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”)

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.

Ben Lerner and the Transcendence of Words

Leonardo Da Vinci famously argued that painting is superior to poetry, in part because painting calls upon the “more worthy” sense of vision, whereas poetry merely acts “by way of the ear.” Moreover, a portrait clearly resembles its subject, but the verbal equivalent of a portrait, the subject’s name, is arbitrary, and corresponds in no clear way to its bearer. Finally, Da Vinci points out that a painting of, say, a battle, will have more viewers, provoke longer consideration, and garner more praise than a poem about a battle.

Some have said that Da Vinci’s argument is merely a clever rhetorical exercise, and clearly, his is not the final word on what has come to be known as the paragone (Italian for “comparison”) between the verbal and the visual. Recently, for instance, the topic was taken up in Ben Lerner’s short story, “The Polish Rider,” in which the unnamed narrator states that “I love [stories] that involve ruined paintings or missing paintings or unmade paintings.” He goes on to discuss non-existent paintings that have been described in fiction, pointing out that they demonstrate how writing/literature is superior to painting:

words can describe paintings the crazy artists can’t actually paint, or intuit canvases that were as of yet unpainted, unpaintable. And isn’t it really true of all ekphrastic literature, fiction and poetry, that even when it claims to be describing or praising a work of visual art it is in fact asserting its own superiority?

In an interview, Lerner acknowledges that while the narrator’s point may be overstated, we should still take him seriously. Lerner explains:

Take the classic example of ekphrasis: the description of Achilles’ shield in the Iliad. The description is so elaborate and expansive as to cease to be realistic; no actual shield could contain all that detail… . The verbal, while pretending to give life to the visual, often transcends it: words can describe a shield we can’t actually make, can’t even effectively paint… .

Lerner’s claim that words can “transcend” the visual is strikingly similar to a comment Coleridge made about Milton. For the sake of clarity, I include the passage from Milton that Coleridge discusses:

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Milton’s description is a tissue of contradictions: a shapeless shape consisting of an insubstantial substance: “for each seemed either.” Coleridge explains that Milton’s passage compels the reader to attempt to visualize “the unimaginable,” which will not be reduced to “a mere image,” thereby “exhibiting the narrow limit of painting, as compared with the boundless power of poetry.” We simply cannot picture what this passage attempts to depict. In other words—specifically, Lerner’s—Milton “transcends the visual.”

The idea that the verbal can somehow overwrite the visual is underscored by the title of Lerner’s story, “The Polish Rider.” It’s also the title of a well-known painting by Rembrandt. Rembrandt is never actually named in Lerner’s story about two missing paintings. It’s as if the painting has been supplanted by a story that itself describes a provocative absence.

Yet Lerner’s thinking does not stop there. Words not only have the capacity to figure the unimaginable, but—as Lerner argues in his recent book, The Hatred of Poetry—they can also describe a literature that cannot be written. Lerner points out that Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” “describes an ideal music the poems themselves cannot achieve”:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.

Lerner cites Michael Clune regarding Keats’s “images of a virtual music,” and explains that it’s “a music Keats can describe but not play (and that nobody can play: it’s not difficult, it’s impossible). Literary form can’t achieve Keatsian music, it can only figure it… . [W]hat [Keats’s lines] describe can’t be realized by any human instrument in time.” This is the source of poetry’s “hatred” of itself: “‘Poetry’ is a word for a value no particular poem can realize… . Hating on actual poems, then, is often an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the persistence of the demand of Poetry.”

Capital-P Poetry, then, is an impossible ideal that can be posited, but cannot be achieved, by individual poems. Or as Wallace Stevens put it 60 years before Lerner, each poem  is “a part, but part, but tenacious particle, / Of the skeleton of the ether, the total / Of letters… “ (“Primitive Like an Orb”).

Towards a Plural Poetics: on C. D. Wright’s “The Poet, The Lion”

The Poet, The Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, A Wedding in St. Roch, The Big Box Store, The Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All
C.D. Wright
Copper Canyon, 2016

Published a week before her death in January, C. D. Wright’s The Poet, The Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, A Wedding in St. Roch, The Big Box Store, The Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All is itself a demonstration of the poetics it proposes to discuss.

Consider its sprawling title. “Poetics,” my dictionary informs me, is a plural noun that’s to be “construed as singular,” which suggests that any given understanding of poetic practice must be somehow cohesive and unified. Wright’s title tells me that my dictionary is wrong: for Wright, a poetic practice worthy of the name will not be reduced to a principle or precept, but is necessarily expansive, plural, and protean. “Less and less am I persuaded by the medium’s essence,” Wright informs us early on, “and more and more I am pulled by its mutability.”

