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, May 25, 2015

"Cold Tea Blues" by The Cowboy Junkies

So, it has been six weeks since the last post, and it wasn't much of one. I intended to slow down but not this much. In part, the length of time lies in that I am trying put energies into other projects that refuse to take off. But in no small part I had simply stalled out, or had grown bored with the critical endeavor, if not wholly put off by the thought of looking through bad poetry – and most of the poetry out there right now is bad poetry – looking for something on which to write, good or bad. There is a point where I have had enough of yet another of Poppoetry Magazine's monthly offerings of yet-more-of-the-same (no matter how they try to convince me through gimmicked thematics it is not).

Indeed, I had stopped reading 'poetry' in the general sense altogether. What I have done is I have started rereading Finnegans Wake, this time coming at the text as I have wanted to, coupled with the endeavor to create an outline of the text's levels ideation. This includes a new drawer dedicated to the Wake in the Cabinet, which has taken some time. For sure, though, the Wake is poetic, poetry at its highest. And it has perhaps brought me back around to interest in talking about poetry on this blog. Though, I doubt posts here will increase in tempo all that much, especially during this period where a lot of my energies are going to establishing the groundwork for the Wake venture. Plus, there are those other so very obstinate projects . . . . .

 


 

from Pale Sun Crescent Moon (1993)

demonstration of poetic form

 

I am going to risk an over-simplification and say that there are three aspects to a literary object:

  1. the words on the page
  2. the meaning of the words on the page
  3. the sound of the words on the page

The reason I am risking the over-simplification is because those three are really aspects of one overarching aspect: form. None of the three are wholly independent of each other; they all speak to the form (or structure) of the work, if each from a different angle.

Before continuing with that idea, a couple of points of explication (if not correction) need to be made.

First: The use of the word meaning is problematic, because that word is generally associated with the nomic, with the prosaic, with language understood as a tool for the communication of information. This is why I generally prefer using the word "ideation," which is a broader term, one that can include nomic "meaning" without excluding symbolic language. It is not uncommon to see "idea" and "concept" distinguished in such a manner, where "concept" is relates to the rational, the factual, the hermeneutic approach to language as a means to communicate "concepts," and "idea" is the broader term, including not only theoretic language (concepts) and symbolic language but even broader, more abstract psychical experience (like the "idea" that is created by a rhyme scheme).

Second: there is also a similar issue with the use of the term structure, since that word is often used to designate particularly structures that have become established through convention. For example, examining the 'structure' of language would point to examining standard grammatical structures and variations therefrom (the discourse begins first upon established conventions and then moves out from that basis). As such, you will occasionally see the term structure set against the term form, where the former is used as just described, to label more concretized or mechanical organization, and the latter is used to address organization in the organic sense, where you start not at established convention but with the object-in-question as it defines itself. (Thus, mechanical structure and organic form. There might be a parallel there with the difference between anatomy and physiology: the former is a theoretic classification, the latter is a more organic understanding of the same object.) I will here try to follow my own general usage with form as the broader concept, which includes within itself the idea of mechanical structure. As Coleridge says, while the mechanical text (the text of Fancy) is not in itself poetic, the poetic text (the text of Imagination) nonetheless requires the use of mechanical thinking. I try to use structure when used, as in the analogy above, anatomically. (I admit up front, however, that maintain strict rigor with these is for me difficult at best.)

Third: Does this three-point division counter the two-axis analyses I have been running with the last many posts, the axes distinguishing verse and prose and distinguishing the poetic and the prosaic? No. The verse-prose/poetic-prosaic approach answers the question: What is the difference between basic-needs, communicative language and literary language, language used to ends beyond basic communication? [FN] The three-point division looks at what constitutes a text, whether it be verse or prose, whether it poetic or prosaic: there is the sound, the organization of the words themselves (including visually on the page), and the 'meaning' of the words. Another way to say it: a literary text is constituted of that which you see on the page, that which you hear with your ears, and the language (that is, 'meaning') which you think with your head. What can you make of those three elements? Texts that are either verse or prose, that are either poetic or prosaic.

