Thursday, 7 October 2010

Force field

I lead the session this morning, trying to work towards the idea of the longer poem, the chain of ideas, sensations and feelings that resists closing off (I am resisting the word 'closure' for now because I am not primarily concerned with the argument that uses 'closure' as a debating term). We follow a winding path through the effect of broken regularity in metre, to the sense of what a sonnet is, or might be. I have made a rather hasty selection of sonnets, from Geoffrey Hill, Roger McGough, Paul Muldoon, Robert Garioch, Edwin Morgan, but we don't get past Muldoon's Brownlee that arouses quite strong reactions, partly hostile, on account of the cleverness that is thought to be not as clever as it thinks it is, though it has its passionate defenders too.

We think about cleverness and artifice. I propose that artifice is simply art, something something we use to construct any sentence whatever, not only in the sense that the sentence functions but in that it has a certain way of sitting. It is interesting, I suggest, how flexible the sonnet has proved to be whereas the ballade, say, or the villanelle or the sestina, despite some experiments here and there, have remained more stable as forms. That might be because sonnets correspond to a particular (western) idea of adequate space and flexible proportion. Taken as whole - the historical body of the range of sonnets - they work as force field rather than a prescription, so while we can see what the various versions have in common (line length , the possibilities of a given space, a given inhabited space in the given conditions) we can also see in what respects they differ.

Let's imagine then a room of a certain size in which not only the furniture, the disposition of doors but the very material of the walls may change. The sense of proportioned space is, I suspect, a human given. Someone mentions the Golden Section and there is an element of truth in that, though paintings composed according to the Golden Section would eventually grow dull. As would entirely conventional sonnets, unless charged by some peculiar reviving energy - some new being inhabiting them.

Is the idea of rooms too cosy? Think then of the variety of rooms, from the poorest to the richest, from the barest to the most crowded, from the thickest wall to the thinnest, to the broken wall. Why assume the room is what you are used to, with all the usual comforts?

As to artifice as cleverness? Is a mono-cyclist on the high wire merely clever? Is the form of display a circus performer adopts entirely cerebral? It depends on the danger, on the height of the wire. Changing tack, I return to my Midnight Skaters analogy of chaos as the deep pond with the thin ice of language on top, the ice on which ice the poem is invited to skate. The tightrope act is no good unless the wire is high, the skating unexciting unless the the ice is thin. The pond has to be deep and deadly. And the pond is deeper, murkier, deadlier; the ice thinner and more fragile than we, in our comfortable rooms, tend to think. Thinner in fact almost everywhere.


Gwil W said...

George, once again thanks for sharing your store of knowledge. I sometimes feel as if I'm attending your classes in person. It's a good feeling. I learn much. Or at least I think I do. Today I learn that it's interesting to take risks.

Here's a nice piece of work from Raymond Carver:

'Sunday Night'
Make use of the things around you.
This light rain
Outside the window, for one.
This cigarette between my fingers,
These feet on the couch.
The faint sound of rock-and-roll,
The red Ferrari in my head.
The woman bumping
Drunkenly around in the kitchen ...
Put it allin in,
Make use.

I like the way Carver goes from "things around you" to "in my head" inviting us into his mind.
And then how our (now) shared thoughts (reader and poet's) are suddenly interrupted by the woman in the kitchen. It's a beautiful thing.

ps- lot of news here about the Hungarian aluminium disaster. Greenpeace already there taking samples. MAL says the red sludge is harmless. More than 100 people in hospital, many with burns, some still in intensive care, some may not pull through, appears to testify otherwise. Will there be a thorough investigation? That is the 64,000 Forint question. Another thing is it has now stopped raining. The 40 sq km of mud will dry and turn to dust sooner or later and then the dust will start blowing around on the wind. Is it toxic? MAL on its website says not. I, like many others, have my doubts. And of course dust knows no borders.

Alfred Corn said...

How would you describe the risk involved, I mean, without metaphor? The ice-skating is evocative of danger, but what precisely is being risked? Aesthetic failure? But of course we don't die of that, just pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start again.

George S said...

I can't describe it entirely without metaphor because it is a metaphor. The metaphor is about both poet and poem. A poem that takes risks is more exciting than one that doesn't. A poet that takes risks is more exciting than one that doesn't.

What is being risked is, primarily, the safety structure of the poem, but the poet is not entirely detached from the poem, so the poet's own energy, in lesser ways, more gradually, is alo being endangered.

My feeling is that using high-profile constructions (verse forms, if you like) is itself an overt risk (it is relatively easy to see where they blunder or lie), but only if the form does not sit too easy on the poetic conscience.

I would like the formal poem to be either performing like a circus, or to be on the edge of breaking apart at the joins. Ideally both at once. That is, what I suspect, what great art does.

The circus in itself is amusing. I like verse. But I wouldn't want to be entirely a writer of entertaining verse. There are certain pressures that should be felt acting through the poem, risking failure at more than formal level. There should be something wanting to run away, run beyond the poem.

I cannot quite define the ways in which that might be evident in reading, but I think I feel them.

Gwil W said...

Alfred, if I may but-in, you ask George how he would describe risk without metaphor. I'd say from the sidelines that there's considerable risk, ok you're not being shot at, but the risk is to your reputation and your self-confidence and in the case of GCE poetry to the poet's bank balance (imagine the scandal etc.) and that you risk these 'things'more or less on a daily basis if for example you do like many poets do and you take to drink or put your head in the gas oven or the barrel of the gun firmly between your lips because you can't hack it any more. And that's risk Aldred. And it's a real risk. The muse vanishes. You can't do it. There's no magic pill. There's no metaphor about it. It's a drug. Poetry is a mindbending drug.
ps- George
there's a lovely YouTube video on my video bar at the bottom of my blog. It's in b&w and it features Johnnny Cash with Bob Dylan together singing 'One Too Many Mornings'. It's a Studio Recording and it's the 'first take'. You could grab it for Sunday if you're pushed for a material (if it's on there BUT it isn't always on as I have Rolling Stones, Queen etc. and they seem to come up in a random order).

Angela France said...

I suspect most poets are introverts by nature and - for myself anyway - exposure feels risky. By exposure I don't mean confessional material, but the act of writing poetry is exposing, whether it is first person, narrative, persona or anything else. Jane Hirshfield makes the case that writing poetry is risky because our (humans) natural desire and instinct is to fit in, be part of the crowd; in writing poetry we try to say things in different ways, to make it new, to stand out. This links to her essay "Thoreau’s hound: On hiddenness" in that she discusses hiddenness and camouflage in nature and shows that to be visible is to be vulnerable.

Angela France said...

sorry, meant to say that it was Hirshfield's 'Nine Gates' I was referring to.

Alfred Corn said...

Hmm. Yet we all know instances where a writer turned out something far below standard and no one insisted that the guild membership be revoked.

There might be a risk if the author delved ito experiences that were horrifyingly painful. Here I'd adduce Plath, Charlotte Mew, John Berryman. They were overwhelmed. And didn't survive.

George S said...

I wonder how far we make our horrors - not that horrors don't exist - but in how we dramatise, locate, and generally perceive them?

I wonder also how far the cases of Plath, Mew and Berryamn were an attempt to dramatise without irony: as if the persona were same as the person; as if the persona were the only wounded thing in the universe; as if there were not enough absurdity in the university to question our self-perception as the objects and core of horror?

Plath's references to the Holocaust in talking about herself remain absurd and monstrously self-centred (the real horrors of those who really did become lampshades mean nothing to her) though I cannot help but feel the energy her poems generate as a result of this appropriation.

As you appropriate, perhaps, so you create your own suffering. So it envelops you.