Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Metaphor, Masks, Coding

Everyone knows Yeats’s preference for “the quarrel with ourselves” as a source of poetry superior to the rhetoric made from “the quarrel with others.” I’ve said several times in print that I prefer poems that are straightforward to poems that wear a “mask.” So it occurs to me to quarrel with myself on this theme, to perform what Chairman Mao called “autocritique.” I doubt the result will be poetry, but it may bring some clarity to a subject poorly demarcated and seldom well thought out.

I’ve noticed that people are more likely to cooperate with a directive placed indirectly than directly. A direct recommendation or command is likely to be resisted. But if the suggestion is indirect, is coded, there’s a greater chance of a positive response. Hence the advertising industry’s “hidden persuaders.” Keats’s rejection of poems that “have designs on us” doesn’t reference specific titles, but we can all think of examples of texts that seem coercive, seductive, or designed to foster complicity. In truth, almost every poem has this aspect, but the degree varies. Rarely does the poet “spit in the eye” of readers and attempt to alienate them. And even this can sometimes be analyzed as an elaborate, reverse-psychology method of commanding assent. And make no mistake: reading isn’t a purely pacific process but instead a species of sparring or outflanking, an effort to neutralize the resistance that we all bring to any phenomenon, actual or broadcast or written, that we encounter. In view of all this, indirect suggestion is probably a cleverer way of securing reader endorsement than straightforwardness.

Any art, and certainly poetry, will include a ludic or game-playing dimension. Decipherment is fun and challenging in the same way that the Times crossword puzzle is. The poem that just lays all the cards on the table doesn’t offer us the Scrabble-Chess-Go component of a conscious art and won’t stimulate as much adrenaline as those games do.

Constructing “masks” and devising metaphors able to suggest a subtext requires ingenuity; and ingenuity deserves praise, even if it isn’t quite in the same league as magnanimity.

The reality is that many writers have things they urgently wish to convey and yet dare not out of fear that their concerns will be ridiculed or condemned. Indirection allows them to communicate their sense of a topic while providing an escape clause. If ridicule or condemnation is aimed at the subtext of a coded work, authors can always evade and say, “That’s not what I meant. You’re reading things into it.” Of course the disguise is less courageous than going for broke, but it isn’t realistic to rely on courage in human affairs, given that it is the least widespread of all admirable qualities.

In countries where censorship is the rule and imprisonment a possible consequence of publishing texts critical of the regime, masked or metaphoric treatments of political topics is the only safe way to take them up. Meanwhile, there are laws against libel everywhere, and coded communication allows for the expression of libelous sentiments, yet without the risk of prosecution.

Oscar Wilde: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell the truth.” Why “least himself when he talks in his own person”? I suppose what Wilde means is that the public persona is tidied up for public consumption. If you meet strangers on the street, chances are they will behave in a friendly fashion. But if they get behind the wheel of a car, the relative anonymity thereby provided frees them to behave as aggressively and rudely as they like; and if they like being aggressive and rude so much, that must be who they really are. The true person hidden away is like the picture of Dorian Gray, not nearly so presentable as the man who shows up for tea in his morning coat. Using masks allows us to present ourselves as we actually are; it gives an unidealized portrait of our actual natures, something we generally have difficulty discovering, either to ourselves or to others. And if one value of art is to awaken us to truth, then masks are a convenient avenue to the truth about self. Considering this dark side, we could adapt Eliot’s comment and say, “After such self-knowledge, what forgiveness?” But without self-knowledge, we don’t know what needs forgiving. Better first search out the truth, and then see about the forgiveness problem afterwards.

