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.

★★ The Latest Posts on Hatter's Adversaria
Something I Read #19 – Carl JungSomething I Read #18 – Mircea Eliade
Something I Read #17 – D.S. SavageDelillo's Underworld – a Review/Response

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

"In Memory of W.B. Yeats" by W.H. Auden

W.H. Auden's "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" can be found here [link]

a reading


Because of the issues that arise out of Auden's revising of his texts it has to be noted that the version that I am addressing, the version in the link above, is the version of the poem found in Auden's Collected. To note, this is not the same version found in the Selected, which has the original version of the poem, the primary difference being Part 3 having different stanzas.

In my previous post I took a look at W.H. Auden's The Sea and the Mirror, a literarily curious work but for me not a successful work, to give a moment's thought to the idea of difficulty. Within the post I made mention of Auden's "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," a work that is a favorite of mine, not just within Auden's oeuvre but in verse in general. In this post I want to pick up "In Memory," for no reason other than to give a reading of it.

I will simply start at the beginning and work through to the end, pointing out the ideation and structure I see at play within the text. At times I may move rather quickly. But then my aim is not to give some definitive reading. Indeed, there is no such thing. There is only ever one's own reading of a text. Which does not mean that every reading is equal in value. A reading's strength comes out in discourse, when its validity is tested by other people. This does not, however, carry us to the idea that there could be – or should be – found one ultimate, undefeatable "meaning" of any given text. There can be multiple strong readings of a text. Their value lies in whether and how they assist other readers in forming their own strong readings.[FN]

[FN] While I attempt to keep this to a reading that comes entirely from the text itself, I cannot say that my reading of "In Memory" is not uninfluenced by my reading of Arthur Kirsch's "Introduction" to The Sea and the Mirror (Princeton UP, 2003).


Beginning at the beginning, Part I, stanza 1:

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Notice how the first line has something of an identity to itself. It is functioning as a beginning, as lead-in to what will follow. In its structure, it declares itself as a beginning, one that introduces what is to come. Now, Auden at his worst often reads as though he is far more concerned with how the words sound together than with what the words mean together (or independently). This is not, however, Auden at his worst.

Though the verse is free, it is aurally controlled. The lines generally are shaped to four or five stresses. And there is no small amount of aural composition.

Line 1: "disappeared" is echoed consonantly by "dead" and both assonantly and consonantly by "winter"

Line 2: "brooks" and "frozen" pair. More interesting is the word "almost," which gives us not only repetition of the initial "a"s, but also strengthens the sound of the s/t combinations within the last three words of the line.

Line 3: the use of "u" sounds. Etc.

Worth noticing across the first stanza as well is the willingness to repeat words: "dead"/"dying"/"death" and three "day"s. In combination with the use of "d" (with "t") sounds throughout this pulls the stanza together into a unit.[FN]

[FN] I am of the opinion that if a word is the right word for the moment, you should not be afraid of using even if you have just recently used it. A question worth having in mind while reading: when does repetition of words strengthen a stanza and when does it weaken it?

But let's not forget about the ideation with that opening line. Though it is an in memoriam verse, the line does not open "He died." Rather, Yeats "disappeared"; it is the world in the depth of winter that is described as "dead." Which is how the world is described in the lines following: where there should be motion, in the brooks, there is stillness; so also where there should be activity, in the airports. And civic identity and history, as embodied in the statues, is disfigured. The energy of the verse is put into describing the world, not Yeats. And it is not because of Yeats's death that the world is dead; the world is not described as experiencing a symbolic death. Rather, the very nature of the day, as to which "what instruments we have agree", was in itself that of a "dying day."

This thought is given more shape with the second verse.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

Note the structure: the stanza is one sentence, a list of three elements: the "wolves ran," the "peasant river" was "untempted," and the "death of the poet was kept from his poems." All three occur "far from his illness." There is an identity being established: the world of Yeats's poems is the world of peasant rivers and of wolves in "evergreen forests." There is also an opposition: the world of "the death of the poet" is not the world of "his poems."

In this, and in the first and second stanzas, we find what is the ideational core of "In Memory," a fundamental opposition. In the first stanza Auden establishes the material world, in the second he turns to the spiritual world. The material world is a "dying" world, while the spiritual world is "evergreen." And that spiritual world is what is found in Yeats's poetry.

By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

Not only "found in," though. Yeats's verse is not merely a verse about a world of evergreen forests. It doesn't merely document that world. Rather, it is equated to that world: that world is the experience of Yeats's poetry, and vice versa. And that world is to be opposed to the world of airports and public statutes, and even of brooks when thought of in their material reality.

