Saturday, June 22, 2013

Kenneth Burke: Form and Desire in Modern Poetry

Kenneth Burke argues for the importance of desire in the functioning of literature. More specifically, he sees a text as a structure that works with or against the reader's emotions:

"form is the creation of an appetite in the mind of the auditor, and the adequate satisfying of that appetite. This satisfaction--so complicated is the human mechanism--at times involves a temporary set of frustrations, but in the end these frustrations prove to be simply a more involved kind of satisfaction, and furthermore serve to make the satisfaction of fulfilment more intense" ("Psychology and Form" 31).

Most of Burke's examples of the writer's ability to build, frustrate, and eventually satisfy desire are narrative in nature. So, for example, he refers to Hamlet's triumph over Guildenstern, which is especially satisfying because it develops through the metaphor of the pipe that Hamlet offers to Guildenstern to play as he had attempted to "play" Hamlet.

Though Burke mostly makes use of narrative form in his examples, he also suggests that resolutions of the desire elicited by the text can come from its change in "quality": "the presence of one quality calls forth the demand for another, rather than one tangible incident of plot awaking an interest in some other possible tangible incident of plot" (38-39).  The interplay of desire and restriction, in other words, does not need to come about as a result of narrative or dramatic form, but can arise from changes in tone or attitude. His example is particularly useful for the critic of poetic modernism; he uses the pub scene in The Waste Land, which ends with the sudden quote from Shakespeare. The agonies of low culture, as Burke sees it, is suddenly rescued or resolved by the allusion to high culture.

Whether or not one agrees with Burke's reading of this particular scene, it is important to recognize that Burke is advancing (or transforming) the typical "New Critical" interest in tension or irony. Rather than being a critic who simply recognizes formal properties such as mixing high and low, Burke contends that form operates by human emotions -- specifically desire.  The text is not isolated or inert; it is structured to elicit and satisfy human desire.

A more prosaic example, but one that helps illustrate his perspective, is his footnote on the slow motion film of a man vaulting. Though Burke points out that the still images of each moment of the man's jump provide scientific facts, he nevertheless rejects it: "so far as the aesthetic truth is concerned, this on the screen was not an athlete, but a squirming thing, a horror, displaying every fact of vaulting except the exhilaration of the act itself" (42). Aesthetic language, for Burke, invokes or unleashes emotion.  It is meant to elicit exhilaration.

In "The Poetic Process," Burke follows his insights about the emotive dynamism of literature with an interesting inversion of psychoanalysis. He is quite familiar with Freud, of course, but he builds his own explanation for the dynamism of desire -- one that naturalizes formal desire as a common product of the human mind. He posits the priority of the mind's abilities in Platonic terms: "art has always appealed [. . .] to certain potentialities of appreciation which would seem to be inherent in the very germ-plasm of man, and which, since they are constant, we might call innate forms of the mind" (46). The mind is drawn to crescendo or contrast, for instance, is drawn to crescendo or contrast. The ur-form of the human brain works that way.

Burke's thought is not quite tautological, but it refuses to investigate beyond the fundamental principle that the mind is ready to work in these ways. We simply have a "germ-plasm" for these sorts of things. The abstract, content-less abilities of the mind (such as crescendo or contrast) are manifested or "individuated" when they attach to materials of individual experience.

But, for Burke, the abstractness of the mind, the content-less potential for forms such as crescendo, precede any of its externalizations or individuations. In fact, the urge for forms makes possible the details which subsequently attach to it. This idea is crucial for Burke because it defines the artist's task. Rather than present facts or details in literary texts, the artist must activate the formal processes of the mind, for no set of details will move everyone in the same way. Burke's example shows the emphasis on form in the artistic process: "If the artist were to externalize his mood or horror by imagining the facts of a murder, he would still have to externalize his sense of crescendo by the arrangement of these facts" (51). The accurate details of a murder, for instance, are not enough to activate horror; the formal process of crescendo makes horror possible.

Up to this point, I have merely been summarizing Burke's important contribution to our understanding of how literature works -- an understanding that, I believe, is not shared by enough critics because they often fail to recognize the relationship between formal properties and desire. However, from my perspective, Burke too firmly eternalizes the mental forms he discusses. That is, crescendo is a form, a sort of Platonic ideal beyond the reach of change, but literary history has shown that there are very dramatic breaks in technique. It seems to me that crescendo itself changes over time. 

My example must be very brief, but if one compares a poet like Whitman to T. S. Eliot, one sees that the form of crescendo itself changes. Whitman repeats a crescendo of physical attraction and sensual interaction with the world, while Eliot develops a crescendo of frustration and rejection. It might be more accurate to say that Whitman's crescendo is a release while Eliot's is an intensification because not-released.  The problem might be resolved by calling what Eliot does something else, say "reversal," but this latter term does not capture the intensity that accompanies a crescendo. Eliot's The Waste Land most certainly is a crescendo, but Burke's terms are not fungible enough to respond to obvious changes in poetic effects.  Tracking these changes in form, rather than eternal forms, is the task of the literary historian. Though we can be helped by Burke's concepts, they must be fluid enough to accept the formal varieties that poets continue to find.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Priority of Solid Objects in Wallace Stevens

Wallace Stevens presents an interesting problem for critics.  On the one hand, he emphasizes the power of the human imagination, but he undercuts that power with subtle but remarkably persistent regularity.  A poem like "Reality is an Activity of the Most August Imagination," for example, seems to suggest the primacy of the imagination in the title. That is, reality is subject to the actions of the imagination. But the poem itself develops a contrary argument.

Stevens starts the poem with contextual particulars, naming specific time and place:

Last Friday, in the big light of last Friday night,
We drove home from Cornwall to Hartford, late.

With this beginning, the poem grants some concrete particulars to the reader. Reality seems quite normal and incontrovertible. The second couplet reinforces the logic of this argument by contrasting the real scene with an artistic abstraction of it:

It was not a night blown at a glassworks in Vienna
Or Venice, motionless, gathering time and dust.

Stevens suggests that the scene is real and unfolding (not gathering time and dust), and it cannot be reduced to an aesthetic representation, such as a miniaturized snowglobe.  In the third couplet, he extends his description of the hustle and bustle of reality as opposed to a quite abstraction:

There was a crush of strength in a grinding going round,
Under the front of the westward evening star.

Reality is powerful in its unfolding; it can crush; it has strength; it grinds; it moves round in perpetual (and unstoppable) motion.  But we also see Stevens starting to transform his argument. The car moves through Connecticut in a compellingly real way, but it does so "under the front of the westward evening star." Here, it is as if the car is guided by the star, like ancient mariners who used the stars to navigate the globe and find their way. The star takes on symbolic rather than literal value. In the next couplet, Stevens extends the symbolic (or "extra-ordinary," one might say) use of the star:

The vigor of glory, a glittering in the veins,
As things emerged and moved and were dissolved.

The guiding star is not just an object in the sky; instead, it engages the vigor of those driving through the night. Stevens is no longer just describing a drive through the night; the act of driving and noticing one's surroundings is a path to glory.  From this perspective, moving through the world is not the recognition of solid objects but the realization that objects emerge and then dissolve.  One can picture the car's headlights illuminating an object and then passing it, leaving it in darkness.  The metaphor suggests that life involves objects that come into being only while they are perceivable, and then they recede into some sort of non-being, which Stevens refers to as "denying itself away":

An agentine abstraction approaching form
And suddenly denying itself away.

The poem has completely reversed itself.  The stable, mundane, and utterly real Friday night between Cornwall and Hartford has turned into an ephemeral abstraction that denies itself away.  Up to this point, I would consider this a fairly traditional reading of the poem, one that digs through the logical argument (almost syllogistic, especially in Stevens' later poetry) in order to find how the imagination prevails over reality.  But here's the weird part: Stevens reasserts the primacy of the object as he destabilizes it in the final couplet:

There was an insolid billowing of the solid.
Night's moonlight lake was neither water nor air.

Rather than asserting the "insolidity" of all things in the face of the mighty imagination, Stevens only argues that we can only operate with insolidity in response to solid things. The solid object is seen, driving through the night, as an insolid billowing, but it begins and ends as a solid object.  Likewise, the moonlight lake is neither water nor air for the poetic speaker, but for Stevens the poet, it must begin as a moonlight lake.  It is object first and last.  Though we cannot perceive them as such, or we perceive them as billowing, they are always real.  This perspective separates us from objects, leaving an unbridgeable gap, but it does not deconstruct the object itself.  This means that people do not wield a powerful imagination in creating the world; they are stuck with a wobbly, shifting imagination that can only approximate actual objects.  This changes our whole perspective on imagination: it is not the power to construct; it is only a power that suffices.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

We're All In This Together

I believe it is important, on occasion, to say “we” in literary criticism. Here is an example: "We notice the high speed, the succession of concentrated images, each magnifying the original fancy" (Eliot, "Andrew Marvell"). There are only two alternatives to using "we" in these types of circumstances, and I find each of them unsatisfactory in some way. The first alternative is to withdraw “we” and substitute “human beings” or “subjects” or some equally vacuous word, but this drains away the notion that A) I, as the author, am implicated in the ideas I am discussing, and B) you, the reader, are included in the group of human beings similarly affected. “We” is a word that is particularly helpful in characterizing the nature of the critical endeavor. That is, this text lives in the moment your mind encounters my words. The critical text, like the literary one, is mutually constituted, and the word “we” fairly encompasses our relationship.
The second alternative is to remove the subject entirely. “Things occur” or “mistakes were made.” This type of usage negates our involvement in the world. Events become mechanistic. Cause and effect are set into motion by some mysterious force. Instead, I argue that “we” are active in the world, poets are active in their texts, and we are active in their interpretation. So, although it might go against some traditions of critical discourse, I believe we gain something useful in occasionally allowing the first-person plural into the text.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Platonism in Santayana's Poetic Theory

In Scepticism and Animal Faith, George Santayana conducts an interesting -- and revealing -- thought experiment. He undercuts what he sees as the overvaluation of the present.

