Monday, November 28, 2011


A Consideration of Louise Bogan’s Poetry

One of the striking features of Louise Bogan’s poetry is how little of it there is. Another is how short those poems are. No more than twelve of her poems are over a page long. Even when compared to the modest work produced by poets like Elizabeth Bishop, Barbara Howes and Philip Larken, Bogan’s body of work is small and her poems short. Yet her voice is as powerful as her vision is unique.

It’s impossible to read such poems as “The Romantic,” “The Portrait,” “Statue and Birds,” and not see that Bogan attempts to break down the stereotypes of deified female beauty. In doing so, she struggles toward something more profound than a sociopolitical statement. In an early poem called, “The Alchemist,” the subject of the poem searches for “a passion wholly of the mind,” but ultimately discovers:

With mounting beat the utter fire
Charred existence and desire.
It died low, ceased its sudden thresh.
I had found unmysterious flesh—
Not the mind’s avid substance—still
Passionate beyond the will.

These are the first traces of a pursuit encompassing most of Bogan’s poetry: the pursuit of a concept of the eternal different from the deification of female beauty and also different from the projection of the mind or will into infinity.

The search for a new concept of the eternal was common to her time in poets like Rilke, H.D. and Wallace Stevens. However, more radically than any of these poets, Bogan sought to find a concept of the eternal that outstripped the mind’s tendency to create a mere projection of itself and especially to outstrip the heart’s tendency to find false comfort. The mind and the heart are both temporal. The eternal endures far beyond either of them. It is a landscape that excludes them.

In an apostrophe to her dead brother she says she can reassure him that everything endures, “save of peace alone.” We are forever restless and suffering the grief of things passing away. The heart wraps itself tightly for protection, so tightly, in fact, it suffocates itself in the body.

See this fine body, joined
More cleanly than a thorn.
What man, though lusty-loined,
What woman from woman born,

Shaped a slight thing, so strong,
Or a wise thing so young?

This also applies to Bogan’s style. Her poems are slight and strong like the homunculus. Her typically short lines are slowed and tensed by clusters of equally-stressed monosyllables. Reciting Bogan’s poems out loud the voice strains, thrown to a pitch very near to breaking. Her lines burn with the rage to endure, with the fury of what it means to suffer.

Now, only to mock
At the sterile cliff laid bare,
At the cold pure sky unchanged,
You look upon the rock,
You look upon the air.

Thinking: Now we hear
What we heard last year,
And bear the wind’s rude touch
And its ugly sound
Equally with so much
We have learned how to bear.

The limit already traced must be returned to and visited,
Touched, spanned, proclaimed, else the heart’s time be all. . .”
[“Didactic Piece”]

Her most forgiving poems, like “Cartography,” “Musician,” and “Roman Fountain,” move with the pressure and caution of someone in a laboratory. Enjambed lines encumber the heart with all it must bear. At other times they mirror the heart’s withdrawal before its new vision of the eternal, the “permanence of the impersonal.” The phrase is Richard Eberhart’s but easily could have been Bogan’s. Her poems attempt to reveal a world beyond the heart and beyond the eyes.

Few poets have so thoroughly conceived of a universe that doesn’t include them. But “the heart’s time” is all we know. A world whose essence is the absence of a witness cant’ be revealed. So the comfort offered by a poem like “Night” isn’t accessible and, paradoxically, that inaccessibility is offered as comfort.

Where the pulse clinging to the rocks
Renews itself forever;
Where, again on cloudless nights,
The water reflects
The firmament’s partial setting;

—O remember
In your narrowing dark hours
That more things move
Than blood in the heart.

The limits of Bogan’s pursuit are its realization, the limits of exclusion itself. One cannot avoid comparing these limits to those that Cartesian science set by factoring out human perception from its picture of the universe. The Nobel Laureate Alexis Carrel said, “Science has made for man a world to which he doesn’t belong.” Perhaps Bogan paid a similar price for a correspondent poetic vision. Her own vision excluded her. Her own voice tended toward silence. We are left with but a small sampling of her nearly perfect experiments.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Shiny Unused Heart by J. A. Tyler

