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Old 02-27-2004, 06:32 AM
Clive Watkins Clive Watkins is offline
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What follows is the first part of the concluding piece in this exercise, something I promised a while ago. My object is not so much to say something new – indeed, I am quite sure I have nothing new to say - but rather to bring together and to highlight a few points touched on in my four commentaries.

There are many different ways of approaching a poem. As someone who writes verse, my own initial inclination has always been to regard a poem as a kind of verbal machine, to consider how the words of the poem seem to work together to create the effect they do. Only rarely do I have the advantage – or the distraction – of knowing what the poet thought he or she intended; so I have to rely on what the words on the page appear to be saying. Of course, as has often been remarked, in reading a poem we read ourselves. Still, the act of reading must surely focus as sharply as possible on the words and on the patterns they make. This approach seems particularly fitting for a workshop such as Eratosphere. How often, after all, do we read the comment that if the poet had to explain what the poem “meant”, then the poem was not working – or was working in a different way from what was intended?

Ezra Pound (citing Ford Maddox Ford) famously remarked that verse must be at least as well written as prose if it is to be poetry. Pound is not a prose-stylist I would recommend, but the point he makes is a good one. In the next few paragraphs, I glance first at three aspects of verse as prose – the importance of sentence-construction, rhetorical patterns and what provisionally I call “plotting”. I then turn to issues concerning the coherence of image and argument and finally to the difficult question of connotation and unwitting allusion. (I shall leave to a later piece a few remarks about lineation.)

It is worth adding that everything I shall have to say below applies quite as much to metrical verse as to non-metrical.



Shekhar’s attractive poem, “Moths”, provided an excellent example of the power of a well-managed sentence to create the impression of closure, of moving through a series of positions to an epiphany, to some kind of QED. This is a phenomenon which occurs independently of the validity of the poetic or other argument being offered, as politicians, journalists and lawyers are well aware. Setting aside the extreme fringes of literary production in which the patterns of conventional language are abandoned in favour of other principles, most verse, and certainly almost everything presented at Eratosphere, is written in sentences or in recognisable sentence-fragments. For such writing, the effects of diction, of imagery and of lineation (both in metrical and non-metrical verse) occur, as they must, within the controlling matrix of the sentence. I would argue with Frost that the expressive power of an utterance springs quite as much from the dynamic structures of the sentence as from these other factors. The skilful handling of such structures – through expectations set up, fulfilments delayed, or accomplished in surprising ways, and through a host of contingent constructions – can create a wide range of variation and accommodate a wide range of poetic “voices”. I often think that the power of this fundamental resource is somewhat overlooked, perhaps because the shape itself of our utterance comes to us as if in a natural and unforced manner and without the alienating or foregrounding effects of other more obviously literary devices, such as writing in lines, or alliteration, or rhyme, or elaborated conceits. (A very simple, if mechanical, tip is to avoid starting two adjacent sentences with the same word or the same construction unless there is a clear reason to do so.)

Alongside or within this, there is a further level of organisation which might be called rhetorical patterning. It includes all kinds of repetition, inversion, parallelism and so forth both within and across sentences. Al Ferber’s poem, “The Butcher’s Wife”, gave us a clear instance of this and of its implications for meaning. The parallelism of structure in the two stanzas (“While her husband made home deliveries / she made love …”, “While he cut the heads off chickens…she danced naked…”) invites interpretation. What, we are inclined to ask, are the parallels of motivation which this striking parallelism of expression seems to indicate? While it would be possible to assert that it is simply a surface grace and means nothing, this account feels thin and unsatisfactory, an insult to the apparent artfulness of the rhetorical structure. A subtler example occurs in Auden’s brilliant poem, “Musée des Beaux Arts”. The argument of the poem is that suffering occurs around us all the time and passes largely without notice. As the fourth line has it, suffering takes place “While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along”. The three items in this list progress from greater significance to less. Eating is necessary to sustain life; opening a window is not a precondition of breathing but might make it more pleasant; walking dully along is explicitly neutral: without further context it has no obvious importance. In the structuring of the three predicates, however, this declining pattern is reversed. The participle in the first predicate, “eating”, is a single word of two syllables; the equivalent phrase in the second, “opening a window”, is of three words and has six syllables; the third, “just walking dully along”, is of four words and has seven syllables. Furthermore, the number of metrical beats increases in steps, from one, to two, to three. (I read this as accentual verse.) As the items decrease in significance, the space allotted to them in the sentence and the line increases, a pattern which it can be argued enacts the theme of the poem. The example of Auden’s poem is instructive because it illustrates how details of verbal organisation at what might be called the micro-level may underpin meaning at the macro-level.

