Our / Vertical / Miseries / & / Joys: A Fantasia on Noelle Kocot’s ‘Phantom Pains of Madness’

Typically, I write on a legal size notebook, turned long-side horizontal, treating the page more like a blackboard. But in honor of today’s topic, Noelle Kocot’s new book of poems, Phantom Pains of Madness, I’ve gone vertical, since her entire book consists of poems with one-word lines, like this:

I
Am
Not
An
Ogre
And
Without
All
Of
This
Propelling
Me
To
Write
Poems
What
Is
Left  
Only
The  
Life
The
Singing
Language
Around
The
Life
(from “Life is Beautiful”)

All / Of / This / Propelling / Me: the writing does propel, in that it feels incomplete, straining after an impossible wholeness:

I
Am
Telling
You
The
Truth
That
The
Limitations
Were
All
Pure
Lies
(from “Limitations”)

You’d think, and I know you’re expecting me to say, that Kocot’s lineation emphasizes each word. But that’s not quite right. The stress—that is, the emphasis and the tension—is on the following word, a relentless sense of anticipation, of endless nextness. As the false endings accumulate, the reader is put on edge:

Edges
Over
Your
Visual
Cliff
(from “The Gone World”)

I
Don’t
Know
The
Future
But
Exile
And
Mitosis
Are
The
Commas
That
Lurch
Us
Into
A
Galaxy
Of
Forever
(from “The Future”)

This format is perfect for expressing anxiety as well as creating it in the reader. It’s unsettling: you could say that Kocot’s lines are paratactic, a jolt from word to word. Or you could say they’re enjambed. I’d argue that it’s always both, and that it’s up to you, dear reader, to decide at each turn how to read it. The word verse—etym. Latin, “to turn”— was never more appropriate: each word/line is a turn.

———–

Why do they call it longing, that aching sense of yearning/grief/desire? Kocot’s line scheme makes these poems long. In fact, you could say that Phantom Pains of Madness is a phenomenology of longing:

I
Expend
A
Ball
Of
Yarn
Out
In
The
Yard
Yearning
(from ”Yarn”)

I
Find
I
Want
Ceaselelessly

(from “Pills”)

A yearning for

A
Future
Full
Of
Holes
(from “(____)”)

Or an irrecoverable past:

Life
Of
The
Things
That
Pass
(from “Stains”)

In “Sunstorm,”  Kocot mentions “Salad / Days,” a phrase that finds its origin in Antony and Cleopatra. It’s Shakespeare’s most enjambed play—its lines, like its characters, always overspilling their bounds—and appropriately enough, it’s a play of longing: “Give me my robe, put on my crown, I have / Immortal longings in me.”

Or as Kocot puts it:

The
God-
Hunger
(from “Addict”)

A
Hereafter
Where
Infinite
Hope
The
Most
Profound
Kind
Lays
Itself
Out
(from “On Paul V’s Birthday”)

To Go Close Means Forgetting: John Berger’s Art Criticism

Many gallery and museum goers are guilty of what I’ll call the identification fallacy, that is, confusing the name of the artwork/artist with the experience of the work. For many viewers, that moment of identification—usually accomplished with the help of a wall label—marks the end of seeing. As a result, a rich, intricate artwork that has the potential to occupy our eyes and minds for hours is reduced instead to “a Picasso” or “a Martin.” But for the critic who wants to encourage viewers’ deep engagement with the work, the question becomes, how to help viewers resist this birder-like tendency to treat artworks as names to be collected/checked off a list?

I’ve been dipping into John Berger’s essays on art, and I’m fascinated by how he solves this problem. Here’s the opening of the appropriately named essay, “A Gratitude Hard to Name”:

Is it still possible to write more words about him? I think of those already written, mine included, and the answer is “No.” If I look at his paintings, the answer is again—for a different reason—“No”; the canvases command silence. I almost said plead for, and that would have been false, for there is nothing pathetic about a single image he made—not even the old man with his head in his hands at the gates of eternity. All his life he hated blackmail and pathos.