Finally, for all that metaphoric texts point us toward a partly concealed meaning, they can never do so with 100% accuracy. There will always be room for interpretation and doubt. Readings of a truth told “slant” will vary from reader to reader. Hence the text takes on the aspect of an oracle, vague, suggestive, not fully circumscribed by semantic boundaries. The poem becomes a Rorschach test, its weird, tortoise-shell symmetries productive of multiple responses, according to each observer. Engaging in this process we become like those who, as described by Horatio, listened to and tried to interpret Ophelia’s disjunctive glossolalia (Hamlet, IV, 5): “They aim at it,/And botch the words up fit to their own thought.” And this vague, cloudlike, metamorphic kind of textual encounter is for many readers the esthetic experience, one that outweighs all others, even the apprehension of memorable lines like, “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Solstice and Holly

We got about two feet of what St. Francis called “Brother Snow” last night, just in time to welcome the year's shortest day. When the world turns white everyone is reassured by any color remaining, which must explain why evergreens figure so prominently in homes and churches this time of year. My particular favorite is holly, partly because of the unusual form of the glossy leaves and partly because of the extra of its red berries. The plant was sacred to the Druids and associated with ceremonies for the winter solstice. The property of holly leaves to resist dying in cold weather puts it with other evergreens like ivy and the conifers that offer steadying remembrances in what French poets referred to as “la morte saison.”

Among Henry VIII’s poems is one about holly, focusing once again on its enduring green as a way to suggest the permanence of love in adversity.

Green groweth the holly, so doth the ivy
Though winter blasts blow never so high,
Green groweth the holly.

Clearly the pre-eminent color of the Renaissance in England was green, and we can think of other examples besides the lovely song “My Lady Greensleeves” where it appears. That tune was adapted for a well-known carol, almost as familiar as “The Holly and the Ivy,” a text that sounds as though it could have been written by Henry as well, considering its references to the running deer and the crown. But the origins of this carol are uncertain. In any case, here is a good rendition of it:


At some point after I met Holly Stevens (in New Haven, around 1977, I believe), it occurred to me to wonder why her poet father had given her that name. Its similarity to “holy” is obviously one answer, but I also remember seeing the holly tree planted (shortly after Holly's birth) outside the house on Asylum Avenue in Hartford, where the Stevens family had lived. So the tree itself mattered to the poet, at least enough to give his daughter this name. One of his best-known poems is “The Snow Man,” an austere meditation giving us the concept of the “mind of winter,” the only sort of consciousness equipped with enough fortitude to contemplate the nothingness of bare, unrelieved reality and not be crushed by it. Other operations of consciousness (and other poems) could bring into the wintry mind the green of the imagination (in Stevens, imagination is most often associated with that color) and if green, why not an evergreen? So there is a figurative aspect to the name he gave to his only child, a name epitomizing his own hopes as a human being and as a poet.

As for Holly herself, she was a forthright, likable person, reserved but steady, and a respected member of the literary community in New Haven during the years when I lived there. I recall going out to her house in Guilford, not far from Long Island Sound. On the walls of her sitting room hung several of the 20th-century French paintings her father had collected (bought sight unseen, by transatlantic order placed with an agent), including the still life he took as the point of departure for his poem “Angels Surrounded by Paysans.” The painters were not famous names; the only one I recognized (and only just) was the Breton (later, Paris-based) artist Pierre Tal-Coat. Nevertheless, to see images that had fired Stevens’s desire to write was impressive and even moving.

Holly had had a period of rebellion from her parents, marrying a man they didn’t like and meanwhile working in a wartime factory—her reasons quite defensible, I’d say. But after Stevens’s death, she became the curator of his literary legacy, editing posthumous collections of his works and sorting out his archive, which she placed with the Huntington-Hartford Museum in San Marino, California. The Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale might have seemed a more fitting repository to most observers, but Stevens was a Harvard man, and in those years the Beinecke couldn’t compete with other institutions interested in acquiring poets’ papers. Years ago I gave a reading at the Huntington Museum and had the chance to see a few of the Stevens holdings. It’s easy to laugh at bardolatry, whether the bard in question is Shakespeare or other poets of unusual stature. Still, there’s no getting around the strange sensation stirred by seeing a holograph copy of a poem or letter written by a poet you revere. I felt as much when I saw one of Keats’s letters at the Beinecke. “This living hand…” as he says in a memorable poem.

