Beyond the Confines of the Page: John Koethe and the Late Style

In his influential book The Late Style, Edward Said observes that the late works of many artists are marked not by “harmony and resolution” but by “intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction.” Contrary what one might assume, late works are rarely Triumphs of Art, but acknowledgement of art’s limits and of the artist’s mortality. Said cites Adorno on Beethoven’s late work: “The power of subjectivity in the late works of art is the irascible gesture with which it takes leave of the works themselves. . . . Touched by death, the hand of the master sets free the masses of material that he used to form; its tears and fissures, witnesses to the finite powerlessness of the I confronted with Being, are its final work.”

This is not mastery in the sense of complete command of materials, but of allowing forces larger than the artist’s facility and intentions into the work. The artist commands by letting go—by “taking leave,” as Adorno would have it. Mastery in the late style means coming to terms with what one cannot master.

I was reminded of this discussion of “late style” while reading John Koethe’s 2016 collection of poems, The Swimmer.  It’s the 10th volume by the 70 year-old poet, and many of the poems discuss what his poems once were (he’s been publishing since the early 1960s) and what they’ve become.  For instance, the poem “Early April in the Country” takes up the notion of “late work” explicitly.  It begins with the poet surveying the landscape from his deck: “At the bottom of the meadow I can see a scattering of / Indifferent cows arranged to form a static, pastoral tableau.” He’s reminded of an earlier poem, citing a couple lines:

“. . . the copper-, cream-, and chocolate-colored /

Cows we bought in Salzburg form a tiny herd.” I remember

Writing thouse lines in my first “grand poem, “Domes,”

Which I worked on for over a month in nineteen sixty-nine.

“We Poets in our youth begin in gladness,” and while it didn’t

Feel too much like gladness at the time, it saw me through,

Whatever it was, until now I feel this precarious combination

Of futily and pride that something real got completed

That left everything unchanged. The promise hangs in the air

As long as it can, and though eventually it starts to fade,

Its question mark survives, and remains unanswered.

[. . . .]

They [his early poems] flowed, they had too many words, they were

Driven by a ‘madness to explain’ that feels quaint now,

As though there were nothing to explain anymore.

The labored finish of the 1969 poem “Domes” now feels “quaint”–it seemed at the time to accomplish so much, but the poet now realizes that its  “promise” has faded. All that remains is a “question mark” that “remains unanswered.” The poet now feels no need to cover over the jagged edges of his understanding with the flow of  “too many words.”  In a poem about jazz saxophonist Von Freeman, he notes that “He believed in roughness, and on leaving imperfections in / So his songs wouldn’t lose their souls, which is how I think of poems.”

While Koethe may be overstating the contrast, it is clear that many of the poems in this book have an unfinished feel. There’s no sense of preciousness and little rhetorical flair.  No time for tidiness: there’s only the urgent need “to get said what must be said” (as WC Williams put it) and, along with that, a recognition of the limits of that saying. In “The Long Dissolve,” he observes that

The stories I told…

Seem discontinuous and small, as though they’re

No one’s stories anymore, those of an author

Who’d lost interest in them, and was old.

I hear in “The Long Dissolve” echoes of another late work that explores the edges of art: The Tempest, specifically this passage in which Prospero dismisses his own art and, by extension, Shakespeare’s. Note the shared term, “dissolve”:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits and

Are melted into air, into thin air:

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind.  Tempest 4.1

Prospero-like—”Lie there, my art”—Koethe renounces the smooth, overworked surfaces of his early work, and offers instead a poignant combination of longing and awareness of his—and of art’s— limits:

I want to

Speak to something far away, beyond the confines of the page.

But it won’t listen, and to everything I say it answers No.

(“The Arrogance of Physics” 4)

While this may seem bleak, Koethe would argue that the defeat of Art offers a truth beyond artifice:  

I hate poems

Of affirmation, poems too

Unaware, too smooth

To be true. Life is rough.

(“Skinny Poem”)

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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.

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.

A Portrait of the Vanishing Subject: On David Ferry’s “Who Is It?”

I am not I if there be such an I…
                               —Romeo and Juliet (3.2)

image
   Portrait. Decayed daguerreotype; artist unknown

I was excited to see a new poem by David Ferry in the latest Threepenny Review:

Who Is It?

Here inside this fiction of myself,
Two voices I always hear, both of them mine,
I guess, one of them telling the truth, I guess.
I don’t know which one it is that’s telling the truth,

The voice that said what it was it had to say
And heard what it said when it said it, and didn’t know
Exactly what had become of the person who said
What it was he said, just now, to tell the truth.

Always like this. Always it’s been like this.
The one that told my parents who I was,
And told my wife who I was, and told my children,
And told whoever it was I was talking to
So help me god, telling the truth, so help me. 

[link to poem]

I love how this shatters just about every writing workshop bromide I can think of. So many abstract terms: there is not one vivid image or word; even the people mentioned are mere categories: children, parents, wife; it buzzes along in passive voice, is-ing and especially was-ing, employing many verboten expletive constructions. Its pronouns point unconvincingly, like busted weathervanes, at something that seems to have passed.

But these are surface/stylistic considerations. If we continue to look through the workshop/pedagogical lens, and ask “What is the setting?” we see the poem thumbs its nose at that as well: “Here inside the fiction of myself.” “Here” is murky, suggesting merely that the poem is near its subject, which is, it appears, “the subject,” the selfhood of the speaker.

After informing us that that self is a “fiction,” the speaker** goes on to use “I,” as if the poem didn’t just call that very notion into question. In any case, we learn that “the two voices” inside the speaker both belong to him, and that one of them is telling the truth. But each of these claims is followed by a verbal shrug, “I guess,” transforming assertion into shaky surmise.   

I don’t want to belabor this poem—and fear I already have—but I do want to draw your attention to the astonishing second stanza:

The voice that said what it was it had to say
And heard what it said when it said it, and didn’t know
Exactly what had become of the person who said
What it was he said, just now, to tell the truth.

This reminds me of the extreme abstraction of parts of Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas In Meditation, almost anything by William Bronk, or certain passages in Creeley:

it was all now
outside
and in
was oneself again

(from “A Feeling”)

The question is, why does Ferry use such vague, circuitous, and redundant language to say, in effect, “I’m not sure who I am?” (Or, “I am not I” as Sidney concisely put it; see also the Shakespeare cited above). My guess is that Ferry is demonstrating how difficult it is for anyone “to tell the truth” when answering the poem’s title/question, “Who is it?”

Ferry’s poem, then, is a portrait, not of the self, but of the difficulty of “telling” the self. It’s been said that the self is the sum of our memories. And recently, neuroscientists have pointed out that each time we recall a memory, the memory is changed by very act of being recalled. As Daniela Schiller puts it, you don’t “remember the original event; you just remember your last retrieval of it.” What’s left is the memory of a memory of a memory: an umpteenth-generation photocopy, barely legible, and “true” only to the slow drift of its subject’s vanishing. Ultimately, that drift is the subject of Ferry’s poem.

—————-

**This poem demonstrates the limitations of the poem-talk convention, “the speaker”