Only when I look at his drawings does it seem worthwhile to add to the words. Maybe because his drawings resemble a kind of writing, and he often drew on his own letters. The ideal project would be to draw the process of his drawing, to borrow his drawing hand. Nevertheless I will try with words.

In front of a drawing, drawn in July 1888, of a landscape around the ruined abbey of Montmajour near Arles, I think I see the answer to the obvious question: why did this man become the most popular painter in the world?

You’ll find the full essay here.

When it comes to art criticism, we’ve been trained to expect to be told the name of the artist somewhere in the first paragraph, if not the first sentence. Here, only in the 3rd paragraph do we begin to have a guess as to who the artist might be, and even then, Berger does not name him, but only mentions his status as “the most popular painter in the world.”

In fact, Berger never mentions the artist’s full name, giving us only his first name, 2 lines away from the end of the essay. I’ll quote the final 2 paragraphs so you have a full sense of the effect. Berger imagines the artist working on the drawing of the ruined abbey:

As he sits with his back to the monastery looking at the trees, the olive grove seems to close the gap and to press itself against him. He recognizes the sensation—he has often experienced it, indoors, outdoors, in the Borinage, in Paris, or here in Provence. To this pressing—which was perhaps the only sustained intimate love he knew in his lifetime—he responds with incredible speed and the utmost attention. Everything his eye sees, he fingers. And the light falls on the touches on the vellum paper just as it falls on the pebbles at his feet—on one of which (on the paper) he will write Vincent.

Within the drawing today there seems to be what I have to call a gratitude, which is hard to name. Is it the place’s, his, or ours?

Berger employs this delayed naming in many of his essays on art (to varying degrees: sometimes it’s just a paragraph), as well as in his profile pieces. For instance, in his essay “A Girl Like Antigone” he does not name his subject, Simone Weil, until the very last sentence. But the effect is the same: we engage particulars instead of generalizations; our preconceptions are suspended, and line by line a new understanding emerges, with Berger as our guide. Our relationship to Berger’s writing as well as to his subject becomes more intimate. As Berger says elsewhere, regarding the artistic process in general, “To go close means forgetting convention, reputation, reasoning, hierarchies and self.“ Berger helps us forget so we can go close.

***

A note regarding the new anthology Portraits: John Berger on Artists, edited by Tom Overton. The “delayed naming” technique is clearly important to Berger’s “project” (a word that Berger himself would probably find too grandiose), as he has employed it in essays from the ‘60s to the present. For this reason, I’m dismayed at what I imagine was Overton’s editorial decision to remove the original titles of the essays, and replace them with the name of the artist they discuss. So now “A Gratitude Hard to Name” is bluntly called, “Vincent Van Gogh.” Of course 500+ pages of Berger’s incredible writing gathered in a handsome volume is to be celebrated, but it’s unfortunate that Overton compromised the integrity of the titles.

——-

This essay is a follow-up to my piece posted on Essay Daily last week: Colluding with Accident: John Berger’s Artful Artlessness

The Feeling of Of: The Unappreciated Preposition

Prepositions can seem to be adjuncts to a vocabulary, more grammatical devices than words. But they, too, mean. —Robert Graves and Laura Riding

The recent/ongoing debate about adverbs betrays a bias, so deeply held that we fail to recognize it as such. It’s assumed that nouns and verbs are essential. So are adjectives and even adverbs, we allow, despite the occasional kerfuffle over their relative importance. But prepositions? They’re unworthy of either praise or condemnation. They’re just there, and barely so.  

Yet that easy-to-miss quality is what makes them the most important part of language. Prepositions work almost invisibly, while the more salient nouns and verbs and their modifiers hog all the credit. They truck in relations, which is a trickier—and frankly more essential—business than naming things or designating actions. They are the duct tape of language, jerry-rigging words and phrases into sentences.

It’s no accident they’re called “function words”: they do the real work of language. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs are just fingers pointing at the moon—or fingers pointing at the fingers pointing at… .   

Other words are replaceable, but you can’t thesaurus a preposition. As the result of centuries of make-do use, rushing in where other words fear to tread, each preposition has acquired a complex range of meanings, so subtle that it’s almost impossible to define, that is, to put into other words. If you don’t believe me, look up of or about or at.

