2003; $37.50.

Argument & Song: Sources and Silences in Poetry. By STANLEY PLUMLY. Handsel Books, 2003; $30.00.

Lyric poetry has, over the years, shed many of its original accoutrements. The lyre is gone. The poems are not sung—or even spoken that often—and rarely are they composed for social occasions, let alone specific holidays or celebrations. When one reads a modern lyric, a number of questions arise that would not have been asked of the first Greek lyrics. Who is speaking? To whom is he speaking? When and where?

Standard answers to the first two questions are 1) the poet, and 2) himself. John Stuart Mill famously said ‘poetry is overheard’. Northrop Frye wrote that the lyric poet ‘turns his back on his listeners’. Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin described the lyric as a ‘monologically sealed-off utterance’.

For William Waters, these views neglect both the importance and the ambiguity of lyric address. Address, for Waters, is not merely one ‘linguistic feature’ among many others, but ‘the meridian of all discourse…. the fiber of language’s use and being, inseparable from every word in every sentence’. Lyric address, though, as Waters notes, has been ambiguous since at least the fourth century BC: the librarians and scholars who first wrote lyrics for the page, rather than performance, wrote their poetry as if it were still intended for feasts and festivals, to be performed with others present. According to Waters, this ‘detachment from context’ became the ‘foundation’ of modern lyric. Modern poets typically write for an unspecified audience who will read the poem at an unspecified time; but, Waters says, they have revelled in this ambiguity, inventing uncertain voices and unreliable personae, playing with the poem and the reader. ‘The resulting kinds of ambiguity have become integral to modern written poetry, so that to read a poem is… to enter an underspecified communicative act’.

Underspecified, yes; but monologic, no. For Waters, this is a crucial point not only for the understanding of poetry, but for the appreciation of it: we must come to the poem as if we matter to it.

Certain critical conventions hold that instead of touch we must always speak of an unbridgeable gap between the linguistic and the real, or between the ostensible act and its meaning (as when saying you, for example, is taken to be an attempt to hoodwink or dominate the other). What has not been clear is how to square these ideas with the way people actually read, and with what makes us care about reading.

Waters, quoting Virgil Nemoianu, hopes that a focus on address can lead to a ‘criticism in which writing is deliberately taken as a gift to others’. Criticism, he says, is ‘shot through with affective interest. To feel this interest is to begin to acknowledge the claims made on us as individuals by our engagement with poems’.

Waters is a professor of German, and his primary exemplar of lyric address is Rainer Maria Rilke. (He relies mostly on Edward Snow’s translations, modifying them slightly and always providing the original German.) Rilke uses the second-person often in his poems, yet critics speak of him, following Bakhtin, as a ‘monologic’ poet. The famous concluding line of ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’, for example, rendered in English as ‘You must change your life’, is typically read as the sculpture’s injunction to Rilke, rather than Rilke’s injunction to us. It is both, of course—and this is no small point. For the poem is about the way that art speaks to us, and Rilke has, by using the second-person, reached out to his readers just as the archaic torso reached out to him.

Waters demonstrates that this concern with address appears frequently in Rilke’s poetry, reading ‘Snake-Charming’, in particular, to great effect. That poem describes a snake-charmer who ‘lures himself a hearer’, and ‘wills and wills… the reptile’ out of his basket,

and then just a glance: and the Indian’s
infused in you a foreignness,

in which you die. It’s as though a blazing
sky crashed in on you. A crack
runs through your face.

At the moment that the snake-charmer mysteriously and wordlessly speaks to his observer, the poem shifts to the second person. Rilke, Waters writes, ‘naturally discovers, in syntax, the electricity produced by a turn from third to second person; and this turn itself suggests, in pragmatics, the power of a poem over its reader’. ‘Snake-Charming’ may concern an ‘attempt to hoodwink… the other’ (in the lines following those above, ‘Spices piles themselves/ upon your Nordic memory’), but it certainly concerns, as Waters demonstrates, how and what a poet communicates to his readers, and how we, as readers, participate in that event.

