Friday, 7 January 2011

The idea of 'subject' in poetry (4)

And so, a little further...

26. This could go round and round the blocks. I don't want to go back to the old form-content debate which, as Alfred rightly points out in his comment below, is beyond resolution. What I wanted to understand, or begin to understand, was an instinctive personal preference and the limits to that preference. It was a preference for poems lighter on subject than on language. It was a preference for invention over ideas of sincerity and straight talking. It was perhaps a fleshing out of Pound's belief that technique was the test of sincerity. It's a personal thing.

27. Yeats is not the best example of this test. Yeats was given to a certain poetic bombast, or at least the noise of bombast. The poetry, however, remains magnificent. And, despite Auden, whom I adore, I love Yeats's Sailing to Byzantium. There are, I think, conditions under which it might be the finest thing to be a golden bird. A golden bird is, after all, immortal. There are longings for immortality in all of us, else what's the point? We know the longing to be ridiculous, and we know that claiming such things is not only bombast but a kind of crime against the imagination. And yet we long, and are right to long.

28. Stevens might be a better example. Take 'Bantam in Pine-Woods'.

Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan
Of tan with henna hackles, halt!

Damned universal cock, as if the sun
Was blackmoor to bear your blazing tail.

Fat! Fat! Fat! Fat! I am the personal.
Your world is you. I am my world.

You ten-foot poet among inchlings. Fat!
Begone! An inchling bristles in these pines,

Bristles, and points their Appalachian tangs,
And fears not portly Azcan nor his hoos

I have in front of me the Faber Selected, the copy I must have given daughter Helen, when she went up to Oxford in 1994. She has annotated the poem, talking of four levels of imagery, making sense of lines such as: 'Your world is you. I am my world.' She is one damn smart girl and was one even back then. But to my ears - and, I am sure to hers too - there's an altogether different set of events hitting the ear. 'Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan / Of tan with henna hackles, halt!" and 'blackamoor to bear your blazing tail' and 'Fat! Fat! Fat! Fat!' The assault is of another order. It is, with work, amenable to sense and subject, but at the same time, it devours it.

29. Granted Stevens is more of an aesthete than most of us are, but he is aesthete as explorer and survival expert, the Captain Scott and Bear Grylls of the peignoir. Next to him, Auden is a heap of common sense.

30. I suppose I like my breath a little taken away. I like to watch grace on the wire playing the fool. Maybe I am too easily impressed.

31. And yet I know my capacity for sentimentality, to be moved too easily to tears by fairy tale homilies that echo the deepest hopes and fears. I suspect I am right to suspect this too easy welling up. I suspect it is not empathy but a form of self-pity relieving itself at the nearest well of tears. Maybe, and again, maybe.

32. Axiom: Feeling should not be too easily arrived at, but one should ideally arrive at it.

33. Axiom: Not too clever. Just clever enough. The humble virtuoso at the spinet.

34. Axiom: Dancing is better than preaching and the fetishization of grief, or indeed of anything else.

35. And yet: They flee from me who sometime did me seek. And Here doth lie /Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry. And Wild nights! Wild nights! / Were I with thee. All these have clear subjects. All these have tears and I am not about to surrender them.

36. But then, in these poems, it is as if language itself were moving: flee / me / me / seek..eeee! Ta-dum, ta-dum, ta-dum-ta- (caesura?) ta(dum?)(caesura?) ta dum. Possibly. Depends whether you oppose flee to seek, or they to me. And see what we are thinking about here? The means that is also the end. Technique is the test, etc. And a certain ambiguity of interpretation, even in this first line. And how the shudder runs up the spine just saying it!

37. If poetry had not moved or excited me I'd never have become a poet. But I didn't then know what it was that moved and excited me. Now it seems ever more likely that I will not find out. All the same, it's worth a go.

38. It may be that what moved and excited me is the human capacity to utter sound and meaning, and be lost in the act of discovering sound and meaning. Chieftain Iffucan. If you can.

39. The Thirty-Ninth Step and I'm still nowhere near.

I will return once last time to consider the city / town metaphor. Yesterday I was giving a speech on prizes day at a local school. When first invited to do so I wrote to the head - a splendid head - a long letter suggesting why I was not the right person. But that, she replied, is why you are the right person. There is no right person. But I did it anyway. Play up, play up, and play the game.


Alfred Corn said...

