Statement of Philosophy

A site for exploration and discussion about verse, poetics, the aesthetic, and creative writing in general.

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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Monday, September 23, 2013

"How to Make Love in the Garden of Good and Evil" by Lo Kwa Mei-en -- Verse Daily, 9/18/2013

from Ninth Letter (Spring/Summer 2013)
poem found here
 

first lines:
Your nimbus is pouring. Your halo shows off from under my dress,
         bird of light. Unwit cage. In a beginning there was a fruit & a noose

 

asking why? and not just what?

-- footnote on source added 9/23/2013
-- editing and some small rewriting done 1/15/2014

I came upon the "Hand in Hand" little "writer's advice" curiosity from Wofford College during one of my tumblr respites. Most of the hands I find to be little more than bumper sticker writer-theology, though a couple have strength beyond their brevity. One that pops up more than once -- something also that is frequently heard said by peddlers of writing advice -- is the "Read Everything" exhortation.

Yet, it can be argued that there is no quicker sign of a shallow writer than that they "read everything."

When Wallace Stevens was asked what he thought about Ezra Pound (and, if I remember it correctly, the same here is for Ezra Pound when asked about Wallace Stevens -- I believe I have the ordering right), he answered that he did not read Ezra Pound's works. And when asked why, he answered that he did not have the time. Which was not an underhanded slur, but a statement of truth: to successfully read either of their works takes time and effort. And both were unwilling to read shallowly works that merited reading deeply. (Keep in mind, by the time of this asking, both writers had a large body of work.) (I am trying to track down the source of that story.[FN])

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I found it. It is from page 1 of Marjorie Perloff's The Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition. She tells it -- with much more detail -- from the side of Pound being asked to speak about Stevens by William Carlos Williams.
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Read, yes. Read a lot, yes. But read "everything"? No. Developing writing sophistication demands reading a lot. And not just poetry, but non-fiction as well (after all, small minds make for small thoughts, which makes for very banal writing). But mere "reading" is not enough. Buying every poetry book mentioned in critical review and devouring them one after the other is meaningless -- and pointless -- to developing sophistication. One has to read them deeply, with effort and attention. And, most importantly, with questions.

"Is this a successful poem (line, phrase, stanza, grammar, syntax, metaphor, trope)?"

That is the fundamental question, but only the first, preperatory question. The next is far more valuable:

WHY?

The learning comes not in the judgment, but in the why. It is always so, in every endeavor: never in the judgment, which can change from week to week; always in the exploration there behind. "Why?" is the most important question to ask in the development of sophistication. And to give it short shrift is to skip the very point of the reading. It is pointless to read Baker's Meter in English (to randomly pick something of merit) without coming away with some kind of understanding of the ideas within. Not just dictionary understanding, but intuitive understanding, which is actually the far more important. (Not only in creative endeavors, but also in scientific.) It is only when the intuitive is involved that a person can truly read deeply, for it is when the intuitive is involved that the self is engaging the text (and the micro-cosmos of the text).

When you read a poem, yes, you should ask "Is this a good poem?" But also ask then the "Why?" (or, "Why not?") And explore it, deeply. Indeed, sometimes, in exploring why a poem is unsuccessful to you, you may actually discover that it is successful, only you weren't reading it carefully enough. Equally true -- and arguable far more importantly -- you may discover that what you thought was a successful poem is in fact not.

Which is a moment that often marks the development of sophistication. A reader making the effort will develop over time. The written text is always that what it is. It should be that as a reader and writer develops text that were once really interesting will become far less interesting, and texts that were once held as really good should become not at all so. And, to complete the circle, texts that were once inaccessible will begin to resonate; and, even, it may happen that texts that were thought not very good will be revealed as quite the opposite. (Speaking from experience, here.)

To give some examples, I would never lay upon a class of relative newcomers to poetry something like Hollander's The Head of the Bed, which is a very sophisticated poem, on many axes. It is, simply, beyond the comprehension of many readers. In fact, I would not at all be surprised if to many people it looks like a wholly unsuccessful poem. From the other side, I would argue that quite a large number of poetry written under the justifications and in the styles of LANGUAGE poetry might look fascinating to some, but tends to fall apart the more sophisticated the readership.

The process of developing sophistication centers in the effort to read beyond what is your comfort zone. (You would be surprised how much the language of the fitness world works also in the world of writing.) To climb to a new level of sophistication you have to push yourself beyond your current level of sophistication -- which is the whole of point of the work of the creating of the self, no?

