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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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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"Slight Pause" by Joy Katz -- Verse Daily, 1/5/2014

from All You Do Is Perceive (Four Way Books)
poem found here

first lines:
We looked at each other, then at the plate of tomatoes,
and you said, do we eat them?


appreciation; alternatively, forcing the poem for an easy audience


It has been a while, so we might as well first take the moment to state once again how Verse Daily's people are demonstrably idiots. Let us count the ways: "Fallen over in, her front hall"; "us green. tomatoes"; "e night of the hanging." Incompetent, disrespectful gits. That's all I'm going to say (until the next time).


Yes, again, I admit, this post has been sitting unfinished in the WordPad file cabinet for some time. I am guilty of having been very unattentive to my smaller projects. But, as I said before, December is never a good month for me.

The negative of letting a piece sit half-started for too long is my head gets filled with too many different directions with which to take it. (An ailment cured in my last post by limiting myself to but one.) Hopefully this won't get away from me. Where I want to start is with a comment made to an earlier post (looking at the poem "Bethany Man" by Ricardo Pao-Llosa, here). That comment:

I think it is a lovely poem. You unfortunately will never be able to appreciate anything in your life with this attitude.

Comments like this perplex me a touch. More so, they irritate me.

This is the simple question: how can you be appreciative of something unless you have the ability also to be critical of that very same thing?

The example I gave in reply to the above is to consider a small-venue concert. If they are terrible, and I say the band is terrible, am I being "unappreciative"? No. Well, yes, if you define "appreciative" in the sense of you should appreciate the effort, be thankful for what you got, remember, there are starving children in Ethiopia who do not even get to listen to crappy bands like this, young man. So you should appreciate what you have.

Except that that is not what is meant by "appreciation" in the sense the word is used with the arts. The definitions applicable here, consulting the Webster's unabridged, is number three:

3. sensitive awareness; discriminating perception or enjoyment, as of art

Simply put, you cannot be appreciative of something unless you are (1) knowledged as to that something and (2) are capable of being discriminating as to that something.

Except there is something of an error in saying it that way: it is not simply that you must be "knowledged." Yes, if you have no knowledge (in this case) about poetry, it is impossible for you to be appreciative at all, in any sense of the word, of a poem. But, "knowledge" does not necessitate an abundant amount thereof. This gets back to the wholly relative idea of sophistication. To state the idea correctly: your ability to be appreciative of something is relative to your knowledge about that thing.

Let me give you a very simple example: Yeats's "Leda and the Swan":

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
                                       Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

On the basic, contentual level, you could not possibly appreciate this poem if you did not know about the myth of Leda, or Helen, or beyond that the story of the Trojan war. On a more poetic level, your appreciation of the poem cannot go very far without knowing much about sonnets. First, simply, in recognizing the form. But that is only recognition. A far greater appreciation comes when you can compare this sonnet to others, and see how this one, simply in its sounds, succeeds where so many others (by more pedestrian poets) fail. In fact, there is a great appreciation to be had through the experience of having written sonnets oneself (to whatever success).

Even more subtle is the appreciation for the poem had by a person who has developed their ear for language over the person who never has taught their mind to hear subtleties of sound, be it rhyme or rhythm. How many people catch the intriguing play in line four between "helpless breast" and "his breast," a play not only in sound but -- through both semantics and sound sound -- in meaning?

To criticize poetry, to willingly say (to be willing to say) "oi, that's awful," is the very performance of appreciation. The statement by the commenter to my post speaks to the opposite: the absolute void of appreciation. You can not appreciate a poem, a text, a musical piece, an art object, unless you can distinguish it from other works -- not only in content, but also, and far more importantly, in the poem's qualities, its success, its sophistication.