Stimulating, George. Always fun to read the Stevens. Another such ludic poem is "The Emperor of Ice Cream," enormously amusing. He could dash off these capriccios and then without losing a beat go on to monumental things like "Esthetique du Mal" or "The Auroras of Autumn."
I've tried for years to complete an essay investigating the difference between sentimentality and authentic feeling. Very elusive topic, beginning with the fact that the word "sentimental," when first coined and used, was a positive concept, understood as a corrective to aridity in the Age of Reason. (See Sterne's =Sentimental Journey=.) And then almost the entire programme of Romanticism was to restore natural human feeling. Did that inflation go too far? Probably we all feel that some lines of Shelley's ("I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed!") are sentimental in the bad sense, and, sure enough, in due course Eliot banned him from the canon, according to Modernism's tough and dry-eyed tenets re emotion and the escape therefrom. But Feeling has now made a big comeback for all sorts of cultural reasons. Shelley is in again, and the audience wants big emotions. It would seem that what is regarded as sentimental, and what not, is a cultural variable, not an eternal value. Maybe I will go back to that essay and try again. (Emoticon)

Mark Granier said...

'I suppose I like my breath a little taken away...'

Yes, so do I George. Lord, preserve my breath, so that it may be take away, time and again.

'There are longings for immortality in all of us, else what's the point? We know the longing to be ridiculous, and we know that claiming such things is not only bombast but a kind of crime against the imagination. And yet we long, and are right to long.'

Again, this strikes a chord with me. Ridiculous, absolutely, but also inevitable and somehow vital.

Thanks for the poem about the bantams, though I had to google it to learn that it is apparently a kind of declaration of assertiveness on Stevens' part: the new inchling poetry versus the old 'fat' bantam of tradition/establishment, etc. I doubt I would have perceived that without some help. I like the cartoonish flash of colour and comic vividness, the cymbal-clashing alliteration/consonance/assonance the sense of something small and irate (a cartoon insect or worm) confronting something large and in the way. It reminds me of his marvelous 'Earthy Anecdote' (one of the first poems of WS I came across), which also seems to be about obstruction, confrontation and assertion:

But the one that truly takes my breath altogether elsewhere is his stunning Of Mere Being, which only really hit me about two years ago. I am not at all certain that I understand it, other than it seems to embody our 'longings for immortality'; that it seems both coolly imperious and utterly human, resigned to our finality yet weirdly hopeful. Anyway, it plants a magnificent image, one to conjure with:


The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze distance.

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

Gwilym Williams said...

Who do you thing Stevens' is getting at with his: "Chief Iffucan of ten-foot poet among inchlings..."?
Is it Whitman, do you think? I can't imagine it's only the American canon as Wiki suggests.

Mark Granier said...

That's a typo in: 'Lord, preserve my breath, so that it may be take away, time and again.'

I wasn't looking to be someone's fast food.

George S said...

Alfred first.

Yes indeed, Alfred, but while we still use the word 'sentiment' as in 'my sentiments entirely' with unconcern, the words 'sentimental' and 'sentimentality' have changed. We now tend to attach them to words like maudlin (from the weeping Magdalene though, granted, the Magdalene had something to weep about), or gross. They are associated with self-indulgence, which is the way I use 'sentimental here. Sentimentality suggests a lack of proportion, a misdirection of tenderness and concern, something too easily indulged, the equivalent of politicians kissing babies, as they once used to do. I myself don't feel so censorious about it, since I know myself to have been prey to it from early on, but I think it best to be not too readily accepting of it. Let it pass some proper test. I think of Belloc's Lord Lundy, who 'from his earliest years / was far too easily moved to tears.' A man all blubber is not a serious person.

Interesting you should note a revival of high emotion in poetry. That may be so in US poetry as far as I know, but the prompt for this series of posts was my sense of quite the opposite, that the young poets chosen by friend and ex-student Nathan Hamilton for The Rialto, seemed to want to steer well clear of it. I associated this with their distrust of subject.

Few go down the Hughes - Plath line. The self, where overtly present, tends to be throwaway and anecdotal. The vital thing is to establish voice by way of irony and understatement. There are references to powerful emotions but they are fragments, broken before they can build, withdrawn as soon as offered. Comedy is never too far away. There is also, I suspect, a certain fear, bred by theory, of being deconstructed in the act, so to speak, like a criminal caught in the bank.

This is probably a little fanciful, but maybe not too far off the mark.

George S said...

And Mark -

apparently a kind of declaration of assertiveness on Stevens' part: the new inchling poetry versus the old 'fat' bantam of tradition/establishment, etc. I doubt I would have perceived that without some help.

So it may be, Mark, but frankly, if that is what it is, if that is the message to be wrung from it, the sole subject, I'd leave it well alone. Just not interested enough. But I am very interested in the circus. That is what I trust.

Having said those were my daughter's notes, she tells me last night that I had been helping her with some American poetry back at school, and that those notes - in her writing - might have been the product of the pair of us putting our heads together.

In which case I am not much wiser, despite this eventually turning out to be one of her 'unseen' poems on her Oxford (Magdalen) interview, which she clearly passed. (Interviewed by John Fuller and, possibly, Bernard O'Donoghue among others.)

I don't think we need to know everything, in fact I don't think we even need to know a lot. We just need to trust the poem. We need to know enough for that. Isn't that the case with music? Trust and curiosity?

George S said...