If readers can absorb a huge shift of literary scale then I will mention the fact that about two decades ago I deposited my own archive at the Beinecke, the transfer negotiated by Patricia Willis, who may be known to you as the Marianne Moore scholar and editor of Moore's works. I no longer had room to store the two dozen boxes accumulated and began to be afraid that things might be lost in the frequent moves that characterized my life, then and continue to do so. The papers will be safer there than any place I can think of. A safe haven in New Haven’s ivied university. That’s my view of a library: as a protective greenhouse where the leaves and folios don’t wither, even if they’re not holly or ivy or spruce or pine. An alternative to the Snow Man's "nothing that is.”

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Letter from Sam Hamill

In response to the appeal described in the previous blog entry, Sam Hamill has sent the following letter:

Dear Friends, Colleagues, CompaƱeros:

Gray and I have been very deeply moved by your generosity and expressions of solidarity.

It is welcome news that Gray has been pronounced cancer-free and that I am in good enough shape to postpone any further angioplasty or stent implants for at least a few months. In the spring, we will put our house on the market and hope that it sells and that we can find a smaller home in Anacortes, close by doctors, hospitals, and without the burden of a mortgage.

I am still altogether capable of giving readings and lectures, but my steadily declining hearing makes it all but impossible to teach conventional writing workshops. For public conversations I often need a “hearing-ear person.” I am presently planning a weekend in Chicago in April, and will return to Vietnam (with Joiner Center colleagues) in May, and to the Joiner Center (at UMass, Boston) in June. These odd gigs and paychecks are all we have to counter exploding medical and prescription expenses. We thought we could get by on our modest pension from Copper Canyon Press and Social Security, but ever-increasing medical costs combined with skyrocketing property taxes have been devastating.

Now that we have crossed this particularly rugged mountain, I hope to resuscitate a writing (and possibly translating and editing) life. I have all of you to thank for this possibility—otherwise, Gray and I would both be wrestling with checkbooks and credit plans and the saddles they place on our wilder (healthier) imaginations.

To realize that we have such friends in the world is at once humbling and exhilarating. Our gratitude is eternal.



Thursday, December 10, 2009

Thanks to All Contributors

I didn't post anything here about the appeal Marilyn Hacker and I worked on to raise some funds for Sam Hamill and Gray Foster after both had faced serious medical problems and expenses, but I'll mention it now. The onset of Sam's illness came a few months before he was eligible for Medicare, and Gray is still not eligible. Sam, who with Tree Swenson many years ago founded Copper Canyon Press, was publisher there until a few years ago. In addition to producing widely respected volumes of poetry, and translations from Chinese and Japanese, he has taught writing workshops intermittently, and we recall as well that he inaugurated the Poets Against the War initiative beginning in 2002, its website still up and running. Nowadays hearing impairment prevents him from continuing to teach, and clearly what he should be doing is his own work, health permitting.

Anyway, in mid-November Marilyn and I launched an appeal, and there has been a wonderful show of support for Sam and Gray. Two institutions came forward, there was a benefit reading in Cambridge, and 102 individual donors sent checks. Marilyn and I are grateful to them and can report that the result has made things much less precarious for Sam and Gray. Here is the list of donors.

The Poetry Foundation
The Fund for Poetry
Benefit reading organized by Dan Wuenschel in Cambridge, MA

