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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Sunday, March 15, 2015

"My Brother's Insomnia" by Eric Pankey – Verse Daily, March 5, 2015

from Crow-Work (Milkweed Editions, 2015)
poem found here

First lines:
A boy ties (but will not remember how)
An intricate knot that slips at the slightest tug.


the action of the prosaic and poetic


Editing note: I am rather unsatisfied with how this post turned out. I tried to keep it short (or as short as I could manage) and now wonder if the presentation suffers for it. I plan to return to this in a few days; though I am not sure what will result. — March 20


Continuing in the stream of the examination of texts by way of the material and ideational axes, we have this work which came up on the Verse Daily site. It presents an opportunity to look at the ideation axis from both the prosaic and the poetic within one, short poem. Hopefully, the very local contrast will go toward developing the ideas.

The post will be in two parts. The first will focus upon that functioning of the prosaic and poetic within the text. After that, I would like to pick up a couple specific moments in the poem for exploration.


I divide the poem into three: the first stanza; stanzas 2 and 3; and the final part, stanzas 4-6. I believe the poem rather divides itself in this manner. Though, I could see a person making a fourth section out of the final stanza, so the division is in part motivated by how I want to talk about the poem.

I'll start in stanza 4. On the surface, in the narrative, it gives two actions by the boy, two things the boy does when he cannot sleep, both of which are operated through holding his breath. Sometimes he silences his body and pretends he is dead. Other times he silences his body to listen to the very quiet sounds of the world around him. Only, the line does not say "pretends":

Some nights in bed he holds his breath and is dead.

There is created by the absence of "pretends" – a contextual qualifier – and by the presence of the direct "is" an opposition between the two lines.

Some nights in bed he holds his breath and is dead.
Some nights in bed he holds his breath and [is not dead].

This is only a logical opposition, however. There is nothing poetic in stating A/not-A. Where the energies come is from the lines that follow, lines that give substance to what being not dead is in the boy's nighttime world. First there is a physical event: the wind rattling the "unlocked front door." I read "unlocked" as the equivalent of not having a deadbolt locked, so even though the door is shut, it is loose enough to be rattled by the wind. It is not that the wind is slamming the door open and closed.

What is next is a bit more abstract:

[listens] to time rustle and scratch in the attic like mice.

Another opposition is set up. Outside there is the wind rattling the door, as though trying to get in, or in the least making its presence known to all. Inside time exists only in the attic, and is but scratching like mice: loud and active outside, quiet and still (even stagnant) inside. That existential stillness as well as the inside-outside opposition is reinforced in the final stanza, where the boy is so divorced from the outside he has lost sense of time even at the scale of the seasons.

So first you have an opposition between being dead and being not-dead. And then you have an explication of not-dead, which itself is an opposition: outside life and inside not-life. The energies are thus put in motion: even though in the not-dead state, the boy's experience is primarily that of not-life, a return back to the idea of being dead. (Remember the absence of the phrase "pretending to be.") Not-dead is not dead; but not-dead is also not-life: in the coincidence of opposites comes symbolic energy: ideas are generated that cannot be simplified to a logical conclusion. As opposition – and not an A/not-A contradiction – exists within the text, pulling it out of the mechanical and into the symbolic, out of the prosaic and into the poetic.

The energies generated in that little turbine would themselves dissipate into nothingness if they did not have somewhere to go, much in the nature that the mere logical opposition A/not-A offers nothing because it is a completed idea. It is fact. But there is here somewhere for the energies to go: back to the first stanza.

A boy ties (but will not remember how)
An intricate knot that slips at the slightest tug.

Here we have an idea of knots that are unable to sustain any permanence in time, both in that they never really 'knot' – they unravel on their own as soon as they are made – and their structure and making is forgotten even as they are being made, so they will never be reproduced.

The idea of the knots creates energies that tie to the ideas in the the third part of the poem through the resemblances of the insubstantiality within the two ideas. But there is also created at the same time an opposition: the knots are nonetheless being made, unmade, and newly made. There is a creativity in action, which sits to the contrary to the existential stagnation hinted at in the closing lines.