But, to climb to new levels of sophistication means also to reject works of lesser sophistication. Which leads us back to the opening idea: reading everything accomplishes nothing. Because constantly reading at or below your sophistication will never spur your own growth.

 

Another important discovery that comes through the "why?" is the exploration of taste. Sometimes a literary work will not work for you simply because it is not your cup of tea. I am mostly burned out on tales of young people coming into adulthood. Give me one of those and you've got an uphill battle from the start. Same with most things having to do with the Holocaust. Put a clown in your painting and it may be that that is all I will see, and pass by it quite quickly. But then there is the more important other side: I will forgive a lot of flaws in a film if a tank rolls through town; or if the film is an entry into the vampire-as-irrupting-unconscious body of films. And neither of those speak anything as to the sophistication or success of the film: they are wholly statements of taste.

You have to be careful with issues of taste, on both sides, but especially the latter. Be honest when you speak your likes to your compatriots, that you aren't defending a text whose merits lie mostly in that it lights your personal wick. That kind of honesty goes very far in helping people to understand the rest of what you are saying.

 

The poem I'm looking at here, "How to Make Love in the Garden of Good and Evil," is a fascinating one for me, filled with many such questions. It attempts something difficult, which I always like, because both the writer and the reader can learn from attempts at things difficult. It plays with themes that appeal to me (so I have to be careful of issues of taste). It is trying to develop ideas in a intellectually and intuitively challenging way. All of which make we want to like the poem.

The first time I read it, though, my response to it was negative. I thought it too out of control. But it was a problem off attention on my part. The third time I read it -- and I am reading it pretty slowly by then -- it started to come alive in ways I was missing previously. There was more connection between the phrasing than I first saw. I did not realize just now much I had to keep the sexual theme to the forefront so as to make sense of the metaphors.

But with the deeper reading -- with the deeper exploration -- came more questions. And a writer is always reading as a writer, and should be. Because a sophisticated reader is writing for writers. Just as a sophisticated painter is always painting for other painters. For it is only other sophisticated painters and writers -- people who are deeply exploring the medium -- that are going to see the effort, the play, and the creativity. (My favorite scenes from an otherwise imperfect movie, Modigliani, is where the artists are gathered together. They are in competition with each other, yes. But they also know that it is only with each other with which they can be in competition. They want their opponents to see their work, because their opponents can most appreciate their work.)

Let me ask questions, then, of "How to Make Love in the Garden." These are exploratory. Do not take them as "well, if he's asking the question, then he's pointing out a problem" because that will not always be the case. But they are good questions to ask.

  • The lines are obviously crafted to visual length. Are they crafted as lines, though? If you at all read this blog you know I rail against arbitrary lines. So, I must ask myself, if I don't like the lines, is it merely a clash with my personal taste? Or is there something more related to medium going on? There is some evidence that the lines were crafted to length, not by their wording: like that it is "I dream weapons" and not "I dream that weapons" (in the penultimate stanza).
  • It took to my third reading to affirm that the "You" of the first lines is not a person but the speaker's sex. Is that a problem?
  • There is meant to be a kind of blurring of ideation within this poem. But look at the sentence
    One man. I mean anima / gone: eureka, my skin is half amphibious wick, total flaming sword / & bared as the day he was born.
    Does the grammar and syntax start to fall apart in the move toward that blurring? It starts "man" then goes to "my skin" then goes back to "he." (Does this makes sense if you look at it by condensing the line to the core phrase: "my skin is bared as the day he was born"? Remember, though, sometimes condensing creates false issues, especially in a context that is intentionally wobbly.)
  • There is an interesting event with the word "anima" in those lines. In Jungian psychology (and in myth-studies and elsewhere) the anima is the feminine part of the psyche, the counterpart to the masculine animus. Is that what is meant here? Anima can also simply mean "spirit": is that what is meant here? A problem I have is to what does the anima-phrase refer? Is the man "anima gone"? But there's a period after "One man," and a colon after "anima gone," which points the phrase "anima gone" forward to the discussion about the speaker's body. So then is the speaker's body "anima gone"? The speaker herself? The speaker's sex?
  • Notice "ill logic" (line 10): the normal spelling is "illogic." There is some play going on. What is the change in meaning created with the play? If there is a play, does it pull the meaning too much away from "illogic"? (Is "ill logic" faulty logic, but "illogic" rather more "non-logical"?)
  • Is the "You" in stanza 4 still the same "you" in stanza 1?
  • Is the "You" in either or both stanza same as the "Your" in stanza 6?
  • I said it before, for me, the use of "&" is gimmick. Rarely is it not. (Pretty much only when there is typographical games going on throughout the text, and it is being used to generate ideation.) Here it is for me distracting of the poem, especially in that poem is supposed to have a quick flow to it. Ampersands create visual stops: not only in that the ampersand is a very visual symbol in a flow of letters (so the mind stops to look for a reason for there to be a symbol rather than a word), but in that it turns phrases such as "earth & sky" into album names or the names of a store that sells hiking gear. And I don't see any way to justify starting a sentence with an ampersand. In this kind of poem, it just doesn't work.
  • Does the work reek (line 6) carry too much negative connotation for its use in that phrase (against the generally positive idea of the cellar)?
  • Does "dactyl" (stanza 4) work?
  • Do the momentary slides into more casual lingo -- as in "I unholy babe of sweated light" (penultimate stanza) -- work? How about "total flaming sword" (line 4)? (I will break my rules here just to say that "Adam was his own apple & I unholy total babe of sweated light" is my favorite moment in the poem. Though, as you would guess, I hate that ampersand.)
  • There is the move in the poem from a start in the physical event to going into the mind and experience of the woman. Does the poem stay close enough to the physical as it progresses? Which is to ask, does it get lost in the experiential? If so, where? How?