"Memory presents many a scene which is not substantial, as is the world before me now: yet this now is fleeting, and the unsubstantiality which vitiates the past is in the act of invading the present. Is not the pre-eminence of the present, then, an illusion [. . .]?" (226)

Great question. The tangible now, although we can reach out and touch it, is ephemeral.  It will always give way to the succeeding moment.  The present is always in a state of departure. Conversely, memory -- though it is insubstantial -- is always with us.  According to Santayana's reversal, memory gains the upper-hand in "pre-eminence."  He follows this quote with the thought experiment of taking all present moments and considering them in an "equalized" and "eternal" form:

"is not [. . .] reality that panorama which all those presents would present when equalised and seen under the form of eternity?  Is not the invidious actuality of any part of things a mere appearance, and is not the substance of them all merely their truth?" (226-27)

I shouldn't overstate Santayana's basic theory, which is just a version of Platonism: there is some sort of eternal form underlying any particular instance of a thing.  Each thing we encounter in the world is an instantiation -- better or worse -- of the idea of that thing.  (This inelegant way of phrasing it seems to put the instantiated thing first again, but that's not the way Plato sees it).

In Santayana's formulation, the present gives up its temporal quality; it may be "seen under the form of eternity."  There is a luminous, spiritual quality to things because they contain eternity in themselves.

What I find interesting about this idea is it is rejected by both modernists and post-modernists. Post-modern American poets, as Charles Altieri cogently argues in Enlarging the Temple, consider the self as "immanent," unalterably in the world.  Moments are moments and cannot be eternalized.  But even modernist writers don't subscribe to his Platonism. Though I generally maintain that modernists strive for unity -- even if they have to construct it themselves out of obvious fragments -- I don't see them eternalizing or spiritualizing objects.

Instead, the modernist self takes on a self-authorizing ability, while the world we might experience in the present is, in some sense, rejected.  It is not that modernists do not see's that the subject itself is luminous.  The world, by contrast, must be rejected.  No west wind is going to transport the modernist subject; Grecian urns do not present eternalized beauty.  Modernism works by creating gaps, divergences, separations from the world.  Tiresias never touches another thing; instead, he observes the folly of sensuous contact.  Modernists sublimate desire in imaginative realms.  Santayana is unafraid of the world, for it represents the harmony one would see in an eternalized nature.  Modernists on conceive of harmony in terms of the unity of the self...which must be separated from the world.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Living Dead in Section Two of H.D.'s "The Walls Do Not Fall"

In section two of "The Walls Do Not Fall," H.D. sets up a stark contrast between good and evil: "Evil was active in the land, / Good was impoverished and sad."  The setting, described in the first section, is still WWII, and more specifically the bombing of London.  So the reader is encouraged to see the references to good and evil as specific historical references to the Allies and Axis powers.  However, H.D. is not concerned with historical explication.  Instead, she moves from the large-scale historical forces toward an investigation of the poet's responsibilities:

your rhythm is the devil's hymn,

your stylus is dipped in corrosive sublimate,
how can you scratch out

indelible ink of the palimpsest
of past misadventure?

In a way, this is the question the poem as a whole tries to answer: how can one break the pleasant inertia of stillness and begin creating?  As many H.D. scholars have pointed out, Trilogy is not just a reaction to the difficulties of war; it is also an examination of creativity.  H.D. had experienced a long period of creative difficulty leading up to the writing of Trilogy (though she wrote several novels in the period that unpublished in her lifetime).  What she could do with her "stylus" was an anxious question for her at the time.  And it seems important that she was able to unleash her creative powers within the context of good and evil.

Underneath this surface reading, however, we are forced to ask about her characterizations of good and evil.  That is, how can good be so ill-equipped to care for itself?  She points out that good was "smug and fat."  Good requires some intensive rejuvenation.  In short, good is not good on its own.  It needs an active force to keep it going.

For me, as a psychoanalytic critic, this means we must seek the drive and the repression at work in this dynamic situation.  Without being able (at this point) to provide a reading of Trilogy in its entirety, I must read this second section against the first, in which the speaker confronts a destructive war.  Therefore, it seems that physical danger itself is the motivating force.  The possibility that death may seek out the speaker from the sky, unknown and unbidden, is what drives the creative efflorescence H.D. experiences.

While this, by itself, seems fairly obvious, there are a few directions we can take this.  First, death should be viewed primarily as the imposition of finality.  I argue that human motivation, which includes poetic creation, is based on strategies to deny or delay finality.  I use this term rather than "death" because finality is conceptual while death is too frequently reserved for the physical.  Images of movement, continuation, activity, or struggle counteract finality; it sounds far-fetched to say that they counteract death.

The second way to read this section of the poem is to think of the productive (though oxy-moronic) concept of the living dead.  For that is what H.D. gives us in her depiction of the "good": impoverished, sad, smug, fat.  They are alive but they are not truly living.  It is as if they have ground to a halt, and it is the terror from the sky that causes them to spring to life -- and causes H.D. to begin her creative endeavors again.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

T. S. Eliot on Marvell, Emotions, and the Particular

T. S. Eliot's reaction to Andrew Marvell's poetry is particularly helpful in understanding Eliot's views on how emotion works in good poetry. The following quote from Eliot's "Andrew Marvell" essay provides a useful place to begin:

"Marvell takes a slight affair, the feeling of a girl for her pet, and gives it a connexion with that inexhaustible and terrible nebula of emotions which surrounds all our exact and practical passions and mingles with them."

In this section of the essay Eliot compares a lofty and spiritual poem by William Morris to Marvell's "The Nymph Complaining for the Death of Her Fawn." Eliot compares the "slightness" of Marvell's subject and the "loftiness" of Morris's, but then he suggests that the subject treated in a poem is not related to its quality. Instead, an emotion's exactitude determines its power.

At first glance, this appears to be a version of the age-old dictum in creative writing classes: "Show, don't tell." Marvell shows a real emotional response to a particular situation, while Morris speaks in generalities.

But for Eliot's poetic practice, I think there's more to it than this. First, there's a sense that ideas are more limited than experience. It's not that experience precedes ideas; one doesn't merely pull ideas from experience. Ideas are one-sided and therefore incomplete. Eliot believes that particular experience involves negotiating opposites. He quotes Coleridge on the power of Imagination, which "reveals itself in the balance or reconcilement of opposite or discordant qualities." Ideas cannot approach truth in the way that particular experience can because ideas are not just vague but also emptied of contradictions. Eliot values Marvell's "bright, hard precision" because it offers "shades of feeling to contrast and unite."

Looking at Eliot's poetry, I would argue that The Waste Land is essentially about the inextricability of opposites within the self. Most obvious is the contrast between life and death, but underneath this is the contrast between desire and the absence of all desire. The repeated image of a planted corpse that sprouts is one such example; another is the image of the dead that walk in crowds; another is the figure of Tiresias, the man transformed into woman.

In this sense, Tiresias is not a mythical figure used for merely metaphorical purposes, but is seemingly more real because he unites opposites. The intensity of this union, however, is the poem's primary subject. Tiresias, the manifestation of man/woman, witnesses the sexual incident between the typist and "the young man carbuncular":

I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,
Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see
At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,
The typist home at tea-time

The poem explores the problem of "throbbing between two lives." The episode examines aggressive and permissive sexuality (cast as masculine and feminine, respectively), but it also overlays each of these upon the other. Tiresias is a complex figure but also the representation of an ambivalent experience that Eliot attempts to understand. To despise one's desire is not to divest one's self of it.

While this theme is a far cry from where Marvell gently intones his wit, Eliot recongizes that Marvell's variety of particular images opens up vast possibilities. Eliot makes a provocative reference to Dante's use of variety and particularity when he writes: "if anyone doubts whether the more refined or spiritual emotion can be precise, he should study the treatment of the varieties of discarnate emotion in the 'Paradiso.'" I'll have to leave Dante for another day, including the tantalizing reference to "discarnate" emotion, but it suffices here to point out that Eliot valorizes poetry of the particular that calls on the tension of opposites in order to understand emotion.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Worms of Death and Life in Section Six of H.D.'s "The Walls Do Not Fall"

In section six of "The Walls Do Not Fall," H.D. employs the worm as a symbol for human persistence: "In me (the worm) clearly / is no righteous, but this- // persistence." The section takes on a narrative flow as it describes the life of a worm; it escapes predators, explores a leaf, and eats leaf and wheat. H.D. shows the reader this tiny drama, which is used to advance significant claims about the power of poetry and reflection in the face of human activity.

First, she conveys the worm's insult to the reader (or at least human beings in general); the worm points out our inability to understand such miniscule affairs:

unintimidated by multiplicity
of magnified beauty,

such as your gorgon-great
dull eye can not focus

nor compass

Humans have "gorgon-great" and "dull" eyes that cannot comprehend the minutiae of the worm's world. H.D. offers a challenge to the reader's perspective. This is an example of Sarah H. S. Graham's argument that H.D. "is at war with her audience" (found in the journal Texas Studies in Literature and Language 44.2). Graham's point, however, isn't merely to suggest that H.D. is antogonistic, but that she argues with the human self.