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[FN] As well, the purpose of the verse-prose/poetic-prosaic axes is to delineate that there is a difference between the material and the ideational; that is, that capital-L Literature (or capital-P Poetry) is not defined merely by the presence of verseform. The necessary aspect is that of the poetic.
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But, these two means of addressing the text do find common ground, and that in the idea of form: the difference between prose and verse is lies in the imposition of form upon the material aspect of the text normally unnecessary to the needs of basic communication (basic prose). In turn, the symbolic energies of the poetic text are generated through the manipulation of both ideational and experiential form. The latter is the much more difficult idea: its grounding lies in that the poetic is experiential, not factual. As such, for a text to break from the prosaic to the poetic, ideational and experiential form has to be introduced that are beyond, again, the needs of the basic, communicative text. As a simple example, I can modify a prosaic, mechanical structure through foreshadowing, by breaking from the basic A happens, then B happens, then C happens, etc., linear narrative and bringing a later event up to a place that breaks the A B C etc. line. Though, such a move does not in itself create a prosaic text: it can be, in the end, nothing more than an instance of verseform, a manipulation of the medium. It becomes poetic (that is, it manipulates the ideational aspects) only when it also generates energies of conflict, of contrast, energies that cannot be mechanically or logically reconciled, through the move.

That brief explanation is going to have to suffice for the moment. I do not here want to get deep into the theoretical exploration of the idea; I want to stay, rather, in the more basic idea of form, and do so through the use of an example text. Though, that text will, ultimately, speak to form as used both in the material and ideational axes.

 

The text I want to look at is the lyrics to the Cowboy Junkies song "Cold Tea Blues," from the album Pale Sun Crescent Moon (a brilliant album, by the by; "Ring on the Sill" is one of my favorite songs ever. Let me take a look . . . . aaaaannnnnndd . . . . here is a YouTube of the song.) I used to teach this song to show structure in language back in my brief tenure. I never was sure the best way to present it: all at once or a line a time. Here, so that you can have the full text for reference, I will give it all at once and then walk through it. I give words only, no punctuation; I linebreak part to the how the lyrics are used within the music, part to my purposes. (If you have not listened to the song, go ahead and do so. You will not upset the argument to come.)

The lyrics:

If I pour your cup
      that is friendship
If I add the milk
      that is manners
If I stop there claiming ignorance of taste
      that is tea

If I pour your cup
      that is friendship
If I add the milk
      that is manners
If I stop there claiming ignorance of taste
      that is tea

But if I measure the sugar to satisfy your expectant tongue
      then that is love
But if I measure the sugar to satisfy your expectant tongue
      then that is love
Sitting untouched and growing cold

(While I will refer to the music loosely, I will not speak specifically to aspects of the music, though it is itself a fruitful path for exploration of form.)

Again, the focus here is the use of form within the language to poetic ends.

Before getting into the more meatier aspects, I want to take a moment for the use of repetition. It was not my original intention to go into this, but yesterday in the truck the Oasis song "Champagne Supernova" came up on the radio. (Let me see if there's a link . . . . here's the youtube.) The song contains a lot of repetition in the lyrics. The is the opening verse and chorus:

How many special people change
How many lives are living strange
Where were you while we were getting high
Slowly walking down the hall
Faster than a cannonball
Where were you while we were getting high

Someday you will find me
Caught beneath the landslide
In a champagne supernova in the sky.
Someday you will find me
Caught beneath the landslide
In a champagne supernova
a champagne supernova
in the sky.[FN]
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[FN] Keep in mind these are song lyrics, not words-on-a-page poetry. The two are not interchangeable. Most song lyrics, even good song lyrics, make for poor poetry. It is only a very small body of songs whose lyrics are also good (I mean good, not merely-by-appearance) poetry. It's an interesting exploration what underlies those lyrics, but beyond the moment here. (I will say, though, it is not incidental. It lies entirely how the songs are written, lyrically and musically.)
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As for repetition, there is, primarily, (1) the repetition of the line "Where were you while we were getting high"; there is (2) the repetition of the triplet of lines that make up the chorus, and (3) the repetition of "a champagne supernova" in the second half of the chorus. (Later, in the second refrain, the second half of the first refrain is repeated, and the whole of the above is repeated the third time around. And more the fourth time around. As I said, this song has a lot of lyrical repetition.) Even bracketing the meaning of the lyrics (outside of the most basic semantics connecting the clauses together), the repetition has a function within the song. The repetition is not that in the manner of free-styling the lyrics, (improvisationally) repeating the text against the designed melody. The structure of the repetitions work within the song itself. (Keep in mind, this is a song and not a poem. It is first of all musical; only secondarily lyrical.)