Gwilym - see my reply to Mark. The thought of Whitman might have initiated the poem for all I know, but having written the first line on a brilliant whim, then leapt into the second, I'd be feeling dizzy enough not to keep too tight a control of my this-means-that vehicle, and cry To hell with it. Dionysos drunk on white wine.

So let's have Whitman and the state of American poetry as potential initiators by all means. The early Stevens is gorgeously high-spirited.

Alfred Corn said...

Thanks, George, you reason well about poetry, a skill not so very common. As said, I'd been chipping away at an essay about distinguishing authentic feeling from sentimentality. Yes, the return to all-out emotion is more an American phenom, though, ture enough, British and Irish and Scottish poetry has more and turned to the USA in the past half century. Why so much emotion (or emo, as in "emo rock")? More and more people in therapy, the overthetopness of pop music, slam poetry performances, the privileging of anger as =the= emotion to feel and express. Myself, I'm tempted to call Plath's "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus" as sentimental ("Emotion in excess of the occasion"), but there's no getting around their huge popularity. Sentimentality isn't always teary or sticky sweet: emoted anger can be sentimental. On the other hand, there are currently an awful lot of poems about newborns that might be described as sentimental. But who has the requisite sternness to say to new parents, Don't write about your baby, just enjoy these first days? I don't.

George S said...

Emo is associated with mid- to late teens rather than the twenties or early thirties, as far as I understand, Alfred, in the UK at least, and, interestingly enough, in teaching, I find Plath meets with less admiration than she would once have done and no-one, but literally no-one, pitches, or even wants to pitch, anywhere near her. Young women don't seem to need her as a tutelary presence.

My teaching - and reading - experience suggests that the ruling value is intelligent cool. There is very little direct expression of intense emotion. The subject as it exists is not centre field, but glimpsed somewhere to one side.

Cool is interesting. As a mannerism, as a switch flicking on or off, I don't much like it. I assume it is likely to be a mask for great insecurity and anxiety: the more wrought the person the greater the desire for cool. As intelligent wariness there is something to be said for it.

Frankly - and, obviously, in general - I like the people I teach. I mean I like them as people. I don't feel there is a vast generation gap between us though I am forty years older than most. There is often a sweetness of disposition and a willingness to be excited by ideas about poetry. Their cool seems humane to me, and their interest in language very encouraging.

I am fervent in my belief that new babies should be celebrated. Poetry should be able to celebrate and still be poetry. But then that is exactly where the cold eye comes in. You have to hear the language working its way to celebration. Celebrating occasions is part of a poet's remit.

George S said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Granier said...

'I don't think we need to know everything, in fact I don't think we even need to know a lot. We just need to trust the poem.'

Completely agree. I have little interest in messages (or the postmodern message-in-a-bottle bobbing between lines), and believe Twain's 'Author's Notice' (at the beginning of Huck Finn) should apply to most poetry:
'Persons attempting to find a motive in this [poem] will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished...', etc. Roll on the circus/cartoon/music/song/story/imagery/rhythm... which is the real power grid, and always will be.

Writearound said...

Sentimentality is always asssociated in my mind with a sort of self-reflecting emotional memory...whether this is nostalgia I am not sure as nostalgia has also become a slightly dirty word like sentimental. Often the sentimental moment or experience be it in a poem, book, art work or film is associated with the capacity of something to relate and resonate with the individual perceiver in an intensely personal way. That resonance is most often achieved through the almost knee jerk ( as opposed to tear jerk response) of the mind to the activation of emotional memory. It is hard not to be moved by any poem that manages through spare and beautiful language to conjure up that sudden association. We can cry at just the sheer beauty and extraordinariness of something, be it visual, tactile, auditory or language ...there are poems that elicit that response, for me just as much as a Bruch Violin concerto makes me cry so can the music of words even if I don't even understand the poem or can relish its subtle nuances. So does that mean that they are sentimental divorced from emotional memory? I wonder if they are in fact divorced because what we experience as heightened pleasure or emotion always begs the question of what that means to us and meaning is always filtered through emotional memory. That is probably too bold a statement and I need to go away and think about that more. However it does contribute to this discussion as meaning ( subject?) cannot surely be so cool, so carefully devoid of emotion that it is a language of sterile, almost clinically clean language that contains nothing except the words themselves( perhaps language poets a la Prynne would embrace thta more easily than others) . Most word bring with them their own personal iconography for the reader, I can be brough to tears when I hear the football scores read out on a Saturday afternoon as this immediately conjures up my father marking his football coupon and Plymouth Argyle is a killer statement as he would jock about taht team wearing Argyle socks( which I never understood for years). So is the poem always more than just the sum total of the words and the sounds they produce? Is the ghost in the word machine the emotional rsponse of the reader to those words?. Just ideas that this discussion is floating to the top of my brain and as I am busy compliling a course of workshops on narrative within poems it has made me think more laterally about that in relation to subject.