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Because there is a profound difference between writing something to be read and writing something worth reading; and in that difference might beauty be found.

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Sunday, June 2, 2013

"All You Know" by Carol Ann Davis -- Poetry Daily, 5/31/2013

from The Southern Review (Spring 2013)
poem found here

First lines:
Over time you discover all you know
fits into a thimble. Over time


the genre of contemporary poetry and anaphora

— reformatted with editing 8/27/14

It is my position that contemporary poetry is a genre -- one divisible into a collection of subgenres, yes; but, I believe the majority of it can be brought under one umbrella. And when I say genre, I do not mean contemporary poetry is categorizable. I mean it is convention driven and convention defined:[FN] in plain face language, the success of a poem depends on the performance of accepted conventions, and individual creativity plays second fiddle (if that), both in writing and in publishing. In truth, the conventions themselves stand for the quality of the work, and the performance of the conventions are often sufficient to the success of the work, even as other aspects of the poem fail.

[FN] After reading a journal edition dedicated to myth and poetry -- this years ago -- and found most of the contents to be quite non-mythic in nature (and subject, as concerns the non-fiction parts), I have wanted to do a survey of, say, a year's or a season's worth of journal/on-line poetry publications to demonstrate this. Even a mere month's worth might be sufficient.

Now, to many scholars of literature this is not exactly an original statement. In fact, it is an obviousness: pop lit -- and just because contemporary poetry is poetry does not exclude it from being pop lit -- is always genre driven. What I find fascinating about the genre of contemporary poetry is that only part of it lies in form (and that those formal aspects are centered in free verse). What I find interesting is much of the conventions of contemporary poetry lies in the wording and phrasing, and in the styles. (Now, scholars would say that this also is nothing different than from previous periods in time, so perhaps it is just this particular version of conventionality that I find intriguing, as it is the version of conventionality being performed right now.)

It seems like there is a cluster of poems these last couple of days that might work to exploring this idea, not in the broad scale of charting genres, but in the small scale of watching how conventions can govern a poem.

So, we begin, with "All You Know," and anaphora.

At its simplest, anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the begeinning of a line. (Technically, anaphora refers to the beginning of lines; though, the idea -- and the effects created thereby -- can be expanded: you can have 'anaphoric pharagraphs, for example.) Now, in that "All You Know" is free verse, it is not unsurprising that the anaphoric aspect -- "over time" -- is not at the start of lines, but at the start of ideas, of semantic units. Let me set the poem out broken up into its ideas, bold facing the "over time"s. I use indenting to show lists (that is, the first indented line is the second item in the list).

Over time
you discover all you know fits into a thimble.

Over time
you begin to see the folly of the vow,
     the well-made bed,
you hear your mother all these years later saying
     not for nothing in your ear.
     Where you began you end, silly girl, it isn't a maze but a circle,

over time
you see what everyone first warned about,
     see they were right,
     the both/neither of rumor,
     the spoken for,
     the compromised.

Over time
it's as clear as a dragonfly in spring,
     as pollen from a ghost maple,
     birth orders,
     the four corners of most but not all rooms.
     As the nose on your face,
your mother again, reminding you to get out of bed
     — good morning, glory!
—phrases that knit together as they spin apart.

You remember, but
over time
you unknit,
     spend hours woven by unseen hands,
you can't believe in the cloud,
     in worship
     or school-yard play.

Over time
what you learn fits on the point of a needle,
something requiring your protection,
recalling the blue warmth out of the body into common air.
You can't be sure all of it won't go,
     everything you thought was true,
          the sweat that gathered some evenings on your father's brow,
          what the world knew of him,
          what went unnoticed or covered itself over on purpose—
how can you tell the difference?

A manner of repose in all things,
he taught you that,
leaning back on the legs of a kitchen chair,
     catching the cinder-block wall with the hard part of his skull,
     then easing onto the rounded cradle of the spine.
And this image in which he still moves—isn't it good it stays,
     isn't it a miracle it holds all you know?

(As should be expected, the indenting speaks my reading of the poem. For example, in the third grouping, I list all five elements in a list of "you see"s.)

