Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Thank you for explaining that to me...

A bit tired after two late classes in a row, but one interesting thought. We are reading a good poem by one of the students, one that builds on a strange, quite visionary idea, but is framed with lovely, delicate, almost tentative irony, so the vision retains its power without bombast, when, in talking about it, another student, rather than trying to sum up in more or less abstract terms what the poem is about, conjures an image of his own, that is related to the one in the poem as if by a kind of sideways step from a fixed spot.

And I am thinking: Wait! Have I been missing something all this time? Is there some fascinating, perfectly valid process in poetry, or indeed the other arts, whereby the reader is not conducted to a statement about subject or condition, but where the original begets further originals as by a kind of chain reaction, the whole chain springing from and along the lines of a certain symbolic potential, whereby invention triggers invention. And, if so, could we posit the generating power of the poem as a kind of test of its quality, requiring that a poem rooted in the imagined tangible should lead not out of the imagination but deeper into it, into the imagined tangible.

Because, after all, the dullest thing you can say about a poem is something like: This is about jealousy and conflict, which is a move away from experience into an almost pointless generalisation about experience. It's like saying: Feel this punch on the nose? That is about anger. To which the answer might either be Thank you for explaining that to me or, say, a pinch on the cheek.

Or, to put it another way, to suggest that since a poem is an experience, not a statement about experience, a valid critical response might be framed in terms of experience rather than statement.

OK, I know it's weird. It is just that I was so taken by the listening student's response that I couldn't help thinking there was something wonderful about it, and that it must have taken a certain quality of stimulus to produce that.


Mark Granier said...

Interesting, a nice line to follow (or take for a walk). I once read Hess's Glass Bead Game, sometime in the distant past. As I recall, the game (involving different works of art in different disciplines working together) was never fully explained. Perhaps it involved something like this.

Poet in Residence said...

That's the sign of a good poem. A poem spawning further poems like cells dividing ad infinitum, replicating themselves but not exactly, each new cell adapting to its own particular and peculiar environment.
It's a bit like the big bang theory. In the beginning was the poem. Let's title it 'Cloven Hoof'. The poem exploded and threw out streams of words, phrases and images. These created a poem universe full of coagulations. From the original 'Cloven Hoof' many spawned poems will fall into cesspit of poetry but a few will survive to be the cat's whiskers.
When I read 'Thank you for explaining that to me...' the words Finnegans Wake first crossed my mind, quickly followed by 'Supermarket in California'. The bardic mind works in mysterious, individualistic, ways. The Muse I suppose you'd have to label it.

James Hamilton said...

Yes: and I wish I could give a more specific example than a remembered occasion of watching a writer take Louis MacNiece's selected and use it as just such a generator for not just an excellent sequence of poems but an entirely new (to that writer and generally)kind of voice.

That "Selected" must have been the most heavily footnoted slim volume I've ever seen, but as you discuss here, the notes didn't concern themselves with the "meaning" or "intention" of the poems but with jumping-off points, direct means of communicating experience, etc.

Unfortunately, I think it might have been a library copy, which means that all those footnotes have been binned in favour of a supposedly clean copy. I'd give a lot for the chance to read them again.

Reading the Signs said...

It's as though the poem itself became an invitation which the listening student took up.

The this is about kind of summing up of a poem can be so deadening.

Thank you for this. I so appreciate your blog.

George S said...

What nice comments. Thank you. I am going to try to take that thought a little further. It feels like a clue to something. It may not be much, and I don't imagine that it is a blindingly original insight, but it's new to me, and it seems strange not to have thought of it all this time.

OS. said...

"OK, I know it's weird. It is just that I was so taken by the listening student's response that I couldn't help thinking there was something wonderful about it, and that it must have taken a certain quality of stimulus to produce that."

Is this not the same as The Theory of Evolution? Why should The Arts be any different? We, humanity, have progressed from "Ugh. Ugh.", through to such works that you pen: from cave paintings to Monet.

You're too intellectual, George. It really is quite simple. ;)

George S said...

Don't think so, O.S. Unless I have suddenly undergone a personal evolutionary leap (not impossible and rather consoling at close on retirement age).

I do think it was rather wonderful. I hadn't come across it before in about thirty years of talking about poetry. It may be the sort of thing that happens (one thing leads to another thing) but not the sort of thing that is said in talking about a work of art.

Nor is it the same as the process whereby listening to a piece of music conjures pictures in one's mind, which is common and commonly referred to. Here we are talking about the same medium. It's not imitation but an apparently unrelated new move. A leap to a good place.

Intellectual? If that means trying to articulate such distinctions as I happen to notice and trying to think about what and why, then yes, I plead guilty. It's what we're given brains for.

Mark Yoxon said...

Aren't you talking about metaphor?

I'd say the act of metaphor is intrinsic to the act of (poetic) understanding. They are both in and of each other.