The third stanza focuses on that final line of the previous, on "the death of the poet," the death of Yeats himself.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

The division is already established: the material Yeats and the spiritual Yeats are two things. Stanza 3 is primarily the description of the death of the material Yeats, worked in terms of a country. Yet, in that "he became his admirers," even Yeats's spiritual self is not unaffected by his death. This idea is picked up by stanza 4.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

Yeats will not be exempted from the fate of all thinkers: once they no longer can speak for themselves, other people will – and must – speak for them. This applies both to the material and spiritual realities: on the material side, Yeats the man – the civic individual – will "be punished under a foreign code of conscience"; on the spiritual, "his happiness" will be found "in another kind of wood." Though Yeats's words – whether it be those of his worldly self or his poetic self – continue to exist beyond his death, they can exist only "in the guts of the living."

Stanza 4 is for me a pessimistic stanza, which is to be opposed to stanza 5. (For me "In Memory" is as a whole a rather pessimistic verse, painting a very dark vision of the world). Thus the opening "but."

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

That opposition can be read also as the opposition between the material and the spiritual

The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.


But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
. . .
A few thousand will think of this day

Auden speaks between these two stanzas of two realities: the material reality of the many, and the spiritual reality of the few. It is unavoidable that "the words of a dead man" can only be spoken, considered, interpreted, and experienced by the living; and that applies both to the material and spiritual words. But, there is a difference between the many and the few. For the few, those who keep the death of the poet "from his poems," those true "admirers," those who are most participant in the spiritual reality of Yeats's poetry,

A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

It will not be that great of a divorce. The day of Yeats's death will amount only to something "slightly unusual": the poetry, for those few, will live on mostly undamaged. It will live on mostly as it has always lived. (How is spoken of in Part II.)

Which brings us to the close of the first part, lines we have seen before.

What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Just as the first part has a defined opening, so also does it have a defined closing, the same lines that closed the first stanza. In a great part the repetition works to give the first part an aural unity. And there are other ways that the six stanzas are tied together. The most obvious is the structure of the stanzas: each one closes with a two-line statement, except for the third stanza, which closes in a one-line but two-part statement.

What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.[FN]

The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

With that final, two line stanza, the whole is closed just as was each of its parts, though also with the ending bending around to tie up with the beginning. As well, it is re-emphasized: it was not just Yeats that was dying that day but the whole of the world.


[FN] It is a worthwhile question to ask as a writer of verse why Auden did not break the final line of the third stanza to close it also with a two-line thought. I believe the answer lies as an issue of form. For me dividing the final line into two lines would diminish the punch of the thought.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed;
He became his admirers.

The new final line would be but a two-stress line that has five unstressed syllables to those two stressed. It is a rather weak closing line, that would, because of the length of the stanza in the stanza beginning generally shorter than the norm across the Part, cause the stanza to trail off. Compare it to the structure of the close of stanza 2.

By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

Which is not written:

By mourning tongues the death of the poet
Was kept from his poems.

The stanzas are as a whole written to close aurally strong, if not emphatically.



Part II opens

You were silly like us

re-establishing, through contrast with the lines that close Part I, the primary opposition of the poem: the material world, the spiritual world; the world of the many, the world of the few. On that latter opposition: I believe it is false to read "In Memory" as being in any way elitist. First, while the "us" in the opening phrase can be read to apply only to poets, I believe it should be more expansively applied to both true poets and true readers of poetry. Second, the poem as a whole does not read as praising the few over the many; rather, it reads as a pessimistic acceptance of the dark, harsh nature of the world, in which so many are lost. As well, the expansive nature of the last stanzas of "In Memory," which speaks to the value of true poetry, defeats any accusation of elitism.

That said, the contrast between the closing of Part I and the opening of Part II marks a shift in subject. Part I is primarily about the material world, about the world of the many. Part II will be about the world of the few. Perhaps in emphasis, as we now entering the world of poetry, there also is a change in form. The free verse of Part I is dropped for iambic hexameter.

Note that that opening phrase is not written:

We are silly like you.

That construction creates the idea of imitation, the group attempting to follow the character of the one. Rather, the text is written the other way around: the one carries the characteristic that is inherent to the group. It is as important to see that the clause is not only saying that Yeats was "silly," but that the whole of those "few thousand" are silly. It is the nature of those who inhabit the spiritual reality. Yeats was not individual, but part of a group: the group of true poets (and, by extension, true readers of poetry).

What does "silly" mean? Hold that question for a second. First, lets continue.

                                    your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.

The work gets a touch biographical, but does not lose the opposition between the material and the spiritual, implying here not only did Yeats's spiritual "gift" survive all the material turmoil and obstacles of his life, but even it was generated by that turmoil, especially as regards the country of Ireland. But while there may be a relationship between Yeats's material and spiritual realities, the latter had, in the end, no effect on the former.

                    Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen:

The famous and so often mis-read line. The verse is not saying "poetry makes nothing happen" period, end of thought. It is saying "poetry makes nothing happen" in and from the viewpoint of the material world.