These two processes are not unrelated to a third, the organising of material into a plot or an implied plot. Human beings are pattern-seeking animals: given the hint of a story, our imaginations will attempt to flesh it out. Shekhar’s poem and Al Ferber’s (“The Butcher’s Wife”) illustrate this well, particularly Al Ferber’s, which offers glimpses into the lives of the butcher and his wife and implies the presence of the community in which they live. Those who commented on this poem, both when it first appeared and since, have, like me, found it impossible to resist inventing narratives, all more or less alike, to incorporate and explain the actions of the protagonists.

This is the novelist’s sense of the term “plot”, but in relation to verse, and particularly lyric verse, I like to regard the concept of a plot as instance of something broader – what I might call the procedure or perhaps the argument of the poem. It is interesting that poems which appear on the surface to be quite different may share essentially the same procedure, the same manner of progressing. It is difficult within the scope of a piece such as this to offer fully analysed examples which would be widely accessible, but – to draw on the theatre for a moment – one has only to consider the similarities of plot in some of Shakespeare’s plays to see how variations in handling and material can construct around the same plot-elements quite different effects. Or consider how Michael Drayton’s famous sonnet beginning “Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part” and John Donne’s “At the round earth’s imagined corners…”, for all their differences, are built to a very similar pattern. (By contrast, Hopkins’s “Thou art indeed just, Lord…”, though in some respects resembling Donne’s, does not share its overall poetic structure. Compare, for instance, how the two poems conclude.) Moving forward by three and a half centuries to Wallace Stevens, it is instructive to read Canto 2 of “The Auroras of Autumn” against Canto 2 of the third section of “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”, where one is formally a disguised reversal of the other. Stevens is particularly interesting because the way he shapes his thought in his mature verse can often be traced back to passages in his youthful letters and journals. Moving forward again, it is striking how similar in their general architecture are Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died” and Elizabeth Bishop’s great poem, “The Moose”, two otherwise very different poems by very different poets. I have no idea whether either O’Hara or Bishop knew each other’s poems; it seems unlikely. According to her letters, “The Moose” was already under way in 1956 but was not completed till 1972, when it was a Harvard Phi Beta Kappa poem, but she went on tinkering with it even after this appearance. O’Hara’s poem seems to have been written in one burst shortly after Billy Holiday’s death in July, 1959. Both are in fact narrative sub-types of the list poem, each ending with its epiphanic moment, in O’Hara’s case a memory of the singer as he had last seen her, in Bishop’s case an encounter, in the poem’s present tense, with the moose. Both use the title to prefigure this moment. For example, in Bishop’s poem we must read through twenty-one and a half stanzas before the moose referred to in the title makes its appearance. Six stanzas later the poem is over. The fact that these two poems by different authors have a common procedure suggests that the procedure is embedded, as it were, in the language, in the way we think and feel. Understanding the existence of such patterns, both in other poets and in our own habitual ways of working, is of practical advantage since it can help us organise the poetic material which presents itself to us when we start to write.

These, then, are valuable pieces of poetic machinery. All – sentence-construction, rhetorical patterning and “plotting” - have the power to convince, to create the sense that something meaningful is being said. When, as in Shekhar’s poem, several are managed in phase, a particularly strong sense can be established that something has been brought to a conclusion. This is to be applauded, though perhaps we should be slightly wary, too; for the current which is set by these processes can sweep us forward, both as readers of our own verse and as readers of the verse of others, and cause us to miss other features, as it might be flaws, which it would be better to acknowledge and, in our own work, to remedy.