In this way, H.D. seeks other perspectives from which to consider the potential for human understanding. The comparison of small and large in this section allows H.D. to question the epistemological tools at our disposal. The vividness of this section and the fact that the poet can assume the worm's viewpoint suggests that we can overcome the challenge of our size in order to understand things outside the usual scope of our perspective. In other words, the evidence provided by this section and the poem as a whole reveals our capacity for understanding.

Significantly, however, it is also evident that this sort of success is only possible through poetry. Metaphor, as a poetic and linguistic manuever of the mind, opens up the possibility for this type of seeing. The importance of poetry and language as a record of human experience and capability is emphasized throughout the poem (for example in sections 8-11).

The intruiging move in this section is H.D.'s transition from outward action and inward revelation. The section ends with an end to the worm's adventures:

I am yet unrepentant,

for I know how the Lord God
is about to manifest, when I,

the industrious worm,
spin my own shroud.

The shroud usually indicates death, of course, but the juxtaposition of industriousness (and escape and exploration) throughout the section is chillingly terminated by the specter of death and stillness indicated by the shroud. How does one read the repeated emphasis on persistence in light of this ending? First, we must remember that a "shroud" for a worm might indicate a cocoon created during the pupa stage of an insect. That is, the shroud might indicate transformation more than death. Second, the image of a cocoon is useful in looking at the succeeding sections of the poem in which H.D. contemplates contemplation. She considers how one shuts one's self off from human experience in order to formulate and express the meaning of that experience. I hope to follow her investigations (and post on them) as I read the rest of the poem.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Water as a Complex Symbol in "The Waste Land"

"Death by Water," Section IV of "The Waste Land," is by far the shortest individual section of the poem, but it seems integral to the poem as a whole. Many of the poem's themes are concentrated in these ten lines:

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

Eliot develops a productive tension between forgetting and remembering. The dead sailor forgets the surface world, but the speaker urges the listener to remember the sailor. It seems that life may be forgotten when one enters the realm of death, but the reverse is not true: the living are to remember the dead. The dead inhabit the living.

The persistence of death in life is a theme touched upon throughout the poem, right from the beginning in which April's cruelty is evidenced by its "breeding / lilacs out of the dead land" (1-2). In "Death by Water," we see a foreshadowing of our death, since the sailor, "who was once handsome and tall as you," was not so virile as to avoid death. Since death seems to be at both ends of life, and life (in "The Waste Land") is comprised of remembering death, we seem always to emerging out of and into death.

An interesting contrast to the pervasiveness of death, however, is the collection of attempted sexual encounters through the poem. In some ways, sex (and reproduction more specifically) is a stay against death. We perpetuate ourselves and our species by producing the next generation. Eliot, who was moved by anthropological accounts of vegetation ceremonies, seems to call upon these notions in his choice of myths and symbols. Moreover, he was familiar with Remy de Gourmont's thought, which included radical ideas on the significance of sex in human behavior.

A productive intersection of Gourmont's and Eliot's perspectives occurs in the theme of unity. Gourmont points out in The Natural Philosophy of Love, "fecundation is the reintegration of differentiated elements into a unique element, a perpetual return to unity" (13). Eliot, as I've mentioned in other posts, is intensely interested in unity, as well. "Death by Water" presents the ultimate failure of sexuality. There is no redeeming aspect to this section; it represents a negative object lesson. There is no positive transformation (however cruel) in this section. Instead, the "current under sea / Picked his bones in whispers" (315-316).

As Brooker and Bentley point out in Reading The Waste Land, "Death by Water," despite its bleak sense of closure, is NOT the end of the poem. Instead, it comes just before the final section, "What the Thunder Said." In this way, Eliot situates the ending against the backdrop of unproductive death; it provides a contrast for what follows. The offerings of "What the Thunder Said" are unified with the drowned sailor and cannot be the offerings they are without him. The urgency of the rock and water section is intensified because it occurs after "Death by Water." Furthermore, the experience of water as both deadly and life-giving in such close proximity achieves a richer and more affecting reaction.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Cyrena Pondrom on "The Waste Land"

Cyrena N. Pondrom's "T.S. Eliot: The Performativity of Gender in The Waste Land" is a very useful and provocative essay, but it's also frustrating in that it does not seem to capitalize on its important insights. The essay brings The Waste Land and Judith Butler's concept of gender as a performance into a fruitful and intriguing conjunction. The essay allows the reader to come to the poem with a new perspective, but Pondrom only suggests a picture of Eliot's ideas rather than embarking on a synthesis of the poem's pieces.

Another way to frame my frustrations is to ask the questions that Pondrom seems to avoid: What gender performances does Eliot present and what is he trying to argue by offering them? Pondrom's rather unsatisfactory answer, at its most basic, is that Eliot is arguing that gender is performative. For those of us who have read Judith Butler, this argument is not very exciting. Butler's seminal book, Gender Trouble, advances this argument in a very compelling (though Theoretically challenging) way. (And yes, I chose the word "seminal" deliberately).

Eliot might get points for prefiguring Butler's argument by 60 years or so, but that hardly seems enough, for a few reasons. First, Eliot was a prolific critic and purveyor of literary and cultural theories. If he felt strongly about gender as performance (rather than an ontological given), he would not likely have hesitated to state it outright. Second, if Eliot's poem exemplifies gender as performance, then the performances in the poem should be investigated to see how the characters navigate culturally constructed gender categories in unique ways. Pondrom does not seem to do this. In other words, we get the deconstructive mode but not the constructive one.

Pondrom gets tantalizingly close to laying out the path toward synthesis, but only by pointing out the negatives:

"[The scene in the hyacinth garden] becomes a founding site of one of the controlling conceits of the poem, the wastage of human erotic love, simultaneously figuring the absence of connection with a Divine Love; the interruption of desire in language; deferral of union of signifier with signified; and the failure of consciousness to be coterminous with its object."

I'm impressed by the compression and accuracy of this list of issues. But she doesn't spring from the list to that which eludes the processes on it. She summarizes the "wastage," "absence," "interruption," "deferral," and "failure," but she does not consider what remains, or what in fact is created.

This type of problem is endemic to a lot of postmodern criticism. I think some of the cultural and historical criticism in English studies since 2000 (and I'm very tempted to say 2001) has rectified some of these problems. We must learn how to construct after destruction, learn how to build after absences and interruptions. Pondrom's somewhat flat concluding sentence emphasizes that "Eliot understood life itself as a performance." In my own work, I'd like to push the ideas that Pondrom so cogently raises in an effort to understand how Eliot (and other modernists) conceived of the self -- in the positive sense. Eliot's philosophical concerns invites such a project; his reading of Remy de Gourmont and F. H. Bradley as well as the Metaphysical poets provide many productive sites of inquiry.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Telescoping of Images in "The Waste Land"

It is especially provocative to read the following quote from Eliot's essay "The Metaphysical Poets" when considering how fragmentary The Waste Land is:

"When a poet's mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating experience; the ordinary man's experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary [...] in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes."

The poem forces us to ask whether Eliot has marshaled the abilities that he values most into a successful work. Does Eliot, after his sojourn in the waste land, "form new wholes"?

That is too large a question for an itsy-bitsy blog post, but I want to look at a technique that Eliot calls “telescoping of images” and attempt to determine whether it has the power to create the unity Eliot refers to. Here's the beginning of Section V, "What the Thunder Says":

After the torchlight read on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying
Prison and palace and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience

The first thing to consider is Eliot's insistence on the word "after," which begins each of the first three lines of this final section. Eliot tries to focus on a moment after the sturm und drang of life. But I would suggest that this is not just some interlude or a lull; by definition, the moment after the sturm und drang of life is...death. Eliot juxtaposes life and death throughout the poem (along with a corresponding contrast between desire and frustration). But after all these "afters," Eliot actually deposits us in a present that only continues toward an ultimate after, the cessation of movement. That is, he does not offer death, just the act of dying. So, despite the insistence on the possibility of "after," we are only always moving toward "after."

To me, this seems like an example of telescoping images. The telescope metaphor itself exemplifies Eliot’s poetic practice. Looking through a telescope unifies distance and proximity. A telescope allows one the experience of a distant object as a close object. The distant object suddenly is near. [The way some small telescopes operate (that is, by sliding open and closed) also unifies pulling apart and staying together]. In the section quoted above, Eliot seems to unify after and during. The past (the torchlight, the silence, the agony) seem to weigh on the present; they are incorporated into the feeling of the present. Eliot's phrase "structure of feeling" is useful here (from his "Dante" essay). The present is not discrete, nor is the past ever really over.

This complex notion of time and movement is reminiscent of Zeno's paradox. One can never move because one must cross half the remaining distance, but half of that distance must be crossed first, ad infinitum. For Eliot, these are not philosopher's games but real problems of experience. However, they are not problems to be solved so much as they are problems to be captured in artistic expression. Poets get closer to reaching the absolute if they can telescope images into unities. They must create structures of feeling rather than individual responses. If we are conceived of as only "living," then we are separated from our inevitable "dying."