And thus we come to an understanding of the word "silly." The Oxford Dictionary site offers as definition of silly:

1. Having or showing a lack of common sense or judgement; absurd and foolish.
      1.1 Ridiculously trivial or frivolous.

an idea that fits the thought of poetry from the point of view of the material world. Poetry has no effect on "the floor of the Bourse," no influence on the business of airports or the civic world of cities. As such, from the view of that world, it is trivial, frivolous; even absurd and foolish. But that does not mean poetry has no value or action; to understand the value of true poetry one must understand that it is not of the material reality; it is of another modality of being altogether. Continuing:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

True poetry does not have material effects. It does not engage the world in rational argument. And Auden is making an argument – if a poetic one – within "In Memory" for the nature of true poetry. Just as the world is divided into the civic many and the poetic few, so also is verse – and literature, and all of the works of humankind – divided. True poetry does not make things happen in the sense of material (or political) endeavors; rather, true poetry, a spiritual endeavor, is a way of happening. It is a different modality of thought from material, rationalistic, civic being. Rather than categorical thought, poetry is experience.


What does that mean? Part I established the opposition between the material and the spiritual, but it was primarily about the material world. Part II gave us the relationship between spiritual "poetry" and the material world, and pointed to what poetry "is" with it being not a material event. In Part III, we are brought to the spiritual poet himself. We are given thought to what true poetry is: why Auden calls it a "mouth," and a "way of happening" rather than a thing that happens.[FN]

[FN] The word mouth is another word repeated through "In Memory." How it is used is worth pondering.

Another part, another change in form. The verse has become very formal, rhymed lines of strict iambic quadrameter (without the opening unstressed syllable), set in four-line stanzas. The feel of the verse is most like classical poetry, most like something one might expect to hear at a funeral.

Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

Where stanza 3 of the Part I spoke of Yeats's death in material terms, here he is described as a spiritual creature: the material "vessel" is emptied of its spiritual "poetry." Using that division the first stanza introduces the Part 3.

It continues with description of the material world, here in as dark of terms as has been had thus far. (It is worth noting "In Memory" was written in 1940, in the early stages of WWII.)

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

In opposition to that reality, Auden gives us the "silliness" of poetry.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

I read the verse as speaking specifically of Yeats but also generally to all true poets and to all who would aspire to such. This begins the ars poetica, the argument by example of what true poetry is and does. That argument begins with a plea for Yeats (Yeats's work) – and for those who would be true poets – to "follow right / to the bottom of the night," the dark night of material reality that was described in the previous two stanzas. There they are to speak with an "unconstraining" voice: another element of opposition between the material and the spiritual: constraining vs. unconstraining. With that voice, Auden begs of Yeats to continue to do, even after death, what his poetry has done all along.

Still persuade us to rejoice

I find that "still" to be one of the most powerful words of the poem. For it embodies the intensity of that plea: "still persuade us," for without poetry, life would become so dark as to be unbearable. But do not pass too quickly by that word "persuade": it gives to true poetry an action, as though reading it, the spiritual engagement of reading true poetry, shows the reader an opposition, a spiritual brightness, to "the dark cold day" of material being, a brightness that can persuade a reader to "rejoice" even in the face of the bleakness of material life.

The final two stanzas give example to that idea of rejoicing in the face of despair.

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

I find it not amiss and to the point that the examples are internally contradictory: a vineyard despite, presumably, the curse that cast mankind out of Eden; a rapture of unsuccess; a fountain where there is no water; and freedom within a prison. But then poetry is experience, not material definition. And true poetry is irrationally symbolic, not rationally, categorically organized. One can not rationally argue a person into finding the will and desire to sing raptures in the face of continued distress; the "argument," as it were, must be an experience. Poetry "makes nothing happen" materially: it does not operate in rational or political argument. When a text does so it is not true poetry. True poetry rather is and must be an experience, a spiritual experience. It is a way of happening, a way of speaking, the only way through which can be generated the experience and modality of the spiritual.



Note: In reading "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" I am readily brought to think of Yeats's "The Tower," another verse about the spiritual and the material, a verse that is Yeats writing about his own death; and another verse written in three parts each in a different style. Stanza 2 of the first part always brings to mind the opening of the third part of "The Tower":

I choose upstanding men
That climb the streams until
The fountain leap, and at dawn
Drop their cast at the side
Of dripping stone;

I've never read anything saying Auden had "The Tower" in mind when he wrote "In Memory," but I have not read that much on Auden so that means nothing, really. I would not be surprised, however, if it were the case.

Friday, July 7, 2017

The Sea and the Mirror by W.H. Auden

The Sea and the Mirror is in Google books [link]. You can scroll down to the Preface.


a note on difficulty


In admission, this post is a little dependent upon that you have (or have had) the same experience with the text that I had. If not, just play along anyway.