They are also the most flexible/adaptable word type, embracing all other functions of language. According to Laura Riding and Robert Graves, “Of, as a possessive force, is very verbal.” But sometimes, they add, of can be “nominal, quasi-appositional,” for example, “a case of mistaken identity.”

This grammatical shapeshifting is much more subtle than, say, than classic anthimeria, using one part of speech for another, such as verbing nouns, as I did a couple paragraphs back with “thesaurus.” Anthimeria is self-conscious, show-offy, and calls attention to itself like a crack in the mirror. It makes readers stumble. But prepositions silently and effortlessly adapt to the needs of the situation.

Their nuance enables their neglect. Let’s face it. Most of us are linguistic Yahoos, oohing and ahing over glittery substantives. But as William James warned:

We ought to say a feeling of and, a feeling of if, a feeling of but, and a feeling of by, quite as readily as we say a feeling of blue or a feeling of cold. Yet we do not: so inveterate has our habit become of recognizing the existence of the substantive parts alone, that language almost refuses to lend itself to any other use.

Yet the importance of prepositions has not been lost on everyone, especially poets. For example, Gertrude Stein (who studied with William James at Radcliffe) said that

Prepositions can live one long life being really being nothing but absolutely nothing but mistaken and that makes them irritating if you feel that way about mistakes but certainly something that you can be continuously using and everlastingly enjoying. I like prepositions the best of all.

Most prepositions are modest monosyllables, so we can understand why Stein had a thing for possibly the most ostentatious preposition, notwithstanding, using it five times in the final paragraph of Tender Buttons.

In this excerpt from Stanzas in Meditation, Stein uses prepositions—by, for, with, of, and in—to finesse our understanding of an antecedentless “it.”

By it by which by it
As not which not which by it
For it it is in an accessible with it
But which will but which will not it
Come to be not made not made one of it
By that all can tell all call for in it
That they can better call add
Can in add none add it.
—From “Stanza VII”

Stein’s use of a cypher-pronoun compels us to seek meaning elsewhere: we lean into the prepositions, and the meaning becomes kaleidoscopic. “Meaning,” I admit, is a clumsy and flat-footed term to designate what this poem says—really, does—but that only proves my point: prepositions take us to a place where our metalanguage gives out, where we need the linguistic equivalent to quantum physics to account for what’s going on.

But not all pro-preposition poets are experimentalists. Robert Frost, for instance, seemed almost obsessed with “in” and “out”: “All out-of-doors looked darkly in at him” (“An Old Man’s Winter’s Night”); “What I was walling in or walling out” (”Mending Wall”); “Back out of all this now too much for us” (”Directive”). His “Spring Pools” is a study in prepositions:

These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will the flowers beside them soon be gone
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foilage on.

The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods—
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.

They say you should never end a sentence in a preposition, but we know that’s just more anti-prep propaganda, denying this amazing word-group the most prominent place in the sentence. So, as a corrective, allow me to break another marmism—”Never end with a quote!”—and conclude with two preposition-heavy quotes from contemporary poets. First this brief but brain-bending excerpt from Geoffrey G. O’Brien’s “Experience In Groups,” from April’s Boston Review:

                      The sun
Has gone out in the poem
In both senses of out, all senses
Of in.

And finally this poem by Rosmarie Waldrop, from her poem sequence Pre + Con or Positions + Junctions, reprinted in Gap Gardening: Selected Poems, just published by New Directions:

Of bodies
of various
sizes of

vibrations
of blue excite
of never except

in his early
in childhood has he touched
of the space of

between of
to allow
of for impact

now of that color
has slowed
its pitch

or of skin
of but light
no deep foundation

nor of leans into
the blue

Margin of Error: Notes, Failure, and the Reader’s Proximity

Proximity is not a state, a repose, but a restlessness… . Never close enough, proximity does not congeal into a structure… .—Emmanuel Levinas

Dwelling at the bottom of the page or in the back of the book, appended to the main text by tiny superscript numbers, notes (be they foot- or end-) are often considered to be the site of obscurity and pedantry. Yet in the past century or so, notes have moved conceptually if not literally from the margin to the center of certain works of literature. For instance, many have argued that the notes to T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1922) should be regarded as part of the poem. For Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the notes are the novel. David Foster Wallace’s marginal shenanigans are well-known. More recently, Tyrone Williams and Jenny Boully have each written essays consisting entirely of footnotes.