Black Coffee Press, 9780982744055, $12.95

A Shiny Unused Heart is a novella written by a poet, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say by a novelist with a poet’s sensibility. This is not straight narrative, but a story propelled by language itself, by sound and simultaneous meanings, by an undercurrent of symbolism. To read of the main character’s wife on her “bruising cruising rituals of couch sleep”, or the main character “resting on his back, his skin monstrous tracks. Leaning on the bricks of buildings, subsiding. The rain, in continuum, begging him off, early every next morning” is to follow a kind of musical score. And even in these few bars, these few notes, we catch the drift of a very different kind of story, not one in which there are events that simply happen or characters that simply act, but a story that questions what events and actions are. At bottom A Shiny Unused Heart is an ontological meditation, that is, a poetic fiction on the nature of existence. This is seen even in the musicality of the prose, for within each chapter or movement the music is beautiful, but the movements are jumbled.

There is, funny enough, a beginning, middle and end, but they are out of joint. Every chapter is either a piece of the beginning, of the middle or the end. The story opens with the end, so we know where we are going because the end is not the point, the end is inevitable, as it is in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. In fact, as in that story, in this one not even the how is very important. What is of the essence is the why. Why are things unraveling toward that inescapable end? So the logic of time and sequence are irrelevant. What is relevant is the psychology of deconstruction that is the reality of the character. What is within the character is becoming the reality of his life and so there is a blurring of boundaries. When his wife is pregnant, it is also, “Him, pregnant.”

One of the great poetic truths retold by countless great poets from Spencer, Milton and Blake, to Stevens and Richard Wilbur, is that “The mind is its own place, and in it self/Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n” (Book I, lines 254 & 255, Paradise Lost). This is the basis of many of the great modern works from masters such as Virginia Woolf, Hermann Broch and Fernando Pessoa. A Shiny Unused Heart is a part of this same exploration, a story that takes place in the head, where we are made and unmade, where the reality of what didn’t happen or what we would like to happen has as much presence and force as what did happen. This is so because the mind, or the imagination, is a kind of primordial place where all potentials coexist. As the main character of A Shiny Unused Heart indulges his inner desires within his imagination, he unravels the reality of his daily life: matter and antimatter collide.

The poet Philip Larkin said, “Nothing, like something, happens anywhere” and A Shiny Unused Heart is the nothing that happens to a person in the act of his unwinding, his unbecoming. The story is a stripping down, not only of character, but of style and psychology. No one is named in the story and no one should be because we are on a plane on par with essences.

“The hole in his insides stayed, stood, him, feeling less, less, less. Her, unhappening now, fading and fickle. Her, that girl, the one who drug him up from the bottom, the daughter, the wife, her, she was becoming unbecoming. Sharing herself out, pieces and bits and bobs, herself, trinkets, sparkling laughter unringing, shredding smile, peeling, peeling.”

Here again we see how the boundaries are blurred. “That girl” is daughter, wife and also the woman he cheats with who is called “the girl in the black sweater.” All are “becoming unbecoming.” All are “peeling, peeling” because the story is one long unmaking, one long un-existing. The story is about the main character’s slow un-happening. And it is remarkable how well it works, how the general drift of the story is understood below the current of discordant unmaking. The story seems to emerge slowly from a larger general flow, a stream of essences chaotically mixed and pregnant. From the vast drift of this river, we spy a fish swimming, we follow it with our eyes and realize the story playing out under the flashing surface.

But there is always an underneath that’s below the underneath. Or, as Nietzsche pointed out, there is always something in the unconscious no matter how much we bring up to consciousness. So underneath the tug-of-war between the real and the unreal there is the basic narrative of how a couple implodes after their daughter is stillborn. But the story under that, and the real one, is how that birth of nonexistence becomes the reality of their existence. How the birth of that nonexistence ignites all the unacknowledged potentials within the main character’s imagination making him, as Tyler says, “pregnant with unchances.” The main character becomes “existence unbecoming.” Or his central desire shifts to “wanting to embrace the things that were beginning to stop, or cease existing, or never having existed at all.”

But don’t be mistaken; though this is a profoundly philosophical and lyrical book, there are emotional roots that run deep. There are issues of fatherhood and the consequences of failing to live up to that role, the disillusionments of a fractured relationship and the constant pain of regret. The pain of the marriage dissolving is like witnessing someone dismembered with a butter knife.