The thoughts this song brought to my head was about how people – that is, the everyday listener – hears the repetition. It is my contention that most listeners hear only repeating: they hear the the first iteration of the lines, and then they hear the same repeated. They do not hear the larger form of that created through the chosen repetition of the lines or words. Not all repeating in lyrics or literature is repetition, mind you; some of it is merely repeating. But here, in this song, I believe it is repetition, which works to the form of the song as a whole (lyrics as part of the music).

This points to what is a key aspect of reading (and writing) literature, that is to say a fundamental ability in reading and writing literature, one that goes to informing the difference between mechanical structure and organic form from the side of the reader/writer. It is not enough to see merely surface structure (to see only repeating). Literature, reading, writing, requires seeing (itself requiring the ability to see) and understanding how form works within the greater context of the text. Less sophisticated readers see (and hear) only that lines are repeated: they see only mechanical structure. A more sophisticated reader hears how the repeating of the lines creates the experience of a repetition, an experience which is not only part of the whole but contributes – to a degree greater than itself as a part – to the experience of the whole. The more sophisticated reader sees the repetition physiologically, functioning within the whole.

(And it may read here as though I am talking a circle, repeating the same idea three different ways. I am trying to talk around something that cannot in itself be merely stated as a fact or definition, as mechanical structure. As I say occasionally on this blog: with the aesthetic, the critic can only point and describe, and point and describe, and hope their reader sees it.)

This idea is intimately related – though it may not appear so on its face – with another fundamental aspect of reading sophistication: that ability to hear the narrative "I" as not being biography but as being defined by the text itself. The less sophisticated reader sees an "I" in a text, hears an "I" in a song, and immediately identifies the "I" with the author or singer.[FN] The ability to see the "I" as the voice of a character created within the context of the song is a version of the ability to see form (or even basic structure) within the text, as opposed to applying an external structure/context (that of biographical reference) onto the text.

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[FN] A side note: I find it curious how quickly less sophisticated readers identify the "I" of pop singers with the singer, even though much of the time the singers do not write their own songs.
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A couple of months ago I heard (second hand) a statement by Anis Shivani (if I remember) about how it was a giveaway as to the lack of sophistication of a writer to find in their book of poetry poems about their parents. This absence of sophistication lies in the lack of ability of the writers to break away from a biographical "I": such poems generally speak an inability on the part of the writers even to create the idea of a "character" or "non-biographical narrator" so as to escape biographical structuring of a text: a form of realism, which is always of the lowest species of literature (or art). (Verisimilitude – in literature or the arts – is not aesthetic creativity; it is merely a question of technique: a statement doubly damning for contemporary poetry, considering how little technique is demonstrated in its realism.)

But, as the wise man said, I digress, so let me get back to the Cowboy Junkies and this demonstration of what can be done with structure.

 

Though the song repeats the first stanza, there is not a chorus or refrain here in the normal sense of the words (either in song or poetry). There is no 'break' created by the appearance of a structure of refrain: the whole of the short song is a single extended statement, though one that simultaneously works in two directions. Look at the first part:

If I pour your cup
      that is friendship
If I add the milk
      that is manners
If I stop there claiming ignorance of taste
      that is tea

You have two lines of organization: that of the first part of each phrase, the progression of the giving of "tea," and that of the latter part, the regression of statements of relationship:

"pouring your cup"= "friendship"
"adding the milk"= "manners"
"stopping there"= "tea"

Using form, the lyrics create that coincidence of opposites that generates symbolic – poetic (as opposed to prosaic) – language and ideation. The more the server attends to the needs and wants of the served, the less the action speaks of the relationship between the two, when in quotidian thinking the opposite would be true: the more the server cares for the served, the more they would attend to their wants and needs. The two paths cannot be reconciled without forcing the reading of the text. Nor should they be reconciled: this is the energy of the experience of the lyrics (and, with the music, of the song as a whole). This is the energy that is lacking from the banal, line-broken, factual statements that make up the overwhelming majority of contemporary poetry.

Not only does the form create energy within that first section, it sets up the closing section. The repetition of the lines – especially in context, with the music – serves to create suspense: something is obviously going to follow; repeating the lines both emphasizes the energy of the ideation within the lines and creates potential energy awaiting the reveal of what is to come. That is to say (knowing what is to come[FN]), it creates energy toward the poetic energy which the closing statement will itself bring into the song.