I want to take a look at a moment in W.H. Auden's The Sea and the Mirror. The work, if you are unfamiliar with it, is, as the subtitle offers, "A Commentary on Shakespeare's The Tempest." It's various parts are written mostly in the voices of the characters of the play, set as though the play has just concluded and the characters have something more to say, comments that extend the play beyond its final curtain, and, even, beyond the stage. Through this Auden gives a philosophical response to The Tempest as he reads it.[FN]

[FN] The Sea and the Mirror is found in the Vintage Collected Works. It has also been published in an individual volume, edited by Arthur Kirsch (Princeton UP, 2003), which contains also a thirty page introduction that is worth looking up; not only for what it says about The Sea and the Mirror, but for how it puts much of Auden's work in a philosophical context.

The reason I'm re-reading The Sea and the Mirror, the reason I'm presently reading Auden, is because I've gotten my hands on a little critical analysis of Auden's career: Gerald Nelson's Changes of Heart: A Study in the Poetry of W.H. Auden (U of Cal P, 1969). Outside of some small familiarity with a here and there verse ("In Memory of W.B. Yeats" is a favorite), Auden has been something of a gap in my knowledge of twentieth-century verse in English. Nelson's book is in effort to fill that gap, however lightly. To note, it is a book that attempts to defend Auden against the major criticisms that has been leveled against his work: that he failed to live up to the promise of his early work, that his return to Christianity had negative impact on his work; that Auden's career was "without development as a poet" and as such "the success of any individual poem [was] pure accident." (ix) As for my own response to Auden, I don't consider myself familiar enough with him to speak to that criticism; though, I will say that my own experience with his work, my various times browsing through his Collected, does permit it.

That criticism has little bearing on what I want to do here. I have a different question to ask. It is a question that is applicable to the whole of The Sea and the Mirror, though I will use only the one small part of the work – concentrating on a single stanza – as example to the whole.


The Sea and the Mirror opens with a Preface in the voice of the Stage Manager – the only voice in the work that is not a character in the play – speaking "to the Critics." I will focus on the first stanza; but let me give you the first two (out of four), so that first stanza is not completely isolated. Though this is but two stanzas, they represent sufficiently the whole of the Preface, and even can stand as representative of the whole of the work, if only for the question I wish to ask.

The aged catch their breath,
For the nonchalant couple go
Waltzing across the tightrope
As if there were no death
Or hope of falling down;
The wounded cry as the clown
Doubles his meaning, and O
How the dear little children laugh
When the drums roll and the lovely
Lady is sawn in half.

O what authority gives
Existence its surprise?
Science is happy to answer
That the ghosts who haunt our lives
Are handy with mirrors and wire,
That song and sugar and fire,
Courage and come-hither eyes
Have a genius for taking pains.
But how does one think of a habit?
Our wonder, our terror remains.

Where this small sample is representative of the whole is in the difficulty of the verse. As Nelson describes, The Sea and the Mirror is Auden's most difficult and most complex work. "Many critics maintain that it is Auden's masterpiece, while others find it even more irritating than Auden found The Tempest" (21). And, in honest, "irritating" is one of the emotions I had when reading The Sea and the Mirror. It is, as you might see in the above, a dense work; more accurately a very condensed work – which is not the same thing. When something is condensed it can become dense, yes; but it does so through part of it being removed. Condensation is not in itself a negative thing. Indeed, I argue that it is an essential skill to sophisticated writing. However, being too condensed will have its negative effects. What is difficult can become obtuse; and what is obtuse can become impenetrable. Thus the irritation. When I read The Sea and the Mirror I feel as though Auden is skipping across his argument like a stone across water, making it extremely difficult to enter into the depths of that argument.

Let's look at that first stanza. It is readily noticed that it is not describing a performance of The Tempest but a circus. When I would read it (before reading Nelson) I would attempt to connect the circus to the play. After all, these are the first words of the The Sea and the Mirror, a "commentary" on The Tempest, so it is not afield to think the text would begin by connecting the reader to the play. In that way, it is natural to see "the nonchalant couple" as Miranda and Ferdinand. And as Trinculo is Alonso's jester, there is also a clown. Though, where in The Tempest to find a lady being sawn in half? There is a problem with the association of characters.

As Nelson reveals, connecting the opening stanza to the play is a false reading. In fact, the argument of the stanza lies not in the play (the circus) but in the audience. Let me give you the core of Nelson's reading, though I will present it in reverse order. There are at the end the children laughing at a lady being sawn in half. It is children laughing at death; and, children are able to laugh at such things because, being children, they have as of yet no real understanding of death. In the middle are the middle-aged audience, the "wounded," people who have suffered the pains of life, and as such people who experience not only the humor of clowns but also the pain and violence that so often underlies that humor. Finally (firstly), there are the elderly, the people nearest to death, who thus have the greatest fear of death, and who "catch their breath" at the tightrope walkers perilously high above the ground.

