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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Saturday, July 19, 2014

"Hymn to Life" by Timothy Donnelly -- Poetry Magazine

from Poetry (July/August 2014)
poem found here
 

First lines:
There were no American lions. No pygmy mammoths left
or giant short-faced bears, which towered over ten feet high

 

verse or prose, poetic or prosaic

– some minor editing, Feb. 5, 2015
 
This post has been added to the Hatter's Cabinet site via its Best of the Poetry Daily Critique page

 

The ideas in this post are given further examination in "Re-examining the Verse-Prose Poetic-Prosaic Graph"

 

As is obvious from the last post, I recently read Owen Barfield's Poetic Diction, and want to bring into the run of this blog one of his ideas. Though, in truth it is not a thought peculiar to Barfield. Coleridge (who stands in the background of Poetic Diction) posits the general idea through his own theories, and it is a central idea to the Modernist endeavor (in both literature and the arts), not to mention that strain of philosophy that runs through Nietzsche into the post-structuralists.

I will let Barfield speak for himself. (This is the opening to chapter IX, "Verse and Prose.")[FN]

At the opposite pole to the wide sense in which I have been using the phrase "poetic diction," stands the narrowest one, according to which it signifies "language which can be used in verse but not in prose." This artificial identification of the words poetry and poetic with metrical form is certainly of long standing in popular use; but it has rarely been supported by those who have written on the subject. As Verse is an excellent word for metrical writing of all kinds, whether poetic or unpoetic, and Prose for un-metrical writing, in this book the formal literary distinction is drawn between verse and prose; whereas that between poetry, poetic on the one hand and prosaic on the other is a spiritual one, not confined to literature [i.e., open to all the arts].

The idea is rather a simple and obvious when it comes to it: we can readily speak about the formal properties of the material aspect of a text without dependence upon the spiritual or ideational aspects (which is the aim prosody), and we can speak about the spiritual/ideational aspects of a text without dependence upon the formal properties of the material aspect of the text (exploring meaning, metaphor, etc.)

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[FN] As this is two posts in a row I have referenced Poetic Diction, I want to take a moment about the book itself, for I do not want readers looking to buy the book through some implied recommendation by this and the previous post. While the book is very much worth the reading, and prompted in me a lot of thought, I would not consider it an entry level text because of the primary philosophical argument within it, that of the origin and development of language and consciousness. My use of the book conceals that aspect of it. A person who bought it on the basis of the above quotation, for example, would probably be quite surprised at what they found, and, if the discussion too new to them, perhaps put off.
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Once that recognition is made, there arrives the equally obvious spectrums. In the material, one can make the distinction between verse and prose, the former being the intentional use of structures within the text beyond that necessary to the basics of the language. Prose then is rather defined in the negative: the absence of verseform, language as one speaks about it within a grammar or style book. Remember this is a spectrum, there is no dividing line between verse and prose, nor should one be sought. Keep in mind also verse is a broader concept than formal metrics. Verseform is any introduction of structure into the medium of a text. Meter is but one possibility. (To give but one other as example: consider anaphora.)

The spiritual axis is the one that might be a new idea to some people, though not if you at all have read from this blog. It is simply the recognition of the two natures – the two modalities – of language and of being: the communal and the individual. As regards language, the former (loosely and quickly stated) is about the transmission of meaning from one person to the next, the latter about language objects as an individual experience. The latter is is something inherent to the idea of literature and the arts, one most normally cued by the word beauty – a psychical and personal experience.

While seeing for the first time that which Barfield calls the "spiritual" dimension of a text may be new to some people, the fundamental idea should not be. Everyone will recognize that language as being used in a particle physics text book is being used to a different purpose than language as it is used in Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium" or Breton's "Free Union." In Cassirer's very useful terms, the former is "theoretic" in nature (its purpose is the establishment and organization of fact), the latter "mythic" (its purpose is the experiential engagement with the self and the cosmos).[FN] Once made, the two categories should not be that alien an idea. Keep in mind the spiritual axis is also a spectrum, not a division. We can speak of the mythic nature of a text, and we can speak of the theoretic nature of the same text: though, sophisticated aesthetic texts tend to be primarily aesthetic, and texts written to theoretic end will want to minimize the influence of the aesthetic. Coleridge recognizes that the theoretic is a necessary element to the mythic; and, it is difficult to conceive of the possibility of a purely aesthetic text (since a purely aesthetic text would be purely individual, thus outside the bounds of language). Though, we do every day encounter purely theoretic texts, if mostly in its effects: i.e., the texts of computer language.

