Thursday, 6 January 2011

The idea of 'subject' in poetry (3): apropos Byron and I

Alexandre-Marie Colin: Byron as Don Juan with Haidee, 1831

I'd like to think of this post as a Byronic digression, but I don't want to push my luck. Please interpose a little smily icon after that sentence if you like. But seriously...

22. I was listening this morning to In Our Time, one of the best radio discussions in which learned academics chat about their subject. I say chat rather than discourse because the programme is intended for a lay audience not fellow professionals. The discussion can be sparkling, combative, and even bruising, but it is always high pace, brilliantly hustled through by Melvyn Bragg. On this occasion the subject was Byron’s first great success, his poem, Childe Harold’s Prilgrimage. You can listen to it here, for a while at least. The programme was as riveting as ever, it was just that the poem, as poem, was hardly part of the discussion – apart from a brief mention about the use of Spenserian stanza and its context, there was nothing. The concentration was on theme, occasion, history, significance, influence, personality and ideas. The programme is, after all, properly devoted to ideas in history so that’s hardly surprising. Nevertheless, it is odd that any literary text, let alone a poem, should be the occasion for talking almost exclusively about its subjects.

23. The biggest subject, of course, was Byron himself. Childe Harold the character becomes the figure I at a key point of the poem with the effect of overlaying two meta-subjects on top of all the other subjects, as discussed by the scholars by way of Byron's poem. Byron does, of course, treat of subjects in Childe Harold. Subject is where he begins and the subject of Byron himself is a vital part of it. Byron creates not only the world that is his subject, he himself knowingly creates himself, the figure, the figure that was to cut such a figure. The poem created the figure that arrived in London and was greeted there as subject. That figure was also a man. Byron the man became the subject not only of his readers but also of his society. Larkin said he couldn’t go around pretending to be himself. Byron discovers something of himself by pretending to be the Byron of language. Subject as figure is at the heart of lyric poetry. Subject as world is what is proposed in lyric poetry. Both arise out of language

24. As concerns language, form, and some possible way of close reading, I suspect producers and programme makers fear that any such notion would bore the listeners. They might think it too dry an approach. It need not be. Michael Rosen’s fine series, Word of Mouth, suggests one way of talking about language. The fact is that Byron’s choice and use of the stanza form, with the diction it invited and made possible, is not secondary. The poem is not a means of saying, nor even an aspect of saying – it is, to put it a little crudely, the saying. It is not what is said, but the saying. It is the speaker’s body; the way the speaker moves through space; the way he walks or strides or bows or buckles up; the way he gestures or grimaces or springs to attention. It is the way he enters the room. That which is said arises out of the movement, not vice versa.

25. In Byron’s greatest poem. Don Juan – one of the very greatest poems in the language – he deploys a form he imports from the Italian, ottava rima. This is a difficult form in Italian and is an ostentatiously virtuosic form in English. It requires great powers of invention, and in doing so, like all forms of virtuosity, offers a kind of commentary on itself. The poem is a verse narrative that is all but flooded by its own digressions, and yet, like its hero, Juan, it swims on. Byron’s first attempt at ottava rima was another marvellously amusing, swaggering, ironic poem, Beppo. There he learned what English ottava rima might do. There he could be a clear, apparently unambiguous I, an I whose performance is so far performance that it is constantly drawing attention to language, an I that owns itself as a figure of speech. Language and subject point to each other’s provisionality, note the alas of it, but glory in it. To return to my metaphor of the town, they paint the town red.

Speaking of towns and cities, in the next post I want to pick up on some points made by the excellent Tim of LitRefs in the comments on the previous post and the one before.


Gwilym Williams said...

At least one poem, Cornered, has been born today, and it owes a lot to what I've read here. I'm often inspired by your teachings.

Writearound said...

I have really enjoyed reading this series of posts on 'subject in poetry' George. They made me resort to my old , probably out of date,philosophy books, especially the one on metaphysics. The exploration of what constitutes being and what the nature of the world is seems to tie in, in some ways, with your 'Town' metaphor. If language is the constant making of the lingusitic town (the world) then exploration of the town, even painting it red has to involve the nature of being of the makers, those whose hands may be red from the painting.
The concept of subject is such an intersting one as it does invite you to consider not just what but who. The word subject contains within it various definitions ideas of the passive, active, reactive and proactive. It can be in some definitions be that which thinks, feels, perceives and intends. However in other guises it can be something which undergoes or may undergo some action. The word subject itself throws up so many different ways . As something that forms the basic matter of thought, discussion, observation or exploration it is obviously present in many poems. However if the poem interrogates itself, (I believe it was Billy Collins who once described the sonnet as a poem that turns and looks at itself)I feel I need to think more about whether the poem can be both the 'matter' of the poem and the perceiver that thinks feels and intends. Maybe the delight of a good poem is that it can be both matter and being and these states are not simply conveyed by the use of great, unexpected and imaginative language but are intrinsic to those states.
I will have to ponder more on the consciousness of the poem. Also the concept of intention in the true philosophical sense is a massive subject. Does a poem have 'intent', does the poet or should the poet ever have 'intent'? The use of the word intention is so often used as a shorthand for something quite complex. Anticipating an outcome has something to do with expectation that the poem will have some effect yet it is so dangerous I think once a poet anticpates the effect on the reader then something gets skewed in the writing. We choose to make a poem exist but why we choose its existence is something as intangible and complex as each poets sense of self.
Lots of food for thought, thanks you for the posts.