On one hand, once you see the structure it is fairly easy to see the structure. I can't now not read it so. But on the other hand, in order to see that structure I had to recognize that the description of a performance in a verse about The Tempest had nothing directly to do with The Tempest, and then shift the focus in a verse about a performance of The Tempest (remember, this is the stage manager speaking to the critics about a play just concluded) away from the performance itself and to the audience. On top of that, I had to negotiate condensed language: e.g., the whole of the relationship of middle-aged people to death is condensed to nine words, and one had to find middle-aged people in "the wounded." The sum effect is that the idea of death is so removed from the passage that it took someone saying "it's about death" for me to go "Ohhh! It's about death." Not the most easily reached conclusion. Which brings me to my question:

When is a work too difficult?

Reading beyond the first stanza the texts asks,

O what authority gives
Existence its surprise?

Even with Nelson's reading of the first stanza in hand, can you anchor that question within an argument? Can you make sufficient sense of that question? Does adding the rest of the stanza help to flush it out? To say, the third stanza offers no help to understanding the second; it moves on from the second stanza as quickly as the second stanza moved on from the first.

When is a work too difficult?

Now, I will say, Nelson's reading of the first stanza, of the Preface, and of The Sea and the Mirror as a whole did much to bring some life to the work as a whole. And I think that if a person can present a successful reading of a text, as Nelson did of that first stanza, it is sufficient argument against the accusation that a text is too difficult. Just because a text is difficult to me does not mean the text is universally difficult. Which is an important point. Difficulty, in itself, is not – is never – sufficient to the condemnation of a text. In fact, difficulty should be something expected in the realm of literature. Climbing the learning curve of literature is in part the effort of learning to master – and enjoy – the difficulties one encounters in texts. It is also true that learning to write literature is in part the effort of learning to master the difficult. Complex thought requires complex presentation. (Is it equally true that simple thoughts should be presented simply?)

Difficulty for the sake of difficulty – for example the use of obscure words solely for the sake of using obscure words – will fail a writer. The pay-off for the reader should exceed their effort. For example, there is a sense of play to be found in Wallace Stevens's use of rarified words. The added difficulty does not get in the way of the pleasure of his texts but contributes to it. This gets us to the other side of the coin: just as difficulty is not sufficient to the condemnation of a text, nor is it in itself the means to the redemption of a text. The text still has to work as a literary text, as a literary experience. Defending a text by saying "well, it's a difficult text" is meaningless. Difficulty is not justification for a text that does not work on its own.

The opening stanza of The Sea and the Mirror is difficult. In the four or five times I read it before looking into Nelson, I could not make sense of the whole of it. However, after Nelson's reading I can easily see the structure in the text.

But Nelson does not stop at that reading. Rather, he comes to the following conclusion as regards the first stanza.

This is the scene presented to the Critics by the Stage Manager; he is asking them to be aware of the audience as well as the show. What Auden is asking us to do is to be aware from the very beginning of The Sea and the Mirror of the possibilities inherent in the relationship between life and art, to be aware of the narrow boundary between illusion and reality. He asks us, in short, to try to place ourselves in the position of the Critics and to think about what we see. (26)

That is a lot gleaned from ten rather concise lines. Granted, it is a reading that is taking the whole of the work into consideration, but the reading must still be legitimated by the text itself. And, in working through the whole of Nelson's reading of The Sea and the Mirror, I was frequently questioning, however much Nelson's ideas may fit the text, whether those ideas could be said to have been generated by the text. A lot was often made of relatively few words. I cannot myself, even using Nelson's text, make the argument that above paragraph is to be found in that first stanza. And, as I said, The Sea and the Mirror is throughout a very condensed text. At every point Auden is continually asking the reader to make a lot out of very few words.

Which prompts my answer to my question. When is a text too difficult? When it is no longer difficult, but something else, be it poorly written or intricately inscrutible.

I myself in reading The Sea and the Mirror could not bring its various parts into a working whole. "What does this mean?", "What am I to do with this?" were frequent questions, that were rarely (if ever) answered by the text itself. It took an outside person to give me some sense of argument across the text. And I am not convinced that that argument can be found within the text. Nelson describes The Sea and the Mirror as "by far the most technically complicated of all of Auden's poetry, [. . .] also, perhaps because of its complexity, one of his most difficult works ideationally" (21-22). In contrast, those who were critical of Auden's work found his long poems "diffuse in thought and uncertain in technique" (ix). Which fits more with my experience of The Sea and the Mirror. The first stanza of the Preface is a difficult stanza, but one out of which a structure can be revealed. However, as Nelson's reading may show, bringing that stanza into the whole of the text seems to involve something beyond close reading, something other than explaining the difficult. Take a look at Nelson's reading of the second stanza. To save you having to scroll back, I'll will give you again that second stanza before Nelson's reading.