This opens doors of ideation, doors that find validity in that they are grounded upon the dynamo of stanzas 4-6: the boy lives in a still house, but is himself creative; the boy hears an outside that is alive, but is yet divorced enough from the outside not to "remember" what season it is. Nor, expanding the loop, can the boy "remember" any knot's means of construction.

The more you explore the interaction between the first and third sections of the poem the more answers are both posited and denied, questions are asked and contradicted. This is the energy of the poetic: a non-theoretical, non-fact-oriented ideation. It is what brings life to the work and generates the aesthetic experience. (Or, I should say, opportunity for the aesthetic experience since the aesthetic engagement is primarily an active engagement.)

Here's another moment from Wallace Stevens's The Necessary Angel. This time from "Effects of Analogy."

Poetry is almost incredibly one of the effects of analogy. This statement involves much more than the analogy of figures of speech, since otherwise poetry would be little more than a trick. But it is almost incredibly the outcome of figures of speech or, what is the same thing, the outcome of the operation of one imagination on another through the instrumentality of the figures. To identify poetry and metaphor or metamorphosis is merely to abbreviate the last remark." (117-18, emphasis mine)

As it often is with Stevens's essays, the moment is insufficient in itself. So let me flush the above out for you. "Analogies," here, are not analogies in the logical sense. Rather they are "as likeness,"

as resemblance between parallels and yet parallels that are parallels only in the imagination [. . .]. (110, emphasis mine)

Stevens uses the word "imagination" in the same way Coleridge does, the mythic, symbolic modality of thought, contrasted with Coleridge's "fancy," the theoretical, rational modality of thought. In the first quotation (and its greater context) Stevens is recognizing Poetry – that is, texts written in the poetic rather than the prosaic – the poet's imaginative engagement with reality brought into the medium words. A reader has their own engagement with reality. In reading a poetic text, a reader is offered not logical fact or logical argument, whose function would lie in that modality where a fact is the same for every person, but someone else's imaginative engagement with reality. As such, the reader's engagement with the material cosmos that common between the reader and the writer, is brought into an analogous relationship with the poet's engagement with reality. As such, new energies (new symbolic energies) are brought into the reader's engagement.

It is the poet's sense of the world that is the poet's world. The corporeal world, the familiar world of the commonplace, in short, our world, is one sense of the analogy that develops between our world and the world of the poet. The poet's sense of the world is the other sense. It is the analogy between these two senses that concerns us. (118, emphasis mine)

By "our world," there, he is to me implying the world of the non-poet. Though, in being a reader, a poet themselves would become a non-poet.

Through this, we come to the the mythic nature of capital-P Poetry[FN], using the value that the particular word – mythic – brings to the discussion; the universal nature of the aesthetic object (whatever the medium), that which transcends the mundane: creating (in my terms) the experience of the beauty of aesthetic art. It is with that transcendence – and the distinction between poetic (aesthetic) and prosaic (nomic) art – that Stevens closes his essay (notice how, with "we have not been studying images", he moves away from representation and verisimilitudism):

The venerable, the fundamental books of the human spirit are vast collections of such analogies and it is the analogies that have helped to make these books what they are. The pictorializations of poetry include much more than figures of speech. We have not been studying images, but, however crudely, analogies, of which images are merely a part. Analogies are much the larger subject. And analogies are elusive. [. . . T]hese are the pictorializations of men, for whom the world exists sa a world and for whom life exists as life, the objects of their passions, the objects before which they come and speak, with intense choosing, words that we remember and make our own. Their words have made a world that transcends the world and a life livable in that transcendence. It is a transcendence achieved by means of the minor effects of figurations and the major effects of the poet's sense of the world and of the motive music of his poems and it is the imaginative dynamism of all these analogies together. Thus poetry becomes and is a transcendent analogue composed of the particulars of reality, created by the poet's sense of the world, that is to say, his attitude, as he intervenes and interposes the appearances of that sense. (129-30)

If you can avoid getting caught up in the results of the poetic, the above is not only a description of the poetic, but the understading that Poetry, that such transcendence, cannot occur within the prosaic, within the theoretical, within the nomic.