Just some questions. There are many prompted by this poem: all worth the while to ponder. Yes, there are places I think this poem loses control, but there is a lot I like about this poem. And both the positives and the negatives offer much to explore. But it is never enough to simply read and decide "I like it" or "I didn't like it": you have to ask why?.

In fact, I would argue, if you are not reading a poem with that critical, exploratory, deeply engaging modality of the "why," you are failing to read the text. And, as goes this poem, even if in the end you decide against it, reading it shallowly is doing it a disservice.

 

Here is an interesting question: the poet here shot for a difficult poem. Let's slide by the obvious question of "Did she pull it off?" Is there something more interesting to be found in "Did she pull it off enough?" Or even, one step beyond that one, "Is it sufficient in a difficult poem to 'pull it off enough?'"

I am, for example, currently reading Browning's The Ring and the Book, which is a massive poem written in loose blank verse. Occasionally you come upon lines that are, well, very difficult to read rhythmically. (My reading occasionally stumbles to a complete stop for them.) But the book is a series of monologues, and the variations in rhythm offer much to the speakers's voices. Also, and to my question, it is a huge work -- perfection is not exactly possible without many, many years of labor. (Browning began writing it in 1864, and it was published over the winter of 1868-69.) But is "perfection" even necessary for such a work? After all, a work that size is not meant to be read with such attention, unless the reader themselves plan to spend years in the endeavor.

There is that idea as regards poetry, which I have mentioned here before, found in the phrase "perfection in miniature": the smaller the poem, the more attention can be -- and should be -- paid thereto by the author -- and the reader (and thus the higher the demand for perfection. There is another way to say this, coming from the other side: why should I care about a poem that only takes eighteen seconds to fully appreciate?) Is the complexity attempted in today's poem difficult enough to permit a bit of wobbliness? (Sestinas are notoriously difficult -- but we do not seem to wantonly elevate a merely adequate attempt to the level of success.) Or, does the decision to try for something difficult in itself also carry the demand for that greater degree of attention?

One thing I do see in many 'longer' contemporary poems (which, today, is not necessarily all that long) is that the attention paid to the poem in its writing bleeds off as the poem moves along. By the end of the poem wording, ideation, flow, control have all started to fall apart, and the poem seems to rush to the end before it loses control of itself entirely. (Something to be aware of, as it is naturally occuring and has to be fought off.) Also, I frequently see issues where grammar and syntax fall apart because of the want for stylistic play. Obviously, grammar and syntax -- like rhythm and meter -- is not meant to be followed rigorously (unless the poet so choses). But there is a place where, as a reader, I get tired of the poem constantly asking of me "don't pay so much attention to the mis-statements and errors." Usually, by that point, I put the poem down. Trying something difficult does not excuse the poet from the task of control of grammar and syntax: it is part of language, part of the medium, and thus part of the poetic project. And worth it: for when a reader like me reads a poem masterly wrought, especially a difficult poem, they enjoy it all the more. The effort does not fall by the wayside.

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