O what authority gives
Existence its surprise?
Science is happy to answer
That the ghosts who haunt our lives
Are handy with mirrors and wire,
That song and sugar and fire,
Courage and come-hither eyes
Have a genius for taking pains.
But how does one think of a habit?
Our wonder, our terror remains.

Now Nelson:

Once the Stage Manager has set the scene, he moves directly to the problem of man's existence. Since it is his job to eliminate real surprise [on stage] while maintaining the illusion of surprise [for the audience], it is only natural that he should begin his discussion of existence in theatrical terms. As a result, the scientist's nonaccidental, mechanical universe becomes one in which

. . . the ghosts who haunt our lives
Are handy with mirrors and wire.

This is a purely theatrical image of the universe and is applicable to what occurs backstage [. . .]. There is a solid natural order behind all things.

"But," inquires the Stage Manager, "how does one think up a habit?" How does rational order explain the completely irrational? The Stage Manager's notion of existence would seem to be this: the irrational, unconscious fears and needs of human beings, before which reason pales, permit only "our wonder, our terror" to remain.

So much for one answer to the problem of existence.

The connection between the reading and the stanza itself is not terribly concrete. (Is a habit "completely irrational"? What of the lines beginning "That song and sugar and fire"?) Nelson has a reading of the text, yes; but that reading does not come off as derived from the text in the manner that the base reading of the first stanza (that it is about death) can be shown within the text itself. Considering the nature of the reading, as you move through the second stanza and through the verse as a whole, Nelson's reading does not seem to be an explication of a difficult – or "technically complicated" – work. Rather, it seems to be someone drawing in the lines that connect the separate strikes of the stone upon the water, a layer of ideation set on top of the work. As such, given the apparently necessary nature of a reading of The Sea and the Mirror both in part and in whole, I am faced with the idea that The Sea and the Mirror cannot be called a "difficult" work. "Diffuse," or too condensed; but not "difficult."

Monday, May 29, 2017

"Taxing the Rain" by Penelope Shuttle

Penelope Shuttle's "Taxing the Rain" can be found here [link]

an exploration post


Let's just explore some language in a bit a verse. Penelope Shuttle's "Taxing the Rain" passed by my way today in my FB scroll and it struck me as a curious thing. It's been put online by Jeanette Winterson on her page [link]. (To note, it came my way formatted entirely in two-line stanzas, not as Winterson types it.)

The heart of the verse – its focus and its primary source of energy as presented – is the description of rain and what it does. And there are moments in there that might in themselves offer points for interesting discussion. (E.g., the shape of scented baths? Or, is it rain anymore when it is a bath? Or, notice how the verse uses a shift to abstraction, "dreamy complexity," to get the rain indoors.) However, what interests me most is the framing device that is used to get the verse to the idea of what the rain is and does: that is, the idea of people wanting to "tax the rain."

The idea as presented creates a difficulty. You can speak of "taxing automobiles," say, but it is clear from the idea that it is the owner that will pay the tax. It is the owner that is really being taxed. But who would be the once-removed target of putting a tax on rain? Nobody "possesses" rain; nobody "causes" rain for a desired purpose. Indeed, most of the text's description of rain is rather universal if not a-personal. How would the rain pay a tax upon itself? How would such a thing be leveed? What exactly would be collected? Does the phrase "tax the rain" make any sense in the everyday world? With any thought comes the recognition that taxing the rain is inherently an absurdity.

Now, the presence of an absurdity in a text does is not in itself a flaw in the text. The issue is not whether there exists an absurdity. The issue is whether the text can get the reader over the ideational hurdle of the absurdity. That is, to use a phrase, does the text successfully suspend disbelief so that the absurdity can become part of a vibrant whole?

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Introduction to "The Kekulé Problem" by David Krakauer

the fear of empty space


Here is a curious moment from something recently published on the web. The article is "The Kekulé Problem" by Cormac McCarthy, published on the Nautilus site [link]. What caught my eye, however, lies in the introduction to the article. That intro begins:

Cormac McCarthy is best known to the world as a writer of novels. These include Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, and The Road. At the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) he is a research colleague and thought of in complementary terms. An aficionado on subjects ranging from the history of mathematics, philosophical arguments relating to the status of quantum mechanics as a causal theory, [. . .]

It is necessary to context to know that the intro was written by one David Krakauer, himself a professor at the Santa Fe Institute.

My interest lies in the third sentence.

At the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) he is a research colleague and thought of in complementary terms.

There are two things here. First, a moment of syntax.

Hopefully you caught that there is an error in syntax in the list: specifically, the list is written as though it contained a parallelism that doesn't exist. The list is written as though the "is" applies equally to both parts of the list.

[. . .] he is
a research colleague
and thought of in complementary terms.