These ideas help make sense of Eliot's claim that "Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality" ("Tradition and the Individual Talent"). He isn't arguing against emotion in poetry; he suggests that a "personality" is too singular, that an individual's emotional response is devoid of a context from which it can never truly escape. Instead, the poet should aim to achieve a union of past and present, subject and object, self and other. In short, the poet must seek to express the absolute. When Eliot complains at the end of his "Dante" essay that modern poets present "only odds and ends of still life," he offers in his poetry a telescoping of images that pulls these odds and ends into complex layers of time and relation.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Entry into The Waste Land

The Waste Land is a complex and allusive poem. As Eliot's notes indicate (and an avalanche of scholarship confirms), a full reading of the poem requires much study. But often the reader first approaching the text is not equipped with the requisite learning, especially those ranks of young but intellectually fatigable college students. How do these readers find entry into The Waste Land? I would suggest that the most readable and compelling section of the poem comes near the beginning of the final section, What the Thunder Said:

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think

This begins a sub-section of 29 lines that hang together. They present a sustained contemplation that doesn't require knowledge of a foreign language, the Grail legend, the biography of Augustine, references from Shakespeare, etc. The poetic repetition of these two substances, water and rock, is hypnotic and frustrating at the same time. There's a paradoxically musical confusion in the poet's persistent attempt to imagine these two substances interacting with one another.

Eliot counts on some basic symbolist principles in this section. Rock is still and solid; water is moving and diffuse. These simple concepts circle around each other in permutation after permutation. Rock is inescapable; water is desired. The length of this section emphasizes the insurmountability of this problem; the reader always comes back to the rock; the reader is never given water. This denial accomplishes the reader's emotional response without establishing a clear "meaning" (and without the layers of allusion covering other sections of the poem).

Furthermore, the grammatical structure mirrors the description of unachieved desire. A lengthy set of conditional phrases is never completed, reenacting the impossibility of the desired object:

If there were water
And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
And water
A a pring
A pool among the rock
If there were the sound of water only
Not the cicada
And the dry grass singing
But sound of water over a rock
Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees
Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
But there is no water

The reader does not get to consider the possibility of water because the putative realm that includes water is never described. The substance is denied to both the speaker and the reader. Through these methods, Eliot dramatically builds emotion and frustration, while at the same time constructing a poem that embodies the themes it explores.

But I'd like to look a bit deeper at these two substances in order to uncover another layer of meaning. First, due to much of the rest of the poem's obvious interest in sexual frustration (which I haven't developed here, but about which has been much written), it is worth seeing these substances in this light. Motion is rightly conceived of as essential to the sexual act; the rock's immobility does not lend itself to participation. On the other hand, the rock's rigidity might have a claim to mimicking male sexual readiness, but the lack of water suggests an unfulfilled readiness. That is, the rock does not find its yielding and flowing counterpart.

Second, while the preceding paragraph admittedly participates in a bit of vulgar Freudian criticism, it does so within a context of more obvious references to sexual frustration. I'd like to step beyond this into another layer of (perhaps still Freudian) analysis. The rock is a stable object; it is clearly delineated; its boundaries make it discrete and isolatable. Water is counter to these ideas. I would suggest that the rock indicates a single and identifiable subjecthood. The rock is a unified Self. Rock, as a substance, is consonant with the "windowless monad" of the self described by Leibnitz. From this perspective, the desire for water represents a sort of death drive, a wish to wash away the self, to dissolve into movement. The speaker is unable to imagine or achieve the loss of self, but he is inevitably drawn to it.

If we take the first and second of the points listed above in conjunction, we find that Eliot presents sexuality as a loss of the self. This reminds me of my thoughts about Ezra Pound's Imagistic poetry. But there's an important difference: where Pound (in his poetry) rejected sexuality outright, Eliot seems intent on remembering the pull of a desire whose satisfaction is ultimately impossible. In large part, I would argue that The Waste Land explores desire and the inevitability of its failure to find satisfaction. In conjunction with this failure comes the protection of the self as a discrete monad. I hope to support this reading in entries to come. However, at th is point it seems safe to say that the above quoted section of the poem provides a useful entry point for new readers, not just because it is not so allusive or fragmentary, but also because it hints at the themes we see throughout.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Quentin Meillassoux's "After Finitude" Chapter One

Meillassoux provides a unique history of philosophy, splitting philosophers into two grops: pre-Kantians (who believe in objects themselves) and post-Kantians (who believe in the relations between subjects and objects). Meillassoux calls these later philosophers "correlationists" because correlation takes primacy over the thing itself or the subject as Being. He considers consciousness and language (and the phenomenologists and linguistic post-structuralists who seem to oppose them) examples of correlational thinking.

Meillassoux begins by pointing to the concept of "ancestrality," which is essentially the idea that scientists can offer true statements about objects that exist before humans were around to perceive them. "Ancestral" facts include the accretion of the earth 4.56 billion years ago. The fact of the earth's accretion is difficult to fit into correlationist thinking because they see the link between man's consciousness and the object of which it is conscious as primary to any object or self as such (that is, "in itself").

I don't know where Meillassoux takes his argument from here (I hope to write more as I make more progress through the book). But it seems promising for my work on the modernist poets. First, and most obviously, Meillassoux's perspective seems to hint at some sort of pre-existing absolute. This might have interesting implications compared to the thought of English philosopher F. H. Bradley, who went on and on about the Absolute -- and about whom T. S. Eliot wrote his doctoral dissertation. Second, the Imagist emphasis on "direct treatment of the thing" seems problematic from the perspective of "correlationists," who represent the mainstream of twentieth century philosophical thought (as described by Meillassoux). But it also seems problematic from a Bradleian perspective; after all, how does one directly treat the thing if it cannot be distinguished from other things because they're all part of the Absolute?

Clearly, the Absolute is too quaint an idea for Meillassoux to return to, so it will be interesting to see where his argument leads. But I will be reading with an eye toward Eliot's interpretation of Bradley's metaphysics. Eliot's obvious interest in the human search for unity may be illuminated by these other thinkers, both before and after him.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Subjectivity in Section Four of H.D.'s "The Walls Do Not Fall"

H.D. seems to advance a notion of subjectivity worth examining in section four of "The Walls Do Not Fall." She uses an extended metaphor in which coral represents the self. This metaphor allows her access to a number of generative concepts that she explores in provocative ways. One of these is continuity:

continuous, the sea-thrust
is powerless against coral

H.D. points toward the perpetual tension between the motion of the sea and the coral's growth. The coral continues to grow despite the friction of the sea that threatens to wear down and dissolve it. In the poem's overt historical aspect (as a WWII poem), continuity suggests the fortitude of Londoners to survive the Blitz. On another level, the continuity explored here suggests life's inexorable striving, the persistence of being despite the dangers presented by the world. Other sea life exhibits this same perserverance:

the shell-fish:
oyster, clam, mollusc

is master-mason planning
the stone marvel

The poem calls attention not just to the continuous production and proliferation of sea life, but to those forms that maintain themselves due to their hard exteriors. In order to withstand the world, one must form a tough exterior. Although this unyielding surface is necessary, she contrasts it with a central softness:

yet that flabby, amorphous hermit
within, like the planet

senses the finite,
its limits its orbit

of being, its house,
temple, fane, shrine

Successful existence, from this perspective, requires a balance of soft and hard, malleable and rigid. H.D. imagines a finite subject. But one doesn't get the sense that this is a "windowless Monad" in the Leibniz sense, for the subject is constantly testing its boundaries and interacting with the world, acting through a relation with the world rather than as a discrete self. The soft center is separated from the world by its hard exterior, but it is, at the same time, always projecting out into that world.

The self is made up of these soft/hard contrasts. Given H.D.'s interest in Freudian psychoanalysis, one might extend this set of oppositions to include the unconscious and the conscious. There are desires within us that are amorphous in their unknowability; we can only guess their contours when they emerge. To extend the analogy to Freud's psychoanalytic topology is perhaps warranted given the direction H.D. chooses to develop her contrasts:

it unlocks the portals
at stated intervals:

prompted by hunger,
it opens to the tide-flow

Trusty Wikipedia tells me that coral reproduces sexually by releasing gametes around the full moon. Rather than existing as self-authorizing selves, complete with their own agency, the examples of sea life that H.D. discusses are beholden to a physical world that generates their desire. She describes a "hunger" that cannot be denied; the "tide-flow" caused by the full moon demands a physical response. The subjectivity H.D. describes is continuous, finite, and sexual, but it must always relate with a world that compels it in certain ways. Rather than (what I argue is) the traditional modernist subjectivity that forgoes sensual desire in order to maintain (the illusion of) unity and order, H.D. develops a more dependent and relational model.

Nicholas Mayer on T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"

Nicholas Mayer brings much careful research to his paper "Catalyzing Prufrock," but one gets the sense that he ended up with his interpretation because he went into the poem with it tucked into one of his interior pockets. Not that there's anything wrong with that, as long as you can make the interpretation stick -- which Mayer is almost skillful enough to do here.

Mayer's essential point is that the published version of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and our knowledge that it at one time included a section called the "Pervigilium," allows us to see how Eliot's "depersonalization theory" of poetic creation works. In this case, the Pervigilium included too much immediate history or emotion to be in the finished poem. Mayer derives this point from examining Eliot's response to F. H. Bradley's philosophy. Very quickly (and according to Mayer), Bradley has two stages to his metaphysical theory. First, there is the act of immediate experience or feeling. This is undifferentiated and non-relational. The second stage is the mind's work on the material of the immediate experience.