I can speak of myself, of undergrad art history, where my prof gave an inordinate amount of lecture days to a subject dear to his heart: ancient Greek pottery. Yet, it opened doors to appreciating pottery as a whole that I simply did not have before. Or far earlier in my life, the moment I was introduced to art sophistication, in a Both sculpture and art appreciation began for me pretty much with that understanding of the brilliance of that manipulation of form to the end of a unified result.

Of course, I can also speak of the time I saw Rodin's The Kiss, watching the Amuricans walk past, taking note mostly of the time of composition on the little gold plate, to all appearances blind to the brilliance of the work. Though, to be honest, could that have seen it without someone pointing it out? The Kiss is not brilliant for its rather pedestrian subject matter. It is brilliant for its execution, for its bringing the appearance of movement into marble, for catching not a pose but a moment within the action of two people falling into each other.[FN]

[FN] In truth, this is lost in most photo-images of the work. Though, the brilliance of Rodin reasserted itself to me a few years back when I was at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., when moving between two rooms I was able to compare the motion of a dancer sculpted by Rodin against the stillness (not "stiffness") of those sculpted by Degas. Putting that in context here, it is a point of appreciation that does not exist simply because I stood in front of statues: there is a lot of knowledge, experience, and exploration behind it. The proof (in the manner of a thought experiment), would lie to the lesser extent in that other people in the museum were probably oblivious to it; but, in the greater extent, in that they would most likely see it when it was pointed out to them -- which is to say, when they knew enough to know what to look at, look for, to know what to see; when they had developed their ability to appreciate the art.

It would be an insufficient -- and in truth pointless -- act for me to read poetry, literature, or view art, or listen to music, if I could not also appreciate what I read. Which is why I read the masters more than I read contemporary poets. Which is why I read criticism and theory as fervently (or perhaps I should say as intently) as I read creative works. I want to experience the beauty of language, and art, and music. Not simply sit before it and have it spoon fed to me. To experience beauty you have to be able to appreciate beauty. But let me turn that around to something more to my liking:

The more you are able to appreciate beauty,
the greater your experience of beauty.

So, my most honest reply to the anonymous commenter would be something like this: "It pleases me that you can enjoy this poem. But, I find problems with the poem that disrupts its reading. This does not mean I cannot enjoy it, it means there is not very much there for me to enjoy. In turn, the fact that I do not enjoy this poem does not mean that I do not appreciate the poem, or appreciate poetry. In fact, it means precisely the opposite: I do not enjoy this poem because I have a high appreciation for things created out of language. And while you now enjoy the poem, I hope it is your endeavor to develop your sophistication to where you no longer appreciate such poems as this. Because that would mean you can then appreciate things far greater."

In case you missed the implication: I am saying that you have to develop your sophistication in literature in order to appreciate the truly brilliant works of literature.

And, to avoid any misunderstanding, let me affirm: any appreciation for literature, the arts, etc. is a good thing, but only insofar as it includes the effort, the strive, the desire to improve the sophistication of that appreciation. Without that, we really have nothing to talk about.

And if you want to know why that is so important to me (beyond the what I consider the mostly personal love of the arts), it is important because that strive to develop sophistication in the arts, in literature, in anything, is indescernible from the strive to develop sophistication of the individual self.[FN]

[FN] I feel the want to step away from the realm of high lit/high art to give example within the realm of the everyday. So let me choose Marilyn Manson. I am quite a fan of his. I think Antichrist Superstar is about a brilliant as a rock album can get. And The Golden Age of Grotesque is right behind it (lessened in that it is an album of songs, not a unified piece like Antichrist). But I am a discriminating enough listener to recognize that Holy Wood is terrible (not in execution but that is empty of idea and depth, both lyrically and musically), and Eat Me, Drink Me was horrifyingly bad (except for "Are You the Rabbit?" which is the only solid positive on the album, with "Heart-Shaped Glasses" being a flawed and too pop runner up). Curiously, one of the aspects I love about Grotesque is that it is hard not to read an irony within the lyrics -- and even the music -- wherein it is mocking those people who blindly -- i.e., without discriminatory appreciation -- follow rock stars and pop icons, including Manson himself.


