Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The idea of 'subject' in poetry (2)

Continued from yesterday...

11. I want to be careful not to caricature the idea of 'subject' and am trying to locate the points at which it seems inadequate. The invitation to feel comfortable about an attitude to a subject we all agree on (the lamentability of sickness, decay and death, the evils of war, the difficulty of loneliness, the intractability of desire, the unfairness of this or that political action, the wonders of nature and the possible superiority of nature over human productions, to name a few) is what I have begun to describe as the invitation to cliché. The problem with the proposition is that it doesn't mean that, say, sickness is not lamentable, that people do not experience its lamentability at first hand, that it is in any way wrong for a poem to deal with universal experiences.

12. The argument might be that the feeling should be experienced, if not at first hand then as though at first hand by the imagination. The development of that argument into language might then suggest that one of the key attributes -- perhaps THE key attribute - of empathetic imagination is linguistic, the imagination's task being to transcend cliché through language. In other words language too is the subject, maybe even the foreground subject. I have written before about how I am fascinated by Yeats's poem Under Ben Bulben where he writes: 'Cast a cold eye / on life, on death / Horseman, pass by!' It is the cold eye that is fascinating. There is something right-on-the-button about it.

13. In other words the eye is detached, uninvolved. The eye has something else to do: language is its concern. The problem is to reconcile proper human feeling, which is social and empathetic, with the dark cities, corridors and lacunae of language. That, it seems to me, is the core project of poetry. (Or maybe just a core project: this is still more loosely expressed than I want but I am getting there, or at least somewhere).

14. It is not unnatural (to use a studied double-negative) for a poet at my stage of life and / or career, to begin to compile a working ars poetica without quite calling it (daring to call it?) that. And where are the notions for such ars poetica likely to come from but from one's own practice. Don Paterson is doing exactly the same thing now. He is younger than me but more prominent so he too feels it appropriate. It is natural to enquire to consider what one is doing, or what one considers to be good.

15. I have never really gone with the idea of poetry being a dark mystery, an abstruse discipline, or a potentially revolutionary theoretical construct. If I believe poetry to be one of the essential ways of responding to the world, a normal human activity, I feel somewhat bound to connect it to ordinary human life, complete with its commonplaces, tiredness and cliché. That is the world we all inhabit, and, like Marlow's Mephistopheles, nor are we out of it.

Faust. How comes it then that thou art out of hell?
Meph. Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.
Think’st thou that I who saw the face of God
And tasted the eternal joys of Heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
In being depriv’d of everlasting bliss?

Not Hell, in this case, simply life. Life is where we are and life is both gift and deprivation. We may conceive of a perfect language that is 'the face of God' with all the 'eternal joys of Heaven', and be aware of that loss. Being aware of the loss is what we ask of poetry. Back to the only and the alas. So loss, alas and only.

16. Yes, comrades, but with a light heart and a cold eye. The problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, as Bogart says to Bergman in Casablanca. I don't want to make heavy weather out of a storm in teacup. I only need to remember that storms in teacups are normal. We have measured out our lives in coffee spoons. Tea and coffee as well as loss, alas, and only. And that, comrades, is tragedy: spilt milk and a handful of dust. You get my drift, I trust, with all this reference to litterachewer.

17. It doesn't take an intellekchewall to come out with phrases like: words can't express how I felt! or a picture is worth a thousand words! or, it was, like, so, yuk / cool / gross ... etc. We know about that like, so... Everybody does. Everyone knows closure is not truth. Every one knows closure is treacherous. Any cold eye will tell you that. And yet we carry on talking, talking about things, knowing that the about is an approximation.

Beware, metaphor approaching...

18.The Town. So what do you do with subject? Everyone has subjects, some big, some small, some as yet unknown. Let's think of subject as a town we enter, a town that is also, necessarily, a society: language is, after all, a social medium composed of idiolects. How do we behave in that town? It is, like all towns, an arena packed with language. There are groups of people talking away nineteen to the dozen in streets and rooms, in offices, factories, in cafés and bars - all the places you would expect to find in a town. Listen hard. If you listen only to them though you are likely to talk only like them, which is fine if you only want to chat. But remember - and this reminds me of the moment of realization in the school corridor when, at the age of seventeen, I first formed the ambition of writing poems - that chatter is the voice of death doing its rounds. You can't exclude it but you don't want to be trapped in a lift with it.

Having invented this - possibly useful - metaphor (but how long will it remain useful?) let's stay with it for now. It's like telling a story, isn't it? So...

19. Naturally the town has a library where, among other items, you will find whatever was at some time thought to constitute the best words in the best order. You can't avoid the library, so enter. You can't escape death in the library but you will find points of power, sometimes still living, overwhelming, power there. It's a lending library so take out what you need for as long as you need it. You will sharpen your ear by listening hard to what you read, you may develop a colder eye so read demandingly. Going back into the open air with a sharper ear and colder eye is vital.