Mayer argues that Eliot's poetic method introduces a third stage: the artist's transformation of emotion into art. Mayer explains that Eliot is suspicious of "sincere language" to express emotion. That is, Eliot does not authorize the self who emerges from Bradley's second stage a direct way to express himself. Instead, Mayer sees Prufrock the character as the second stage, and "Prufrock" the poem as Eliot's third stage. It is the impossibility of representing Prufrock's sincere emotion that leads to the "Prufrock" poem (which seems, paradoxically, to achieve a sort of emotional intensity because of this very depersonalizing maneuver).

What I like about Mayer's essay is that it points to something I've felt is obvious about modernist literature but not mentioned enough: the modernists were incredibly self-ridiculing. The method that Mayer describes above involves poking itty-bitty holes into the serious ways we once felt. The mix of high and low does not raise the low but reorients the high. A good example of this is when teenagers have glorious visions of their immortality or believe they are going to play in the NBA (or become rock stars); the only way to get over this is to scoff a bit at that silly (but earnest) earlier self. In some sense, that earlier self needs to be purged in order to complete the mature human being. This seems to be the argument Mayer makes in his essay about the failure of sincere language.

Where the essay suffers, however, is that it doesn't deliver on the promise it offers by raising Bradleyan metaphysics. I believe Eliot's notion of depersonalization relates to Bradley's metaphysics in a more complicated way than Mayer suggests. Mayer's characterization of Eliot's "third stage" is not primarily metaphysical. Instead, it presents a commonplace understanding taken from Eliot's criticism. But Mayer doesn't ask What IS a self as a result of this third stage, the artistic endeavor? Surely Eliot must have had a working notion of his own answer to this question as he wrote his poetry and criticism...but what is it? I regret to say I don't have an answer yet, but I will surely be attempting to form one as I continue reading.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Self and Community in H.D.'s The Walls Do Not Fall

I've just begun reading H.D.'s long poem "The Walls Do Not Fall," which is the first of three long poems comprising "Trilogy" (1944-1946). The poems are primarily about the Second World War, and more particularly about the experience of being in London during the Blitz. So in many ways, this is a community poem, exploring the spirit of resistance and fortitude of a whole people. H.D. frequently employs the first-person plural to give witness to collective experience. For example, in the first section she writes:

the flesh? it was melted away,
the heart burnt out, dead ember,
tendons, muscles shattered, outer husk dismembered,

yet the frame held:
we passed the flame: we wonder
what saved us? what for?

One pictures the people of London sharing meaningful looks as they go through their lives recognizing that they have shared the experience of survival -- and continue to share the experience of danger. H.D. suggests that this sort of experience is more than just life or death; the threat of death can lead to transcendent understanding. Again in the first section, she writes that the "ruin opens / the tomb, the temple." Rather than just a fear of death, she suggests a spiritual possibility; the risk that one might lose one's life opens up meaning beyond the mundane.

This first section introduces the image of ruins, buildings damaged by the falling bombs, but with walls that do not fall. But she sees this as more than destruction. She understands these events as lessons in understanding. The perilous life brings wisdom that exceeds other forms of knowledge:

another sliced wall
where poor utensils show
like rare objects in a museum;

Pompeii has nothing to teach us,
we know crack of volcanic fissure,
slow flow of terrible lava,

While I have much of this poem left to read, it seems that H.D. sets up an opportunity to explore different modes of epistemology. That is, she compares immediate experience to research and reflection, and she seems to argue here in favor of immediate experience (or perception). From this perspective, her poetic project seems to be "modern" in the sense that it operates on a different level than Wordsworth's sense of poetry as emotion recollected in tranquillity.

But there is an obvious tension between her valorization of immediacy and the actual poetry in "The Walls Do Not Fall." Her later work is quite different from her earlier Imagistic pieces. This poem is clearly not presenting an "emotional complex in an instant of time."

Michael Levenson on The Waste Land

Michael Levenson, in his A Genealogy of Modernism, brings a very careful analysis of narration and narrative perspective to the texts he examines. He explains his concerns succinctly in the first chapter by focusing on Joseph Conrad's bifurcation of narrative perspectives into the omniscient narrator who describes physical actions and the first-person narrator who offers psychological reactions.

What is most useful about Levenson's chapter on Eliot is that he takes the time to consider Eliot's underlying philosophical perspective. I can't go into too much depth because I haven't read Eliot's dissertation, but in Levenson's argument, Eliot attacks the rational ego on two ends. First, the rational ego (or the "subject") doesn't really come into being until after immediate experience. It is a construction. Second, the subject itself cannot ultimately determine reality. Instead a confluence of different perspectives must come together; reality is shared.

Levenson brilliantly shows that these two ideas are joined in the figure of Tiresias. Points of view merge together help define reality, not in Tiresias as a character, but as a point at which perspectives come together. Levenson articulates this concisely by stating that "The poem is not, as it is common to say, built upon the juxtaposition of fragments: it is built out of their interpenetration" (190). Levenson explains that this underlying philosophy makes Eliot's work much different than Imagism, which relied upon the perceiver's individual consciousness. Though the self is dissolved in Eliot's theory, multiple perspectives come together.

Levenson's examination of Eliot's poetic method in light of these philosophical points is particularly interesting. Rather than existing methods (even "modernist" ones), Eliot pursues the "mythic method." Levenson contends that the mythic method does not proceed by replacing modern narratives with mythic ones; instead, modern consciousness is created through myths or prior cultural texts (198). Nor is myth a narrative at all in Eliot's usage; myth "extends parallels" (200). Tradition is active in the poetry as well as in Eliot's concept of consciousness. Myth and tradition provides the organizing principle or framework required for consciousness to take shape.

What disappoints me a bit about Levenson's analysis is not what it does, but what it doesn't do. Levenson has much to say about Eliot's method and its underlying principles, but he is reticent when it comes to what Eliot's method yields. The bluntest way to ask this question is to reply with an insistent: "But what is the poem about?" Poems are rarely about their method; they use a method to say something. I don't feel I have a better idea about what Eliot is saying in The Waste Land, though I understand better how it might be working. In my own critical work, I hope to spend more time on this issue - but I wouldn't want to do it without the insights that Levenson brings to the poem.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Challenge of Immanence

Charles Altieri's important book on postmodern poetry Enlarging the Temple presents a conundrum for the uninitiated. In this case...that's me. He insists that the poetry following modernism (which must inevitably be called "postmodernism") is marked by a shift away from symbolism and toward varieties of immanence. What makes this difficult is the very term "immanence." I've been throwing it around quite a bit, mainly because I've been trying to engage with Altieri's text. But the more time that goes by, the less sure I am that I have even a basic understanding of the word.

When I look up "immanence" (on that most trusted of resources: Wikipedia), I find the idea that the divine is manifested in the material world. I get the "material world" part; what I don't find in Altieri's description is a sense of the divine. Altieri seems to be only interested in the idea that things, including human beings, are in the world. At the risk of employing a Heideggerian term I don't understand, Altieri seems interested in being-in-the-world. He writes that "the proper mode of activity for the creative self is not the creation or interpretation of values but the labor of disclosure" (22). This disclosure involves reporting the experience of being-in-the-world. But whither divinity? Does disclosure avail one's self of some spiritual meaning?

These two questions hint at the crux of my problem. Immanence is typically contrasted with transcendence as its binary opposite. Transcendence is readily understood as spiritual, but how does immanence square the banal fact-ness of the world with a sense of divinity. In other words, I cannot help but smuggle in transcendence with immanence...if I want to hold to the definition I've been given. It seems I would be more comfortable jettisoning the "divinity" part of the definition in the same way that Altieri seems to.

But here, then, is the challenge. How can I overcome this desire to discard divinity from my understanding of mundane reality? That is, how can I conceive of reality as not mundane but divine? And what accounts for this resistence? Does my general lack of religious feeling cause me to bracket spirituality off in some transcendent realm while the immanent realm is merely a cold and scientific landscape? This is a super big problem. It is problematic especially because the poets in whom I am interested (Jarrell, Bishop, Lowell) seem to conceive of the world as inherently dangerous. Bishop, for instance, repeats the phrase "Cold dark deep and absolutely clear," and this clinical and barren sort of world of objects can drain the self of feeling (rather than offer a sort of spiritual transformation on its own). The poem attends to the objects of the world in that uniquely Bishopian way, carefully descriptive, but moving at the end to the pain involved with the real world:

If you should dip your hand in,
your wrist would ache immediately,
your bones would begin to ache and your hand would burn
as if the water were a transmutation of fire
that feeds on stones and burns with a dark gray flame.

If the postmodern poets that Altieri treats in Enlarging the Temple experience and disclose the fact of their immanence, Bishop surely does not. While hers is not a pessimistic poetry, neither is it a poetry satisfied by being a record of the world's presence.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Suggesting Meaning

I came across a poem online today, at Anti-, by Amit Majmudar. It's called "Money Shots" and begins with the following lines:

Money grows the way stars die, and stars die
the way hearts beat: white-dwarf systole, red-
giant diastole keeping the flow
of capital as capillaries lined with the same
porous silk as a day trader's pockets.

Of course, I don't read much current poetry, so I don't know exactly what's in fashion, but as someone who enjoys responding to literature, I thought I'd post a few remarks. I'll admit up front that this is a sort of reader-response sort of response, in the sense that I'll go through my impressions upon first reading the poem.

The poem begins with an intriguing simile that joins money and stars together in a temporal consideration. I found myself drawn in by this first comparison because it stretches the vast distance between an everyday earthly object (money) and the vast and almost unimaginable distances of space. Such a divergence of scale provokes a defamiliarizing response. But for me, a defamiliarizing response provokes a careful examination. I try to slow down and figure my way through it, and that's when things started to break down.