Let me here wow you with some stylish graphics. It should be noted that Barfield himself does not point to such a charting, but it is a fairly safe step. [To note: In the follow-up post, "Re-examining the Verse-Prose, Poetic-Prosaic Graph," I show that that step is not so safe after all. Though I now reject such a grid, I leave it here as in the original post.]

To show that this idea is not something only encountered in "high-end theory" (or whatever blanketingly dismissive phrase you may be hearing from your teachers of poetry) but is central the discourse on poetry, the same idea – in general if not in detail – as presented in John Hollander’s Rhyme’s Reason, a popular introductory level text to versification. This is from the "Preface to the Third[FN] Edition":

Good verse of any sort is nevertheless only half the story of good poetry, whose essential character is what Wallace Stevens called "fictive," and Robert Frost "ulterior," or "saying one thing and meaning another," or what we could simply call not being literal. Having in the past year spent time recovering from an injury, I came to realize that "When you see someone with a cane / That person’s probably in pain."

These lines are clearly verse, and the proposition they assert is true. But they are not in the lest poetry, for they are totally literal: there is nothing of fiction in them. [. . .] Rhyme’s Reason is thus subtitled A Guide to English Verse and not "–to Poetry."

Now, where Hollander and Barfield will appear to diverge is in the next sentence: "I trust that its readers will understand that verse [. . .] is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for poetry" (emphasis mine). This is really, however, only an issue of terminology: Hollander is defining "poetry" as that quadrant of Barfield’s characterization that designates texts that are "verse" on the material axis and "poetic" on the spiritual. Barfield does not make that distinction, and though I have no memory of him speaking the thought directly I am confident in saying the reason would be that it is an irrelevant distinction to his point. The title of his book, Poetic Diction, is not referring to the diction of what Hollander labels "poetry"; it is referring to the diction of the poetic as opposed to the prosaic: that is, whether the material form is verse or prose, the text may still be spiritually poetic.

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[FN] Rhyme’s Reason is one of the those books that has changed greatly over the editions. If you buy one, you should get the most recent. If you have an older edition, it is worth picking up the newer.
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As for myself, my personal concern is with the poetic, be it verse or prose. Though, here, on this blog, I tend to focus the discussion on that quadrant which Hollander labels "poetry." [FN]

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[FN] To note, I have previously offered my own thoughts on the use of the word "poetry," and why I here do not jump on board with Hollander and identify poetry with that one quadrant. (See "But You Don't Have to Call Me Johnson".) Though, I recognize, within the context of this blog, there may be no clash with such an identification and my own critical ends.
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As I said, it is all a rather simple idea; though, complexities do arise the deeper it is explored. For example, it is impossible to completely divorce the two axes, and where the material influences the ideational is an interesting – and important – point of exploration. Also, the idea of the sophistication of the text is absent from the two axes, and bringing it in has interesting ramifications. But that is for another time.

Perhaps, for me, the most useful element of this foursome has been to help keep to the fore the division between the material and the spiritual, and to avoid letting one interfere in discussions about the other. Popular discourse about literature – and very often critical discourse about literature – frequently fails to make and keep the distinction. Indeed, it is not infrequently against people's interests to recognize such a distinction. For example, it is very much the desire of New Formalism that all formal texts be considered "poetry," an idea which Hollander explicitly rejects. Often, reading their critical texts, they seem to want the formal nature of poetry to be sufficient to the elevation of the work to the levels of sophisticated "poetry," giving only lip service to the spiritual axis.

One must also keep in mind that "verse" is not limited to what is conventionally considered "formal" poetry. Verseform is any structuring of the text beyond the basics of language. This is a primary issue that New Formalists tend to overlook (seemingly intentionally) in their rejection of free verse, and the very point of the Modernist's insistence that free verse is not free – or, at least, interesting, well-written free verse is not free.