Another poet whom Waters reads well is Emily Dickinson. Her ‘Essential Oils – are wrung’ does not use the second person, but Waters sees in its uncertain grammar a message for and about its readers. ‘The Attar from the Rose’, Dickinson writes, describing the hard work of writing poetry, ‘Be not expressed by Suns – alone – / It is the gift of Screws’. The poem then turns from the act of writing to the act of reading:

The General Rose – decay –
But this – in Lady’s Drawer
Make Summer – When the Lady lie
In Ceaseless Rosemary –

The word ‘this’, when used in the manner above, demonstrates a key difference between written lyric poetry and its ancient oral ancestor. ‘The written poem is an object in the visual field; a delimited thing, it can indicate itself as a thing in way that a stretch of spoken language cannot do’.

Dickinson’s ‘this’ points to the body of her poetry, or to the very poem that says ‘this’. It is a mode of access to the reader, since the demonstrative refers with equal force to the poem beneath the poet’s pen circa 1862 and to the instantiation of it that I, now, hold to read.

Dickinson seeks further ‘access to the reader’, according to Waters, with the odd phrase ‘Make Summer’. The context would seem to demand ‘makes summer’ or ‘will make summer’. Granting Dickinson’s freedom with tense and agreement (‘decay’ just above also lacks an ‘s’), Waters sees in ‘Make Summer’ a command that, by suggesting the imperative mode, invokes the second-person: ‘even in this poem without a you, it is a second-person stance of responsiveness and personal engagement that the work asks of its reader’.

This reading of Dickinson comes in a chapter on epitaphs and inscriptions that is the finest in the book. Noting that ‘poetry’s contact through print is in all salient ways identical to contact through a gravestone inscription’, Waters demonstrates that the communicative ambiguities of such writings—a living author writing as if dead, so that his unknown, future readers may keep him alive—are thus broadly illustrative. He opens the chapter with a reading of Horace’s famous ode 3.30, about making ‘a monument more lasting than bronze’. Though the poem does not make explicit mention of the reader, it is readers, the poem implies, who will preserve Horace’s monument. All poems of this tradition—such as Shakespeare’s sonnets—as well as all epitaphs, ‘require, ever and again, the willing instrumentality of a reader who will put her own mortal voice at their service’, and thus address the reader, at least implicitly. In an intriguing aside, Waters notes that Rilke, after much reflection, declined to record his poems in his own voice. To do so would have rendered unnecessary the ‘willing instrumentality’ of a living voice, something Rilke intended his poems to require.

Waters does not try to resolve the ambiguities inherent in the ‘communicative situation’ of lyric poetry; his comfort with such ambiguity and his focus on what we as readers must bring to poems are the great strengths of Poetry’s Touch. Waters is also admirably unprogrammatic. He does wander sometimes from his main arguments, particularly in his readings of specific poems, which tend to overrun their usefulness. The selection of poems, too, apart from Rilke and perhaps Dickinson, is miscellaneous. Waters might have focused instead on a single tradition—English, say, or American, or German (as Waters himself notes, the English you ‘can correspond to five distinct forms in some other languages’, complicating comparisons across languages). Nonetheless, his compact study is well worth reading, directing our attention as readers to what poems expect of us.

While Waters focuses on the reader of lyric poetry, Stanley Plumly presents the writer’s point of view. Argument & Song: Sources and Silences in Poetry re-prints essays dating back to the 1970s that have appeared in collections and journals—predominantly the American Poetry Review and Antaeus. Plumly, a professor of English, has published several books of poems; this is his first book of prose. Like Waters, Plumly is concerned more or less exclusively with lyric poetry, though he does not say so. The primary concern of the book—buried somewhat amid essays on yoga, Whistler, and other subjects—is the nature and form of free verse.

For Plumly, free verse is a form, similar to the sonnet or the villanelle. ‘The fiction of American free verse’, he writes, ‘is not so much that the demands are any less formal but that they are finally any different’. Every poem, he argues, must find its form; form must be achieved, for a ballad no less than a free verse poem.

Plumly is most convincing when he applies these ideas to the breaking of poetic lines. In a free verse poem, the poet can break his lines at any point, unconstrained by rhyme or meter. For a poem to succeed, however, the poet must break the lines precisely and deliberately.

