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. 

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

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

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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.

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:

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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”)

Addressing the Wound: Anadiplosis in Recent Poetry

In past posts, I’ve explored the use of anadiplosis in modernist and contemporary poetry, from Laura Riding (link)  to Geoffrey G. O’Brien (link). Anadiplosis is a rhetorical ordering technique in which the last word (or words) of a phrase is repeated at the beginning of the subsequent phrase. For example, consider this passage from Troilus and Cressida. Ulysses explains what will happen if the “rule of degree” (roughly, hierarchy) is neglected:

Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.

Anadiplosis is often—though not always—climactic, building from minor to major, less important to most important, etc, creating a sort of hierarchy itself. The nifty thing about this passage is that it forms what you might call an anti-hierarchy, from bad to worse to worst. It works by degrees to describe the loss of degree.

I most recently encountered anadiplosis in last week’s Guardian Poem of The Week, “The Lake of Memories” by Howard Altmann. Click here to read the poem. Carol Rumens’s discussion of the poem is outstanding, and I encourage you to read it. I won’t attempt anything as encompassing here.

You’ll notice that anadiplosis structures the entire poem, with the last word of each stanza initiating the following stanza. Before I dig into that, however, I’d like to look at a couple other salient structural characteristics. The poem describes a house and its surroundings, which bleeds into being a sort of metaphor for the self. It begins:

Voices sit
like broken chairs
in a room.

A room stands
for the ceremony
of impermanence.

Impermanence cracks
the façade
of self

The progression of the poem’s 7 stanzas is interesting. It starts inside the room of the house, then progresses to the room, to the facade, to the walls, and concludes all out of doors. The camera, so to speak, starts with a still life, and slowly pulls back to an aerial view.

However, not all aspects of the poem line up in a tidy sequence. For instance, each stanza is governed by a single verb, located at the end its first line. In order, they are sit, stands, cracks, builds, frames, bridge, and winds. Looking at them like this, I see no obvious sequence, but 3 pairs of quasi-opposing terms: sit/stands, cracks/builds, frames (as in, enclose)/bridge (to connect), with “winds” standing on its own.  

That “winds,” and its prominent placement as the final verb, may be a clue regarding Altmann’s use of anadiplosis and how it fits into the poem’s thematics. Here’s the rest of the poem:

The self builds
its walls
of healing.

Healing frames
the house
of wounds.

Wounds bridge
darkness and light
over time.

Time winds through
the lake of memories
in frozen tongue.

To wind is to move in twisting motion; it suggests complication and entanglement. Each successive use of anadiplosis—room, impermanence, self, healing, wounds, time, [tongue/voices]—creates its own sort of entanglement, with “healing” happening before “wounds,” and wounds doing the unlikely work of bridging. Anadiplosis is essential to the poem’s calculated confusion of categories, where abstractions like “impermanence” and “self” are somehow embodied by architecture.

The prepositions—especially “of,” which appears 5 times—do a lot of heavy lifting, and underscore the irresolution of the poem: “the self builds / its walls / of healing.” “Walls of healing” could be walls created by means of healing, or walls that are a source of healing. “Of” allows for either reading, and this spare poem does not provide much evidence to support one reading over the other. The other instances of “of” work in a similar fashion, as does “over” in the 6th stanza, and “in” in the final line.

The poem is an accumulation of the complicated, the not-quite-resolved, with each successive stanza attempting to join past and present, abstract and concrete, and not fully succeeding. This is not a fault, but a brilliant poetic strategy. If the poem is addressing a wound, then anadiplosis serves as a kind of stitching, and the poem itself becomes the record of imperfect healing: a scar.

Renee Gladman: The Draw of Language

If end I gained
It ends beyond
Indefinite disclosed—
—Emily Dickinson

Winning an argument may be a matter of having the last word, but for the writer, the true end of writing is: more writing. Writing is an activity that is, ideally, endless; a writer who no longer writes is not a writer. Success for a writer is succession, to find no end to words.  

More: the act of writing is its own impetus. A word, once written, calls for more words. This additive/corrective/amendatory process is the draw of writing. In her new book of essays, Calamities (link), Renee Gladman lays bare these paradoxes at the heart of writing:

You suddenly think you have reached the end. So, I was reaching the end of writing and was writing the end of writing (because you want this story told as well). . . . (116)

***

My sentences had changed somewhere between coffee and drawing, and then I was writing to try to catch up with the change but all the time making more change because to write was always to add to something that is going its own way. (120)

That second sentence embodies that difficulty it describes, as it appears in the 13th section of a sequence called “11 Calamities,” already two calamities over the line. Like the lectures of Gertrude Stein—a clear influence—Gladman’s writing is simultaneously a record of the writing process and also the effort to conceptualize and explain that process. But it’s almost impossible to theorize about something while one is in the process of doing it. Theorizing accomplished by means of its own apparatus is necessarily incomplete.

Consequently, Gladman’s writing is always after itself, that is, in pursuit and also behind, never quite synchronized with itself, always late for the show. As Gladman put it in a interview (link), For me, writing is a kind of pursuit of company that never comes.”

Why Calamities? Allow me a brief digression into literary history. In an influential discussion of 17th century prose writers, “The Baroque Style in Prose” (1929), Morris Croll notes that for writers such as Robert Burton and Sir Thomas Browne, “Their purpose was to portray, not a thought, but a mind thinking.” (This sentence has been cited with approval by 20th century and contemporary writers from Elizabeth Bishop to Charles Bernstein). Their prose aims “to express, as far as it may be, the order in which an idea presents itself when it is first experienced.” Through the use of this emergent structure, “each member” of the sentence becomes “an emergency of the situation.” Croll’s use of provocative term “emergency” makes each phrase a mini-crisis that the writer both creates and responds to.