20. You have the subject, you have the chatter, you have the literature. This is life and neither are you out of it. But your sharp ear and your cold eye tell you that this, after all, is, as the schoolboy's exercise book used to have it, only a town, in a country, on a planet, in a universe, in other words, Bogart's hill of beans. Nevertheless, the vital fact remains you can't begin to talk about this town, this hill of beans, until you feel the vast sense of incomprehensible space outside it. Then, beyond that, having felt how vast and incomprehensible the space outside is, you might go on to consider that we have, nevertheless, described solar systems and constellations and have produced atlases and street maps that are still of some provisional use.

21. It is at that point you begin to understand language and can begin to construct a town. Nor should you think you're so darn clever in coming to this awareness, because you might, with some justification, suspect that everyone knows this. That this, precisely, is the law by which people live when they chatter. This is what lies beneath the chatter. Your task, then, is not to be clever about all this, but to construct towns, the construction itself being what constitutes a town. The town you make, in other words, is the town of making. And for any town - a real town, the actual subject-town - to live, it must continually be constructed.

Forgive any incidental sententiousness in all this, but I don't suppose sententiousness is avoidable. I just try to keep a cold eye on it, and hope my ear is sharp enough. For you, read I throughout.


Anonymous said...

My goodness, if that pic's anything to go by, there's more life in Wymondham than there used to be.

George S said...

It's just a little way out of town, one of the new estates... the locals refer to it as Metropolis.

litrefs said...

Language can "make strange", can make a cliche into a surprise. My city anecdote: having bungled a short-cut walking in London, slightly lost, I emerged from an unknown street and found myself suddenly in Trafalgar Square, as if for the first time (because of the new angle and my state of mind)

For the poet the subject might be the initial inspiration of the piece (perhaps invisible to the reader, who might care more about emergent themes). The subject might also be bait, unobtainable as a rainbow the "more" of "more that the some of its parts".

The Town and the Library - yes. Indeed, I've been known to walk the streets recording overheard phrases for a collage. The market. Carneval. I've noticed how Cambridge's Mill Road (Oxford's Cowley St??) provides safe passage for the Town's languages into the heart of the Gown. Here are some (hopefully not too sententious) quotes -

"I'm being somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but only somewhat when I say that a poem is the city of language just as prose is its countryside. Prose extends laterally filling the page's horizon unimpeded, while poetry is marked by dense verticality, by layerings of meaning and sound. Cities and poetry also share compression, heterogeneity, juxtaposition", Cole Swensen

"If, for the modernist writer, the city existed as a space onto which s/he could map their own psychological terrian, for the postmodernist writer the city is experienced as a rapidly changing domain in flight from ... rational and official discourse", Paul March-Russell

"The institution of writing and reading serious novels is like a grand old Middle American city gutted and drained by superhighways. Ringing the depressed inner city of serious work are prosperous clonal suburbs of mass entertainments. ... What remain, mostly, are ethnic and cultural enclaves. Much of contemporary fiction's vitality now reside in the black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay and woman's communities, which have moved into the structures left behind by the departing straight white male. The depressed literary inner city also remains home to solitary artists who are attracted to the diversity and grittiness that only a city can offer, and to a few still-vital cultural monuments (the opera of Toni Morrison, the orchestra of John Updike, the museum of Edith Wharton) to which suburban readers continue to pay polite Sunday visits", Franzen

Gwilym Williams said...

Never thought I'd be (mis)quoting Kipling in response to this matter of life and death (i.e. poetry):
"...and treat those two impostors just the same...and what's more you'll be a poet my son."

I think the bardic acolyte having enetered the town, perhaps Norwich, and made his way to the library and opened the book marked symbols had to keep in mind that one man's fish is another man's poisson. There's Ted over there who thinks crows are nowt but heralds of death and Bill who sees them as the beak of avian intelligence. In my case, I was talimng recently with Steve the insurance man and he told me that Professor Eucalyptus had said: The search for reality is as momentous as the search for god.
I guess that's what we're dong really as we wander round the town's library eavesdropping on the silence and poking our beaky noses in all the different Bücher we may chance upon.
My recent symbols include: robin, dark mirror, boat. So what's it all mean? I've no idea. You'd need a Freud.

Gwilym Williams said...

Or at least a Szirtes.

Keep it up George. All great suff.

George S said...

Still going, Gwilym.

Tim, I want to take up some of your points in subsequent posts. Thank you very much for the quotations.

The only one I am uncertain about is the Franzen. It has that whiff of piety I instinctively distrust. It's the standard white male's gesture to show he is cool with what's going on, whether it is going on in quite that way or not. As soon as I hear that note I begin to suspect the speaker's integrity.

I will only start believing him once the Great Male White Canon (what Peter Porter, in a poem, called, in a parody of Bloom, The Western Canoe) has sunk. To execrate something is not to sink it. And Franzen is sitting in it. As is Bellow and Roth and Sebald. Etcetera, etcetera.

Or, to return to his own inner city metaphor, I reckon he has a good sized Docklands apartment.

litrefs said...

George said "The only [quote] I am uncertain about is the Franzen." - it's "Harper's Magazine", 1996, so perhaps he has a double excuse.