Two works published this April put notes to innovative and compelling use: Jen Hofer’s essay on translation, “Proximate Shadowing: Translation as Radical Transparency and Excess” (published on the Poetry Foundation website) and Brian Blanchfield’s collection of essays, Proxies: Essays Near Knowing. Interestingly, both writers draw our attention to their notes by explicitly discussing them.

Hofer discusses how translation is so often thought of in terms of access and assimilation, providing readers with something they can completely comprehend. Hofer counters that the true aim of translation should be “empathetic not-understanding.” She explains:

For years I’ve been thinking and writing through ideas around the ways translation can generate empathetic not-understanding as an alternative to simplistic and often essentializing or assimilationist ideas around the way texts in translation can provide a “window” into other cultures, as opposed to being tools for unlearning the dominance of English and of USAmerican frameworks for conceiving and categorizing complex interrelated phenomena like race, ethnicity, nationality, linguistic culture, gender, class, sexuality, ability, and all kinds of other constellations that make people people.

Hofer points out that no translation wholly ‘gets’ its source text. But most translations work hard to cover up these inevitable shortcomings. Hofer thinks the translator should instead highlight the source text’s resistances, and acknowledge—even emphasize—the translation’s failures:

My approach constitutes interventionist translation … goes a little too far, while not getting near enough. It’s not quite right, as translation never gets things quite “right”—it’s not about rightness or fixity or one-to-one correlation, not about digesting the source or hitting the target, but about the always-in-process-of-failing attempt to recognize the substance and context of something from somewhere else, and bring that recognition here, while remaining wondrously aware of the processes of transfer, and of what resists transfer.

Here’s where notes become so important. A note in a translation is an acknowledgement of a failure: if the translation proper is “good enough,” no note needed. Even in traditional translations, the note, in its attempt to explain away a translation’s deficiency, only draws our attention to it—and to the essential otherness of the source text:

The notes come directly from and into the translation process itself—they are not afterthought or afterward, but interruption, excess, interjection, extraneous needful commentaries that leave the imprint of where I was or imagined or wished myself to be as I was in the moment of not-understanding that builds, question by question, impossibility by impossibility, the particularly political kind of not-understanding-but-coexisting-in-proximity translation can spark.

Proximity: much of Hofer’s essay is taken with an analysis of the spatial metaphors we use to talk about translation. We translate something “into” our language. We digest the text; translators hit the target. So described, the original of a translation becomes the quarry, something to be shot and consumed. Proximity offers an alternative to the violent paradigms of translation. It replaces knowledge with acknowledgement, silent assimilation with noisy interruption. Proximity is an uneasy coexisting, sustained and embodied by the notes.

—–

Brain Blanchfield’s Proxies: Essays Near Knowing has garnered significant critical attention in part because of its intriguing premise: this entire collection of essays—on everything from owls to Br’er Rabbit to frottage—was written with a constraint: “a total suppression of recourse to other authoritative sources.” Blanchfield adds a second and related constraint: “to stay with [each essay’s] subject until it gives onto an area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability, and keep unpacking from there.” Each essay begins with an “invocation of sorts” that recommits Blanchfield to his project: “Permitting shame, error and guilt. Myself the single source.”

This commitment to vulnerability, error and shame is underscored by what Blanchfield calls a “rolling endnote”:

At the end of this book there is a rolling endnote called “Correction.” It sets right much—almost certainly not at all—of what between here and there I get wrong. It runs twenty-one pages. It may still be running.

Like Hofer, Blanchfield associates notes with failure. Notes are indices of weakness, error, or incompletion. He connects the “imprecision” that his notes seem to stress with his book’s title:

In the sciences… proxy… expressess a kind of concession to imprecision. A failure. It’s the word for a subject you choose to study to produce data that can approximate the data you’d get from the actual, desired subject, if it were not prohibitively hard to apprehend.

