Not Without Purpose: The Double Negative from Chaucer to Present

Though often considered a grammatical faux pas, double negatives are not unexampled in literature. For instance, defending their use in what he calls “the American language,” H. L. Mencken notes that Chaucer “used them with utmost freedom” in The Canterbury Tales, citing these lines:

He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde

In al his lyf unto no maner wight


[He never yet no vileness didn’t say

In all his life to no manner of man]

Google tells me that Shakespeare uses double negatives often, for instance in “As You Like It,” where Celia says “I cannot go no further.” And Paradise Lost abounds in double negatives, including this one, coming out of the mouth of the Almighty Himself, instructing Michael on how to boot the “sinful pair” out of paradise:

Without remorse drive out the sinful Pair,

From hallowd ground th’ unholie, and denounce

To them and to thir Progenie from thence

Perpetual banishment. Yet least they faint

At the sad Sentence rigorously urg’d,

For I behold them softn’d and with tears

Bewailing thir excess, all terror hide.

If patiently thy bidding they obey,

Dismiss them not disconsolate; reveale

To Adam what shall come in future dayes,

As I shall thee enlighten, intermix

My Cov’nant in the womans seed renewd;

So send them forth, though sorrowing, yet in peace… (my emphasis)

Allow me to justify God’s grammatical ways to humankind: it’s clear in this context that the double negative is not inappropriate. God is telling Michael to go easy—but not too easy—on the pair; He wants them to be neither “consoled” nor “disconsoled,” but somewhere in between: “not disconsolate.”

Then there’s this symphony of negatives from the opening four lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Carrion Comfort”:

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.

The negatives here culminate in the striking phrase that the speaker can “not choose not to be.” Hamlet seems decisive by comparison. This strikes me as a completely appropriate way to represent spiritual affliction—”pitched past grief,” as Hopkins puts in another of the “Terrible” sonnets—a loss of agency wherein the most one can do is not not exist. Extremity of situation calls for extremity of language.

Bringing things to the present: I recently read Cheryl Merrill’s essay “Wild Life,” included in the anthology Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction. Merrill is interested in how we see “the nonhuman” other; her essay attempts to nudge us away from our all-too-human-centered ways of understanding “wild life.” In a brief, prose-poem-like section of the essay, Merrill looks into the face of an elephant.

I look into a face unlike mine, yet a face with a mouth, a nose, two ears and two eyes, recognizable as a face.

Her eyes, like mine, are protected by bony sockets and eyelashes and eyelids and tears.  Her eyes, like mine, sit high on her skull and light the darkness within.

The face that is like mine looks back at me.

Three-inch lashes cast shadows down her cheeks.  She blinks and her lashes sweep against her skin like small brooms.

Each of the more than 200 lashes of my eye is shed every 3 to 6 months.  Has anyone ever done research on the shed rate of elephant eyelashes?

I could. I could stand here forever, peering into an iris that has sun flecks and shadows in it.

The face that is not unlike mine looks back at me.   (my emphasis)

I love the modulation from “unlike mine” to “like mine” to “not unlike mine.” “Unlike mine” makes elephant purely other, unrelated to her human viewer. “Like mine” completely eliminates otherness, reducing the elephant to a human analogue.  “Not unlike mine” masterfully occupies the uneasy but essential space between—neither exoticism nor anthropomorphism, but acknowledgement. 



A Pathless Way: Sappho’s Poetic Bewilderment

I recently came across this insightful and suggestive essay by Emilia Phillips, in which she explores “the poetics of bewilderment” as discussed by Fanny Howe, Rebecca Solnit, and Kaveh Akbar. Building on Solnit’s’s and Akbar’s observations, Phillips comments on the possible poetic virtues of bewilderment:

[T]o be lost is to be fully present. To be bewildered is to have the senses confused so much so that they are fully heightened, alive…

[Bewilderment] allows the poem to have an unknown, but soon discovered, emotional effect on you as either the poet or the reader. It doesn’t set out into the world with set expectations, only a hot, molten glass globe of hope inside one’s chest.