So, the genre of contemporary poetry: One of the idioms of that genre is the use of anaphoric phrasing, which I think might be considered a subset of the more general use of listing (in the way this poem lists). This convention of the list demands a list, and offers the structure of a list; but what does not demand is unity (and unity of purpose) within the list. If you perform a list with enough creativity and variation, you succeed at the convention. Ideational control is irrelevant to the convention. Because of that centering of the making of this kind of poetry on convention rather than the organic and ideational unity of the poem, however, you have poem after poem that performs the list and which are easily read by the genre-readers (and subsequently praised thereby) as a good poem for performing the list. But, when you really look at the poems, they have failings all about, most especially being that the list, in the end, doesn't make much sense. Indeed, there will often be fuond no purpose to the list other than to (1) perform the convention and (2) have the performance of the convention be accepted by readers: readers who, because they are only looking for the performance of conventions, will see little else.

So let's look at the issues of this poem. There are grammar issues which I point out in the bulletted points below. I wholly believe those grammar issues are primarily created by the poet letting the conventionality guide the writing rather than the actual words on the page. But, I would rather first look at semantics and ideation.

Let's look, first, at some of sublists within the sections of the poem. Now, the list in the third section ("over time you see what everyone first warned about") I rather like, in how the five elements fairly well fit together within the idea of a "they" who in their wisdom give warnings about things, warnings which the warned will later ignore to negative result ("the compromised"). Also, the list creates a narrowing with "the spoken for": giving the idea of a very specific unattended warning.

The second section also has a kind of unity, though it is not immediately apparent. These are the four elements in the list in that section:

the folly of the vow,
the well-made bed,
not for nothing
Where you began you end, silly girl, it isn't a maze but a circle,

They describe a marriage. But, there is a wobbliness in it, in that there are in fact two flows of ideation. The first

the folly of the vow,
the well-made bed,
not for nothing

does not for me cohere ideationally (is it folly or is it not for nothing?); whereas the second

the folly of the vow,
the well-made bed,
Where you began you end, silly girl, it isn't a maze but a circle,

does (ignoring the grammar issues). The two ideas of "not for nothing" and that of the circle actually clash: not for nothing is signifying something of value; but the only way I see to read the circle lines is toward the removal of value. That is, it is speaking that there is no mythic maze of spiritual development, there is only coming back to where you began. In line with the next section, a negative idea, an idea that the marriage can only ever be folly because of the initial error.

Now, there is the possibility that the "not for nothing" is actually preluding and pointing at the circle idea. Except, the "not for nothing" is italicized, and the circle idea is not, which is giving the reader direct and indesputible assertion that they are, in fact, separate ideas, and not conjoined.

So then the fourth section, and here we begin to see stronger demonstration of the convention of the list. You have another list, things that are used to give body to the phrase "as clear as X." But for three things. (Remember, because of the "over time" and the nature of the listing convention here being used, each section is read as a whole.) First, the least of the concerns, why does "clear" necessitate that much energy? Second, while they are all valid conclusions to the phrase "as clear as X," none of them really add anything to the poem on their own, except to extend the moment this section. And, third, what does any of it have to do with "reminding you to get out of bed"?

What I am hoping you see is that the performance of the listing convention is overriding the need for coherence in the ideation of the poem. The poem is getting out of control at this point: something made very evident by the sudden insertion of "phrases that knit together as they spin apart" -- which sounds really nice, but really has no use or purpose within the poem, except as its own, little, independent idea.[FN]

[FN] Now, I see you can argue that the spinning apart is going toward the opening idea of "all you know fits into a thimble." Except what then about the knitting together? There is not but the one energy of making small, of tearing apart. There is also the energy of knitting together, of making larger, which directly contradicts the thimble.

That phrase is, actually, the performance of another, very frequently seen convention of contemporary pop-poetry: the use of pseudo-pithy lines, dropped into the poem as though to give philosophical content, but which in truth have no reverberation with the rest of the poem (that is, they never build out beyond their initial pithiness), and, indeed, rarely have much to offer beyond trite idiom to begin with.