I turn now to the issue of the coherence of image and argument. There were a number of places in the poems I was offered – for instance, in Shekhar’s use of the myth of Icarus, in Al’s image of the sausage that was a Roman candle, in R A Lorens’s “piece of art in canvas / stretched across a curving frame” (italics added) – where, unfortunately, there was a slippage between the image and its referent, a lack of clear focus on the image and its relationship to the context. For me, the “type case” is Tennyson’s “The Eagle”, which Graves analysed so devastatingly in a piece I quoted at length in my comment on Al Ferber’s poem. This kind of thing is always a danger. An image or expression occurs to us; it seems to fit; we use it and move on, without stopping to consider more closely what implications it has for the shape of the whole poem. It is in this way that clichés invade our verse: we take the ready-made word or phrase “as is” and do nothing to enliven it. In short poems, the fitness of the image and the coherence of image and argument are particularly important if only because in their brief compass short poems leave these things more exposed and open to scrutiny. Some might remark that it is not necessary for every image to be locked in to an overarching structure, and I would not disagree; but where in its relationship to its context an image is clearly out of kilter or contradictory, it seems reasonable to wonder if that mismatch is expressive of something important or, as in the case of Tennyson’s “The Eagle”, is merely the result of inattention by the poet. As against Tennyson, Fred Longworth affords a positive illustration of what is possible. His image of the “milky” scar is quietly integrated into – or perhaps I should say springs from – the overall matrix of his moving poem.

As I know from bitter experience, a stage often arrives where, precisely because you have read them so many times, the words of your evolving poem begin to seem natural and right. You have grown habituated to them, and your mental censor has gone to sleep. It can be a real effort to challenge what has come to seem inevitable and to consider that it might be necessary to revise the thing. It is especially challenging when the small flaw, the tiny crack in the verbal architecture, turns out to be the sign of some more fundamental problem, perhaps in the structure of the poem’s argument or its imagined situation, so that more radical revision is called for or – worse - so that a completely different poem demands to be written. But dealing with these things is all part of the craft of verse.

Finally, I want to address the complex questions of connotation and allusion. As everyone knows, words come to us already worn by time and use. This is true even of apparently newly minted technical or scientific terms. (There is also a sense in which the constructions within which words come to us are themselves handed down by the language. This is an aspect of the topic with which I began this piece.) To change the metaphor, there is an archaeology of language, which includes potentially all its current uses and all its past uses. It encompasses the full register of expression - the most ephemeral contemporary slang, the jargon of trades still extant and of those long ended, all the various literary dialects, and so on, and so on. Clearly no one could know all these stratified senses, but it does seem to me that a poet, of all people, should at the very least have an awareness that this kind of stratification exists and should as far as possible allow for it in his or her writing. In his response to my comments on his poem, Al Ferber pleasantly remarks, “I got the impression that you've read a lot of books.” It is true that I have; it is also true, I am sure, of many of the poets who post here. But the issue is not whether one is, in some terms, “well read” (there are, of course, many ways of being "well read") but what use one has made of that reading. One of the uses is to widen and deepen one’s sense of the possibilities of language, of its rich stratification and its contemporary spread, not so much in order to evoke those layers at will but rather in the hope that they will trigger further and perhaps initially unforeseen creative associations. In this connexion, Richard Wakefield posted a thoughtful dictum here at Eratosphere (1st March, 2002): “I count a poem a success when it follows an unexpected fault-line through the heap of the language, and a transcendent success when that fault-line through the heap of language turns out to parallel a fault-line through the world that we're always hoping language can represent.”

The other side of this process concerns the management of the connotations of words. To adopt yet another metaphor, words resonate with one another. The context created by one word may make some less obvious sense of a neighbouring word come to the for. This is how Fred’s “milky” does more than tell us something about the colour of the scar on the woman’s stomach. It also why – distractingly – “pipes and organs” in R A Lorens’s poem calls to mind musical instruments. The word “pipes” alone would not trigger the musical association; nor by itself would “organs”: it is the collocation of the two words which results in this effect. Shakespeare is full of this kind of thing - the way, for instance, in various plays language and dramatic action give a special vibrancy to the words “nature” and “natural” and “unnatural”. To draw once again upon Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”, this is the process by which the word “dreadful” in the phrase “dreadful martyrdom” is made to sustain both its flattened modern meaning as a mere intensifier while at the same time the context restores its original and more powerful sense. By a kind of reciprocal process, “martyrdom”, though retaining its strong sense of bearing witness to some belief or faith despite great suffering, acquires something of its weak colloquial flavour as in “she was a martyr to toothache”. And these lexical shifts in themselves embody the poem’s theme.