Majmudar attempts to elicit a feeling of growth and decay, a sense of cycles. And he succeeds on that level. But the comparison doesn't work as well when he shifts to the "flow / of capital." Money might "flow," but it seems a poor description to suggest that the violent explosion of a nova is a "flow." Furthermore, the "capillaries" through which this ejecta is said to flow don't really exist in a galactic system like blood vessels and capillaries. Also, the violence of the stellar reference is not fitting with with the "porous" sense in which money flows through the "day trader's pockets."

In short, this simile is merely suggestive. Similes cannot be exact, of course, or they would not be similes (they would be equivalences). But Majmudar does not seem to strive for a more complete comparison. He appears to want a glancing blow rather than a more traditional comparison. I don't think this is a result of a writer who is unwilling to take better care with metaphor and simile. Instead, it feels as if the thinner, less complete comparison is actually the desired strategy.

The next line provides an example: "Time is cyclic. Come again? Crime is cyclic." He plays with sound in substituting "crime" for "time." But he doesn't develop a contrasting view of time and crime; instead, the sound allows movement. One idea flows into the next, but in sound rather than in conceptual connection. This is enough to sustain the poem's movement.

Majmudar returns to the use of stars at the end of the first section: "these men in pinstripes are the stars, / the heartthrobs money loves, the actors who make / money's heart go boom-bust: lub-lub: nova." I appreciate the return to the heart/star comparison because it gestures toward a resolution, but he misses a full connection in the traditional sense. Are the men really the stars? The stars are supposed to be the hearts, but now they're the men? These (clearly shifty) men are best characterized by a heart metaphor? But they're so clearly distasteful. Does the money then really love the men, who are heartthrobs? I could see that the money loves the men, but the men now are stars, which are money. It's all so confusing. It seems that a lust rather than love metaphor would have worked better. And if money loves pinstriped men, why do they have porous pockets?

My point here is that the poem is bouyed more by the suggestion of meaning than it is by meaning. A series of glancing blows provides a kind of movement that perfect or locked metaphr does not. As long as the reader is held aloft by this movement, poetry like this can succeed. I'm not so sure that I'm one of those readers, however.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Wallace Stevens and What the Imagination is Allowed to Do

It's a stale and obvious fact that Wallace Stevens places great faith in what the imagination could accomplish. He feels that the imagination helps shape the facts of the world as we perceive them. (This concept is probably borrowed from Coleridge's careful description of two levels of imagination, the first being that which pulls sensory input together into the ideas needed to conceive of the world).

At any rate, Stevens's faith in the inherent power of the imagination allows him to construct surprising scenes in his poetry. The most well-known examples of this transformative power are probably in "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," which shows scene after scene of blackbirds in varying relations to the observer and the world. But I want to focus on the closing section of "Farewell to Florida," which transforms the men in the streets of Stevens's Hartford, Connecticut into the waves of the ocean.

My North is leafless and lies in wintry slime
Both of men and clouds, a slime of men in crowds.
The men are moving as the water moves,
This darkened water cloven by sullen swells
Against your sides, then shoving and slithering,
The darkness shattered, turbulent with foam.

I choose this image not because it is the most staggering allowance afforded the imagination in Stevens's work, but because it raises an important question about the ethics of imaginative power. The poet's imaginative metaphor changes the men (in the abstract) into dark water that is "cloven" by the ship. We're aware that Stevens was an elitist, but this act of imagination allows him to tear through the men of the masses in the poetic act. The world doesn't seem to dictate to him as often as it maybe should. That's a value judgment, of course, but one that his poetry asks us to either affirm or reject.

Being In and Out of the World

I was looking over several unpublished poems and drafts by Elizabeth Bishop and was struck by a commonality that may shed light on her ideas about the self's interaction with the world. Her poems often describe interior scenes or people contained in dreamworlds who are confronted by the real world.

The poem "In a Room," begins with "There was a stain on the ceiling" and ends with "'But here I am in my room,' I awoke."

A poem titled "A Short, Slow Life" begins with the enclosing concept of "We lived in a pocket of Time," but ends with "Roughly his hand reached in, / and tumbled us out."

In a review of a collection of Emily Dickinson's letters, Bishop even singles out this line of Dickinson's for praise: "but so sure as 'this mortal' essays immortality, a crow from a neighboring farmyard dissipates the illusion, and I am here again."

We find this same sort of reintroduction of the self into the world in Bishop's published poems. Perhaps the most noteworthy example is "In the Waiting Room," with its abrubt end to ontological investigation in the final stanza, which begins "Then I was back in it." I'm struck by the way these poems enforce an ultimate end to meditation -- but not an end to dislocation. In other words, the emphatic reality of the world, its concreteness, is unarguable. But its appearance is not able to wipe away the uncertainties of the other experience. The reader's experience, like the speaker's, dwells on the unsettling contemplations contained within the poem. For Bishop, the entrance of the world is requisite for her poetry's accuracy, but it doesn't ground things as firmly as one might expect.

In another untitled and unpublished poem, she writes that "One day a sad view came to the window to look in, / little fields & fences & and trees, tilted, tan & gray. / Then it went away." The world seems to have an unsettling agency of its own. Reality does not come across as unbiased and uninterested. To be reinserted into reality after contemplation is not to have questions answered. I always look back to Walt Whitman's examination of philosophical contemplation and his insistence that actuality (especially the actuality of human contact) is enough to drive those questions away.

But the same isn't true in Bishop. "Little Exercise" is a good example of this. The world sends a storm "roaming the sky uneasily," but though Bishop describes its effects, she encourages us at the end to "Think of someone sleeping in the bottom of a row-boat / tied to a mangrove root or the pile of a bridge; / think of him as uninjured, barely disturbed." In one sense, this is another example of Bishop depositing her character into the world, but in another, this worldly existence barely rouses him. We are "tied to a [...] root," but we nonetheless float in our own place. In "Cootchie," the sea is even "desperate, / will proffer wave after wave." So there's a continual struggle between the world created by human contemplation and the world that buffets us with its forces. We seem to exist in them simultaneously. And though modernists like Wallace Stevens might discuss the world as meditation (in the poem titled "The World as Meditation"...and all his other poems), Bishop would seem to inhabit the gap between meditation and the world.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Randall Jarrell and the Gap between Immanence and Transcendence

"A Country Life" by Randall Jarrell expresses concisely in one of its lines an overriding principle of Jarrell's work: "They are subdued to their own element." The poem examines the natural world in a location unfamiliar to the speaker. He wonders what the birds say when they speak. But he cannot ask the locals because he does not want to give himself away as an outsider.

This situation raises two crucial aspects of Jarrell's poetry. First, it broaches the subject of the physical world and its potential for human meaning. He describes the bird as a part of the concrete physical world, but also as an agent that might communicate something deeper:

The bird calls twice, "Red clay, red clay";
Or else he's saying, "Directly, directly."

The first of these lines is descriptive, conveying the world as it can be experienced by the senses. The second line introduces a relation to the world. The bird speaks of how the world is "directly" before us, or perhaps how he is responding to our presence "directly." In this second line, we understand the world not as a set of objects which may or may not be perceived, but a product of the act of perceiving. The gulf between these two lines, between the possibilities they raise, is the space within which Jarrell works.

The speaker reports that the local people, those who live within these elements, "know and they don't know." This is classic Jarrell. His work sometimes borders on confusion or senselessness because he so frequently proffers two contradictory contentions. But he's trying to get at the simultaneity of experience in and about the world. Another way of saying this is that he contemplates the distance between dumb immanence and communicative meaning. But asking those entrenched in the world to explain it "is dangerous":

Asked about it, who would not repent
Of all he ever did and never meant,
And think a life and its distresses,
Its random, clutched-for, homefelt blisses,
The circumstances of an accident?

For Jarrell, to ask for a definitive description of a mechanistic world is to threaten one with the recognition of the loss of free will. In this poem, immanence is antithetical to meaning. The importance of this point is emphasized when Jarrell raises the stakes in the final stanza, where death delivers the body to the clay. Death is a return to pure immanence; it is the inevitability of immanence.

But Jarrell insists on one of the other crucial aspects of his poetry: the continued dream of transcendence. He rarely argues for the possibility of transcendence, but he frequently examines our perpetual drive toward it. So even after the body is returned to the earth, a spiritual element remains:

After some words, the body is forsaken . . . .
The shadows lengthen, and a dreaming hope
Breathes, from the vague mound, Life;

This is a paradoxical turn, of course. While alive, the people could not explain the physical world because they would need to choose between immanence and transcendence, but after dying, they yearn for both. Jarrell suggests that we are caught between immanence and transcendence, and he, in fact, sees human existence as a breathless pause between the two. Only death seems to solve this dilemma, but at the cost of relinquishing both alternatives.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Jean-Paul Sartre, Elizabeth Bishop, and Unbecoming

Jean-Paul Sartre makes a compelling argument about the nature of self-consciousness. In the introduction to Being and Nothingness, Sartre states that "self-consciousness we ought to consider not as a new consciousness, but as the only mode of existence which is possible for a consciousness of something" (16). In this way, Sartre suggests that self-consciousness is not something that occurs after consciousness itself. That is, one does not retain a power of consciousness that subsequently gets turned upon the self.

What makes this such an intriguing idea is how starkly it contrasts with so many other important ideas. Lacan's mirror stage comes immediately to mind, because the mirror stage relies explicitly on the idea that the subject conceives of himself after he is conscious. He must see the image in the mirror and begin to shape a notion of himself. Any theories which describe how the self constructs itself seems to be demolished by Sartre's argument.