Though, it is poetry writing out of pop-poetic convention. As such, ideation never had importance here, or the depth of meaning of spinning and knitting within the poem as a whole. What is important is only the performance of the convention. "Good poems have clever, little philosophical lines in them," the convention goes. And, it is true: good, conventional, pop-poetry has clever, little lines dropped in them at strategic moments (especially at the very end). But what I say is sophisticated poetry does not. First, if a sophisticated poem is going to drop a line, that line will function within the whole of the poem: energies will flow through the line, not out of it. Second, they would probably never be dropped to begin with (except ironically), because to do so is the action of being trite: it is using a quippy phrase to substitute for the work of developing an idea.

Indeed, in the next section, you have another phrase: "spend hours woven by unseen hands." Never mind the terrible syntax of changing the whole idea of the sentence at the comma (from "over time you unknit" to "over time you spend hours") -- What unseen hands? Why are they unseen? Doesn't "unseen hands" clash with the closing idea of the very present father? What does "unseen hands" have to do with "you can't believe in the cloud"?

The poem is quickly getting out of control. So it re-asserts it's initial contention, but with a bonus:

Over time what you learn fits on the point
of a needle, something requiring
your protection, recalling the blue warmth
out of the body into common air.

Notice how the protection idea is something wholly new to the poem. But more to the point, what does "the blue warmth / out of the body into the common air" at all have to do with the miniscule quantity of "what you learn"? Why is the verb there "recalling"? And I say that pointing out yet another syntactic error, the shift in the subject of the sentence from "what you learn [fits]" to "you [recalling]" -- a major goof that creates much of the problems with "recalling." I can guess that the idea refers back to something like the wedding bed implied in the second section, but holy cow is that grabbing at straws. The poem is becoming by now far too abstract to maintain any true development, or for a reader to assert any strongly unified reading.

Abstract is the key word: for conventions work, frequently, in the abstract: it is the convention of the listing that is important, not the content of the listing. And so, by the time we get to the last section, the father section, what do we have for the poem? Two assertions that "all you know" is miniscule; the idea of "you begin to see" coupled with the establishing of the idea of a foolish marriage; then the idea of being warned about folly and ignoring it; then the idea of clarity . . . . . pause for a second and restate it briefly: the idea of clearly seeing that the subject person's marriage was folly, and will end in folly. I nice idea around which to build a poem, except there really is nothing beyond that basic statement, except for lists.

Now, I recognize this conclusion, this reading may be incorrect, but it is very much valid from what very little is offered. Because, in the end, what of substance isoffered? "folly of the vow," "well made-bed," "warned," and "clear." (And that's not much.) Most everything else is repetition of those ideas or pithy-but-trite drops that don't develop -- ergo the conventionality of the convention being used: performance is more important than actual content. (Indeed, the whole presence of the mother and her words are empty attempts at emotional profundity.)

Which leads us to the father, who is introduced with a list:

everything you thought was true, the sweat
that gathered some evenings
on your father's brow, what the world
knew of him, what went unnoticed
or covered itself over on purpose—

Introduced, and slightly developed, or given the initial energies of development, but only to end up with "but how can you tell the difference?" which immediately begins to undermine that little bit of development, declaring it as irrelevant because of it being untrustworthy.So, the poem thinks, 'it's getting wobbly; so quickly, now, let's drop yet another piece of pith': "A manner of repose in all things." (How many does that make, now? Somewhere between five and eight, depending on how and what you count?) Yet, with the phrase comes a change in the nature of the poem: this bitty phrase is followed with concrete detail of the father leaning his chair against the wall, giving the phrase ideational strength: which is difficult to understand since I'm not sure how "a manner of repose in all things" works with "what you learn fits into a thimble" . . . . .

Unless, that is what has been learned. Which is ok, except, why then all those energies toward ideas like "folly of the vow" and the circle if they are not what is remembered? And it's not like "a manner of repose in all things" gives any development to the things that precede it. In fact, it barely touches on it at all. In fact, it can even be said to contradict much of it -- though it takes some parsing to show it since everything thus far is so terribly abstract.

