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:


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.

The Truth Takes Off: A Failed Reading of Ponge’s “The Trees Delete themselves Inside a Fog-Sphere”


Edward J. Steichen: Woods Twilight 

Link to poem, translated by Karen Volkman

To recap from my last post:  Francis Ponge often described the “things” in his poems in terms related to writing, language, and even the physical materials of writing.  As a result, when Ponge studies an object in his “laboratory of expression,” it serves not only as the subject matter, but also as a jumping off point for other writerly considerations. In some cases, the thing even suggests a template—or at least a provisional strategy—for the poem itself.

I’d argue that this is certainly the case in the opening lines of “The Trees Delete Themselves Inside a Fog-Sphere” where the trees’ “leaves are stripped—leaves defaced already by slow oxidation” (trans. Volkman). “Leaves [feuilles]” can also refer to sheets of paper, and this sense of the word is underscored by their defacement by “slow oxidation.” Leaves lose their green in the fall, not because of “oxidation,” but because of the lack of chlorophyll. Oxidation, however, is what turns paper yellow. Compare this reading with what Ponge says in an interview with translator Serge Gavronsky: “One could…consider the words that I am in the process of saying as falling leaves, leaves made to fall, and that if I wanted to describe the clearing of the forest, then leaves have got to fall.”

At this point, I suspect you’re braced for a wince-inducing allegorical reading: “If the leaves are pages of the book, then the trunk is…” But reducing this poem to simple symbolism would miss the point. Having clued us into the fact that this is a poem about the writing process, Ponge invites us to imagine that process in the most counterintuitive terms: not of making, but of undoing or releasing or—as translator Karen Volkman would have it—delet[ing], the word she chose to translate “défont” in the poem’s title. While perhaps not the most literal translation,  Volkman argues that “delete” accurately reflects the “violence” that the poem describes in a ”detached, gently brutal tone.”

Volkman calls this poem an “inventory of destructions,” but in a general way, as the inevitable process of the tree’s decay. But deleting also describes the life-cycle of an author’s words. That erasing/deleting is essential to the writing process is a truism: “Erasure is as important as writing” (Quintilian), “Kill your darlings,” etc. The theoretically inclined could read these destructions in terms of Roland Barthes: the erasure/death of the author, as her text, already “a tissue of citations,” is detached from her authority and surrendered to the reader.

What I find most compelling, however, is how these destructions are embodied by the water and liquid that run throughout the poem, and what that possibly suggests about this poem as well as language in general: There’s the sap abandoning the leaves, hastening their fall.  Then there’s the moisture running down the “vertical furrows,” disassociating itself from the “vital parts” of the tree. Then there’s the fog itself, water droplets suspended in the air.

In another poem, Ponge associates water with a kind of writing: “Water escapes me, escapes all definition, but leaves trace, shapeless marks, in my mind and on this piece of paper” (“Of Water” trans. C. K Williams). So—and I acknowledge this is at best an informed guess—the water in the poem becomes the vitality/meaning coursing through language, assuming and abandoning one form after another: from thing to author, author to language, language to reader, and ending in fog: evasive, in a perpetual state of detachment: authored by no one, illegible to all. The failure to dispel the opacity of the fog-shrouded tree might seem like failure on either Ponge’s or the reader’s part, but Ponge says this is the destiny of the artist: as soon as he thinks he has captured his object in words,

He stops looking, reaches his goal.
The object also reacts.
Truth takes off again, undamaged.
           —from “The Object is Poetics,” trans. Gavronsky

Of All Words the Very First: The Second Person in Gustaf Sobin’s Poems

Breathing is transcendence in the form of opening up. It reveals all its meaning only in its relationship with the other.—Emmanuel Levinas

Since this post, I’ve been thinking about “you,” especially the cases where it’s put to unconventional use. One instance that came to mind is the poetry of Gustaf Sobin, where the second person isn’t merely a pronominal choice—one choice among the many that every writer must make—but is instead central to his poetics. In fact, it could be argued that his poetry is a sustained investigation of what it means to say “you”:

words, the very
—from “Ode on the Elaboration of Interval"

Sussing out what Sobin might mean by this intriguing but cryptic statement calls for some leg work, spanning across several poems. I’ll start with the opening of “According to Seneca”:

… every wind, according to
Seneca, has
origins in some deep-
seated stellar configuration. once, every
word, its every

vocable, came rippling out of an else-

where that
was. edge, then, towards what?

Like so many of Sobin’s poems, this poem emerges out of an ellipsis, something that preceded the poem proper. Like Seneca’s “stellar configurations,” the source of the poem’s language, and—Sobin implies—all language, is remote. Sobin explains elsewhere that the poet should always begin with “a running start.” In other words, what preceded the poem is less important than the momentum with which it proceeds… and, perhaps, its destination.