Shekhar’s “Moths” offered another illustration of the issue. His phrase “being unable to bear too much beauty” called into my mind that famous phrase from Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” “human kind Cannot bear very much reality” (and which he first used in 1935 in his play [I[Murder in the Cathedral[/i]). I say it is famous. I don’t know whether Shekhar had come across it before, but that is beside the point. The phrase is famous enough to return some six hundred hits on a Google search, not all from literary contexts, and to have bred, as well, its own misquotation (as “mankind cannot bear” etc.). Another kind of echo which occurs is one in which the mere cadence of a phrase may call to mind for some readers the cadence from another famous poem. In his fascinating book The Figure of Echo: A Mode of Allusion in Milton and After (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), John Hollander cites a notable case, the similarity between the refrain of William Empson’s villanelle, “Missing Dates” – “The waste remains, the waste remains and kills” – and a famous line from Tennyson’s “Tithonus” “The woods decay, the woods decay and fall” (page 95 et seq.). To those who do not know these poems, this may seem far-fetched, but consider how a reader might react if they came across the following lines (which I have invented for the purpose of illustration) in prominent places in a poem they were reading: “Into the sunlight, solemnly dancing”, “Where angry and dark oceans fall”, “As he said to his wife / who is always talking”, “Sing, sing before the coming of the lord”. Whether as readers we would recall, respectively, Whitman, Hart Crane, Robert Creeley and Dylan Thomas and what this recollection would signify in the context of the poem before us are interesting questions.

No doubt there is a responsibility on the reader to exclude irrelevant associations, but what is irrelevant and what is not is largely determined by the context which the poet’s words – in all their internal patternings and their relationships with the wider field of language – have created. This kind of thing does not make life easy for poets, of course, but anyone who supposed that writing effective verse was a simple matter either has an unusual talent or is living under an illusion.

In the above paragraphs I have concentrated on five technical aspects of writing; there are several other technical matters I might have addressed, as well, but these (with lineation, to which I shall return) were the key issues promoted by the poems I was offered. I have deliberately not written about such matters as “imaginativeness” or about “saying something new” or about “finding one’s voice”. My own view is that issues of this kind, though no doubt fascinating, are a distraction. What makes us think that our “voice” might be of interest or have anything worthwhile to contribute to the sum of human happiness? In this connexion, I like what Dylan Thomas wrote about Surrealism, something I quoted recently on another thread: “One of the arts of the poet is to make comprehensible and articulate what might emerge from subconscious sources; one of the great main uses of the intellect is to select, from the amorphous mass of subconscious images, those that will best further his imaginative purpose, which is to write the best poem he can” (in J. Scully (Ed.), Modern Poets on Modern Poetry, London: Collins, 1966, pp. 195 et seq.). As I remarked on that thread, this seems to me a vindication of the art - the craft – of the poet, of the poet as a “maker” of verbal objects. It is an insight which many other poets have endorsed down the years. What is more, in focusing on craft, on careful “making”, it often happens that we surprise ourselves into writing something it had not occurred to us to write, some angle or mode of expression we might not have come up with “for ourselves”, as it were. And this, the promotion of careful making (which also means careful reading), is, it seems to me, one of the most important functions of Eratosphere.

I sometimes like to think of a successful poem, particularly a short poem, as being like a hand holding an object. In a well-made poem, all the bones and muscles in the hand sit well with each other and work smoothly together. The hand reaches out in a fluent and expressive way to pick up and offer to our attention some interesting object. No two hands are alike; no two objects are alike.

I shall end with a quotation, a well-known one, from T. S. Eliot. In recent years Eliot has become a controversial figure, though that does not in my view detract from the force and relevance of these lines. In Section V of “East Coker” he writes of the struggle “to use words”: “every attempt,” he says,

Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.

Clive Watkins

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Old 02-27-2004, 09:50 AM
Tim Murphy Tim Murphy is offline
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I was a lousy student, and I would make a worse teacher. I come to poetry as a rhapsode or scop, a memorizer and reciter of verse. I don't think critically about poetry, either my own or anybody else's. So it is a pleasure to host a great teacher like Clive Watkins. Clive teaches me things about my verse I could never figure out on my own. That's why I asked him to bring his formidable acuity to bear on some of our non-met offerings. I am "with child" as they say to see his thoughts on lineation, because I think his rivals that of any poet writing today. And I thank him for this great service to the Sphere.
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Old 02-27-2004, 05:41 PM
alvaro.alarcon alvaro.alarcon is offline
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Fascinating subject Clive. In every poem I look for an answering of the questions put forth by the reasoning faculties, and then for a series of sensual images that prove that that poem has demonstrated that the answers to those questions can be proven by empirical evidence.