But it is fascinating that poets such as Elizabeth Bishop spend so much energy questioning the self and its operations. It seems that Bishop and others unravel the co-existence of consciousness and self-consciousness, and are therefore engaged in a sort of Undoing of the self that Sartre envisions. If consciousness is the "dimension of transphenomenal being in the subject" (10), as Sartre claims, then the excessive questioning of the being that exists through multiple phenomena seems to undo the unity of that conception. Or maybe another way to say it is that the subsequent consciousness of a split self is co-existent with a split consciousness -- despite our potential to be unsplit.

I'm thinking of Bishop's "The Gentleman of Shalott" in particular. In this poem, she writes, "But he's resigned / to such economical design." Especially in her early poetry, she very persistently questions the viability of consciousness, which has an obvious effect on self-consciousness. She is almost a fabulist in how frequently she reshapes the external world -- not to impose a self-willed order upon it, but rather to de-solidify the external world. Our consciousness of the world then is somehow inauthentic because it topples the transphenomenal being described by Sartre.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Wallace Stevens on Death

Wallace Stevens' poem "Flyer's Fall" contemplates the persistence of belief in a culture marked by the loss of doctrinal faith. It is brief enough to quote in full:

This man escaped the dirty fates,
Knowing that he died nobly, as he died.

Darkness, nothingness of human after-death,
Receive and keep him in the deepnesses of space -

Profundum, physical thunder, dimension in which
We believe without belief, beyond belief.

It is worth noting that Stevens' image of death is about as pure as one can get. The flyer is in the air, otherwise untouched by the world. In this purity, the flyer thinks of his impending death as "noble." He is protected from whatever "dirty fates" lie in store for those of us who die less spectacularly.

But the second and third couplets are from the viewer's perspective, the one who remains and reflects on the flyer's passing. And it is this perspective that seems most difficult, more difficult perhaps than it is to die. He must situate the fact of death in a framework that makes sense, but in the absence of a received orthodoxy. Rather than a Christian heaven, there is only "Darkness, nothingness of human after-death." The compound word "after-death" is particularly provocative because it suggests that to name this state with its own word would be to sanctify it with systemic meaning. Here, it is merely the unconceived thing that comes after death.

But Stevens is interested in how the mind always works to create these narratives that explain the otherwise unexplainable. Even after attempting to ensure the un-theorization of life after death (by using the compound word "after-death"), Stevens gives us a physical place for the dead: "the deepnesses of space." He activates this place by giving it a powerful dynamic presence: "physical thunder." The dead are surrounded by a profound and spiritual activity.

But he is not arguing for a factual understanding of death that escapes Christian (or other) doctrines. He does not make truth claims for the dark emptiness. Instead, the poem is about the human impulse while alive to understand the unintelligible. The organizing power of the mind is an indefatigable, insurmountable desire within human beings: "We believe without belief, beyond belief." Even if we refuse the notions of the afterlife offered by the world's religions, the impulse to believe something, to organize knowledge, to create meaning, nevertheless persists.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Randall Jarrell and the Unreachable Home

Randall Jarrell's poem "A Ward in the States" is a haunting examination of the mind's inability to unify itself and place itself in a satisfactory relationship with the world. More specfically, the poem complicates the notion of "home" and what it means to be in the world.

It begins with images that contrasts inside and outside:

The ward is barred with moonlight,
The owl hoots from the snowy park.
The wind of the rimed, bare branches
Slips coldly into the dark

Warmed ward where the muttering soldiers
Toss, dreaming that they still sigh
For home, for home;

The light from outside enters the ward, but it is affected by the inside: it is "barred," parts of it are in shadow and therefore missing. Similarly, the inside is affected by the outside, as the cold from outside slips into the ward. Jarrell insists that this is a problematic boundary.

Jarrell builds on this problematic physical boundary by contructing an equally permeable boundary between past experience and the present situation. The soldiers, who are in "the States," are dreaming of the islands that "Are stretched interminably / Past their lives." These are the islands in the South Pacific during the Second World War from which the soldiers had returned. The past continues to infect/affect the present.

The persistence of the past is so thoroughgoing that it enters their sleep. Whatever events occurred on those islands, which remain nameless in the poem but were present in the cultural background from which this poem emerged, are left unspoken. The reader hears only their "sigh / For home."

The rich irony that the poem develops, however, is that the soldiers still sigh for home when they are home. They are "in the States," no longer on the islands. But home is not stable enough to endure experience. Seemingly, their "one wish" has been achieved, but they continue to desire it. Jarrell includes a significant line break to emphasize this impossibility: "Ah, one lies warm / With fever." The line initially seems to posit a warm and therefore comfortable sleep, but then he punctures this with the addition of "With fever." The soldiers are haunted by dreams.

Throughout the poem, it seems clear that a stable and comfortable state is impossible, and it seems meaningful that Jarrell has included "the States" in the title: these soldiers exist in a series of states that are invariably implicated in one another. The purity of a "state" of being cannot be achieved. Instead, their "Lips chatter their old sigh," once again confirming that their "one wish" of a stable home is impossible.

Jarrell ends the poem by carefully bookending the moonlight. It appeared at the beginning as the intrusion of the external world, and it ends the poem as the poet's retreat to the objective perspective that generalizes the individual struggles at the same time it diminishes those struggles. It's like when a movie pans away from the protagonist at the end to show a tree-lined street; the object world abides despite our struggles. This itself is an ironic and ambivalent twist in the sense that Jarrell's strategy in the poem was to suggest that physical space/location is in no sense ultimate -- at least from the perspective of the subject. Home as a physical location does not contain meaning within it.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Elizabeth Bishop and the Immutability of the World

I’ve been thinking more about Charles Altieri’s contention that postmodern poetry is primarily about the need to express one’s experience of the world. He presents a compelling case that postmodern poetry, despite its incredible variety, is essentially unified by its immanentism. This poetry presents the fact of experience rather than the attempt to shape it into some kind of ordered, symbolic world. He writes that this “aesthetic mode reflects qualities of the mind engaging the world rather than structuring it into created orders (Enlarging the Temple 24-25). This is an argument about what poetry is capable of, and more importantly, it’s an argument about what the mind can do.

I tend to see the modernist tendency to create order as a sort of an anxious, almost hyperventilating, need for order. That is, it is more of a desperate wish than a comfortable and committed belief. In fact, this haunted quality is one of the things that most draws me to the modernists. It feels so very human (despite the “extinction of personality” that Eliot and others often claimed for their work).

This leads Altieri to the fascinating insight concerning the ego: “For the postmoderns, on the other hand, the ego is not a thing or a place for storing and ordering experiences; the ego is not a force transcending the flux of experience but an intense force deepening one’s participation in experience” (43). But what about those for whom this sort of participation is deeply disturbing? If one recognizes that the world cannot be structured as a result of one’s own will, then the self is at the mercy of the world.

It seems to me that Elizabeth Bishop writes at this juncture, wherein one recognizes the compelling power of the world and the futility of desire. Bishop’s “Little Exercise” is a good example of the forces at play. The poem describes a Florida thunderstorm: “It is raining there. The boulevard / and its broken sidewalks with weeds in every crack / are relieved to be wet, the sea to be freshened.” The actions of the world are undeniable; they are written upon it. The storm cannot be avoided.

The poem closes with the introduction of the human being into this destructive world: “Think of someone sleeping in the bottom of a row-boat / tied to a mangrove root or the pile of a bridge; / think of him as uninjured, barely disturbed.” The man is equally subject to the world. But there’s a bit of backtracking, in two senses. First, Bishop suggests that he is “barely disturbed.” Though he must submit to the actions of the world, he nevertheless exists as a counterpoint to it. Though it buffets him, he can tune it out.

Second, Bishop does not tell the story as an experience. It is not (to use Altieri’s useful term) a “disclosure.” Instead, each image is a hypothesis. The poem instructs one to “think of someone”; the someone is putative, not real. The entire action of the poem takes place in the mind, in one’s imagination. The power of the imagination is a stay against the world’s power to compel.

Finally, the structure of the poem is a product of the poet’s power over her material. Bishop’s ideas about form run completely counter to Charles Olson. She exerts her will, not over her material, but over her presentation of the material. Bishop rejects the postmodern effort to rely on the transmission of experience. Instead, she recognizes the immutability of the world at the same time she refuses direct participation in it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Randall Jarrell and Basic Instinct

In his "Field and Forest," Randall Jarrell strips man of civilization in order to get down to the root of instinct. The agricultural field is a metaphor for the ego, while the forest stands in for the unconscious as the realm of instincts. Our egos, like the fields, "have a terrible monotony." Between the fields, however, are the dark forests.

What makes this poem a good representation of the "middle generation" is its ambivalence. Jarrell occupies a middle ground, and his poem takes pains to show that the farmer wishes to turn everything into farmland. The exploration of this wish, simultaneous with (and contradictory to) the wish to re-enter the forest, marks a significant difference from most postmodern poetry. This is particularly true of the "Deep Image" poets, who would have rushed headlong flaming into the ethereal forest, civilization be damned. (See my earlier post on Galway Kinnell's "The Bear").