There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence

These lines are from ‘Meditation at Langunitas’, perhaps Robert Hass’s best-known poem. Plumly discusses the poem for several pages in the essay ‘Dirty Silence’, at one point shifting the breaks in the lines above in order to demonstrate Hass’s skill:

There was a woman I made love to
and I remember how,
holding her small shoulders in my hands (sometimes)
I felt a violent wonder at her presence

Plumly oddly alters the punctuation somewhat, to little purpose, but his point is well-made. The alternative arrangement of the lines follows more closely the overt meaning of the words: each line contains a single thought. In part, perhaps, for that reason, the words lose much of their force. Hass, Plumly says, ‘works against the habit of the thought and possible metrical unit to make the good sense more interesting sense, to let us ease into the emotion with him’. Hass also thus emphasizes, ‘visually, as well as vocally’, certain key words: woman, holding, sometimes, presence. Hass has found a form for his poem, one that, while no less deliberate than that of a sonnet or sestina, appears unforced, easing his readers into the emotion.

‘Dirty Silence’, possibly the collection’s best essay, concerns the resistance a poet encounters in that search for form. The essay’s title comes from Wallace Stevens; for Plumly, it is a metaphor for ‘a certain kind of tension necessary to the “music of a poem”’ (Stevens again). That tension is particularly evident, he argues, in American poems, because all American poetry is written against the ghostly background of English poetry—at once an unsuitable tradition and an inevitable inheritance for American writers. American poets have developed a style in response to that challenge which involves foregrounding the resistance to form, ‘talking back against the metrical potential of the line’. Plumly cites for example a quatrain from Pound’s ‘To Whistler, American’, which consists of ‘four lines of ghost pentameter, half of which are sure iambic’.

You had your searches, your uncertainties,
And this is good to know—for us, I mean,
Who bear the brunt of our America
And try to wrench her impulse into art.

Plumly notes the ‘little assonant rhyme going on, in couplets’, and how Pound ‘even manages to interrupt himself (“for us, I mean”) without interrupting the “music” of the line’. Plumly describes this technique as ‘speech barking back at song’ (which would have made an excellent title for this collection of essays).

Speech barks back at song in the closing lines of another Robert Hass poem, ‘Interrupted Meditation’, which Plumly discusses in a subsequent essay.

A vault of blue sky, traildust, the sweet medicinal
scent of mountain grasses, and at trailside—
I’m a little ashamed that I want to end this poem
singing, but I want to end this poem singing—the wooly
closed-down buds of the sunflower to which, in English,
someone gave the name, sometime, of pearly everlasting.

Plumly chooses this poem to close ‘Chapter and Verse’, the three-part, one-hundred-and-fifty-page essay that concludes Argument & Song. The essay’s first two sections were published one year apart in the late 1970s. The first, entitled ‘Rhetoric and Emotion’, concerns those poets—among them Dave Smith, Robert Hass, and C.K. Williams—who write ‘out of an emotional imperative’. These poets provide a personal narrative in their poems, in the vein of Robert Lowell and, before him, William Carlos Williams. Plumly distinguishes these poets from those ‘who write from an emblematic commitment’, who are committed to the object or the image, and whose forebears include the Black Mountain poets and the Surrealists. These he addresses in the essay’s second section, ‘Image and Emblem’.

Though some poets may straddle the line between these two groups, the distinction itself is well-founded. Consider the following lines from ‘The Mystery of Emily Dickinson’, by Marvin Bell.

This morning, not much after dawn,
in level country, not New England’s,
through leftovers of summer rain, I
went out rag-tag to the curb…

This is storytelling. ‘This morning… I went out’. An event occurs. A narrative is taking shape. Contrast that with these lines from Charles Simic:

This street. Grey day
breaking. So many things
to evoke, name.
Standing here, partaking
of that necessity.

As in the Bell poem, a man stands on a street corner. And shortly afterward, in both poems, a passerby will be mentioned. But the movement in Simic’s poem is not toward narrative. Simic presents, in Plumly’s words, ‘the internal history and structure of an imagination translating its needs’. Thought is described. When Simic describes the passers-by, they will appear as emblems of thought, as images, not as characters in a story. (Both passages also begin with ‘This,’ that word so important to Waters; not surprisingly, only in the imagistic Simic poem—crafted as a kind of verse object—can the word plausibly be taken as referring to the poem itself, an effect repeated by the word ‘here’.)