Individual contributors

W. Yake and J. Barreca
Dan Wuenschel
Franz Wright
C.D. Wright
Eleanor Wilner
Doretta Wildes
Afaa Michael Weaver
Anna Warrock
Laurie Wagner-Buyer
Sophia Wadsworth
Tino Villanueva
Michelle Valladares
Valerie Trueblood
Ellen Tabios
Yerra Sugarman
Michael Spence
Larry Smith
Jordan Smith
Brenda Skinner
Grace Schulman
Willa Schneberg
Walter Schiff
Mark Schafer
Bruno Ruhland
Stanley Rubin
David Romtveldt
Bertha Rogers
Hilda Raz
Donna Pridmore
Robert Pinsky
Britt Peter
Lee A. Perron
Eunice and Vincent Panetta
Thomas O’Leary
Naomi Shihab Nye
Sheila Nickerson
Emily Tan Lin Neville and Bert Stern
Marilyn Nelson
James Moore
Ifeanyi Menkiti
Askold Melnyczuk
D.H. Melhem
Heather McHugh
Kathryn Maris
Stefi and Fred Marchant
Douglas Manson
Richard and Angela Mankiewicz
Elizabeth Macklin
Liza Lowitz
Adrian Louis
Jeanne Lohman
Frances Lindsay
Rachelle K. Lerner
David and Jan Lee
Dorianne Laux
Yehia Lababidi
Caroline Knox
Bill Knott
Kenneth Knabb
Judith Kitchen
Stephen Kessler
Nancy Kassell
Fady Joudah
Bonnie Jones
Donna Hollenberg
Bob Holman
Michael Hogan
Jane Hirschfield
James Henle
Robert Hass and Brenda Hillman
Joy Harjo
Ian Haight
Marilyn Hacker
Donald Gutierrez
David Groff
Samuel Green
Carol Gordon
Daniela Gioseffi
Celia Gilbert
Daniel Gerber
Harris Gardner
Geoffrey Gardner
Kim Garcia
John Adele Foley
John Fitzpatrick
Ruth Fainlight
Kevin Cutrer
Jerry Costanzo
Alfred Corn
Martha Collins
Yvette Christianse
Elizabeth Carter
Mary Frances Carney
Deborah Buchanan
Sarah Browning
Henry and Joan Braun
Linda Bierds
James Bertolino
Gerald and Denise Bergman
Margo Berdeshevsky
Judith Bebelaar
Jennifer Barber
David Barnhill
Bob Baldock

Because my administrative and typing skills aren't the best, there may be mistakes, and I would appreciate it if any were pointed out. In any case, it has been a lift in spirits to do this, and Marilyn and I thank you all.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Poetry, Aesthetic and Moral

Though I went again to New York this month and again engaged in pursuits that might be interesting to report here, to vary the texture of the blog I think I will focus instead on an article by D.H Tracy in the current (December 2009) Poetry. In his essay, titled "The Moral and Aesthetic, Recently," Tracy is taking up the issue of aesthetics and ethical content in poetry, his point of departure, poems by Frederick Seidel and Robert Hass, but also citing poems by Adam Kirsch, Anne Winters, and one of mine titled "Coventry."

The ethical aspect of poetry, its role in shaping character, was considered a given in the classical period, but Tracy believes it didn't resurface in the Western tradition until Shaftesbury. I think it comes earlier, explicitly in Jonson, who spoke of "the impossibility of a man's being a good poet without having first been a good man." Nor can the ethical aims of 17th century religious poets like Donne, Milton, Crashaw, Vaughan and Herbert be overlooked. But perhaps Tracy is referring to critics, not poets, when he makes this observation. (Incidentally, I've read articles by Tracy for several years now and find him one of the best of the younger critics, well read in the tradition, judicious, and in command of an elegant and elevated prose style.)

So then does poetry have an ethical dimension that is at one with its aesthetic nature? I see no reason why it can't. Begin by observing that "aesthetic" derives from Latin and Greek aisthesis, which simply means "sensation." An anesthetic is a chemical that deprives you of all sensation, especially pain. Yet an art that consists solely of pleasurable sensation is experienced as somehow lacking, at least, by most readers. "Oh, for a life of sensation rather than thoughts," Keats exclaimed in one of his letters. But he never attained to that, and we're glad he didn't. What he did attain was a poetry filled with sensations, but, in addition, thoughts a-plenty, so that he is immeasurably more than the figure Yeats imagined as a young man with his nose pressed against a sweetshop window.

By the late 19th century the battle lines were drawn on this question, with Arnold on one side claiming an ethical role for poetry, which he called "a criticism of life," and on the other, the Esthetic School, notably Pater, Wilde, and George Moore, who argued that art had no obligations to fulfill, no social function to perform, except to embody to perfection the canons of art itself. This view has been epitomized as "Ars gratia artis," a post-classical Latin tag coopted with enormous economic irony by MGM Pictures. Closely examined, though, the phrase "art for art's sake" has almost no meaning. It is quickly deconstructed, beginning with the notion that art is a conscious entity, separate from human subjects, a Platonic Idea that expects things to be done for its sake. Art is made for people, not for Art, whoever he might be; and people have many needs and expectations, including the desire that the import of experience be clarified so that human beings are given the insights and means to choose more vitally and effectively.

