Wednesday, 1 October 2008
Chain reaction: the cortex of Cortez
In London today at the Hungarian Cultural Centre, planning events and projects and anthologies. Train down, train back. On Cambridge platform bump into J, scholar and poet who spent years teaching at the university in Budapest. Haven't met for years. How many? Thirteen? Fourteen? Recognition. Embrace. He and his Indian wife, R are off to India for a couple of events themselves. R appears. JD reminds her who I am. Ah yes, she says, and adds, But you look older. And have put on weight. And I reply: Ah yes, and you have grown older and even uglier than before.
No, rewind. I don't say that. I say nothing. I smile and continue the conversation. Nor is she ugly, just older. But I think two things (as one would).
First: Am I fat? (Answer no, though I have widened in the fourteen or so years since we last met, as one does towards sixty, but check for yourself reader, if you ever see me).
Second: How interesting certain Indian manners are....
Should we actually meet, I trust that you, reader, will remark upon my elegant, sylph-like form, exclaiming: Why, GS, you are a veritable Fred Astaire! You are Iggy Pop! You are Starveling Jack!. And on that fortunate occasion I will dedicate a poem to you. Promise. Unless you'd rather not.
In any case, wind on now, to yesterday's post. As by chain reaction, you might say, one image conjuring another.
Clearly criticism, as such, cannot rely upon the production of a chain of inventions in response to a piece of work. Sometimes it can come close, when the critic is himself or herself a writer of some wit, or a phrase maker or, indeed, a poet. Clive James in his heyday used to do this to brilliant effect in his TV reviews.
Alternatively, Keats reads Chapman's Homer and and says he feels like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken, or like Stout Cortez standing silent upon a peak in Darien. So there is Homer, and there is Chapman, and in comes Keats bearing a tray laden with Stout Cortez and Darien as well as a new planet. See, he says. That is Chapman's Homer. Sure, it's subjective, but it's something more than that too.
The point is, or might be, possibly this. Let me put it as a question.
Why do we respond to a good poem? What is the nature of the response? Might it be that the extra dimensions one keeps discovering in the best poems set off a series of associations in us that gather symbolic weight as they multiply? This is not entirely to do with psychoanalysis. It need not carry that baggage of desire and guilt or indeed any nameable, and therefore fixed and circumscribed condition, a term conceived as a symptom or a cause. It is not pathology but register. It is directed not to the self, but through the self, at what the self perceives. It is itself fluid and complex and multi-dimensional. It is perhaps not much more than a dog registering the sky or the onset of night. Or a child watching a door open or close, not quite thinking but feeling: How strange, and I am part of it.
It is possibly the sense between experiencing and naming that is amplified through language by the poem, the poem saying the word door, the word I the word part, and all the echoes of the thing and the sound, the whole sort of silent, or in a silence, as, say, on a peak in Darien.
No, it's not criticism as we know it, Captain Kirk, but then criticism wasn't exactly what was happening in class, more another form of description, a superior form. Or so it seemed at that moment. And, to tell you the truth, seems so even now, even when I know my teaching task is to clarify and specify and name and reason and not simply bounce associations off a text.