So what of "Slight Pause," the poem for this post?

Read critically. Actively. Demand of every poem, every book: "show me what you've got." If you do not read this way, you will not see what the text does, in fact, have to offer. Though, yes, also, you also will not see what it does not have.

Doing so, I focus on one point: the center of the poem.

Slight pause in which the world comes down.

Notice that (1) it is the line from which comes the title; (2) it is marked by a stanza break; (3) it is a one-lined stanza: three aspects of poetic construction that work to give emphasis to this line. What are the two central ideas of the line? The first is the idea that works through the poem that people only give "slight pause" to things that should merit much more. The second is that the fact that people give only "slight pause" to such important events is socially/morally devastating enough an error that "the world comes down."

Except, look at the context:

On the night of the earthquake, we ran to the Weather Channel
and then you said: are earthquakes weather?

Slight pause in which the world comes down.

This is an example of forcing a poem into an intended reading. The question asked is "are earthquakes weather?"; at which point "the world comes down." In no way does that question/observation merit the phrase "the world comes down."[FN]

[FN] It is very possible, if not likely, that "the day of the earthquake" is meant to be something like the Haiti earthquake. But, there is absolutely no reason why it could not be a minor earthquake that happened in California last summer. It is the phrase "the world comes down" -- in tandem with the next event of the hanging of the despot -- that establishes that the earthquake is probably better read as being a severe earthquake. That way the lines make sense. Though, that is not a correction of my point that the "slight pause" line is forcing the reading of the poem, it is demonstration of it. For the reader has to find a reading of the poem that makes the overly emphesized, direct statement of "slight pause in which the world comes down" make sense.

It is true that this is a rather common convention within pop poetry, this method of forcing the poem. And, readers of pop poetry are quite accustomed to looking for these reading cues and forcing the poems into the desired directions. But it is also simply a mistake made by unsophisticated writers who have not yet learned how to generate ideas and still relies on direct statements (which does not eliminate it from becoming a pop convention, but does explain its source). Instead of developing an idea through the poem, a concept is written out, up front, in a manner that cues the reader into seeing it as the "profound statement" of the poem. It is through the convention, and through forcing the reading of the poem, that the poem generates all the profundity of the last lines, as regards the despot. The lines do not in themselves generate the potency of such as makes "the world come down."

In truth, the phrase of "The despot ws hung in haste / for too few of his crimes" is a quite banal statement: it is almost entirely empty of any real resonance within the poem. It is that forcing line that does the work of generating the central ideation (perhaps here best labeled as "statement") of the poem.[FN] All in all, there is very little, real depth to this poem. The idea of something being serious enough for "the world to come down" is never generated. Rather, the description is glue to the events with which it is associated. It is not generated but stated, and stated in a conventional way that gives it emphasis enough to make it work to the forcing of the reading of the poem (which is to say work to the expectations of the readers of pop poetry). The rest of the poem might even be said to be comedic in its presentation: it is only in that one phrase that any "profundity" (such as it is) is generated; and it is only in that one phrase that "slight pause" is given the intended ironic subtext.

[FN] I should also point to that isolating the phrase "for too few of his crimes" as an independent line in another iteration of using convention to force the reading of the poem.

And I am sure that there are plenty of people who would read this poem and, in the words of the anonymous commenter, "appreciate" it, and defend the poem as a good poem. Though, I would say they were wholly failing to appreciate the poem if they could not see how the poem artificially generates its central idea. A far better poem would be one wherein the idea of "the world comes down" is generated within the text to the degree that the very phrase "in which the world comes down" never needs to be said. It is a poor poem that overtly states rather than generates its ideas. And the sophistication to understand that brings with it the sophistication to successfully read and enjoy the art and beauty of those poems that successfully do generate their ideas without stating them.