Metaphor works in two ways: as connecting device, a synaptic bridge between things, to elucidate and map; but also, and equally importantly, it is a self-concious act of complication, meshing.

It seems to me that we often look for meaning by mapping the connections between things, by narrowing down, attenuating; but by a shift in perspective, the complicated image, the disjunctive hop between meanings could be an end in its own right.

There's also a question of autonomy: isn't metaphor often an intuitive, almost subconscious act? 'Sidewards steps' and thrilling leaps! So much more fun than 'pointless generalisations'.

I wonder if this makes any sense. :)

OS. said...

Mmmmmm...I almost dare not question your reasoning, but being a cantankerous old sod, I will. On the subject of intellectuality and evolution, that is.

Many of my special friends are more intellectual than I am. Foster is an example. On a scale of 1 -10, he is about two units above me. Compared with you, I am Billy Clevery. (See link below.) I don't bang my head over this. I'm quite happy to barter my bar of soap for a loaf of bread rather than wash with it. For obvious reasons.

And then I think about what you said. "Unless I have suddenly undergone a personal evolutionary leap (not impossible and rather consoling at close on retirement age)."

I believe there are personal evolutionary leaps. It's in the scheme of things that there should be. Without them, without people of brilliant abilty, we would still live in caves. I include myself as part of Darwin's 'normal' Theory of Evolution. I have no special abilities. I certainly couldn't take mankind forward with an evolutionary leap. But there are those that do: the intellectuals. They're a double edged sword. On the one side, they can slice through time and take us to a new era of understanding. On the other, they leave most of us floundering...perhaps a thousand years behind. Or more.

Ok, I've rambled on, and on reflection, maybe you are right. Your inner revelation regarding the poem was probably not evolutionary. I don't think. Possibly, it was a moment of inner understanding only visited on those of high intellect. Tell me, George, how do you get to sleep at night? :)

A link to my personal hero: Billy Clevery.


Poet in Residence said...

Q: 'Tell me, George, how do you sleep at night?'
A: George doesn't sleep. OS you're overlooking Uncle Gabriel of Cluj.

Intellect + Imagination is what George has in abundance.

OS is in good company. During the post WW1 inflation Stefan Zweig, then in Salzburg, 'bartered bars of soap for loaves of bread'. Try eating a bar to discover why. It was around the time of the Beer Wars when thousands of Germans poured nightly over the border to get drunk and cause mayhem. They could get 10 beers in Austria for the price of 1 beer in Bavaria. Later, the situation was reversed and the Austrians took revenge in similar fashion. It was a bit like the Welsh invading England for a drink on a Sunday. Those Taffs were welcomed with open arms: The King's Arms, The Queen's Arms...

OS. said...

PiR. That made me laugh. Out loud. Yes, I forgot about Uncle Gabriel of Cluj. It would explain why George doesn't sleep at night. I hope he keeps his teeth clean. If I stay at Foster's again, I shall nail numerous cloves of garlic to my bedroom door and wear a cross of massive proportions. Norwich can be a dangerous place at night.

To make matters worse, I developed George's nocturnal habits last night. I went to sleep thinking about this infernal evolutionary thing and it was on my mind this morning when two of my grandsons came haring down the stairs in search of Weetabix after their stay-over.

A question for you intellectuals. Does the evolutionary theory take account of intellectuality: of moments of inspiration as witnessed by George in his original post? In my humble opinion, it falls at the first hurdle when we bring it into the equation. Perhaps CERN will provide us with the answer. Perhaps the 'God particle' has something to do with this. It most certainly hasn't taken residence in my brain. I support Stoke City and not Manchester United :)

George S said...

That's a gorgeous link to young Clevery, OS. Thank you. Yes, we do spend time looking for the wind in the bellows.

One day when our son was very little he started running very fast, so we had to run after him.

"Why are you running so fast, Tom?" we asked.

"My legs are escaping," he said.

Wind in the bellows, Billy Clevery, escaping legs.

Manchester United. The love that dare not speak its name.

Poet in Residence said...

Message for TOM:
Based in Hyde near Manchester is my clubmate Ron "I'm an old Alf Tupper fan" Hill.
The comic book 'Tough of the Track' trained off pie 'n' peas and quenched his thirst with real ale; was Ron's inspiration to perspiration. Led him to Olympic Marathon glory!
Doctor Ron also invented the perforated running vest, Trackster (c) running tights, the isotonic sports drink (doped on orange juice and salt in Greece) and Ron Hill running shoes (no longer available).
Northern grit is alive and well. Ron just turned 70. He's running. Mostly 5 km road races these days.
Keep up the running TOM. I'm 60 and if you look at http://poet-in-residence.blogspot.com there's a photo of me finishing a mountain race in the Alps. Get your dad to buy you some Alf Tupper comics and good luck with your fast legs!!!