That is, however, not true. In the first entry in the list the structure is that of noun-is-noun, the "is" being used as a copula [he – is – a colleague]. In the second entry in the list the structure is that of noun-verb, with "is" being used as an auxiliary verb [he – is thought of].

As a general rule, when you are listing phrases you should include in the element of the list the whole of the basic structure of the phrase. That way you avoid the stumbles such as that created above. The sentence should be written

At the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) he is a research colleague and is thought of in complementary terms.

I say only "general rule": writing it out should be the default, varied from only when the writer is sure that the variation works, when it does not create an unwanted hiccup in the reader's ear (and is interesting enough to justify the variation). It should be a conscious choice when you vary from the default, not an accident of inattentive writing. The likelihood of creating something that sounds clumsy will exist almost entirely on the side of not following the default. For example, when giving a list of infinitive phrases, it should be the default to include the "to" in each element in the list. This becomes important when the phrases get long and the reader's ear could really use the repeated "to" to help organize. However, the construction is only the default. To the other side, when the phrases are very small, having the "to" on every phrase can sound repetitive and unnecessary. As well, when the phrases do not need the "to" keep themselves organized, the decision to include or remove the "to" can work to controlling tempo and other aural effects. Anaphora exists for a reason, after all.

Attentiveness to this applies doubly in verse, where line breaks and the pauses created thereby are added to the mix, as well where aural effects are (ostensibly) in play. It is all the easier in verse to lose the sentence structure when the phrases get long.

Speaking of anaphora, here's an example I just came across in prose, in the essay "The Crisis of Language" by Richard Sheppard, in Bradbury and McFarlane's Modernism.

Essentially, both the Dadaists and the Surrealists were anti-art. With them, literature and poetry cease to be supreme and become instead only one psychedelic means among others. With them, poetry becomes 'disposable', created for no particular purpose, and useful in an undefinable way. With them, language is displaced from its pinnacle and reinstated simply as one means of communication among many. With them, language ceases to be the tool for asserting human lordship over the universe and becomes a natural force in its own right, which creates as it will and over which human beings have only limited control. With them, man becomes the servant of his language rather than its master. [continuing for three more "with them"s]

A good example of a device used both to help maintain structure for the reader's benefit and to create an aural effect.


But back to the sentence of concern. There is a second event going on with it – or least there is evidence of this second event: one can never be sure with such things when you move from "what is" to "why it happened." The event, or the evidence of the event, is very apparent to me because I see in it something I struggle with in my own writing, a source of bad habits that, in both my creative work and my essays, I must ever be alert to. Unfortunately, I may not be able to make the event visible to everyone (and probably won't). I'm hoping I can make it apparent by backing into it.

Here's the sentence again.

At the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) he is a research colleague and thought of in complementary terms.

Beside the bad syntax, that sentence should catch your ear as somewhat odd. Why would someone say "thought of in complementary terms"? First, I don't think the guy would be a "colleague" if nobody could stand his presence, so the second half of the sentence is rather implied in the first. Technically, it doesn't need to be stated. Second, that's all that can be mustered? "Thought of in complementary terms"? He doesn't even make it to "is well liked"? It is all in all an oddly chosen phrasing. Disregarding the possibility that the phrasing is a poorly told joke (nothing in the rest of the introduction hints at humor), why does that oddly worded phrase exist?

I believe the answer lies in the first half of the sentence.

At the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) he is a research colleague.

Now, it is correctly written "Santa Fe Institute" first, and not,

He is a research colleague at the Santa Fe Institute.

because the information being presented is not the fact of McCarthy's association with the SFI, but the nature of that association.

Read it again, in context.

Cormac McCarthy is best known to the world as a writer of novels. These include Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, and The Road. At the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) he is a research colleague.

Do you feel a slight tension? It is such a short, succinct sentence. Do you get the feeling that something's missing? That the sentence is somehow incomplete? Do you have a want for the sentence to continue on?

At the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) he is a research colleague and . . . .

It is in that "and," in the desire for that "and," that I place the source of the poorly written second half of the sentence: a desire, an impulse to add something to the sentence because the sentence simply does not feel long enough or complete enough. An impulse to write more solely because it seems like there should be more.

It is an example of what I consider the verbal equivalent of the fear of empty space, the unconscious – and often conscious – need to fill in or occupy empty space in visual art and design.

At the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) he is a research colleague.

That's all the information meant to be shared and all the information that needs to be shared; but the sentence seems, feels, somehow incomplete, inadequate, needing something more to give sufficient weight to justify its existence. Thus there is tacked on to the sentence the somewhat silly and syntactically clumsy

. . . and thought of in complementary terms.

It might be argued that the same impulse can be seen in the first two sentences of the introduction.

Cormac McCarthy is best known to the world as a writer of novels.