There are only four characters: the main character, his wife, his daughter and the woman he cheats with. But all of these exist only in so far as they exist as projections of his imagination, as realities corresponding to his needs, even as symbols. Beyond this they are each only negative spaces unmaking his life in their own way. Him “undreaming himself from a life he never lived, couldn’t, didn’t want to.” The most fascinating of these is the girl in the black sweater who is a kind of dark Donna Angelicata. The Donna Angelicata is the figure who leads the poet into his beatific vision of the divine. For Petrarch it was Laura, for Dante it was Beatrice. For the main character of A Shiny Unused Heart it is the girl in the black sweater. But she leads him not into a vision of the divine, but returns him to a vision of the primordial chaos that is the first and final cause, it is what Goethe called “the realm of the mothers.”

“But her eyes looked above him, over him, down into him where the depths were, where things were, where pieces of him lay in pieces. She wasn’t supposed to look there but she did, and then she was gone. Seconds, minutes, days, months, years. She pulled and he sank, deep in depths, swallowing water, arms aflame.”

It is a place within, where, Blake told us, all gods reside. And it is a terrifying place. Here it is important to realize the connection between the daughter and the woman in the black sweater. They are first and final causes, one and the same figure leading him into his impossible grasping at the primordial chaos, the root of imagination.

“His daughter, she didn’t exist. She should have, but she didn’t. She was a figment of him, taunting, tempting him, like the girl in the black sweater.”

The German poet Friedrich Hölderlin wrote that “wanting to see the soul face to face, you go down in flames.” This is what happens to the main character of A Shiny Unused Heart. He fixes his gaze on the chaotic source and is dissolved in a violent unmaking. But the boundaries, as I’ve said, blur here. The penultimate chapter is simply the sentence “A baby is born, a baby is crying.” The main character’s potential redemption is mixed in among the bottomless bottom of potentials that consume him and thus his death is paralleled with the birth of another life. In the primordial chaos out of which all things emerge, his daughter is there reaching out toward the light of existence. And who is to say if his daughter wasn’t, in fact, born and outlived him? There is no certainty where existence is all potential, at the threshold of death, which is the same threshold as life. It is only a question of the direction one is traveling.

A Shiny Unused Heart is the kind of story we should read. It is the kind of book that cracks the shell of what we think we know about ourselves and our lives and lets us escape into a new understanding of how we relate to the world. It shows us that we are not only the consequence of our choices but the consequence of all our hidden desires, that we are simultaneously what we say we are and what we refuse to acknowledge in the dark, secret land of our imagination.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

On Reading

To invent a theory of reading would be an intellectual gesture commensurate with a tyrant's salute. It is taking an experience that is highly private and coercing or presuming its commonality. However, I imagine that those who enjoy reading at least have in common the enjoyment without coercion or presumption. This delight is the first and most important principle. Without enjoyment there is no understanding, at least not in the literal sense Webster renders the etymological meaning of the word. To understand is “to stand among.” But what is disliked is avoided. One avoids repugnant company but one "stands among" delightful company, becomes a part of it. One loses one's self in it. This moment of abandon to the enjoyment, whether of literature or another art, is one half of the total function of art. It is a moment of self-transcendence that leads ultimately to the other half which is a deeper self-awareness.

On my bedroom wall is a postcard. It is a miniature reproduction of a painting called "Reader." It is by a German painter by the name of Michael Sowa. It depicts the small, mid-distant figure of a man reading. His hands are thrust into his pockets. The book levitates in the air at eye level, suggesting that it, like its reader, has transcended its physical nature. It defies gravity. The man too defies gravity. He stands atop the thick, oily blue water of a sea that stretches from horizon to horizon. Threatening, white-crested waves rise all around revealing the intensity of wind. The man is oblivious and unaffected. He is secure in his book. The great dangerous expanse of the seascape is nothing to him. The very words he reads protects him against the elements. He is as confident as Christ astride Gennesaret.

Of course, one can interpret the water as symbolic of the unconscious. Yet this only intensifies the realization of the reader's complete absorption. He is unaware of his actual surroundings, which probably are a study, a porch, or maybe even a beach where people play volleyball only a few hundred feet away. Time passes and he doesn't notice. The light of late afternoon dims into the early evening, then dims into the darkness of night. He doesn't notice. He grows hungry and doesn't notice. One might say he is out of his senses except for the fact that he is highly concentrated, highly aware. What has happened is that the timing of his own day has been replaced by the timing of the book he reads.

