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Monday, May 27, 2013

"Ecstasy" by Jane Miller -- Poetry Daily, 5/27/2013

from Boston Review (May/June 2013)
poem found here

First lines:
As the ancients detail it
ecstasy passes over us


the small poem (and a bit about the unexpectedly hackneyed)

reformatted with editing — 8/27/14

It wasn't but a few posts ago I made passing comment on poems that exist most naturally in a context, and which are taken out of that context when published in a mag or on a site (this one). That thought has been dancing in my head since, and I have been occasionally pulling poems off the shelf in casual exploration. This poem permits a little more thought to that end. (Interestingly, it also pairs up well with my last post, on abstraction.)

Now, it should be noted up front that that this poem, "Ecstasy," was published without accompaniment in Boston Review, I do not know if the poem has a natural context. So part of what follows is hypothetical. So play along as necessary.

I should also point out that "context" is not the primary subject about which I want to talk: really, it is the small poem.

So, that said, take a look at this poem. Ideationally, you can hopefully see there is really very little going on.

  • lines 1-5 introduce the idea of this "ancient" concept of ecstasy, and gives it a three part description: (1) it is a "mist of particles"; (2) it "lives bare"; (3) it "dies unburied"
  • line 6 is a statement that anchors the "ancients" reference in the mind of the speaker
  • line 7 is a second statement, parallelling that in line 6
  • lines 8-9 is a physical idea, a statement apparently in explication of the lines preceeding

The difficulty here lies in how the parts interreact.

  • Physically, the three elements in lines 1-5 are a description. Ecstasy is a mist. The mist lives bare, in the sense that a mist is unconcealed (and, even, transparent). Finally, The mist dies unburied, in that it just falls to the ground and is no longer mist. But, really, that's rain, not mist: mist just seems rather to dissipate into the air. (You don't see a mist running across a field drop down to the ground — it just kind of goes away.) So, yes, unburied, but does it then really die? There's a bit of an ideational difficulty, here.

    The lines also work with the idea of ecstasy. Ecstasy (equated to a mist) lives bare: in that it is played out for everyone to see. Ecstasy dies unburied . . . . well, there's that same ideational problem. Does ecstasy "die"? (I don't really see where Miller is trying to go.)

  • And then line 6 brings in, overtly, the idea of rain. Which is not, really, mist. So that ideational confusion in 1-7 can now no longer be avoided. (And if "the ancients" said "mist," I'm pretty sure they meant mist, not rain. So this change is in no small way a rejection of what philosophical authority was intended in the reference to "the ancients.")

  • And line 7 is very unclear as to how it is to be used. Is it a restating of "it is raining" in line 6? Is it a description of the scene of lines 8-9? Is it meant to be taken as a comment on the mist/rain of ecstasy? Or, is it stating a synonym for ecstasy? Or, all of the above?

  • And then you have lines 8-9: a visually oriented statement, and, a visually orienting statement. But is it at all clear how it is supposed to work with the rest of the poem? To take one example, how does "a couple of hawks in a tree / and not the tree entire" work with "ecstasy[/mist . . .] dies unburied"?

    Even, how does the clarification of "it's only the hawks, not the tree and the hawks as a whole" have anything to do with anything that precedes it?

Now, I have a guess: the scene of the hawks is a visual moment, but one not meant to be taken as demonstration. Rather, it is simply an arbitrary moment, at which the speaker looks. The speaker sees it as beautiful; the speaker's experience of the beauty is ecstatic.

And that's pretty much it. As I said, content-wise, there is very little in this poem, And what is there does not build upon itself into a greater whole.

But — and here's the hypothetical: What if this poem was part of a book (or sequence) of such small poems, where the ideas of mist, and rain, and ecstasy, and hawks and trees appear and reappear and over the sequence develop into a vibrant ideational field? Let's assume that this poem is in fact part of such a book of poems. What questions then arise?

First, can you then say of this poem, "this is a successful poem"? For me, if the greater context of the poem were that important to engaging the poem, I would answer no. It is not a successful poem . . . . on its own. But, if the sequence as a whole is successful, I would say it is a part of a successful, greater poem, and the "sequence" of poems should, then, be better understood as the poem per se, as a single poem made up of many parts.

Second, considering how the elements of this poem really fail to coalesce, could it be said to even be a successful part of that greater poem? To which I would answer yes, but only if the greater poem gives not only energy to the elements, but creates the field of play in which the elements of this one part can coalesce. That is, the greater poem gives the ideational and structural guidance to the reader that shows how this one part is in itself a structural whole. If, in the greater poem, this one part still can not find its own structural and ideational unity, then no, it is not a successful part.[FN]

[FN] Now, it must be recognized that that unity being sought could be functional rather than ideational. That is, for example, the purpose of this part might be simply to abut the "hawk" idea and the "ecstasy" idea, but the real relationship of the ideas is not then to link them in other poems, but to play them against each other. That's not the best description — but hopefully you get my drift.