E.g. The Divine Comedy, as well Robert Frost's poems, not to mention others, put forth a world described in the poem that clearly follows a certain logic. Dante's Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven followed what are called the theological sciences and Frost, who I quote readily because I have read him but will not feign an intimacy which our beloved formal poets here have, puts for a morality that is quite embodies the "Common Sense" of New England, that Common Sense philosophy that drove patriots to oust the English from the Colonies and establish republican government.

Dante is enduring and Frost will prove enduring because they appeal to Reason, which is possibly the noblest human virtue, according to myself and Aristotle, Aquinas, Avicenna, et al. Then the world of ideas in Dante and Frost is put into flesh and blood, in the case of Dante with the descriptions of the deeds of suffering sinners and with Frost the simple choices one has to make in life, whether to trod down the beaten path or the unbeaten one.

It would be curious to find out what the Formalists here think of Lord Byron.

I admit your post Clive, while intellectually sound, suffers a bit from tedium. Since I pride myself on my prose, I could add some pointers. Hey, I have to show confidence in some form of writing if I want to keep my dignity as a Spherean.

Alvaro
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Old 02-28-2004, 12:06 PM
Clive Watkins Clive Watkins is offline
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Dear Alvaro

Thanks for your comment.

Sorry my prose doesn’t give you what you need. Perhaps you had better PM me those pointers!

Regards

Clive
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Old 02-28-2004, 02:39 PM
Curtis Gale Weeks Curtis Gale Weeks is offline
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<dir>How often, after all, do we read the comment that if the poet had to explain what the poem “meant”, then the poem was not working – or was working in a different way from what was intended?

….

The skilful handling of such structures – through expectations set up, fulfilments delayed, or accomplished in surprising ways, and through a host of contingent constructions – can create a wide range of variation and accommodate a wide range of poetic “voices”. I often think that the power of this fundamental resource is somewhat overlooked, perhaps because the shape itself of our utterance comes to us as if in a natural and unforced manner and without the alienating or foregrounding effects of other more obviously literary devices, such as writing in lines, or alliteration, or rhyme, or elaborated conceits.
[my bolding]</dir>

Dear Clive,

I’m glad you’ve raised these issues in such a well-construed (and, constructive) manner. Leaving aside questions concerning established poets/poems—which themselves tend to go far, already, because they haven’t “overlooked” these issues—I’d like to comment on your points as they relate to my personal observations of the online workshop environments I’ve frequented in the past. (And, particularly: how drafts posted for critique often show a marked lack of attention to the Five Points you’ve outlined in your essay.) I.e., rather than taking a look at successes, I’d focus on failures, or to put it more mildly: on poems-in-progress.

I can almost trace my dissatisfaction with drafts—the vast majority of drafts which I consider “unfinished”—to the issues you have raised. Perhaps this is due to my own peculiar interests in these areas; I tend to overlook the “more obviously literary devices” on my first few readings of a poem unless some jarring instance of those devices actually causes me to “lose track” as I’m experiencing the “Five Issues” you’ve raised. So I might even consider poems which have a high degree of metrical or sonic sophistication to be failures, or poems which show a fidelity to “the line” in their choices of lineation strategies, etc. Many such failures might in general be called “good” poems; or any feeling of deficiency is more difficult to trace to root causes; or in fact the peculiar handling of those “obviously literary devices” might set certain poems above others currently posted in the online workshop environment. For me, not all “failures” are equally bad, although my particular feeling of dissatisfaction, itself, might be entirely the same for every “failure.” I want to read “finished” poems; therefore any deficiency creates a feeling of failure.