The word itself is resonant, suggesting being lost or led astray, into the wilds/woods, without the guidance of pre-established paths. In a pathless wilderness, one has to find—or more accurately, make—one’s way step by step. Such a situation calls for awareness, care, and risk, all attended by a surrender to unknowing. For the poet, the parallels are clear: this is the fecund yet disorienting space where language becomes estranged from the poet, where each word feels spoken/written as if for the first time. Perhaps Rimbaud’s famous pronouncement is spoken from this place:  “The poet makes himself a seer by a long, immense and systematic derangement of all the senses.”

Poetic bewilderment is probably as old as poetry’s first word, but an early discussion can be found in “On the Sublime” by Longinus, written around 100 CE. Longinus goes beyond traditional discussion of rhetoric, focusing instead on writing that brings about “not persuasion, but transport” in its audience. “On the Sublime” is the source for the famous long fragment from Sappho, “He seems to me equal to the gods,” and it’s Longinus’s analysis of that fragment that’s relevant to our discussion:

Screen Shot 2018-02-18 at 11.26.35 AM.png

Longinus comments:

Are you not amazed how at one instant she summons, as though they were all alien from herself and dispersed, soul, body, ears, tongue, eyes, color? Uniting contradictions, she is, at one and the same time, hot and cold, in her senses and out of her mind, for she is either terrified or at the point of death.

Here bewilderment knocks the language off its grammatical rails, as the speaker drops articles and pronouns:

no: tongue breaks and thin

fire is racing under skin

and in eyes no sight and drumming

fills ears

The anaphoric “ands” suggest simultaneity, or at least some kind of temporal disturbance—a disturbance that’s enhanced by the tortured inversions and self-correction:

greener than grass

I am and dead — or almost

I seem to me.

The speaker loses herself, as her sense organs become estranged from their function—”in eyes no sight”—and her consciousness splits in two: “I seem to me.” This passage resonates with Rebecca Solnit’s observation, cited in Phillips’s piece: “To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away.”

Importantly, Sappho not only portrays bewilderment, but allows the reader to experience it, especially in the jumps and swerves of her language. Which brings me to my own present bewilderment. Reading over what I’ve written, I sense a certain ambiguity:  where to locate bewilderment—the poet, the poem, or the reader? Can we tweak Frost’s saying about tears and surprise: “No bewilderment in the writer, no bewilderment in the reader”?

There’s no such thing as ‘the’ essay: Quotations and conjectures

A good epigraph is an excess, something that sloshed over the rim of the essay.

An essay, like an organism, is a provisional order, defined by its eccentricities and accidents—a node through which matter and energy pass.

“Essay” has a history, and is diverse and adaptable, like any vital genre.

The essay is the only literary form which confesses, in its very name, that the rash act known as writing is really a leap in the dark. —GK Chesterton

Patricia Hampl on Montaigne’s near-fatal fall from his horse: “The personal essay was born from that smack upside the head.”

A lesson?— —I just read a mess of an essay comparing two poems—not one compelling or persuasive point. Was nevertheless enlightened thereby.

Borges revolutionized our conception of both the story and the essay by blending and bewildering them. —William Gass

Whatever passes through [the essay], it is never that. It remains itself and continues so, pure motion.  —William Carlos Williams

Fallibility is the essence of the essay: fallibility fuels the effort and shapes the form.

There’s no such thing as “the” essay. There are only essays. The essay’s essence is its lack of one—its rejection of the definite article.

A Note on Poetry’s Abstract Turn (Part 1)

“Go in fear of abstractions,”  admonished Ezra Pound, and most poets, regardless of school or aesthetic, have heeded his word. It seems almost self-evident: Poetry, we assume, trucks in specifics, in perceptual or emotional realism. When applied to a poem, the descriptor “abstract” (or its synonyms: abstruse, indefinite, or vague) carries with it a judgment, suggesting that it somehow isn’t doing its job, that it’s not really a poem.