That's the end of the thought. There is no need for more. But there was nonetheless felt a need enough to add a second sentence, a rather silly sentence considering the already attested to fame of Cormac McCarthy – he is after all "known to the world."

These include Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, and The Road.

Did we need the added list of titles for the first sentence to work? Or is it there because the general term "novels" opens the door for specificity, and we just have to walk through it?

Look at the introduction without the extra bits:

Cormac McCarthy is best known to the world as a writer of novels. At the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) he is a research colleague.

Look at how well they work together. To the world McCarthy is a writer of novels. At SFI he is a research colleague. Unfortunately, that extra material got in the way of the elegant, core thought.

It is the natural tendency to fill empty space. Children will want to use up the whole of the page when drawing their pictures, either by making their subject fill the page or by putting things into the empty space. Musicians have to learn how to hear and use rests. A shelf with only one object on it looks devoid, like it needs more.

Such desire to add to where something needs not be is inherent to writing as well. There is the want to add adjectives to nouns (the foolish workshop-ism forbidding adverbs has grounding in the easily picked up habit of over-using them); the tendency to use adverbial phrases to bridge one sentence to the next (to fill in the empty space between the sentences, a problem I suffer from greatly); the tendency, as seen above, to see short as being incomplete, when short might be all that is needed.

Look at Pound's three principles of imagism. The first is the most tied to the imagist project itself; the other two, however, could – and I would say should – be considered groundwork for anyone's approach to writing verse (and not just verse).

1. Direct treatment of the "thing" whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.

Three principles, three areas of concern: (1) the subject of the text; (3) the sound of the text; and (2) the construction of the text.

I do not believe it is coincidence that Pound's second principle recognizes that all writers have a natural tendency to put too much into the text, and that learning how to write well – both in verse and in prose – is learning to avoid and to get rid all that superfluous material, much of which exists simply because of the ever present want to fill in empty space.


And nothing more needs to be said, so I'll end there.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

"The Hollow Men" by T.S. Eliot

"The Hollow Men" can be found here [link]

some of Eliot's own line periods


Perhaps I move a touch too quickly with this post. In defense my intent here, as with other posts of this nature, is not to argue definitively but to prompt thought.


Seeing a small word – an adverb or pronoun or conjunction – at the end of a line is these days a too reliable cue that the break is unpurposed, in continuation of the previous post that the line carries no sense of a line period, that it is not a constructed line; such words are too frequently strong evidence that the text is not verse at all but prose with line breaks pretending to verse.

Take, as a quick example, and possibly too easy an example, Philip Levine's "The Second Coming," which appears in the February Poetry Magazine, found online here [link]. Out of eight lines, five of them end in small words: "the," "only," "is," "a," and "of." At first glance – indeed at that first "the" – a reader should know that the text is not verse, that it will show little of that fundamental quality of verse, the crafted line.

That the text is shaped does not defeat the assessment, it does not magically turn a prose text into verse. One need only think about the shaping of text in magazine advertisements as cases in point. There is nothing about concrete shape that excludes the possibility of crafting lines, as such


the text

is physically

shaped does not

excuse the author who

desires to write verse from

the requirement of writing lines.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Tamburlaine the Great, Pt 1 by Christopher Marlowe

Back from my break. To say, I was able to finish the project for which I had blocked off the time. Which is a good thing. Perhaps the final result was not as good as I had hoped for, but we can't expect the best results every time.

As I said on my last post, initiating the break, I am unsure how I want to proceed with this blog. The longer posts like this one are fun, but can also be laborious. And I would like to try to give more effort to smaller, "spur of the moment" posts, as well as more posts that respond directly to verse. Whether and how I might do that, however, I do not yet know.


the line period


My launching point for this excursion is a moment from T.S. Eliot's "The Blank Verse of Marlowe" (found in The Sacred Wood). There is no reason not to get right to it, so:

The verse accomplishments of Tamburlaine are notably two: Marlowe gets into blank verse the melody of Spenser, and he gets a new driving power by reinforcing the sentence period against the line period. The rapid long sentence, running line into line, as in the famous soliloquies "Nature commended of four elements" and "What is beauty, with my sufferings, then" marks the certain escape of blank verse from the rhymed couplet, and from the elegiac or rather pastoral note of Surrey, to which Tennyson returned.

We will pick up Marlowe shortly. Right now I want to focus on the concept the Eliot brings into his discussion of Marlowe, that of the line period.

It is a wonderful term. It is not synonymous with line break, and the reasons why are important and speak to its general superiority. For a line break can be arbitrarily had. Simply apply a carriage return and, voilĂ , you have a line break. However, a line period – as with the sentence period – speaks to a construction that is attending to far more than the mere question of where the line ends. A sentence period does not exist merely because it marks the end of the sentence. The presence of the period speaks to the nature of the words that precede it – and to the words that follow it in that a period also marks the beginning of a new sentence.