The book consists of brief prose sections—many less than a page—that variously take up the book’s many themes, most of which are indicated by the title. The “lion,” for instance, refers to the eight sections called “Hold Still, Lion” devoted to Robert Creeley’s writing, life, and death. The heading comes from a few lines from his poem “Drawn & Quartered,” cited by Wright: “Hold still, lion! / I am trying / to paint you / while there’s time to.”

Other poets figure prominently in the book: Jean Valentine, Brenda Hillman (she’s the “Fire” in the book’s title, drawn from Hillman’s recent book, Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire), and John Taggart (her introduction to his collection Is Music is included in its entirety). Another longish section discusses the studied artlessness of Michael Ondaatje’s poem, “Driving with Dominic.” William Carlos Williams and his circle are explored in the six sections called “Spring & All.”  Sculptor Anne Truitt and painter Agnes Martin are mentioned throughout the book, and, with Valentine, form a kind of personal artistic trinity for Wright:

Anne, Agnes, Jean: theirs is not a system of theories, not a representation of portents, but a commitment to the labor. ‘Writing a word / / changing it.’

Reflections on favorite words and language in general are found under sections headed “In a Word, a World.”  There are several headings that only appear once—”My American Scrawl” or “Concerning Why Poetry Offers a Better Deal the World’s Biggest Retailer”—but even those sections touch on many of the more visible leitmotivs of the book.

The result is an intricate weave of ideas stated, revisited, extended, explored. Each iteration does not build linearly towards a conclusion, but keeps the subject open and allows it to resonate with other themes. “Poetry moves by indirection,” Wright explains, “Indirection…changes the route, and often the destination.” For the reader, the repetition of terms and themes provides a kind of non-sequential, open-ended coherence.  I’m reminded of a passage Wright cites from Taggart, vis-à-vis his hallmark repetition: “Augustine on repetition: a mode of assuring the seeker that he is on his, way, and is not merely wandering blindly through the chaos from which all form arises.”

The Poet, The Lion, then, is not an argument, nor is it an apology, or statement, much less a manifesto. The book would be best described as an anti-manifesto: what is bestowed upon the reader is not a set of sureties and precepts to believe/live by/write by, but a shift towards an open, expansive relationship with language and the world. In this way, the book aspires to engender in its readers a kind of poetic thinking, a contemporary version of Keats’s negative capability. In a central passage, Wright explains:

The language of poetry specializes in doubt. Without the doubters, everyone is cut off at the first question. Poetry does not presume to know, but is angling to get a glimpse of what is gradually coming into view; it aims to rightly identify what is looming; it intends to interrogate whatever is already in place. Poetry, whose definition remains evasive by necessity, advocates the lost road; and beyond speech—waiting, listening, and silence.

Yet this listening is not passive.

On a wall in Whitechapel [Gallery] I saw it written:
I propose to keep looking. I propose
we all keep looking. I propose
it is an unyielding imperative for the poet to do so.

It is responsive, fluid: “One has to be responsive to [poetry’s] movement. One has to adjust to its unfamiliar configurations. One has to train one’s best ear on its retrofitted lyre.” Poetry as dialogue, interaction. The poet is one with others. Speaking of One Big Self, her collaborative book with photographer Deborah Luster, Wright observes, “Collaboration offers an opportunity to break out of the isolation of one’s own overly familiar braincase, an opportunity to have an experience that can’t be got on one’s own.”

It’s not surprising that a book that encourages, through its own example, a plural poetics of listening, mutability, and openness, comes to a close by directly engaging the reader with “Questionnaire in January,” a series of end-stopped questions and writing prompt-like statements. I conclude with a few examples:

Collette said writing leads only to writing. Where does it lead you. And what led you here.

Into what forms do you see poetry poring, morphing, shuddering.

Emily Dickinson said poetry was her letter to the world. Write me.

A Horde of Destructions: Orides Fontela’s Poetics of Silence

Does not the saying of Picasso that a picture is a horde of destructions also say that a poem is a horde of destructions?

—Wallace Stevens

I recently picked up the exhibition catalog for destroy the picture: painting the void, 1949–1962, exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. The book/exhibition considers post-WWII artists who “staged a literal assault on the picture plane.” These artists employed “techniques such as puncturing, ripping, cutting and burning to break through the two-dimensional support” in order to “figure the void.”