Yet so many poets have used abstract language to great effect. Take for instance this passage from Shakespeare’s underappreciated poem, “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” In the poem, the phoenix and the turtle dove have vanished in the fire of their love made literal, having “fled… / In a mutual flame from hence.” The poem does its best to describe the word-resistant fusion of their two essences:

Property was thus appalled
That the self was not the same;
Single nature’s double name
Neither two nor one was called.

Reason, in personified form, enters the poem and tries to make sense of the scene—and fails:

Reason, in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together,
To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded. . . .

As poet J. V. Cunningham has observed, much of what makes this poem successful is the collision of chilly, scholastic dicton with passionate, extra-rational circumstance: love. In a sense, the abstract diction is an ethical choice: it preserves the essential mystery of the subject.

Turning to another poet who’s known for addressing, in poem after poem, the complications of love, passion, and lust, Robert Creeley also employs abstract language to describe intense emotional experience. Consider a few lines from “For Love.” It’s a meta-love poem, talking about talking about love—or the difficulty of speaking of it. It begins:

Yesterday I wanted to
speak of it, that sense above
the others to me
important because all

that I know derives
from what it teaches me.
Today, what is it that
is finally so helpless,

different, despairs of its own
statement, wants to
turn away, endlessly
to turn away.

As the speaker allows himself to be drawn into the tangle of expression, he resorts, surprisingly, to abstract language:

Nothing says anything
but that which it wishes
would come true. . .

The abstraction not only represents the nameless, unaccountable, and subterranean forces of love, but also a loss of agency, the surrendering of self to emotion and, more importantly, to language itself. Where “I” should be, there’s “nothing,” and what “nothing” says somehow evades the specificity that poets are supposed to covet: a wished-for “anything.” Language itself becomes the agent. As Creeley put it in a statement for the Patterson Society,

A poem is a peculiar instance of language’s uses, and goes well beyond the man writing—finally to the anonymity of any song. In this sense it may be that a poet works toward a final obliteration of himself, making that all the song—at last free of his own time and place. . . .

In both cases, the abstract turn indicates an encounter with limits: for Shakespeare, it is the limits of rational language; for Creeley, it is an acknowledgement the subject’s limitations, and its subsequent yielding of the initiative to words, to song. 

The Difficulty of the Familiar: Gertrude Stein and Still-Life

Part 1 in a series of posts on still-life and 20th-century poetry


Picasso: Still Life (1922). Originally owned by Gertrude Stein.

Landscape painters have it easy: The astonishment of a landscape painting simply reproduces the awe that we experience in person when we take in an expanse of land and sky. But still-life confronts what I’d call “the difficulty of the familiar”: that these everyday objects—glasses, vases, plates, flowers, fruit, books—have become virtually invisible through our constant acquaintance with them, submerged in the service of use.  So viewed, the task of the still-life artist is to restore a strange splendor to that which is close at hand. This is the draw of still-life, especially for painters from late-19th century (specifically, Cézanne) and beyond.

I’m oversimplifying things, of course, but this description does help explain so many 20th century writers’ unlikely interest in still-life and its verbal equivalent. Gertrude Stein and her brother, Leo, for instance, were collectors of paintings by Picasso, Gris and Matisse—artists who expanded the vocabulary of the still-life.  With regard to Stein’s own writing, the titles of prose poems that make up the first third of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914) read like a collection of still-life objects (with a few exceptions): “A Carafe, That is a Blind Glass,” “A Box,” “A Plate,” “Eye Glasses,” “A Chair,” “A New Cup and Saucer,” “A Table,” “A Little Bit of a Tumbler,” “A Feather,” “Book,” etc.

Here’s “A Table”:


A table means does it not my dear it means a whole steadiness. Is it likely that a change.

A table means more than a glass even a looking glass is tall. A table means necessary places and a revision a revision of a little thing it means it does mean that there has been a stand, a stand where it did shake.

The table is the least noticed, but the most common, object in a still-life.  It’s overlooked even within discussions of this genre of the overlooked. So it’s no accident that Stein shines a light on the table, and in the process, provides a general statement regarding her interest in the genre: the table is a “whole steadiness”—the essential yet invisible ground of still-life. Stein “shake[s]” this steadiness to urge a “revision”—a re-seeing—of the “little thing[s].” As she puts it in another poem in Tender Buttons, she seeks “to see a fine substance strangely” (“A Box”).