But a poetry that consists of a series of commandments hasn't generally won an audience of adherents. It is almost true that, given modern habits of self-assertion and antinomianism, bald injunctions demanding good behavior are likely to be met with anger and negative obedience. Hence the recommendation that we avoid "didactic" poetry, often phrased in reviews as a sneer at "preaching." We might also recall that a culture's sense of "good behavior" changes over time and that much of what might be praised as good behavior in 1859 would now be ridiculed or despised. I sense that even Marianne Moore doubted she'd got away with the line, "So he who strongly feels, behaves."

On the other hand, we believe Flannery O'Connor means it when she says that for her art is best when "the author's moral sense coincides with his aesthetic sense." What she doesn't tell us is how to manage this, I mean, apart from the implicit lesson of her fiction itself. One clue might be Willliams's "No ideas but in things," which can be revised for our context here as, "No moral insights detached from observation and sensation." Ethical inferences must be arrived at after considerable observation, the resulting emotions, and then reflection on them; if presented to us pre-cooked, we are likely not to accept ethical directives. All the more, considering that these are most likely going to cost us something, maybe our very lives. (Or the ethics we arrive at may, on the contrary, help us realize we've been wasting our lives in a pointless, destructive conformity to moral norms we don't actually believe in.) Anyway, we like to feel that the author didn't begin with a priori moralities, but arrived at them after undergoing a series of direct, concrete experiences, their significance, and significance for decision, emerging only gradually. "In dreams begin responsibilities," according to Rilke. If the poem is insufficiently perceived and dreamt, it might not lead us toward any sense of responsibility--indeed, may (if only temporarily) turn us against any sense of obligation at all.

As for the poem "Coventry," I'm not certain that it has any persuasive ethical power; I don't know how I would go about determining whether it did. But since Tracy's article appeared, I've had queries about it, especially among my Facebook friends, who are intrigued by the excerpt and interested to see the whole poem. Which, meanwhile, is found in a book (titled Autobiographies)now out of print. Given that I control the rights to it, I've decided to make the poem available--along with the (ethical) request that no one circulate it without asking permission. There is one more reason: the excerpt quoted by Tracy in has a couple of errors. These are minor, but of course for poets, "God is in the details," and we always insist that the text be printed as we wrote it. See below.


Even if not sent there, some would go
just to visit a byword for banishment, or
nod and smile at Tudor cottages
verifying their age among highways
athrottle with the local Jaguar—
nine centuries ago the route of (do
they know for certain?) Godiva’s midday ride
through narrow, cobbled streets. Still there, and nude,
a statue on a civic pedestal,
she serves as patron for the recent mall.

St. Michael’s ruin has no plans to recover
from the blitzkrieg fires of 1940,
visibly content with its roof of sky,
a brownstone sheepfold with fence of ogives,
tracery drained of blood-red or river-
blue glass. A few steps north, in autumn sun,
the adjunct modernist cathedral proves
by inscription that Britten’s sharp baton
rode lightly above the War Requiem
as, borrowing the tenor of Peter Pears,

Wilfred Owen back from the fields of France
grafted his words onto the older hymn
under the eyes of a merciful giant.
The clash of arms turned music of the spheres
to counteract a deadly expedient
how many thousands now cannot denounce.
Black swallows rise and circle as bells chime
the congregants inside at Evensong,
as if war’d been a roughhewn cornerstone
in the edifice of Common Market peace.

Et lux perpetua luceat eis:
Owen, Britten, Pears, all three moved out
of earshot to that other Coventry,
attendants of the blessed lady, prompted
perhaps by music’s blinding insights. Is it
because an icon forfeits all privacy
that every bystander at last is tempted,
eye at keyhole or shutter?—this means you,
Peeping Tom, and I, and you, oh,
on fire to see the last thing we will ever see.