Proximity haunts Proxies: the subtitle of the book is “Essays Near Knowing” (my emphasis) and it concludes with an essay “The Near Term.” There’s an entire essay on “peripersonal space.” Blanchfield explains:

Peripersonal space … is the entire volume of space within a person’s reach, or within a single conceivable momentary extension of his person. Think da Vinci, and the geometry of his jumping jack in extremis sketch. All that. It includes everything at arm’s length and a bit more… .

Both Blanchfield and Hofer believe that the “failures” foregrounded by notes are essential. For Hofer, notes are an indication of/respect for a source text’s foreignness. For Blanchfield, they’re a necessary concession to not only the imprecision of memory/personal knowledge, but also the complexity of human relationships. For instance, the essay on peripersonal space is about his vexed relationship with his mother. And both writers are concerned in their own way with the proximate, the close-but-not-identified-with.

This leads me to a final “proximity”: the reader. Notes are an acknowledgement of the reader. Jacques Derrida has written of the “double-bind” of notes: that they attempt to close off a text, to make it self-sufficient, while simultaneously demonstrating that it is not, as notes are there for the benefit of readers who may need additional explanation. Notes are the site of vulnerability, a hemorrhage, where the boundary of the writing becomes porous. Blanchfield emphasizes this vulnerable aspect of notes. Combined with his ritualistic “invocations,” the notes become a serial confession. And the reader is his witness.

As Hofer would have it, notes create a double bind that’s significantly different from Derrida’s (or Blanchfield’s) understanding. For her, the note acknowledges the reader while emphasizing the foreignness of the text. The note brings us close without letting us in: proximity. These noted resistances of the source text aren’t difficulties to be surmounted; they are instead “opportunities for us as readers to become translated.” Hofer admits she’s not completely clear on what that means in practical terms, but I find the idea compelling. The translation becomes not a window into another culture, nor a tool of assimilation, but a means of exposing readers’ native conceptual limitations, and making us strangers to ourselves.

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:

image

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.

The Pursuit: Shakespeare’s Sources

The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death has prompted an onslaught of “did you know” sorts of articles, including Jonathan Bate’s recent piece on Shakespeare’s sources. Bate points out three major ones: Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Florio’s translation of Montaigne, and Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Most Noble Grecians and Romans.

I’m interested in a less often discussed source: Tottel’s Miscellany: Song and Sonnets of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Sir Thomas Wyatt and Others. Published in 1557, the Miscellany is believed to be the first printed anthology of English poetry, and is the central source for the poems we have by Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. Their translations/adaptations of Petrarch’s sonnets appear in the Miscellany, and mark the beginnings of the English sonnet—what came to be known, somewhat misleadingly, as the Shakespearean sonnet.

Based on that formal influence alone, there’s no doubt that Shakespeare was familiar with the Miscellany, but the influence goes beyond that. He quotes lines from it in The Merry Wives of Windsor and in the narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece. In Hamlet, the gravedigger sings a few slightly misquoted lines from Lord Vaux’s “The Aged Lover Renounceth Love.”

As far as I can tell, Shakespeare’s most substantial engagement with the Miscellany occurs in his sonnet 129, “Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” I’d argue that this poem is a recasting/agonistic re-writing of Surrey’s “Brittle Beauty,” which is the ninth poem printed in the Miscellany. Here’s Surrey’s poem:

image

And, for ease of reference, here’s Shakespeare’s sonnet 129:

image

Thematically, they’re quite similar: the promise of beauty/bliss vs. the disappointment of its attainment. Both are explicit about the unreasonableness of the pursuit: “Tickle treasure, abhorred of reason” (“Brittle Beauty”); “Past reason hunted; and, no sooner had than / Past reason hated” (129). And both call their subjects toxic: “infecting as the poison” (“Brittle”); “a swallowed bait/On purpose laid to make the taker mad” (129).