So it’s as if Gladman  ups the ante on Croll, with her writing becoming, not an emergency, which is crisis for which there’s time for rescue efforts, but a continuous calamity, something most likely beyond the hope of repair. Such a situation calls for desperate measures. For Gladman, it compels her to switch to a nonverbal form of expression, drawing:  

I was not writing. I was drawing. Yet I was drawing writing so I was writing, but at the beginning I didn’t know how to say this. I wrote a calamity. I wrote another calamity. Sometimes they made me sad because I thought when I finished them I would be done with writing. I thought I am writing myself out of writing by writing. . . . (111)

But she realizes that the drawings are no more final than words, even when their lines are used to cross words out:

Sometimes the drawings were ugly because what I’d done was take the concept of the cross-out, magnify it by ten and remove it from context such that there was no cause for elision, no evidence of a relation to the elided, just cross outs. [But] it wasn’t just cross-outs but something swirling underneath like broken dances being written about in cursive language broken already in the hand before the hand wrote, so need to be appended. (113)

“Broken already in the hand…so need to be appended.” Throughout the book, she rings the changes on “drawing” and related words, such as “line” and “mark.” Gladman is also a visual artist, so to a certain extent, the drawings are literal (even though none appear in the book). Here’s one of her drawings (link)  that was just published in the December issue of Poetry.

“Draw”—like “line,” like “mark”— is an astonishing monosyllable, and its complexities limn the difficulties Gladman explores in her writing/drawing. Here’s a start on “draw,” courtesy of  Merriam Webster:

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Drawing draws: pulls us continually towards something; attempts to extract the essence and thereby put an end to writing, the need to append; yet it ends in a draw, with nothing resolved. In the interview cited above, Gladman states, “Ultimately, what I want is for there to be a blur over everything.” For Gladman, writing is no momentary stay against confusion: it’s more a matter of entering into—even creating—instability, so that language can embody the change it draws:

The page was a “commotional field”….To enter it, you had to be in motion, and to see where you were you had to be in motion, and not just moving your body around constantly, frantically naming stations, then moving at varying speeds between them, but also naming with impermanence, seeing objects as in the middle of some process, and understanding your seeing as impermanent as well, changing always.  (122-23)

Ruin Bares Us: William Bronk and the Poetics of Demolition

William Bronk is a chronically neglected poet. He occasionally gets a blip of attention—for instance, when his poem “Midsummer” was cited in Ben Lerner’s 2014 novel 10:04—but those articles are more interested in explaining why he’s obscure than encouraging readers to give his work serious consideration. It’s unfortunate. While he has garnered the enthusiasm of a wide range of contemporary writers—poets such as Joseph Massey, John Taggart, and US Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, as well as fiction writer Lydia Davis—his poetry never seems to take.

Of course, one may guess the source of this neglect: think “poetry” and its typical associations—lush language, music, metaphor, description—and you’ve just described everything a Bronk poem is not. But that’s precisely the reason we should be reading him. The value of Bronk is his relentless skepticism regarding almost all conventional poetic means.

Yet Bronk’s skepticism is not mere PoMo “problematizing.” The stakes are high: his writing is fueled by a “want” or “desire”—favorite words for Bronk—for “the world” or reality in the largest sense. And it’s clear that for Bronk, that desire can never be fulfilled, especially by language:

How almost like the beasts, with only barks

and cries we are, so tangent is any speech

to all we know.

But Bronk doesn’t merely shrug and say everything is “beyond words.” He turns language’s failure into an asset. As he explains in his essay “Copan: Historicity Gone”:  “It is by our most drastic failures that we may perhaps catch glimpses of something real, of something which is.” He puts it more succinctly in his poem “On the Street”: “Ruin bares us.”

For Bronk, writing is ruin, something that appears to have once been inhabited and whole, but is now an expression of absence: “Thought is what we think and then shed; / We turn and look back on thought, lamenting it” (“Beatific Effigies” LS ). This shattered indication of what was once there is the best poetry has to offer:

People are passing; I look in passing at them.

Look, how the light comes down through them: they glow.

Once, I grasped at one. Oh, it was sweet.

It had nothing to do with me, or anyone. (“Passing” LS 182)

A poem is to reality as a lens is to light: the seemingly important thing—the light, the world—is what passes through. And passing is the right word here, connoting both something transitory, on its way to elsewhere (what Emerson called abandonment), and also something that’s dead, the mere remains of the living—ruins.

However, this is not merely a thematic concern, or a theoretical description of all language as such. Ruin, or more specifically, the process of ruination, is an essential poetic technique for Bronk. Take this brief untitled poem:

The truth has many forms which are not its form
If it has one. What has a form of its own
Or, having, is only it? There is truth.

The first line and a half forms a series of small demolitions: The opening statement “The truth has many forms” is immediately questioned/contradicted by “which are not its form.” Then both the statement and its contradiction are reduced to the merely hypothetical: “If it has one.” Next, the notion of form itself is questioned, then dismissed as irrelevant, whether it exists or not.

By the end, the poem has abandoned everything that it attempted to predicate of “the truth.” All that’s left is the bare word, sans definite article: a placeholder for something we cannot have or know, hitched to an impersonal expletive construction, seemingly indifferent to human agency.