Deficiencies in posted work (and, often, in published work by contemporaries) seem to fall into two broad categories, relative to the issues you have raised, but I feel a little trepidation in defining those categories since I am dealing with my own peculiar feelings concerning “deficient” work—i.e., as a subjective reader. Shall I define them in terms of how the author apparently approached his or her process of “making,” or shall I define them in terms of “the end-product”? When I, as a reader, experience a failure (concerning at least one of the Five Issues), I almost always have the concurrent impression that the author either 1) seems to have been extraordinarily unaware of the Issue, as an issue—oversight (maybe under-sight), or 2) attempted to work within the constraints of an issue but chose what is, from my point of view at least, a poor strategy—mishandling. The distinguishing factor, in this type of definition of the categories, is whether the author appears to have intended an effect, via the issue, and such a distinction might rely on what appears to be the, er, preponderance? of the poem, or where the author appears to be hanging his hat: to what degree does that issue, relative to others, influence the overall shape of the poem? Unfortunately, I as a reader must rely on a personal, perhaps sometimes private, sense of the overarching thrust of the poem to distinguish the presence or the lack of authorial intent. (Not quite so with rhyme schemes, etc.)

This distinction between oversight and mishandling is important for me in particular because I generally approach a poem expecting it to be “finished” and must rationalize, for myself, whether when I stumble within a poem I am stumbling because the author fouled or because I am striking out: Have I seen all that the poem offers, or am I possibly missing a thread or simply experiencing a purely aesthetic dislike? I am more likely to have a neutral opinion of a poem if I believe that the author intentionally shaped it as it is, rather than call it an outright failure, although I might also judge such a poem “deficient.”

Another way of addressing the distinction between the above two categories is by way of example. The most obvious cases of deficiency are probably those cases in which the author appears to have been unaware of one of the Five Issues, and this category seems to be the one most implied by your essay: for instance, an adjective or set of modifiers doesn’t fit in the overall scheme because it draws references outside the scope of the poem, or the sentence structure of a poem follows a predictable-because-uniform manner. Quite counter to the overarching thrust of a poem, and an assumed intention of the poet, some feature will seem either out-of-place or diversionary or even tedious. Such an oversight might, unbeknownst to the author, produce in the reader an altogether different poem if not merely confusion or a feeling of the poem’s being disjointed.

* * *

You seem to not have addressed so closely (if at all?) the second category, that of “mishandling.” When I contemplate my dissatisfaction with certain poems, this is the area that most perturbs me: many poems show an obvious intention by the author to introduce areas which 1) must be “taken at face value,” or 2) are intended to imply far more than is present by being disjointed/chaotic, or 3) rely quite heavily on factors outside the poem such as preexistent knowledge of the contexts or an already formed aesthetic/modal strategy for interpretation. These three strategies often overlap.

An example of allusive or descriptive intent, involving the chaotic or disjointed, would be the introduction of what I’ll call “trigger words” to add a feeling of “depth” or “emotional tension” to the poem when juxtaposed with the ordinary—such that the ordinary is intended to be “heightened.” For instance, the sad boy doesn’t cry tears: acidic streams of urine etch his face. Such a usage is intentional; but I often turn away from purely sensationalistic ploys. If we buy into the usage because we’ve come to expect “heightened language”—that is our mode of interpretation; we expect the extraordinary as being, itself in whatever form, necessary—then the usage wouldn’t seem to be a deficiency in the poem but the contrary. And of course, over-the-top strategies work wonders for some poems while destroying others: arguing against, or critiquing negatively, such intentional ploys becomes much more difficult when a poem has "chaos" or "surface complexity, vacuous depths" as an intended motif or when the ploy as a ploy is accepted out of hand even if the poem as a whole doesn’t incorporate OTT strategies.

An opposite but related intentional ploy involves the idea of cliché similarly to the way you introduced erring-via-cliché and is related to #3 above. A pastoral poem just has to have all the usual nouns or descriptions: the moss and oaks and streams and farmhouse... I.e., when an author decides to write about the countryside or the inner city, or the cathedral, the usual descriptions of the environment are included because “That’s the way it is done.” In this case, rather than having disjointed allusions/descriptions, the allusions/descriptions all run uniformly down the list of expected allusions/descriptions, even if the exact manner of their introduction into the poem changes ever-so-slightly from poem to poem. Some manner of scene-setting seems required, and one can’t expect to read of jumbo jets taking off and landing in clearings of woods (unless one requires the extraordinary, cf. above), but the opposite trek of spending 5 stanzas telling me, the reader, that this poem involves a wood often seems like gross overkill, extra baggage. Again, when such a ploy is expected, the deficiency might seem like a successful working.

