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. 



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.


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.


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:

Screen Shot 2017-07-04 at 9.39.05 AM.png

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”).