For example, consider the opening of Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock":

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawduct restaurants with oyster shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question . . .
Oh, do not ask, 'What is it?'
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo

This is free verse, but it is also very structured. At the more apparent there is (1) the controlled rhyming; (2) that it is written in a controlled, iambic rhythm; and (3) the first appearance of a repeated stanza. Looking but a little bit harder there is also (1) the repetition of the "Let us go"; (2) that the two short lines echo in their metric construction; and (3) a syntactic structure that rhetorically sets up and leads the reader to the hesitating, drifting off break at "an overwhelming question . . .".

It cannot be over-stated: sophisticated free verse is not free. It is structured. And for me it is not untrue to say that the presence of structure in free verse is one of the major stepping stones in the development of sophistication in writing free verse. It is not for naught that Eliot and Pound demanded that learning to write formally was a necessary step to learning to write sophisticated free verse.

That in mind, let me say it a different way, in a more pragmatic way: unstructured texts sound unstructured.[FN] Just as an essay by a student who has not learned how to structure their paragraphs and thoughts sounds like an out-of-control jumble, so also does poetry that is not controlled and structured sound like an out-of-control jumble. Note again, this is not an argument that finds its base only – or even primarily – in the idea of formal verse in the conventional sense of the phrase (i.e., in metrics). I rather like the way Barfield puts it so I will turn to him to close this point. (This is at the end of that same chapter.)

The significance of rhyme to the history and making of poetry I consider to be outside the scope of this book; but there mere fact that such a form has come into being, since poetry was an art, may well remind us how much, how very much, is possible to the human imagination [. . .] It would be pure fantasy to attempt to prescribe in advance what uses man himself shall henceforth make of the material element of language.

 

Taking these ideas in hand, let's take a look at "Hymn to Life."

It is a very long poem. It is cut into stanzas of six lines. Though, looking at the work I can find no relationship between the text and the line breaks or the stanzas. Indeed, it should be immediately apparent to all readers that the poem is written in fairly everyday prose, and that the line breaks are pretty much arbitrary (if not guided by the physical length of the line). I will reformat the first three stanzas to show the prose nature of the text:

There were no American lions. No pygmy mammoths left or giant short-faced bears, which towered over ten feet high when rearing up on their haunches. There were no stout-legged llamas, stilt-legged llamas, no single Yukon horse.

The last of the teratorns, its wingspan broader than the room in which I’m writing now, had long since landed on a tar pit’s surface and was lost.

There might be other things to think of strobing in the fume or sometimes poking through the thick of it like the tiny golden toads once so prevalent in the cloud forests north of Monteverde, only none of them were living anywhere anymore. The last was seen on May 15, 1989, the week Bon Jovi’s “I’ll Be There for You” topped Billboard’s Hot 100. Then it dropped to three.

A teratorn might have fit in here the long way come to think of it.

A study claims it wasn’t climate change that killed the golden toad but a fungal epidemic provoked by cyclical weather patterns. Little things like that had a way of disappearing: thimbles, the Rocky Mountain grasshopper, half the hearing in my patient ear.

There were [. . .].

I used the paragraph breaks where there seemed a natural break in the language, and only to assist in seeing the nature of the text: it is written in prose: to me, not terribly good – or interesting – prose at that. I can find in the poem – and I admit I did not read the whole of the poem (more on that later), though I did run through it to see if there were changes in the delivery – nothing that speaks of verseform other than arbitrary line breaks coupled with a stanza break every six lines (and so also arbitrary).

A question: is the mere presence of line breaks and stanza breaks sufficient to the idea of the poem having verseform?

An answer: No. Not if those elements have no effect upon the poem itself. There is no functional difference between the line breaks in this poem and the "line breaks" in a novel created by the book's right margin. It is merely and nothing but the point where one hit the line-return bar on the typewriter. In turn, there is no functional effect of the stanza breaks upon the poem either: they are no different as regards the text than the bottom of a page. (And, they visually remind me with this work of etexts of books that show in the etext where the page breaks are in the original published text.)