The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky said, "Song is, after all, restructured time." I would take this a step farther. All art, whether poetry or otherwise, is an embodiment of a certain timing, a certain rhythm. The difference between time and timing is the difference between when your alarm clock goes off and when you actually wake up. Timing is the pace at which you move through the day. The "morning person" moves at a different tempo than the "night owl." And what these two perceive in their world and what they make of it will correspond to the pace at which they move through it. Even if they live in the same neighborhood, they will see and understand that neighborhood differently.

In The Republic, Plato notes that the modes or rhythms of music in a given city never change without a corresponding change in that city's laws. Although the uses to which Plato puts this insight have been heavily disputed for centuries, the insight itself is nonetheless a remarkable one and one generally accepted. The insight is that the pace at which one moves manifests itself as a philosophy, as a way of understanding the world. Rhythm is a kind of wisdom.

Losing oneself in a novel, a painting, a piece of music is to lose one's own rhythms in those of the artwork. It is to get hungry and not notice, to actually grow tired, have an itch, or have your foot fall asleep and not notice. Then you finish the poem, the novel, or the essay. Your stomach growls. The digital clock winks to an unreasonably late hour even though you are the "morning person." But you still haven't emerged completely. The world looks different from the last time you glanced at it. The angles and curves of the furniture in the room appear strangely sharper, more distinct. It is as though one's sense of perspective were heightened. You are still looking with the eyes of the narrator of the book. It is what a friend of mine calls "book shock." It is the other half of the total effect of reading. It is the return to the self, the moment of self-awareness or self-remembrance.

This "book shock" doesn't happen with all books and for any number of reasons which this essay isn't about. What is important is that the experience doesn't depend upon whether you agree or disagree with the work or author. My own most extreme experience of this was after reading the novel, The Recognitions, by William Gaddis. The novel depicts many pitifully twisted characters, most of whom deceive themselves as much as they deceive others. The sense of their pain and desperation is pervasive. But no description of the novel will impart what I experienced for more than a week after reading the novel. I saw people differently. I was acutely aware of the self-deception in others and in my self.

Eventually my own way of seeing returned. My own rhythm of living came back to me. But from the vantage point of having read the novel, I gained a perspective on other people and myself. It is not a way I typically live. It is not the rhythm of my walk or the tenor of my dialogue. The novel's assumptions and rhythms are ones I find unfair and unforgiving. However, a rhythm is not truth. It is only a means to reveal truth. So I carry this rhythm from the novel in my head and sometimes a person will say something or gesture a certain way and remind me of the tune, of some character from The Recognitions or some event in it. There are even times I will say or do something that stops me in mid-motion because I am reminded of the insights granted through the perspective of the book. I wonder, "Have I fooled myself all this time? Has my desperation blinded me to such an obvious self-deception?" Through the book I have gained a perspective on my own motives and intentions.

For those who spend their energy trying to locate the meaning of a text either in an author's intentions or motives, this way of reading will appear strangely to leave the author out of the equation. I'm not suggesting that learning about an author's life can't enlighten one's understanding of his work. However, the majority of books available to us are by authors who are dead. Whatever intentions or motives these authors have are now only real to us through the works they've left behind. They are embodied only in the rhythms, diction and syntax of the actual work, just as unconscious activities are typically "read" from someone's body language and inflections.

But honestly, no distinction is as blindly habitual as the modern distinction between conscious and unconscious minds. It is probably more clarifying to talk about attention. What one pays attention to one invests with both the conscious and unconscious minds. In other words, the whole mind is invested into the object or person toward which the active attention directs itself. A work of art is invested with an immense amount of attention. What that attention leaves behind is not only meaning but also love. Quoting Joseph Brodsky again, this time from the poem “In England” in memory of W.H. Auden, he writes:

