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.

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.

From the cutting room floor: notes on Robert Hass’s “Weed”

As an experiment, I’m going to start posting notes, etc. that didn’t make it into the final version of an essay or post, but are nonetheless interesting (at least to me). Sweepings from my cutting room floor, so to speak.

Original Post

Poem

+++

Hass says the name horse-parsnip  “is history / but means nothing”

-—— “is history” can either mean that it’s important, or that it’s over: “you’re history!”

Horse-parsnip: named for the animal to which it is poisonous (humans, too), so the name is important, but nothing in the poem suggests this is on Hass’s mind.

+++

1933…..“in New Jersey / in 1933”———The year is a mystery: Williams’s poem “Queen-Anne’s lace” was published in 1920, so it’s not about when it was written/published. And though it’s presented as a childhood memory of the speaker, the year cannot apply to Hass, who was born in 1941. Typo?  1953 would work. OR a persona? He’s used them before (though not many comment on that).

+++

Horse-parsnip….more commonly referred to as wild parsnip, is in the carrot family—as is Queen Anne’s lace! They’re cousins. Complicates Hass’s comparison significantly.

+++

“the name / is absurd”

“Absurd” is Stevens’s word: “The sounds of the guitar / Were not and are not. Absurd. The words spoken / Were not and are not. It is not to be believed.” (from “The Rock”)

J Hillis Miller points out that “absurd: from ab, away, an intensive here, and surdus, deaf, inaudible, insufferable to the ear… . The Latin surdus was chosen in medieval mathematics to translate an Arabic term that was itself a translation of the Greek alogos: speechless, wordless, inexpressible… “ (The Linguistic Moment 394).  

Robert Hass vs. William Carlos Williams, Language vs. Language

The point of a poem is to become wordless…—A. R. Ammons

Weeds often signal neglect, spontaneous testimony that someone hasn’t been attending to her garden. Robert Hass’s poem “Weed” has served that function for me. It’s offered a counter-example to my grand theories about language and weeds, that the word “weed” is always a lazily-named plant—a sign of language’s unrealized potential.  

Hass’s “Weed” shows me that I haven’t been paying sufficient attention to this fascinating linguistic territory. Here’s the poem. Hass begins by riffing on the name of this particular weed, the “horse-parsnip,” explaining that “Horse is Lorca’s word, fierce as wind, / or melancholy, gorgeous, Andalusian.” But this poetic and exotic reading is short lived: “parsnip is hopeless,” states Hass, and to associate these two words with the plant “is history / but conveys nothing.”

The poem contrasts this with Queen Anne’s lace, a name that not only “is history” but also uses that history to “convey” a description of the plant, with the white flowers being the “lace,” and their purple-pink centers being the blood from when Queen Anne pricked her finger while making the lace.

That it’s located in New Jersey suggests that this Queen Anne’s lace belongs to William Carlos Williams. In Williams’s poem, the plant serves an analogue for a woman’s body:

Each part
is a blossom under his touch
to which the fibres of her being
stem one by one, each to its end,
until the whole field is a
white desire…

In the context of Hass’s poem, I’d like suggest, the overt sexuality of Williams’s poem models a certain mode of language use, a kind of Edenic naming, where Adam named not only the animals, but also “woman”: “She shall be called Woman,” Adam explains, “because she was taken out of Man” (Gen. 2:23). In other words, “She’s mine.”  For Adam (and for WCW, at least in this poem) names are a form of mastery and possession. So described, it’s hard not to read such naming as gendered and, frankly, sinister: a tool of domination.

But that’s not the sort of naming this poem is interested in. Hass suspends actually stating “horse-parsnip” until the very end of the poem. The poem reads like a riddle whose solution doesn’t much matter. This places “Weed” in similar territory as Hass’s poem “The Problem of Describing Trees”: language that neither names, nor points to something beyond words, but treats language as a weed, removing it from where it does not belong.

Language as Invitation: Robert Hass’s “The Problem of Describing Trees”

I’ve had “something” on my mind lately. A tool of conversational evasion and non-committal compliments (“Wow, that sure is…something!”), “something” isn’t typically viewed as the stuff of poetry. It’s not euphonious. It’s a pronoun in search of a referent. What use could poetry possibly have for such a prosaic, homely, and hazy term?

Yet I’m struck by how many poets and writers have lavished attention on “something.” David Ferry is a heavy user (see, for instance, “Scrim”); Annie Dillard perfectly employs it in the final paragraph of this essay; Robert Frost capitalizes on its murky qualities in the appropriately titled, “For Once, Then, Something” (also the poem’s parting words).

“Something” is central to this poem by Robert Hass:

The Problem of Describing Trees

The aspen glitters in the wind.
And that delights us.

The leaf flutters, turning,
Because that motion in the heat of summer
Protects its cells from drying out. Likewise the leaf
Of the cottonwood.

The gene pool threw up a wobbly stem
And the tree danced. No.
The tree capitalized.
No. There are limits to saying,
In language, what the tree did.

It is good sometimes for poetry to disenchant us.

Dance with me, dancer. Oh, I will.

Mountains, sky,
Aspens doing something in the wind.

That “something” is hard won. The poem takes the via negativa, depicting the process of trying to describe “what the tree did,” rejecting a few options, and finally resigning itself to not so much naming what the tree does as gesturing in its general direction.  Drop your linguistic hubris, Hass seems to say (disenchanting/disabusing us); “something” is the best you can do.

In this interview, Hass comments on this poem and language as such: “Wittgenstein said, ‘The limits of my language are the limits of my world,’ which I don’t think is quite true… [A]t some point, it dawns on you that you just—we don’t have a language for what would be the experience of a tree.”

But I want to resist the cliché that the tree can’t be put into words, or is beyond words, or any other spatial metaphor we resort to when we say language doesn’t work the way we want it to. For instance, I appreciate that Hass’s “something” is surrounded by elemental terms: mountain, sky, wind. There’s a haiku-like beauty in such stark naming. It’s like he’s showing us what language can describe.

He also seems to suggest that language can do more than name. It can offer praise (the title of Hass’s second book), a kind of language that respects things without grasping at them. I think of Bronk’s “To Praise The Music,” a poem that’s also about the problem of describing trees:

I praise. If only to say their songs,
say yes to them, to praise the songs they sing.
Envied music. I sing to praise their song.

Finally, my attention is drawn to the italicised line: “Dance with me, dancer. Oh, I will.” Language not as naming, but invitation, an openness to things, calling both trees and poet to dance.