[FN] And, as I did in the previous post, I remind you that we are speaking of the ideational axis of the arts. Capital-P Poetry can exist in proseform as well as in verseform. *****************************

Thus, returning to "My Brother's Insomnia," my aim here is not to reveal from out of the symbolic dynamo within the second half of the poem some stable meaning. To do so would be to interpretively collapse the symbolic into the prosaic. As Stevens says, my point is not the mere pointing out of images. My point is to show how the ideation of the section works to generate not a factual argument, but a poetic, ideational flow. A field of play, to use Derrida's term.

What makes this poem an interesting example is that we can also see within it the workings of the prosaic, within stanzas 2 and 3, and as leading out of stanza 1.

It takes but a little thought to see the connection between the ideas in the first three stanzas. First you have, in stanza 1, string in a knot. That string is connected visually to the hair of the Medusa in stanza 2: nearly any image of a medusa is presented with the snakes that are her hair in active disorder. The snakes of medusa's hair directly connects to the snakes in stanza 3, which rather readily associate with spiders. (Some may remember or know the song "Spiders and Snakes" by Jim Stafford. Here's a great old video of the song, albeit the song cut short.) Spiders in the general connects to the recluse, which is poisonous and potentially deadly. And death leads us directly into stanza 4 and the word "dead" (and backward to the death of Medusa).

However, unlike the imaginative interactions in the latter half of the poem, these connections are wholly mechanical. There is nothing generated out of them except the connections themselves: they are, in Coleridge's terms. merely fancy. They are theoretic in their operations; they function in the prosaic mode and not the poetic. Though connections can be made in the text, those connections have nowhere to go beyond the connecting itself. The ideation does not go beyond the mere fact of the connection. It is a logical progression. Yes, it does lead the reader through the poem. But, on the ideational axis, stanzas 2 and 3 are prosaic in modality, not poetic. They are fancy, not imagination.[FN]

[FN] I am leaving out of this discussion any exploration of purpose as to the use of fancy within the poem. For example, it might be said that, here, the mechanical associations that start at string are but a means to get from string to death. I believe it is Coleridge (or is it Eliot? or both?) who talks about how a long poem often requires moments of straight narration or other mechanical progression, if simply because the symbolic energies can only be sustained for so long without creating chaos; there needs moments of pulling back and gathering up. (Because Poe is used to this point, it has to be Eliot.) Though, with this poem being so short, I do not believe such an explanation is sufficient. For me, reading the poem, the creative energies of the poem lie wholly in the latter stanzas, and the poem weakens for using the mechanics of the opening stanzas to get to those energies. A stronger poem would have built the opening out of the closing, rather than built an opening that is, to wit, a replacable part.

I should also take a moment to point out that what I am saying here should not be construed as denigrating works of fancy as invaluable literature. Though, in that conventionality functions within fancy, there is within works of fancy the issue of creativity, or, the lack thereof: for example, the work that is little more than the thousandth reiteration of a wholly conventionalized genre only with the names changed to protect the illusion of creativity. In truth, writers (including poets) should consciously work in fancy at time. It could be argued that it is in fancy that one develops the technical skills necessary to works of imagination, including the very skills of aesthetic writing itself. Larger works of fancy can function like a laboratory for literary experimentation. (I myself am working on such project currently, a long reforming in verse of a fairy tale. In that the mechanical plotting removes much of the work necessary to achieving unity in a large, aesthetic work, it leaves me to concentrate on issues of verseform, small scale structures within verse form, and the relationship between verseform and ideation. And since there is no requirement to aesthetic unity from start to end, I need not have every moment in the work be dedicated to such explorations. At times I can sit back and logically progress.)

However, this blog is primarily concerned with works of poetic verse: to the major part with the writing of such works; but also, if to the lesser part, with the inherent antagonism that any concretizing culture of poetry wages against such works. Thus my ongoing critique of MFA culture (and U.S. poetry culture in general), which gives little hint as to being about the aesthetic, and is often antagonistic to the aesthetic; and is generally about creating, validating, and sustaining the endless repetitions of sameness that is a stagnant literary culture.