Most compelling to me is how they explore the temporal nature of desire—how it moves from present or proposed (future) enjoyment to consequent disappointment (past)—and how their lines and logic enact that movement in similar ways:

“Brittle”:

Flowering to-day, to-morrow apt to fail…

Costly in keeping, past not worth two peason…

Hard to obtain, once gotten, not geason 

129:

Mad in pursuit and in possession so…

A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;

Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.

However, I did evoke a bloomian agon above, so I feel compelled to address whether WS’s piece does more than echo Surrey’s sonnet—whether WS overwrites his predecessor. It feels cheap and opportunistic to succumb to bardolatry on the 400 anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, but I must give the win to him here. First of all, there’s the rhythmic ruggedness Shakespeare’s “lust / Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame, / Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,” portraying in language the unsettled state of mind that is “lust in action.” It could be argued that Surrey’s subject is beauty, not lust, and does not call for such language of extremity. However, it could also be argued that the point of 129 is to show that’s Surrey’s verse is not up to the representational challenge lust presents.

Speaking of representational challenges: it is perhaps more accurate to say that lust isn’t linear, but circular, which strikes me as something that’s particularly difficult show in language. Look at how Shakespeare does it: “Mad in pursuit and in possession so,  / Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme.” The second line here goes beyond the binary before/after pattern discussed above, evoking instead three states—and presenting them in reverse order. Shakespeare shows us that lust is not linear, moving from pursuit to attainment to disappointment, but an endless series of never nows.

Striking out: Missing Poetry

Recently on the NPR website philosopher/aesthetician Alva Noë offered Robert Francis’s poem “The Pitcher” as a celebration of the start of a new baseball season—and, of course, to set up an opportunity to talk about one of his favorite subjects, art and our experience of it. Here’s the poem:

The Pitcher

His art is eccentricity, his aim
How not to hit the mark he seems to aim at,
His passion how to avoid the obvious,
His technique how to vary the avoidance.
The others throw to be comprehended. He
Throws to be a moment misunderstood.
Yet not too much. Not errant, arrant, wild,
But every seeming aberration willed.
Not to, yet still, still to communicate,
Making the batter understand too late.

Noë points out how the poem highlights the pitcher’s paradoxical task: to throw a pitch that’s “hittable”—that is, in the strike zone—but to do so in a way that ensures the batter doesn’t hit it. The pitcher “Throws to be a moment misunderstood. / Yet not too much.”

To Noë, pitching is much like art. The artwork pitches us “unhittable hittables.” Noë stops with that suggestive phrase, choosing not to elaborate—pitching, perhaps, his own unhittable hittable. 

Yet I’m intrigued by this analogy, specifically how it seemed to relate to comments and observations poets have made about their strange art of obliquity. For instance, what first came to mind when I read Francis’s poem was Wallace Stevens’s lines “The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.”

I’m also struck by what’s unelaborated in this comparison, specifically the role of the batter, who would seem to be an analogue to the reader. What exactly is the reader doing in this scenario? It would seem that, if the poet-pitcher is pitching well, the reader-batter will swing and miss and eventually strike out.

The poet aims to strike out the reader? That doesn’t seem quite right. As Francis puts it in the final lines, the goal is “Not to, yet still, still to communicate. / Making the batter understand too late.” Note that this is the only couplet that fully rhymes. The rest of the poem’s couplets form varying degrees of partial rhyme—they’re “willed aberrations” that keep the reader off balance, in the manner of a good pitcher. The hiccup in the penultimate line, “Not to, yet still, still to communicate…” serves a similar purpose. So by the time we get to the final line, we’re probably no  longer expecting it to rhyme. The poem rhyme scheme works like a curveball—it looks wild, but at the last second it bends into the strike zone. And most likely the reader-batter forgot to swing.

Does Francis’s “too late” mean that, sure, the reader struck out, but perhaps after the fact will sit back and appreciate just what the pitcher was doing, its nuance and subtlety? But that’s still unsatisfactory. It would certainly make poetry a boring ball game.

——–

Yet I’m not ready to give up on this promising comparison just yet. On deck for the next post: John Ashbery on what it means to miss—

This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
Look at it talking to you. You look out a window
Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don’t have it.
You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.