Subtracting the greater from the lesser—time from man—
you get words, the remainder, standing out against their
white background more clearly than the body
ever manages to while it lives, though it cry "Catch me!"—

thus the source of love turns into the object of love

This way of reading is admittedly lofty. It is not the way one reads everything, especially not instruction manuals or road signs. But reading is a private experience and the way one reads is equally private. We all come to a love of reading under different circumstances and for different reasons. Those differences will manifest themselves in how one reads and what one reads. But for all that privacy, the one thing all avid readers share is their delight. This delight is the seduction that leads to insight, a greater understanding of oneself. In an essay called, "The Necessity of Poetry," Paul Valéry said the same thing. He wrote, "art gives us the means to explore at leisure that part of our own sensibility that remains restricted in its relation to reality." As I have suggested, this is true in spite of what a text means. If a person who delights in reading reads a book he disagrees with, the common delight of reading counterpoints his disagreement. That counterpoint is a kind of reconciliation with the rhythms of the self and is manifest as a deeper self-awareness, a profounder understanding of who one is and how one lives.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Breaking the Line

I recently heard poets discuss line breaks and assume that they are easier in free verse than in formal verse. This seems logical since you can break a line anywhere in a free verse poem but in a formal poem line breaks are fixed. However, I would argue that the freedom to break a line anywhere makes it a more onerous task to find the right one.

What purpose do line breaks serve in poetry? The primary purpose is to control pacing, which in turn contributes to the overall musical effect. Line breaks also help to emphasize or deemphasize the significance of a theme or element of a theme. Line breaks help create tension or drama or, contrariwise, create ease and comedy. This is all true whether in free or formal verse. But nearly everything else is different.

With most formal verse line breaks are fixed. That is, with a standard sonnet, you have five feet to complete your line. After the fifth foot, there will be a line break, whether that line is enjambed or end stopped will be a consequence of syntax and diction. What image will be lingering in the mind of the reader as he makes his way to the next line will be determined, again, primarily by how syntax and diction shape the line toward its fifth and final foot. What will confront the reader at the beginning of the next line is also controlled by these two elements of syntax and diction. Manipulation of these two elements is really the only way a line break in a formal poem can be adjusted.

I have written and published a number of formal poems. One thing I learned is that the meter, or more generally, the rhythm, can guide you to the right syntax and diction, or at least to the right syntax. (Diction is not as intrinsically related to rhythm.) The difficulty of line breaks in a formal poem is when the rhythm clashes with the semantic need for significant terms to fall at the end and beginning of lines. But as often as not — or actually more often than not, the rhythm guides the poet to the best syntax for good line breaks. Rhythm, pacing and line breaks play off each other so intimately that one can lead you to the other if you can't concentrate on all three at once. In fact, when I write formal poems, I am primarily led by the rhythm; all the other elements are conjured from it almost as if by magic. This is where a poet writing free verse is at a disadvantage.

In a free verse poem, the line breaks help control the pacing as in a formal poem, however, the line breaks aren’t fixed. The breaks can be made anywhere, theoretically, but to make the best musical effect, they can’t be made haphazardly.

It’s important to remember that the total musical effect is not just a consequence of the rhythm, but is the relationship of every element working in concert: the grammatical structures, the syllabic structures, the phonetics, the syntax and diction, the images and ideas. It’s how all these elements relate to each other and unfold.

Since there is no fixed point at which a free verse poem ends a line, the poet has to listen to the total effect of all its elements to determine each line ending. It’s like needing to hear all the instruments in an orchestra playing in your head to determine what next note the flute should play in the symphony you’re composing. This very difficulty is what made W. H. Auden remark to Stanley Kunitz that he couldn’t write free verse because his ear just wasn’t good enough. Elsewhere, Auden said to Michael Newman, “I think very few people can manage free verse – you need an infallible ear, like D. H. Lawrence, to determine where the lines should end.”

As a regular practitioner of free verse, I find myself constantly revising lines to find the right line breaks. Sometimes I hear them right off and sometimes I don’t. When I don’t, it can take me weeks of trial and error to find the right ones, especially because the syntax and line breaks are independent of each other, unlike in formal verse. In a free verse poem, I could have the right syntax but the wrong line breaks. In a formal poem, if my syntax doesn't create good line breaks, the pacing will be off and I will need to change the syntax. There is an intimate connection among these three elements that can guide you. There is no such echolocation in free verse; all these elements are independent and must be heard distinctly and simultaneously to get them right.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Who Teaches You What You Mean?