litrefs said...

Writearound said "The word subject contains within it various definitions ideas of the passive, active, reactive and proactive" - I was thinking that too. Strange really. And "content" isn't so innocent either.
I think many readers like to look for the poem's subject (starting by reading the title and the punchline), and there's an attempt to look for a single unifying theme or thread, rebuilding the poem around it once it's found, ignoring/ghettoizing the features that don't contribute to the interpretation. When the poem's about a person, understanding the poem can echo the process of the person.

George S said...

Writeraround and litrefs - Thank you very much for your thoughtful comments. I have no philosophy background so am ignorant of some of the complexities of 'subject' and even 'contents'.

I began this line of thought after reading a piece by Nathan Hamilton in The Rialto about his selection of younger poets and, following this, the judging of the entry for the National Poetry Competition in which I found myself generally preferring poems that had a greater interest in language than subject. By 'subject' there I meant a readily identifiable, if powerful, feeling about something or someone. The feeling seemed to hover a little outside the poem, like a distinct realm. The poem existed not to discover what it felt, or rather what it might be possible to feel through language, but to articulate, as well as possible, that outside realm. The outside realm had, I felt, its own ready, sometimes too ready, vocabulary.

At the same time I hesitated to dismiss or even downgrade poems of feeling about clearly identified subjects because, as I have tried to suggest, the realm of human feeling may sometimes tend to cliché, but the feeling itself is keen and part of human experience. The outside realm is where most people live most of the time and it hurts and delights, depresses and elates. In other words it produces real states in real people. I wouldn't want poetry to cut itself off from that realm. That cut-off, when I read it in others, alway sounds close to an unintended but nevertheless implied sneer.

As to intention - which is naturally related to the question of subject - I suspect that the intention of the poet in writing a poem is to write a poem, not this or that particular poem. There may be further definition of course. I have had the intention to write a sonnet, terza rima, or a canzone, or to employ this or that pattern. I haven't however had the intention to produce the poem that eventually appeared. The poem has been an act of improvisation from start to finish for me, and the various patterns I have used have all been aids to improvisation.

The improvisation is where the language happens for me. In any case, a certain scepticism about one's own - outside realm - feelings, may well be necessary for most poets. I think it is for me.

Alfred Corn said...

The debate on content v. form (form understood as being at one with language) is one of those irresolvables, like faith v. works, or free will v. determinism or the benevolence v. the cruelty of God. I'm always ready to jump in once again and unlimber my veteran Australian crawl. Can't now recall who said, "A great subject isn't necessary for a poem, yet every great poem has one." Auden didn't like "Sailing to Byzantium" because: "Yeats lied. No one wants to be a golden bird." I.e., Yeats's content was deficient, no matter the great pleasure to be found in the imagery, consonantal and vowel music, rhyming, stanzaic finesse, and rhythm of the poem. A good corrective to the notion that only lush writing suits poetry is Herbert's "Jordan" (both I & II). He asks, "Is all good structure in a winding stair?" and other trenchant questions about poetic form and the sense to be conveyed. But possibly his strictures have been adopted wholesale, with no qualification, by contemporary poets--the result, that the general run of contempo poetry's language is plain to the point of contrivance. Like baroque ornamentation, minimalism blows the issue of style all out of proportion.

Well, there are a couple of laps, and when less winded, I'll jump in again.

Gwilym Williams said...

After half a year I've been informed that The Lost Rider (remember?) is officially lost. In the cellar they said. Library gave me my €1 reservation fee back - but only as credit. This means 5 days overdue with one book.

I often find that content dictates form. The form I start off with is hardly ever the form I end up with. The subject I set off with is sometimes not the subject I end up with. It all seems to change in the chaos of creation. Even on the blog page I can revise 4-6 times if I'm unhappy. I like to edit there. It's stimulating do so.