The poet that has been in my head since I first brought up this idea a week ago, the poet that gives example and food for thought to these questions, is Paul Celan. Celan was a Romanian born poet (1920-1970), who has become one of the foremost poets in German of the latter half of the 20th century. He is far better known in Europe than he is in the US, and one does not always find his works on your local shelves. But he is very much worth chasing down. (Though, do not be deceived by the nature of the poetry: he is not an easily accessible writer. His poetry demands effort on the part of the reader.)[FN]

[FN] When I was first picking up his books, I did a little footwork on comparing editions. I prefer the Michael Hamburger bilingual volume, The Poems of Paul Celan, for a general collection. (That is not meant to be a statement on the translations: Celan's poetry is of that type where it is good to have numerous translations, to see how they succeed or fail as poems of their own merit. I like this volume as a collection).

Now, if you have or pick up a volume of Celan, you will see that the majority of his poems are rather short. And they can also be rather ideationally sparse. However, there are are for me two characteristics of his poetry that raise Celan above the crowd:

  1. His poems, even if short and sparse (one might argue a better word is terse), nonetheless are unified wholes. They are each successful on their own part, to however diminuitive an effect.
  2. His poems also speak to each other stylistically and ideationally. That is not to say they are dependent upon each other. Rather, I am saying that Celan is best read by reading his collections, not the individual poems. Entering into one of his books — say, Breathturn — is entering into an extended field of play, an extended engagement with a certain style, a certain play of words, and a certain field of ideation. I do not enjoy Celan's poetry one at a time nearly as much as I enjoy reading them in large numbers. Indeed, if I were an anthologist, I would publish his poetry in a large enough number to create a sustained field of effect.[FN]
[FN] Let me say again to be clear: the poems speak to each other. They are not dependent upon each other. They work not unlike instruments in a string quartet, where each has its independent existence within the piece.

Since the early work in the 20th century, the small poem is not firmly entrenched in the poetic tradition. But I would argue that that tradition has been greatly undermined by a laxity on the part of poets: if you look at the small poems of the greats — Celan, or H.D., or William Carlos Williams — there may be a diminuitiveness of ideation, a delicacy of play (as in H.D.), a focusing on the ideational moment (as in Williams[FN]) — but there is still great attention paid to the poem itself, to its control, to its play of words, to its sound, etc., etc. Small in size is not considered permission for looseness: in fact, I would say it is the opposite. Again I offer the phrase "perfection in miniature": not as a description, but as a commandment. The smaller your work, the more attention must be paid, the more the elements of the poem must strive for perfect coordination. Failure results in pretty emptiness, and shallow experience. Depth is created by interaction, after all; not by mere statement.

[FN] To avoid any midreading I have to add that while I think Williams was integral in exploring the structure and potential success of small poetry, I do not believe that the majority of his work is terribly interesting poetry. Reading his collections is for me not unlike reading Celan — an extended ideational field. The difference is that Williams's books are extended explorations of what can be done structurally and ideationally with small poems. They are for me like scientific field journals. As such, most of his poetry, being exploratory, is not, on its own, for me, terribly successful, or, often, outside the context of the book, terribly interesting.


A little note on the hidden hackneyed:

The opening line of this poem ("As the ancients detail it"), even for its little cleverness of using "detail," is a hackneyed phrase. That is, a fall-back upon the quotidian. It is half-assed line that serves to enter an idea the easiest way possible. How this line reads to me is as intellectual and creative laziness, and as such it makes me immediately decrease the amount of "good faith," as it were, in whatever it is that the ancients believed or said. Not faith in the sense of veracity, but faith in the sense of depth. That is, I now fully expect what follows the line to be as shallow as the introductory phrase.

Possibly the direct opposite example is the lines from "Dover Beach":

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; [. . .]

It is not known to what Arnold was there referring, if anything. Does it matter that it could be wholly fictional? No. Why? Because of the specificity of Sophocles's name, yes. Also, because the specificity of Sophocles as an individual brings direct parallel to the individual speaker of the poem, looking out over the Channel. But also because that specificity brings into the poem ideational energies, for me, most specifically, of Greek Tragedy (and the whole of that context). Now, what if it were written this way:

The ancients long ago
Heard it on the Ægaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; [. . .]

Kind of rather emptied those lines right out, didn't it.

So, a writing hint: avoid ever saying something like "the ancients said" (or, even, "the ancient Greeks said"). To be honest, such phrasing most reminds me of that oft seen phrase in student compositions: "Since the beginning of history . . ." (which, invariably (if unintentionally) makes for something very funny).

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