One last outside text to close this up. I have these last couple of days been enjoying Ferlinghetti's Coney Island of the Mind (and I am here speaking specifically of the poem sequence, not the book, with its other inclusions). I bring it up here on one hand because some of its poems work, successfully, in the manner in which I just described: for example, #8 ("In Golden Gate Park That Day"), which is describing what in short hand might be called an romantically (and sexually) empty marriage. While a reader could point at the lines near the end of "yet fingering the old flute / which nobody played" as overt statement of the point (the metaphor is rather obvious), such reading is a rather brutish reading of the poem. The idea of romantic death is generated throughout the poem (in the sense that the whole of the poem goes to generating the dept of the idea), doing it quite subtly, and greatly through the lightly comedic play of the scene and the language. In fact, the possible "overtness" of those lines is dissipated to the point of non-existence by the ideational play of the poem. Yes, obviously, the flute and the grapes are metaphors. But they obviously are: and Ferlinghetti succeeds in taking the obvious and putting them to work within an ideational field that generates with those obviousnesses (and much else) something far greater, and resonantly alive. And if you do not develop your sophistication for literature enough to notice the difference between #8 and "Slight Pause," you will not really be able to enjoy what Ferlinghetti accomplished so well.[FN]

[FN] The poem is on the Poetry Foundation site, here. Except, in any contest between a poem and that site, the poem always loses. So the formatting is not what it is on the printed page. For example, line two begins below and after line one. Which may not seem like much, but it is quite a issue. The lines in A Coney Island are very well crafted, and the layouts for the most part well designed, and their positioning is important. So, ignore the poetry foundation offering: just buy the book. There is much to learn from it that sequence, especially in developing your ear for the sounds of the printed poetry (which is to say, how to write good free verse).


A couple small points:

Just to point out, hopefully you noticed that there is a time shift at the end of the poem. The first four lines occur "the night of the hanging," in the past. But the last sentence (specifically, "an hour ago") is relative to a present "now."

Also, "hanged," not "hung." Yes, technically "hung" might be acceptable. But in using it you cannot avoid invoking a strain of public school humor that's been around since before "Billy Budd" was published. (Not to mention "hanged in haste" sounds better.)

Finally, any decently read person is going to naturally associate "heads / cut off and served to us / on a plate" with John the Baptist, if not specifically with Oscar Wilde's Salomé. Yet, there is no real connection between that idea and the poem's content. As such, the use of the phrasing might not be the best of choices. In fact, I really have no idea what to do with "heads on a plate." The only place I can see going with it is it turns the dead neighbor into a rather dark character: which is not at all where the poem wants us to go (it wants us to treat the neighbor's death as a lesser version of the later "slight pause" events and have sympathy for her).


One added note. One of the directions I thought to take this post was to a moment in Robert Frost's short essay "The Figure a Poem Makes" (which is often included in collecteds/selecteds, and can be found here, and, to be forefront about it, I was just recently introduced to). The moment is that which surrounds this sentence: "It is but a trick poem and no poem at all if the best of it was thought of first and saved for the last." The statement does not exactly apply to "Slight Pause," because the focal line is centered, and Frost is a bit talking more about what I call "punchline poems." But, structurally, it is to the same point: the difference between merely writing a poem around a set statement (here, "slight pause in which the world comes down") and creating an organic poem that generates (rather than states) the idea within a greater, deeper, field of ideation.

The essay is an inriguing one. I wonder how much it is influenced by the Preface to Lyrical Ballads: they are speaking very congruent ideas. But be careful in reading it: this is a more difficult little essay than one might think. You have to understand the ideas behind the words in order to understand the words, and not simply take the words themselves as printed in small contexts. For example, consider this sentence: "The line will have the more charm for not being mechanically straight." Many will take that as an open door to dismissing close attention to rhythm and sound: which would be quite the opposite of where Frost is going.

While I didn't bring up Frost's essay in the text above; I believe the above can yet be read as an engagement with the ideas therein.

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