I realize I am as much positing an idea here as arguing it, but it is an idea that I believe will bear out over examination (with expections being exceptions that prove the rule). The idea: a visual aspect of a text on a page that has no real effect upon the text itself cannot be considered structural to the text. (Another example: the font of a text. Changing the font does not create a different structure within the text: indeed, font – or even typesetting abbreviations like the classic "Ye" for "the" – are not structural, and are not verseform.)

So, not finding anything of nature in the text that would fall under verseform, I think it is safe to say that this text is not "verse" but "prose" that is typeset to look like verse. So what about the ideational axis? Hollander above spoke of the literalness of the example text he provided to show the absence of anything poetic. What of "Hymn to Life"? Let's look again at the first three stanzas:

  • There were no American lions.
  • No pygmy mammoths left or giant short-faced bears, which towered over ten feet high when rearing up on their haunches.
  • There were no stout-legged llamas, stilt-legged llamas, no single Yukon horse.
  • The last of the teratorns, its wingspan broader than the room in which I’m writing now, had long since landed on a tar pit’s surface and was lost.
  • There might be other things to think of strobing in the fume or sometimes poking through the thick of it like the tiny golden toads once so prevalent in the cloud forests north of Monteverde, only none of them were living anywhere anymore.
  • The last was seen on May 15, 1989, the week Bon Jovi’s “I’ll Be There for You” topped Billboard’s Hot 100.
  • Then it dropped to three.
  • A teratorn might have fit in here the long way come to think of it.
  • A study claims it wasn’t climate change that killed the golden toad but a fungal epidemic provoked by cyclical weather patterns.
  • Little things like that had a way of disappearing: thimbles, the Rocky Mountain grasshopper, half the hearing in my patient ear.

Is there anything in that that is not a statement of fact?

You might be saying "had long since landed on a tar pit’s surface and was lost" is not technically factual, it is something made up. Which is true. But what Hollander is talking about is not the fact/fictional nature, the truth-value of the content of a text, but the modality of the text. A physics textbook from the 1850s will have a lot of what is now known to be false information in it: that does not change that the text functions in the theoretic modality: it was written – and is still read – within the language of facts. If I write a textbook today that is presenting a brand new theory about quarks, something that has not yet been proved, something entirely hypothetical, – even if I was intentionally lying about details of the theory just to get my name in print – I would still be writing of the modality of facts.

There is a difference between "fiction" and the "fictive" (using the term provided by Hollander from out of Stevens to coin a distinction). "Fiction" can still be written in the modality of facts. (Most genre fiction is – even that of fantasy and science fiction.) What the word "fictive" is meant to describe is where the text is not changing out of the factual but out of factivity . . . into experience, into the ideationally creating, into the symbolic.

When we read "Prufrock" we are not reading it as a factual, scientific text. We read it and enter into an ideational field – "ideation" including not only meaning but also sound and structure, and whatever else might generate psychic energies.[FN] We engage the text of "Prufrock" at an individual, conscious, and most importantly unconscious level. Yes, there is by necessity a theoretic element to "Prufrock": we have to have a language to have literature, and a language is made to share meaning. But meaning and language within Prufrock is brought outside of the scientific and into the metaphoric, the symbolic, through the writing of the text, the making of an aesthetic object.

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[FN] I recognize that the word "ideation" here blends the two axes; or, more accurately, the term "ideation" recognizes that the material axis has an effect on the spiritual axis.
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What of "Hymn to Life" moves beyond the scientific? Think not only to the specific sentences but also to how the sentences interact.

It can be said that the appearance of Bon Jovi is moving to the metaphoric in that it shifts from nature to pop culture creating an opposition to the statements about nature preceding it. Only, that opposition is immediately dropped, so there is no reason offered by the poem to see that opposition as relevant to the reading of the poem. Rather, it is merely a means of identifying a point in time other than by a numeric date.

Continuing down the poem, in the fourth stanza, there is "To work on my character I pretend to be / traveling Portsmouth to Arlington in modern garb at first, // then backwards into costumes of the past." But, again, the idea is wholly dropped as soon as it is complete. In fact, considering there is no evidence of a character up to that point it reads to me like an attempt at a gimmick that does not work within the text in which it appears. It reads to me like a cheap trick to bring into the text a tag recognizable as something one might see in "poetry." Further on down I find "Tomorrow should be 82° and sunny // but it won’t be." Lines like these are a poppoetry convention, and only a convention: another empty tag, a means for the text to say "look, I'm being a poem; I'm doing poemy things."

