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.

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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”).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet this listening is not passive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Wallace Stevens

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

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

image

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

Lucio-Fontana-Concetto-spaziale-–-Attese-1959-Milano-Fondazione-Lucio-Fontana-©-Fondazione-Lucio-Fontana-Milano.jpg

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

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

River II

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

II

Fresh silence:
the flower does not
speak.

III

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

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

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

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

PENELOPE

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

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

Leap

I

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

II

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

 

+++++++++++

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

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

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.

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

image

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