But that destination is unclear: “edge, then, towards what?” Sobin doesn’t answer, at least not directly, but the next word in the poem is telling: 

edge, then, towards what?   you, who’d 

scraped pebbles, goaded
shadows, hover,

now, in the

coves of imploded


I won’t pretend to be completely clear on “coves of imploded /al- // lusion,” but I’ll try: allusion points outward, towards something beyond what’s explicitly stated, whereas “implode” is violent movement inward. So this “you” hovers, suspended by the contrary motions allusion and implosion, creating a sort of open space, a “cove.” This self-canceling movement is also present in one of Sobin’s favorite words, “blown” (line 7, above; and throughout his work), which means, simultaneously, “to blossom” (as in “blown roses”); and also “to displace violently”; and also “to create an air current.” I’ll have more to say about this air current in a bit.

It appears that this is a zero-sum situation, where “words, now, nothing more than the solvent for other words” (“Late Bronze, Early Iron”), where something is simultaneously said and unsaid. But in “Transparent Itineraries: 1999” Sobin hints that the poem’s “process of its own depletion” has a purpose: 

. . . word
sloughing word in an ever-
leviative movement towards …

This clarifies the role of the second person in Sobin’s poems. Speaking generally, first person is self-identity; third person, distance, disassociation; but 2nd person is, as my dictionary helpfully explains, is “a set of linguistic forms referring to the person or thing addressed.” Address implies relationship, of one to another; it also suggests a direction: outward, “towards.” Sobin takes this literally, where “you” is neither here nor there but always on its way: “you, living already in the resonance of an absentee pronoun, made these deposits in the very midst of so much erasure” (“Transparent Itineraries: 1994”).

But we still haven’t answered the question, “Towards what?”  Interestingly, towards exactly what we started with: wind, air—the breath itself: “in the air’s empty insistence/… our breath alone translative.” Here we glimpse Sobin’s unique conception of language. Many view language as an extension of the primal “Gimme!,” a means of power and mastery.  Sobin’s poetry—language-as-breath—works in precisely the opposite way. You cannot hold breath; aspiration is a continual process of letting go. Likewise for Sobin’s poetry: always seeking to surpass both itself and the “you” to whom it is addressed, it is a means, not of mastery, but of release:

past, past
ourselves, in our own, sonorous dis-
persions, resonates the
gloriole, the
of things released.
(from “Sixth Ode: The Grottoes”)

In the Light of Lost Words: Forgetfulness as Muse

In the Light of Lost Words: Forgetfulness as Muse
A Collage-Essay

Sometimes I’ll take a walk just to forget whatever good idea I had that day because I like to go into the studio not having any ideas.—Robert Rauschenberg

Myth tells us that Mnemosyne—memory—is the mother of the muses, which could possibly be taken to mean that tradition is at once the inspiration, the source material, and the measuring stick of the artist’s individual talent (TS Eliot). Or perhaps it means that creativity/inspiration is simply a matter of recombining our past experiences in novel ways. Calvino:

Who are we, who is each of us, if not a combinatoria of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined? Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable.

Honestly, I’m not sure what the Mnemosyne myth is supposed to tell us, but I’m struck by the fact that so many writers and artists I admire honor Mnemosnye’s exact opposite, Forgetfulness:

All good conversation, manners, and action, come from a spontaneity which forgets usages, and makes the moment great. —Emerson, “Experience”

Gertrude Stein goes so far as to say that Memory hinders inspiration:

Any of you when you write you try to remember what you are about to write and you will see immediately how lifeless the writing becomes. . . . The minute your memory functions while you are doing anything it may be very popular but actually it is dull. —“What Are Masterpieces”

And John Ashbery, it seems, creates an entire poetics out of forgetting:

And only in the light of lost words
Can we imagine our rewards.
—"The Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers" 

Our phrase books began to feel useless—for once
you have learned a language, what is there to do but forget it?
Girls on the Run

Words have a tendency to fix meaning, to make it seem static and unchanging, but, as Ashbery says in an interview, “things are in a continual state of motion and evolution.” That’s why, he goes on to say, he likes ambiguity—it takes “further developments into account.” Forgetfulness works the same way—it loosens literal readings and allows alternative meanings to emerge.

A passage in Ashbery’s Flow Chart offers something of a “methodology” of forgetfulness:


It’s almost as if Ashbery describes playing a version of Exquisite Corpse or Chinese Whispers (to use the title of his 2001 book) aka “telephone” with himself, partially or wholly forgetting the initial impetus of an idea, and allowing the drift of the process to surprise him. I can say I’ve experienced something similar, taking up an fragment of something in my notebook and having no recollection of what I initially intended. The platypus piece I ended up with was surely more interesting than whatever it was I originally had in mind.

In a sense, Ashbery is showing us how to thoughtfully devise our own incompetence—how to make ready to forget, as he puts it in the last four lines of “Soonest Mended”:

For this is action, this not being sure, this careless
Preparing, sowing the seeds crooked in the furrow,
Making ready to forget, and always coming back
To the mooring of starting out, that day so long ago.