Free verse storytelling is the primary subject of the essay’s third section, ‘Narrative Values, Lyric Imperatives’, first published in American Poetry Review late last year. The title seems to echo ‘Poetic Diction, Prose Virtues’, a chapter in The Situation of Poetry, by Robert Pinsky, who is a major presence in the essay. The arguments in this section are not new: they are familiar from the earlier essays, such as ‘Dirty Silence’, which says, of free verse, that ‘its narrative values depend, implicitly, on its lyric imperatives…. free verse depends on cause-and-effect connections, and therefore emphasizes, sentence to sentence, temporal plot over spatial pattern’. ‘Rhetoric and Emotion’, too, discusses how lyric has ‘come to a fuller understanding of its dramatic, narrative potential’. ‘Narrative Values, Lyric Imperatives’ applies these same ideas to a handful poets not discussed in the essay’s first two sections, with apparent emphasis on those who have recently become prominent (such as Louise Glück and Jorie Graham).

What distinguishes the essay is Plumly’s response to Language poetry, which had not yet emerged when he began writing criticism in the late 1970s. He wishes to give this development a fair hearing; he quotes Charles Bernstein approvingly, and gives sensitive readings of two Michael Palmer poems, whom he clearly admires. But, like William Waters, he cannot abide the interpretations offered by some academic readers, who see an ‘unbridgeable gap between the linguistic and the real’. He dismisses, for instance, a reading of Palmer by Steve McCaffery, in which McCaffery writes that there ‘is no place in his work because there largely is no referent incanted’. As rebuttal, Plumly cites the Palmer poem ‘Twenty-four Logics in Memory of Lee Hickman’, which begins

The bend in the river followed us for days
and above us the sun
doubled and redoubled its claims

Now we are in a house
with forty-four walls
and nothing but doors

‘Even in his most severe symbolist voice, he speaks from circumstance, from time and place, from specifics, within an overt, or covert, gesture toward action, motive, identity’. For Plumly, ‘Palmer is interesting to the extent that he is associated with… those values that connect the word to the world, perception to emotion, and language to motive’. Poets, Plumly believes, must work to connect the word to the world, the linguistic to the real—precisely because words are, so often, at such a remove from experience. What would be the purpose of a poetry with ‘no referent incanted’?

This appears to be a recent and growing concern. In the preciously titled ‘Words on Birdsong’, from 1992, Plumly relates the story of a young poet who, in a public lecture, talks ‘about the source of one of his poems’, and about ‘how he had had to change the primary story of the experience in order to accommodate the secondary story of the poem’. The poem described a psychosomatic attack experienced by a friend. ‘Having written a draft of his poem, however, the poet found that his language had turned too elevated for the illness, was too hyperbolic’—and so the poet killed off the subject of his poem, deciding to ‘“meet the construct” by raising the stakes of his material’. The poet was happy with the result, thinking it one of his best.

Plumly disagrees. ‘When our poet lies about death he voids the substance of his elegy’. Hence the word ‘sources’ in the title of this collection. Plumly believes that a poet must find inspiration in experience, and not merely in words or other poems. ‘Language, as such’, he says, ‘is not the source of poetry’. This effectively distances him from a whole school of thought in contemporary poetry criticism. In ‘Narrative Values, Lyric Imperatives’, he argues ‘that there is no such thing as an “indeterminate sign”; only a less determinate sign’.

It is perhaps because he thinks this way that Plumly makes such a good reader of Robert Hass, whom he discusses at length three times in Argument & Song. ‘Meditation at Langunitas’, published in 1979, can be read as a refutation of what William Waters calls the ‘critical conventions’ espoused by Steve McCaffery and others. In the poem, Hass takes up ‘the notion that,/ because there is in this world no one thing/ to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,/ a word is elegy to what it signifies’. Hass’s response to this notion is not, as some critics might prefer, to write ‘a splendid poetry of displacement, of shifts and nomadic drifts of text through zones of page’ (as McCaffery describes the work of Palmer). It is, instead, to seek for those

moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

Balliol College, Oxford David Haglund