Which about wraps it up for this part of the post. Hopefully that presentation offered a usable contrast between the ideational modalities of the prosaic and the poetic, or the nomic and the aesthetic, or fancy and imagination, or the theoretic and the mythic – which about covers most of the pairs of terms I have used here on this blog.

Now, this blog is aimed at people who are interested in writing poetry. So the above does fall short of fulfilling that aim: understanding the difference between fancy and imagination in something being read is one thing; but, how do you go about writing such? The answer, at its simplest, is learning to write out of the unconscious, which means also learning how not to write with the rational conscious in control. But, this post is going to be long enough as it is. So one theme at a time.[FN]

[FN] I have been listening these last days to Jack Spicer's Vancouver lectures off of the upenn site. (They can be found through this link.) He is speaking directly to that point, especially in the first lecture, of how to write aesthetic poetry . Though, there is much he says that I do not agree with and that, I believe, works against what he is trying to put forward: to my hearing, he has difficulty separating what is the sharable, usable core of ideas from what is and can only be idiosyncratic understanding. If I can find a way to work from out the lectures without requiring listening to the whole of any one of them (they are long), and without misrepresenting Spicer in both the positive and negative, I may try to do that. Else, I will keep my eyes open.


I want to move now (in no particular order) to a few moments in the text that might prove interesting as points for exploration.

1. If you did not catch it, there is some rather nice aural echoing in stanza five:

To wind rattle the unlocked front door,
To time rustle and scratch in the attic like mice.

If you take out "and scratch" it increases the presence of the echoing by making the lines more parallel in structure.

To wind rattle the unlocked front door,
To time rustle in the attic like mice.

Though, I don't think the presence of "and scratch" decreases the effect (if that makes any sense). Plus, to my ear the couplet without the extra words creates a slight, rhythmic confusion in "unlocked."

2. Because stanzas 2 and 3 are all basic sentences, I wonder if it would be better with a punctuation change in line 5: a period in place of the comma, eliminating the "but."

From Medusa's lopped head bred cobras and asps.

He cares little for snakes. Fears spiders more.
The recluse spider is his least favorite.

It is my general taste to eliminate "to be" when it is not doing any major lifting.

From Medusa's lopped head bred cobras and asps.

He cares little for snakes. Fears spiders more.
The recluse spider his least favorite.

This creates a nice doubling of the rhythm in the third line:

The reCLUSE SPIder | his LEAST FAVorite.

I dislike "to be" for reasons of style and diction. Not for the reasons of the puerile, creative writing dicta "use more descriptive words" (yet another workshopism I dislike because it is such a gross oversimplification of the questions involved, and often creates as many or more bad habits as it tries to eliminate). Rather, I find that "to be" often creates dead spaces in the rhythm (as for me in the line above), and can often be eliminated to benefit, either through straight deletion or though rearrangement or both. The line without the "is" is to me a much more interesting line; and, the "is" is absolutely unnecessary to the text. Since it serves no real purpose (except to maintain proseform), why not eliminate it? (Though, in contrast to this moment, in line 7 – "he holds his breath and is dead" – the "is" is doing more than merely functioning as a copula.)

The "but" is also unnecessary. Only, there is a difference seen between having the two clauses coordinated by the conjunction and having them paratactically situated. There are, actually, a number of possibilities.

He cares little for snakes but fears spiders more.
He cares little for snakes. But, fears spiders more.
He cares little for snakes. Fears spiders more.
He cares little for snakes; fears spiders more.

My preference is the third presented, with the period and without the "but." The reason: how it fits within the greater context.

3. The title. I hate the title. First, is there any reason why there has to be the first person present in the title? There is nothing in the poem at all that demands a first person. So why put it in the title? Second, is there anything in the poem that at all necessitates the person being a "brother"? Not in my estimation.

"Insomnia" I think is a good idea to have in the title. (Though, even the idea of insomnia seems unnecessary to the poem.) For me, the blunt stating of "Insomnia" alone would announce the poem as though it were an brief encyclopedia entry. I might have kept the idea but lost the word. Perhaps something playing off of "to sleep, perchance to dream" ("A Chance to Dream" "Perchance to Dream"), an idea that fits well with the ideation in the second half of the poem?

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