To sum up those last two paragraphs: Some balance of the ordinary and extraordinary seems required for most poems, even if no one set of requirements is required for the balance.

* * *

I realize I’ve skimmed. (I hadn’t intended to write so much, already.) So I’ll pause at this point and try if I can catch my breath.
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Old 03-01-2004, 04:45 AM
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Tim Love Tim Love is offline
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"...oversight ... mishandling ..." - Well, it's painful to see someone try to use (say) rhyme and fail hopelessly - better not to try at all. One can sometimes guess the intentions of the writer, and see that - in terms of those intentions - they've failed. But unless one's part of a workshop I'm unsure how useful this method of measuring success is.

I don't think my reactions fall so often into one of these 2 categories - I usually offer myself (because of my narrowness of reading) an alien aesthetics alternative. Someone parachuting in from one culture to another might think that Nash and Muldoon mishandle - they're obviously aware of rhyme, but make a mess of it. Similarly plot and coherence are issues that writers play with.

People sometimes say that each piece of work requires a new aesthetic. I think it's an impracticable viewpoint if taken to excess, but I like the idea of the reader having loads of criteria whose relative ratios are adjustable according to the work under discussion (indeed, I suspect most readers work this way, guided by the genre, etc). At times one is asked to stretch these ratios further than one is used to. At this stage one might question the author's aesthetics while accepting that the writer achieved their intentions. Or one might - experimentally - suspend one's aesthetic disbelief
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Old 03-01-2004, 04:07 PM
Curtis Gale Weeks Curtis Gale Weeks is offline
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Tim,

I tend to allow more room for the idea of alien aesthetics when I'm reading established poets, while keeping in mind a particular social milieu within which (or against which) they wrote—if I can determine that milieu, their place within the scheme of things. I may not like what they've done, or may only sometimes like it. I did not intend my categorization of my reactions to include the more commonly recognized features such as rhyme, however, but only in response to the areas Clive has addressed. One case of rhetorical patterning handled purposely by an established poet can be appreciated or panned by different readers, on an aesthetic basis at least: Walt Whitman's lists, which some adore and others find to be extremely tedious. I do think that "the Masters" can be so called because they've mastered techniques, even if we don't particularly enjoy their style of mastering. Any discussion of Masters should include a thorough examination of what, exactly, each has mastered, especially also because some have apparently mastered only a few techniques while others seem to be masters of many. (It would be interesting to forego discussion of mastery of meter and rhyme when comparing Formalist masters in order to come to a better understanding of where they differ in other areas—or at least to separate discussions of differences in handling meter & rhyme from discussions of differences in handling the five areas Clive has addressed.)

I think we can agree that most of us, who participate in these online workshops, are not masters of many things with regards to poetry. I am not very amenable to the extreme subjectivist theory that differences in reaction can always be dismissed on the basis of alien aesthetics, simply because such a dismissal obliterates any potential negative criticism on any other basis. In the first place, unless I'm familiar with a participant's work, I have little reason to believe that she must have intended certain effects vis-a-vis Clive's Five Issues; and in the second, even an awareness of a participant's general work does not eliminate the potential for a given poem to be read differently by members of a general readership who do know her oeuvre. Which is not to say that I am always 100% confident that my own analysis of a poem's inner workings is unassailable; here's an example of my dilemma:

For years now I've railed against the peculiar use of the words "bone" and "ash" in poems posted at various workshop sites. When those words refer to the actual substances, bones and ashes, I have less trouble; but often they're used by poets figuratively to signify mortality, transience, or decay, quite outside any attempt at an extended metaphor which would utilize the actual substances. The Romantic poets had roses and "the stars;" many contemporary poets have "bone" and "ash." (I think that the latter are also romantics, but current romantic notions often circle the ideas of relativity and subjectivism.) So a poet might introduce the line, My thoughts were bone; my love was ash into a poem which does not otherwise deal in concretes related to bones, ashes, or which does not have a larger scheme which utilizes such figurative speech. In responding to the poem, I might point out that the line seems like an abrupt, overly self-conscious attempt at sentimentality, but another critic might say to the poet, "Yeah, I know exactly what you mean!" I call those two words, in such a use, "trigger words" which are meant to signify far more than is actually present or suggested elsewhere in a poem. I tend to dislike such uses, but I can't help acknowledging that a certain social milieu—whether the online workshop alone or a larger potential readership which enjoys sentimentalism and/or sensationalism—might enjoy the overture. Such uses are often cited as good examples of using the concrete in poems, but from my perspective they are abstractions since the actual substances toward which they point are nowhere present or intended to be relevant.