Looking at the catalog, I’m struck by how visually stunning paintings seemingly bent on their own destruction can be. For instance, here’s the work displayed on the cover, by Alberto Burri:

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The exhibition also features widely recognized artists such as Lucio Fontana:

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I found myself thinking about poetry: what poets have turned poetry against itself in the service of portraying “the void”: emptiness, nothing, silence, and other sorts of privation? What poets—driven by the need to go “beyond”—have brutalized their own medium? What does the verbal equivalent of these paintings look like?

One poet who came to mind was Brazilian poet Orides Fontela** (1940-1996). Her work is not well known to the English speaking world, and it’s a shame. Her spare, elemental poems are like shards of what was once an immense vessel. But her concern is less with the vessel than the emptiness it encompasses. Her favorite words—silence, white, water and space—suggest she’s more interested in what she can’t say than what she can. Even song cannot contain the vastness she seeks:

River II

Waters don’t
sing:
they flow gentle
they flee.

II

Fresh silence:
the flower does not
speak.

III

No noise. Just
white petals
of the flower which navigates
the splendid
waters.

It’s been said that language can be as much barrier as bridge, that words, instead of bringing us closer to things, push things away. Fontela recognizes this, and suggests that true intimacy with the world comes from silence: “wise rose in its / ripe silence.” But it seems impossible to summon silence with words:

To know the silence by heart
— and desecrate it. Dissolve it
in words.

What’s called for is a more active dismantling, taking the words we have away: “One step / From the bird / I in / Hale.”:

PENELOPE

What I do I un
do
what I live I un
live
what I love I un
love
(my “yes” brings a “no”
in the breast.)

But words always return—or maybe we always return to words. Thus the poet has an essential but impossible task. The effort to flee language must be continually renewed with each poem, each line:

Leap

I

Form’s
ungrasped moment
leap seeking
moment’s
beyond.

II

To devitalize form
to dis – member
to dis – make
and – beyond structure –
to live the pure un
inhabitable act.

 

+++++++++++

This is the first in series of posts on poets who aim “to destroy poetry” in some way. I hope to write a new one each week or so. At the moment I have 5 or so poets in the hopper, but please feel free to send suggestions. 

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**For the sake of simplicity/readability, I use only English translations of Fontela’s poems in this post. To read the originals alongside their translations, visit this helpful webpage.

Where to Draw the Line: Anadiplosis in Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s “Experience in Groups”

A quick definition: anadiplosis is a rhetorical figure in which the last word (or phrase) of a clause is repeated at the beginning of the next clause, like this:

The love of wicked men converts to fear;
That fear to hate, and hate turns one or both
To worthy danger and deserved death. (Shakespeare, Richard II)

Anadiplosis is often climatic, describing a sequence of causation, building towards Something Big, as is the case with our example.

But poets are wily, and have employed anadiplosis in non- and anti-climatic ways. As I discussed in this post, Wallace Stevens uses it to embody his poetics of transformation. For Laura Riding, the technique serves to demonstrate a failure built into the very fabric of language, how seemingly important names degrade into mere words.

Innovative as these examples are, they did not prepare me for how anadiplosis is used in Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s poem “Experience in Groups,” recently published by the Boston Review. You can read it in its entirety here. It’s long and challenging, and I won’t attempt a full reading of it. As best as I can discern, the poem explores how “everything / Touches everything else” and the ways we often take contiguous things and arbitrarily assemble them into something that seems cohesive. For example, feelings:

each feeling
Departs the time in which it lasts
For another point on the graph…

Days: ”One day hate-rhymes with the next.” Even cells: “All my cells are pages stamped.” Things hold together, even when they don’t really belong together; we fret about things falling apart, but as the poem points out, parodying Yeats: “Things stay together, the center can hold.”

The poem also investigates the opposite, and equally arbitrary, tendency we have to separate and divide things, such as groups of people. Here’s where the section employing anadiplosis comes in:

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Far from being climatic, anadiplosis here shows how things bleed into each other, how “complicity” is, etymologically speaking, a kind of fold (literally, “folding together”); how borders are not only lines on the map, but also the cause of long TSA lines; how those lines can detain us, or how we may, after standing in those lines, be detained by the TSA; how, waiting in line, we “camp out,” and how being from outside a certain country’s borders can land someone in an internment camp.

Beyond this blurring of lines, formally speaking, the lack of linearity is emphasized by the multiple appearances of “detention at a border,” disrupting any sense of sequence.

The poem has obvious political resonances, though I’d be hard pressed to state, in blunt terms, what position it advocates. In any case, that’s unlikely the point. Instead, O’Brien compels us to reexamine how we put things together, how we separate them, and where we draw the line.