Prose poetry is a fraught genre, but in this case, it’s the perfect choice. Like the objects of a still-life, prose (at least when contrasted with poetry) is considered a tool of utility. Convention has it that prose works best when it is “clear,” that is, when it conveys information without drawing attention to itself.  It’s supposed to function like the “looking glass” upon Stein’s table. But Stein demolishes such notions: Tender Buttons shakes up both the means by which we see—prose—and the objects of that seeing.

A Simple Sounding: On “The Naming of Trees” by Theodore Enslin

Poetry is the distance like freedom. —Bei Dao

As the description of this blog makes clear, I’m interested in “extravagant language,” that is, language that exceeds what’s appropriate and reasonable, that wanders far from its appointed task, that’s somehow more than it needs to be—that’s “beyond beyond,” to borrow a piece of extravagant language from Cymbeline (3.2.60).

But such a notion assumes that there’s a clear sense of what language is supposed to do. It’s generally assumed, I think, that language exists primarily to communicate, that is to say, convey information. As always, Strunk and White are happy to tell us what’s proper, especially in writing:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences. [The writer must ensure] that every word tell.

Good writing, as S & W would have it, is efficient. So extravagant writing gives us more than what’s needed to simply “tell.” Why it might be desirable to do so is the question I’m interested in exploring. Beyond communication, beyond expression, what can words do?

Consider this poem by Theodore Enslin:

Screen Shot 2017-07-04 at 2.04.39 PM.png

The seemingly innocent subject betrays what’s at stake. Etymologically speaking, “tree” finds its roots in “true” (from the Proto Indo-European*deru- “to be firm, solid, steadfast”), so it’s not surprising that poems about trees are often tests of poetry’s truth. See, for instance, Robert Hass’s “The Problem of Describing Trees” (click here for my discussion of the poem).

The “thesis” of the “The Naming of Trees” is not hard to surmise: names—typically viewed as tools of knowledge and mastery—do not bring us closer to the tree: “the tree remains   beyond a name.” But the thesis is merely the poem’s starting point: the poem is an exposé on how names fail as well as a demonstration of language’s other capacities.

The articles in this poem are fascinating, especially with regard to the poem’s subject. “Tree” (singular) appears eight times, alternately articled “the” and “a.” The final occurrence as the last word of the poem has no article, but is preceded by a gap of a few spaces. “A” tree means “any given tree,” not a specific one, whereas “the” tree means a specific tree. Interestingly, “the” may also designate a class of objects: “The chicken is a type of domesticated fowl.” The poem puts “tree” through its paces: as unspecified (a), specified (the), or generalized (the, again). By using the articles interchangeably, Enslin demonstrates how such distinctions are ultimately beside the point: they all depend upon generalization. The actual tree, in all its living specificity, escapes the name. The final unarticled/gapped instance seems to hint at something else—perhaps an alternative to naming—but I’d like to spend some time with the rest of the poem before I contemplate that white abyss.

Sound is important to Enslin, as is evident in this poem, most obviously in the use of repetition. There’s also the subtle modulation of sound, from “To find…” (line 2) to “defined…” to “defies.” The slippage in sound enacts our loss of linguistic grip on the tree. “Sound” is also thematically taken up by the poem:

                                                            a tree

of many that the name does not concern them

is a secret known to trees  not lost

a simple sounding not a sound  nor said

nor will the wind resound it only

in the tree within what it means     tree.

In religion and myth, names wield mystic powers. Their mere utterance can conjure the things they name. Here, however, the name can’t even summon that which is already present. “Tree” resounds, echoing off what it presumes to name, returning our voices to ourselves.

And yet “to sound” is also to measure depth and distance. And this is what this poem’s extravagance has to offer: its incantatory repetition allow us to take true measure of the distance—to sound the vastness—between our words and the things we presume to name, releasing them from the strictures of nomination. What the poem names—if it names anything—is the gap created by means of its language—a space that allows things to keep their secrets.