I am a poet and therefore obsess about language. How language is constructed and what those constructs mean and imply occupy a lot of my thinking. Because of this obsession, the novel 1984 strikes me as the greatest book written about the abuse of language. True, it is a novel about political power and oppression and is a warning of a kind to those of us who take a free society for granted. But the way that political power asserts itself is primarily through the power of language. The abuse of language in the novel comments inevitably on the right use of language and ultimately has something to say to the role of the poet in our world.

1984 shows through a claustrophobic world of political oppression how the ability to articulate is controlled by the scope of our language, how we are always subject to the limitations of the language at our disposal. The whole point of Newspeak, the official language of the Party, is to reduce the available range of meaning and comprehension, to make it impossible for people to think something that is not approved by the doctrine of the Party. This language coupled with an endless rewriting of public records means both that it is impossible to know the truth about the past and that the individual is incapable of articulating the meaning of his individuality. Inevitably, the Party defines who and even what an individual is. In only the most limited sense does any individual exist in 1984 . To contradict the impulsive thought that this is merely science fiction, something futuristic and beyond reality, one only has to look at a poem by George Oppen in which he shows us that it is something we battle every day. In “Of Being Numerous,” a figure

. . . wants to say
His life is real,

No one can say why
It is not easy to speak

A ferocious mumbling, in public
Of rootless speech

Oppen here distills the competition between language used as a means of the most profound existential realization and language used as a means for commercial manipulation. When we acquire our language, our expressions, our definitions from corporations and the commercials they make, then the language we have for expressing our deepest feelings or insights, our ideas about who we are or want to be, is shaped by them, at least to the extent that they – excuse the word – repurpose language to manipulate us for quite specific ends and in so doing, distance us from other associations. One of the primary ways the Party in 1984 controlled language was to diminish the number of associations related to any given word. This was attained by various methods. But this same diminishment is, in Oppen’s poem, what causes the man to be unable to find the words to express his inner being, the reality of his life. As I said in a previous essay about Oppen’s poem, “The man trying to speak the meaning of his life has no language to speak it. It is unreal because politics and public life have appropriated it for ends other than an existential dialogue.” This is precisely what the Party in 1984 does.

Another of the methods for controlling thought through language is to reduce the number of words. The Party eliminated the word “bad.” They used, instead, “ungood.” This sounds farfetched but even today it isn’t uncommon to find an attitude of relying on a limited vocabulary for expression or assuming the superfluity of the abundant synonyms in English. However, in reality subtle denotative shades and deep connotations make words like “evil,” “miscreant” and “villainous,” though synonyms, all different from each other. Additionally, meaning is not merely semantic or intellectual, but is also emotional. The many associations and feelings a word or series of words evokes make even the closest synonyms still different from each other. Then consider there are many words in foreign languages that signify feelings and thoughts for which there are no English equivalents. What do we do with those thoughts and feelings? To assume they will be expressed in some way in the existing language is to make a dangerous assumption. In fact, I would guess that most of those feelings and thoughts go unarticulated, because it takes more than an act of will to find the right words to give them shape, it takes knowledge and the willingness to take risks, to sound foolish or even crazy. But if, as Jefferson said, “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance,” this holds true also for safeguarding language and ensuring that its growth and change is for the expansion of articulation, thought and meaning.

Newspeak also attempts to reduce ambiguity. Here especially I see the playground of the poet because it is precisely at the edge of linguistic clarity that poets live and breathe. We have all had feelings we couldn’t put into words or thoughts that we just couldn't express. That’s because the range of human imagination and experience is greater than the range of our existing language and this is likely always to be so. That’s why there will always be poets and other artists trying to give shape and articulation to those very feelings and thoughts, those human experiences that haven’t come into the range of our history because we haven’t been able to document them in any way. That’s why poets are always toying with the obscure, not to be evasive or sound smart, but to get at something that’s just out of reach, to extend the light of articulation just a little farther into the darkness. This is the worthiest use of language and one that opposes other uses such as TV and magazine ads, billboards, the news media, and all other forms of mass production or corporate manipulation. It is not a self-righteous call to arms; it is simply the natural consequence of two opposing uses of language vying for control of a singular consciousness.