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[FN] Since it bears constant repetition: to understand the form of a text, you must first know the text. There is only re-reading in literature and the arts.
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The first lines:

But if I measure the sugar to satisfy your expectant tongue
      then that is love

The progression of "tea" is taken one step further, a step that is a different option than that presented in the third step, prior: "stop[ping] there." With that one step, the regression of the relationship aspect is wholly reversed: the downward path of "friendship" to "manners" to "tea" is flipped on its head you have the appearance of "love." Notice, though, that the opposition in the first part is not simply erased: this new statement does not collapse the previous into a newly understood, logical progression (as will be seen). There is still the unsolvable line of "friendship" to "manners" to . . . . . oh, wait, where did "love" come from?

It is also worth noting how the lines break in form from the previous: the phrasing here is much longer, and the other person – the served person – is brought into the song beyond the anonymous "your." There is energy here simply in the amount of words being offered: the opening simple statements, statements not unlike an instruction manual (the music is itself is quite matter-of-fact in that section), are now opposed to a much more intimate and energic engagement between two people. (This too is spoken in the music.) Indeed, that energy is amped up even more by the doubling of the line: the speaker is giving emphasis to the emotional importance of the measured giving of sugar by stating the action and its context yet again. There is yet another buildup. But what to?

[. . . then that is love]
Sitting untouched and growing cold

The two paths of the lyrics are brought into unity. The final words are words that describe both the emotional relationship between the server and the served and the status of the cup of tea. Indeed the cup of tea itself takes over the central theme of the lyrics: the text is no longer about a server "making tea," it is now about a cup of tea sitting on the table. Though, the shift in focus did not abandon the server: now the cup of tea is also metaphor for the relationship between the server and the served from the side of the served: untouched and growing cold.

As such, that unity is also dis-unity. The final line is, after all, part of a greater, single, phrase:

But if I measure the sugar to satisfy your expectant tongue then that is love, sitting untouched and growing cold.

Being a song, the presence of the comma is ambiguous. But whether there or not, the phrase speaks that the server knows that the sugar – and its emotional accompaniment – at the time of its measuring will be left untouched. The song ends in simultaneously in unity – within the final cup of tea speaking both to the "tea" path and the "emotional" path – and disunity: firstly, and most locally, in that the tea cup speaks both of love and the absence of love, the served being wholly unaware of the measuring of sugar and its emotional importance; secondly, in that the love and absence of love are themselves a coincidence of opposites within the act of measuring the sugar.

Look at the two paths as traced through the entirety of the song. In the first section the two paths move in opposing directions:

"pouring your cup"= "friendship"
"adding the milk"= "manners"
"stopping there"= "tea"

But then comes the second part, which gives a different option for the third step, and a sudden reversal in the emotional path:

"measuring the sugar"= "love"

Except that that "love" is itself a opposed duality, as revealed in the last line:

"measuring the sugar"= the server's love
and the served's absence of love

And here I believe I have reached the point where I should stop showing; say, "Do you see it?"; and leave the rest of the figuring out and understanding to you.

 

In summation: The song is a wonderful little piece that relies overwhelmingly on both ideational and material form to create a poetic (rather than prosaic) piece of musical verse (and verse not merely in the sense of it being measured lines). An amazing amount of ideational and experiential energy is generated out of these few words (repetition being one of the means of generation) almost entirely due to the form of the text. Add the music and the form is all the more effective. (The pause in the song itself merits no small amount of words in exploration.)

As I said above, with the experiential, with the aesthetic, all that can be done on the side of the critic is point, describe, and hope the reader sees. The mere organizational (anatomical) structure of the two paths is not the whole of what I am pointing at: you have to be able to see the form generated by the two paths (and the careful wording, and the repetition and line structures, etc.) that creates the whole of the work, that creates the energic experience of the work. It is this energy that I argue is what is missing entirely from the contemporary culture of poetry, which seems fixed upon texts that are but statements of biography or politics or realist description of "that's what happened." Even the poetry of philosophy (such as it is) seems so devoid of the energies of poetic thought: there is only simple, factual statements made through simple texts, giving the reader only the option to take them or leave them.

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