While I must acknowledge the possibility that odd uses or odd juxtapositions of elements might be taken for granted by some readers who come to expect that sort of thing, I often feel the need to point out that other readers might scratch their heads or that the poem, as a whole, seems, from my perspective, to point elsewhere and that those juxtapositions detract from the overall experience, are diversionary.
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Old 03-02-2004, 02:17 AM
Julie Steiner's Avatar
Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
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Clive's point about "coherence of image and argument" struck a chord with me, since on more than one occasion (one of them last week!) I've unsuccessfully attempted to Shanghai just part of an allusion to serve my purposes. Sadly, in each case I've ended up with the full allusion, and all its unwanted baggage, along for the ride.

Last year, I tried to use only two elements of the Oedipus story: first, his commendable desire to take steps to nullify the prophecy that he'd abominate his home with murder and incest; and second, the fact that his "preemptive strike" (of leaving his adoptive home Corinth) ironically brought about the very situation he'd been avoiding (since only then did he came into contact with his birth family in Thebes). I wanted to establish a parallel between that irony and this one: namely, that some Americans' commendable aim of "making the world safe for democracy" was justifying the erosion of precious civil liberties at home and earning the condemnation of the world community--thus making the world much unsafer for democracy. Sadly, when I referred to Oedipus, there was no way to untangle my intended statement from the suggestion of multigenerational unseemliness in the Bush family, and that CERTAINLY wasn't the statement I was trying to make.

In the most recent instance, I tried to make my own use of the same classical war quotation that Harold Bloom used as the title of a well-known essay prefacing a well-known poetry anthology. My employment of a quotation so strongly linked to Bloom might have worked, had my argument had anything to do with Bloom's; but it didn't, and so members of the poetry-reading public familiar with the essay would assume from my poem that I had either misunderstood or deliberately mischaracterized Bloom's position.

I guess I'm learning...slowly...that many allusions and images are too powerful to be used so narrowly and selectively. Even if you only mention an eyelash of it, people can't help conjuring the rest of the elephant.

Julie Stoner



[This message has been edited by Julie Stoner (edited March 02, 2004).]
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Old 03-02-2004, 05:11 AM
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Tim Love Tim Love is offline
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Julie: Clive's point about "coherence of image and argument" struck a chord with me, since on more than one occasion (one of them last week!) I've unsuccessfully attempted to Shanghai just part of an allusion to serve my purposes. Sadly, in each case I've ended up with the full allusion, and all its unwanted baggage, along for the ride. - Allusion first - sometimes a poet will use a word/symbol that has a strong meaning that they don't want the reader to dwell on, and a weak meaning that they do. Even though they support the weaker meaning in the rest of the poem, the other meaning interferes. Were there an alternative word that didn't have this problem, maybe the poet would use it. But readers have choices too - if the stronger meaning doesn't fit, they can (maybe should) forget about it.
And as you point out, audiences vary in what they consider strong and weak meanings. Comedians and politicians fall foul of this as well as poets. Allusions are a risky business, and you can't please everyone all the time - I don't even think one should try to. See Allusions, FWIW.
As for coherence - well again it depends on the market and the risks you're prepared to take. My stuff usually has a centre (or 2) because I usually play a percentage game. Problems and poetics of the nonaristotelian novel goes into this a bit, looking into the history of judging the quality of a text by assessing its unity.
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Old 03-02-2004, 05:55 AM
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Tim Love Tim Love is offline
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Curtis, I think your bone/ash dilemma will run and run - abstract or symbolic? You can make your case to the poet, but they're not going to blush at their blunder. I guess just as some metaphors are deader than others, so are some symbols.

For years now I've railed against ... yes, I have subjects like that too - usually they were initially pointed out to me in my stuff and I've taken revenge. I used to write things like "the pale dawn of longing" until someone pointed
out that not only the content (I could cope with that) but also the structure had been done to death. That particular structure's been on my hit-list ever since.

Maybe the fact that most of the poetry here is foreign to an Englander like me affects my "alien aesthetics" stance.
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