Perhaps one might argue that the poetic nature of the text is developed in how is shifts from facts about nature to facts about other things, like the digression that leads into Bathsheba. But they are only shallow digression from one type of fact into another type of fact: there is no real symbolic energy generated. (Even, very little theoretic energy.) And when the Bathsheba moment is followed by these lines:

[. . .] All these gains and losses, so mysterious
from a distance, held together it has felt by nothing stronger
than momentum, like a series of bicycle accidents or a pattern
in the pomegranate, come to hint at a logic in time, but whether
it’s more fitting to say that they promise to reveal it or else

threaten to is debatable.

what ideational energies that were developed by the Bathsheba moment are brought nowhere and slowly. In fact, the sentence is a mess semantically:

[. . .] All these gains and losses, so mysterious from a distance, held together it has felt by nothing stonger than momentum, like a series of bicycle accidents or a pattern in the pomegranate, come to hint at a logic in time,

Wait . . . so the gains and losses are "mysterious," and also trivial in that they are connected "by nothing stronger than momentum," and yet also "hint at a logic"? Would anyone normally see a logic behind a series of bicycle accidents? Wouldn't that particular idea normally be used to designate what has no logic but just happens (and thus the idea of logic in the line is but an unsubstantiated assertion)? Never mind in this the clash created by that a pattern in a pomegranate is one of space, not of time.

but whether it’s more fitting to say that they promise to reveal it or else threaten to is debatable.

Another pop poetry tag: "look, I'm being metaphysically ambiguous; I'm doing serious poemy things; I'm a serious poem." It is really only a moment of shallowness that has no real connection to what preceded it in its own sentence. It is nothing but bad writing being pawned off as pithiness. It's sham writing (to use Eliot's word) and hopefully readers can see how shallow and artificial the moment is.

After that the text moves right back into the facts. But I can tell by the scroll bar handle that I'm not even half way through the poem yet, and to be honest, I do not care enough to continue reading.

 

What of that? It is actually very important. This is a long poem ("look how long I am; I really serious in my poemness"), and now past twenty stanzas in, I have yet to find anything interesting – poetry-wise – about this poem. My question to you, why should I continue reading? Indeed, if it were not for this post, I would never have read half this far before throwing this aside as a waste of my time.

Let me ask it another way: why as I reader of poetry should I care at all about this text? I am not being facetious here: this is to the point of the matter.

Above I showed how on Barfield's axes there is nothing in "Hymn to Life" to call it verse as opposed to prose. (And, as I said, it is not interestingly written prose at that.) As well, I think it has been fairly assuredly demonstrated that, on the spiritual axis, "Hymn to Life" has nothing poetic to offer, and is quite solidly anchored within the prosaic, within the theoretic.

Which puts this text in the exact opposite quadrant of what Hollander calls "poetry."

When we study poetry, when we study its material nature, we study the strutures, the verseforms present in the material aspect of the poetry. Even when the text is prosaic – to give the classic example, as with Lucretius – we can still study verseform. There is nothing of that in this text.

When we study poetry, we study the ideational, spiritual nature of the poetry, the metaphoric nature, the symbolic nature of the poetry. Even if a text be prose in style, for example with Eliot's prose poem "Hysteria" or Djuna Barnes's book Nightwood, we can still study the modality of the aesthetic, the generation of symbolic ideation. But, again, there is nothing of that in this text.

So I ask, with all seriousness, these closing questions for your rumination: Why, if I am interested in poetry, would I be interested in this text?

Particular to this blog: Why, if I am interested in exploring writing poetry, should I be interested in this text (except as example to the negative)?

Finally, to speak in a broader context, to speak of the culture of poetry: Why would Poetry Magazine consider this text something worth publishing?

It could be that that final question is the most important, for to ask it is also to ask, What does this tell me about the culture of poetry – and literature – in the U.S. today?

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