Jarrell shows us an undressing of the self: "The farmer, naked, takes out his false teeth: / He doesn't eat now. Take off his spectacles: / He doesn't see now. Shuts his eyes." The physical body is taken apart, and Jarrell explores what might be left after such a dismantling. He takes an important step along the way, suggesting that the man is able to take off his cultural inheritance: "And after he has taken off the thoughts / It has taken him his life to learn, / He takes off, last of all, the world." It seems a bit naive, in light of contemporary theory, to believe that one can dispense with our own cultural constructedness. But it is important that Jarrell does this in the figure of the child. Though it was the old farmer who went off to sleep, it is the boy who enters the dream forest and encounters the fox.

I think Jarrell's point is that we long for the past, before the imposition of the reality principle. In this way, we are haunted by the civilizing process. Repression cannot be undone, but the dream of the pleasure principle inhabits us at our core.

The other interesting thing is that Jarrell suggests the world itself can be taken off. Again, departing from Altieri's notion that postmodern poets celebrate immanence, Jarrell describes a type of being that somehow escapes being-in-the-world. Once we have shed our physical selves and the objective world, all that's left is "A wish, / A blind wish; and yet the wish isn't blind, / What the wish wants to see, it sees." The blind wish, however, is not made explicit. Jarrell does not show us how it operates or to what end.

The poem ends with a stalemate typical for the "middle generation." There's a frozen quality to the face-off at the end, in which child and fox stare at one another. The farmer is ensconced within a dream, and the figurative child and fox are frozen and indistinguishable. I find the last line particularly illuminating, for though Jarrell dispensed with the world earlier in the poem, it ends with an enduring world: "The trees can't tell the two of them apart." Through the poem, we see the ego diminished by its breakdown, but we also see the "blind wish" ultimately broken by the trees which exist objectively regardless of this subjective struggle.

This static triangulation of ego, unconscious, and enduring object world seen in this and many other poems by Randall Jarrell. The same confrontation (which could also be termed self/desire/world) is found in particularly provocative ways in the work of Elizabeth Bishop. Jarrell is more prone to substitute to the social world, broadly conceived, for the object world. (Robert Lowell substitutes the nuclear family in this position). There's a sense in all of their work that one cannot but be trapped in this matrix of forces, dissolved but undissolvable.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Randall Jarrell and Extremity of Self

Randall Jarrell is particularly interested in the intersection of the self and the social world. In "90 North," he takes the concept of one's interaction with the world to its logical extremity: the north pole. But rather than a sort of transcendence or ultimate selfhood, the speaker recognizes the inevitability of the physical world.

What intrigues me most about this recognition of physical reality is the spatial configuration of the self that results. When the speaker reaches the north pole, he does not reach a sort of undiluted self-consciousness; instead, he comes to realize that he cannot avoid the world: "Turn as I please, my step is to the south." He is necessarily mapped onto the world, no matter which way he turns.

To me, this perspective seems radically different than the modernist poets who came before Jarrell and the others of the "middle generation." Certainly the authority over the physical world that Ezra Pound asserts, or the power of the imagination in shaping the world advanced by Wallace Stevens, are far from the immanence intimated in Jarrell's poem. Perhaps William Carlos Williams at his most "objective" harbors some of the same ideas, but Williams seems to suggest different implications. In "Paterson," for example, the protagonist both moves through and *is* his world. This duality is empowering in Williams.

Jarrell's figuration is not as holistic. The energies of the self-in-the-world instead form a whirlpool: "all lines, all winds / End in this whirlpool I at last discover." The self is a whirling chaos and it doesn't seem to have any agency or be able to learn. It is at the mercy of the winds.

If it could be said that the self (the Freudian "ego") is challenged, however, it does not seem that the unconscious takes over. The poem isn't like a return of the repressed. Instead, the poem suggests that the loss of the self is more like being cast from the Garden of Eden, more like the devolution of humankind. He casts this struggle in terms of knowledge and ignorance. The fruit of the tree of knowledge in this case (the approach to the extremity of self) is not a stay against the chaos of the world. For the poem itself is figured as a night voyage, a dream of discovery, but ultimately an emptiness.

Immanence is a sort of nightmare rather than an example of a reassuring solidity in the world. The speaker is bereft of a meaning beyond the brute fact of the world. This notion of immanence is important to recognize because it runs counter to the sort of joyous immanence that Charles Altieri talks about in "postmodern" poets in his noteworthy study "Enlarging the Temple." The sort of positive experience, or at least the unburdening of such testimony, shown in the slightly later poets Altieri talks about, is not yet possible in the "middle generation."

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Elizabeth Bishop, Isolation, and the Real World

It has been productive to begin reading Bishop's short stories because they help emphasize aspects of her poetry. Specifically, stories like "The Sea & Its Shore" and "In Prison" stress the importance of isolation that is slightly less apparent in the poetry. There's a strong resonance between "The Sea & Its Shore" and the late poem "The End of March."

I find this connection between early and late work important because it seems the critical perspective, initiated by Thomas Travisano in his "Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development," looks at so much of the middle and late work as a blossoming in which the "real world" makes an appearance. But I am struck by the similarities, the consistency of Bishop's vision. From Travisano's perspective, the early work is evidence of Bishop's interest in and fascination with enclosure. Bishop constructs self-imposed prisons in which characters are isolated and the world is only considered as an abstract thing. This abstraction is a form of escape. Travisano argues that Bishop's development leads her out of these enclosures in order to integrated the world. Aspects of her travels and real life are slowly integrated into her poetry and she more fully engages with the world.

I'm not so convinced. The late poem "The End of March" tells of a walk along a beach and the speaker's desire to "get as far as my proto-dream-house, / my crypto-dream-house, that crooked box / set up on pilings, shingled green." This "box" resembles the house in which the protagonist of "The Sea & Its Shore" lives. In both cases, the structure seems to offer only shelter, striping away all excesses and providing only an escape from the elements. In other words, it separates one from the world without recreating its own world. (There's probably a comment on American consumerism here, too, but I don't know where to take that yet). In both texts, the protagonist reads (or hopes to read) things that don't contain an avenue toward meaning; in the story they are scraps of paper and in the poem they are "boring books, / old, long, long books." The texts do not coordinate the facts of the world; there is no hope that one can discover some ultimate meaning from them.

The sense of enclosure that Travisano identifies in the early work is still present in the later work, and I believe appears throughout. The material of the world is definitely more present in some of the later poems, but the intent to block it all out or diffuse its variety still appears to be an important force in her work.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Theodore Roethke and Archetypes

Every now and again you find a poem that seems anachronistic or a very early precursor to a movement that takes shape later. Theodore Roethke's "Night Crow" is a good example: it seems so much like a Deep Image poem that it could be caught lurking in the Robert Bly section of the library:

When I saw that clumsy crow
Flap from a wasted tree,
A shape in the mind rose up:
Over the gulfs of dream
Flew a tremendous bird
Further and further away
Into a moonless black,
Deep in the brain, far back.

Roethke's poem examines a moment in which perception, cognition, and the attribution of meaning are all tangled up. The event itself, the crow lifting into flight, sparks a process in the imagination that seems to escape the conscious mind and burrow into the dark recesses of the unconscious: "A shape in the mind rose up." The poem relies on the associations of crows with doom and darkness. The vagueness of "a shape" fits with the collective unconscious in which crows are creatures of darkness. The ambiguity of movement is also operating on a very sophisticated level: the "tremendous bird" flies further away, and yet seems to be entering into the brain. Moving away and yet moving in. That situation describes the unconscious, which is somehow fundamental in terms of our drives, and yet it is the repressed, further away from the ego or our conscious selves. The speaker's experience allows sudden access to the unconscious rather than providing a careful and reflective consideration. This might be the sudden appearance of the Shadow, alien and yet familiar. The poem establishes threads of connection and spaces of distance at the same time, suggesting our complicated relation to the constructed self.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Elizabeth Bishop and the Weed of Desire

Elizabeth Bishop's "The Weed" is a great poem to read using Structuralist and New Critical methods. She builds two related and productive binary oppositions, one between death and life and the other between stillness and movement. The poem begins with that very Dickinsonian opening: "I dreamed that dead, and meditating, / I lay upon a grave, or bed." Later, the poem contrasts this deathly stillness with life and movement: "Suddenly there was a motion, / as startling, there, to every sense / as an explosion." The poem investigates what one does with this spurt of life after resigning one's self to death.

But it is important to recognize that the form this intercession takes is a weed, an unwanted growth. The speaker seems to favor the idleness of death to the life represented by the weed. In a Freudian sense, the weed seems to represent the drives, which are felt to be a substantial threat to the ego. The stable and "grave" ego is unsettled by the growing weed. The weed grows in the heart, which "began to change / (not beat) and then it split apart / and from it broke a flood of water." The weed is almost swept away by the flood that it creates. The speaker feels an innate (though chilly) fear of the weed and its potential destructiveness:

"What are you doing there?" I asked.
It lifted its head all dripping wet
(with my own thoughts?)
and answered then: "I grow," it said,
"but to divide your heart again."

The speaker subtly understands her complicity with the weed's actions ("with my own thoughts?"), but recognizes how it works to disintegrate the heart. Rather than seeing unconscious desires as a "true" sort of heart, Bishop suggests that the ego's emotions are the Self's emotions; rather than being a secret heart, the weed is antithetical to the heart.

The perspective in this poem is in keeping with Bishop's tendency to emphasize and ensure the distance between the subject and his desire. Even in the breach, when the unconscious emerges in all its power, the poem is a tale of disintegration. The poem is paradoxically a creation myth and a narrative of psychological decay. While breaking free from stillness, the brittle heart is assured destruction.