Beyond the Confines of the Page: John Koethe and the Late Style

In his influential book The Late Style, Edward Said observes that the late works of many artists are marked not by “harmony and resolution” but by “intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction.” Contrary what one might assume, late works are rarely Triumphs of Art, but acknowledgement of art’s limits and of the artist’s mortality. Said cites Adorno on Beethoven’s late work: “The power of subjectivity in the late works of art is the irascible gesture with which it takes leave of the works themselves. . . . Touched by death, the hand of the master sets free the masses of material that he used to form; its tears and fissures, witnesses to the finite powerlessness of the I confronted with Being, are its final work.”

This is not mastery in the sense of complete command of materials, but of allowing forces larger than the artist’s facility and intentions into the work. The artist commands by letting go—by “taking leave,” as Adorno would have it. Mastery in the late style means coming to terms with what one cannot master.

I was reminded of this discussion of “late style” while reading John Koethe’s 2016 collection of poems, The Swimmer.  It’s the 10th volume by the 70 year-old poet, and many of the poems discuss what his poems once were (he’s been publishing since the early 1960s) and what they’ve become.  For instance, the poem “Early April in the Country” takes up the notion of “late work” explicitly.  It begins with the poet surveying the landscape from his deck: “At the bottom of the meadow I can see a scattering of / Indifferent cows arranged to form a static, pastoral tableau.” He’s reminded of an earlier poem, citing a couple lines:

“. . . the copper-, cream-, and chocolate-colored /

Cows we bought in Salzburg form a tiny herd.” I remember

Writing thouse lines in my first “grand poem, “Domes,”

Which I worked on for over a month in nineteen sixty-nine.

“We Poets in our youth begin in gladness,” and while it didn’t

Feel too much like gladness at the time, it saw me through,

Whatever it was, until now I feel this precarious combination

Of futily and pride that something real got completed

That left everything unchanged. The promise hangs in the air

As long as it can, and though eventually it starts to fade,

Its question mark survives, and remains unanswered.

[. . . .]

They [his early poems] flowed, they had too many words, they were

Driven by a ‘madness to explain’ that feels quaint now,

As though there were nothing to explain anymore.

The labored finish of the 1969 poem “Domes” now feels “quaint”–it seemed at the time to accomplish so much, but the poet now realizes that its  “promise” has faded. All that remains is a “question mark” that “remains unanswered.” The poet now feels no need to cover over the jagged edges of his understanding with the flow of  “too many words.”  In a poem about jazz saxophonist Von Freeman, he notes that “He believed in roughness, and on leaving imperfections in / So his songs wouldn’t lose their souls, which is how I think of poems.”

While Koethe may be overstating the contrast, it is clear that many of the poems in this book have an unfinished feel. There’s no sense of preciousness and little rhetorical flair.  No time for tidiness: there’s only the urgent need “to get said what must be said” (as WC Williams put it) and, along with that, a recognition of the limits of that saying. In “The Long Dissolve,” he observes that

The stories I told…

Seem discontinuous and small, as though they’re

No one’s stories anymore, those of an author

Who’d lost interest in them, and was old.

I hear in “The Long Dissolve” echoes of another late work that explores the edges of art: The Tempest, specifically this passage in which Prospero dismisses his own art and, by extension, Shakespeare’s. Note the shared term, “dissolve”:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits and

Are melted into air, into thin air:

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind.  Tempest 4.1

Prospero-like—”Lie there, my art”—Koethe renounces the smooth, overworked surfaces of his early work, and offers instead a poignant combination of longing and awareness of his—and of art’s— limits:

I want to

Speak to something far away, beyond the confines of the page.

But it won’t listen, and to everything I say it answers No.

(“The Arrogance of Physics” 4)

While this may seem bleak, Koethe would argue that the defeat of Art offers a truth beyond artifice:  

I hate poems

Of affirmation, poems too

Unaware, too smooth

To be true. Life is rough.

(“Skinny Poem”)