But wait, there's yet more! One more pithy phrase! -- "isn't it a miracle it holds all you know." Not only must I ask where the hell did miracle come from, but then I must point out that the phrase functions within the poem to turn the entire attention of the poem away from all the folly and circles and clarity above to the visual image of the father, to that one specific moment, and the pithy but trite words said in that moment. (And note how previously I was reading clarity to be pointing at clarity of the folly of the vow, but now clarity is being made to point only at the father.)

So we really have little more in this poem than floundering about through abstraction, a degree of abstraction that flops from one falsely pointed moment to the next, only to conclude with a redirecting of the poem upon "the miracle" of the visual memory! Which has no ideational development with anything that preceded it!

BUT! ---- the poem does perform the convention of the list! So, even though, when you at all think about it, this poem goes nowhere fast, most readers, because it is performing the convention of the list, will read this as a successful poem, precisely and wholly because it is performing accepted and expected conventions. What the conventions accomplished outside their own performance, outside of marking the poem as something acceptable with the culture of contemporary poetry, as something expected by the culture of contemporary pop poetry, as something sought by the culture of pop poetry, is irrelevant.

Which is good, because outside of performing pop conventions, this poem doesn't accomplish much.


Since I'm speaking of anaphora, I want to put up a moment from the entry in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, somethig that very much caught my eye:

Anaphora has been a favored device in the poetry of many cultures, particularly in the form where the repeated words or phrases begin lines: this structure enhances the sense of the line even as it foregrounds the larger enumerative sequence. Anaphora may thus be seen as one form of parallelism which uses the repetitions to bring the metrical and syntactic frames into alignment. ("Anapest," 73)

Notice that middle phrase: "this structure enhances the sense of the line even as it foregrounds the larger enumerative sequence."

What I find interesting about poems like this one, that have an anaphoric aspect, is how they so very frequently fail to understand that aspect of anaphora and the anaphoric: it emphasizes structure. It is a structural trope; and yet, that aspect is utterly cast aside by poets wallowing in this kind of pop, low-brow free verse: I call it "low brow" because it is as though the attitude to the poem is "well, I'm doing free verse, so I have only to pay minimum attention to lines." But, to me, it goes much deeper than that: it is -- in pop poetry -- an established attitude of not only little attention within the framework of the poem, but little attention within the development of poetic sophsitication, as though what is really being said is "well, I write free verse, so I can wholly ignore the idea of the poetic line, both in my poetry and in my studying of poetry."

And, as I say often, their poetry then speaks that lack of attention, study, and practice. Here, there is only a little attention paid to the line -- perhaps one might say "sufficient" attention. But that attention is wholly marred and discounted by the anaphoric repetitions beginning the thoughts in the poem. It reads to me as though the poet found a new tool and decided to use it, without ever bothering to learn how to use it well: they never really bothered to learn how to swing a hammer, so there are bear paws all over the dry-wall.

In fact, the inattention to the structure of the poem makes it easier to hide the defficiencies in the poem, because the inattention makes it more difficult to read the poem. Which is why I like restructuring such poems in these posts. (One of the advantages of an electronic medium: there is no printing costs.)

But perhaps I should simplify my point here and merely ask: why not structure the poem so that the anaphoric aspect works to its greatest effect, what ever that effect -- in the context of this individual poem -- may have been? Why not strive for something beyond "sufficient"? To say it another way: Why settle for this average-at-best result, when you had in the poem itself the prompting to explore something much more?


Perhaps also a comment or two on grammar just to point them out. I won't go into detail other than to say they are problematic not simply in the grammar is non-standard, but in that the chosen grammar also gets in the way of the reading. I'll leave it to you to explore both the problems and the solutions.

There is commas after "girl" and "circle," here:

for nothing in your ear. Where you began
you end, silly girl, it isn't a maze
but a circle, over time you see

There is the period after "rooms," the comma after "face," and the dash before "phrases" in these lines (terrible grammar control):

birth orders, the four corners of most
but not all rooms. As the nose on your face,
your mother again, reminding you
to get out of bed—good morning,
glory!—phrases that knit together

The commas creating the run-on mess in these lines (though it may actually be more syntax and semantics issues, and the grammar problems are consequent):

You remember,
but over time you unknit, spend hours
woven by unseen hands, you can't believe
in the cloud, in worship or school-yard play.

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