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, November 12, 2017

"Narrow Flame" by Linda Gregerson

"Narrow Flame" is found on poets.org [link]
 

First lines:
Sun at the zenith. Greening
            earth.

 

shape: what works and what doesn't

 

Keeping in line with the last post I went looking online for something else to talk about and found Linda Gregerson's "Narrow Flame" on the poets.org site. I found it interesting verse both in what works with it and what doesn't.

I want to pick up on three points. The first concerns ideation, the third the material aspects of the verse, and the second sits somewhere in between.

 

(1)

There's a interesting event in stanza 6, but I want to work my way there. Beginning at the beginning:

Sun at the zenith. Greening
            earth.

Introductory statements setting the scene. Not a lot of energy put into it, but not a lot of energy needs to be put into it. Indeed, I would argue no energy should be put into it: this verse works through directness and sparsity.

The action begins with the next line, with the horse.

  Slight buckling of the left

hind leg.

There is opposition between the two opening statements of a bright green day and the first moment of action, the first noticeable evidence of the coming death of the horse. But the opposition is momentary, and it works not so much to create a contrast – the opening statements are too brief for them to push forward – but to give a sense of quotidianness to the action. Even continuing, with the introduction of the girl and her speaking to the horse

                And all this while
            the girl
  at his ear good boy and now

the reader has not been given any strong emotional cues. We do not know what the girl is feeling. Is this a difficult moment for her, or is it too something quotidian? That she is saying "good boy" to the horse, as opposed to, say, apologizing for what is happening to it, implies that she is quite in control of the moment.

In the next stanzas we begin to get some description beyond basic statement of the event.

the hip giving way and mildly as
              was ever
  his wont the lovely

heft of him lists toward the field
            that minutes
  ago was still so sweet for

grazing and good boy and on the
            ground

But notice the modifiers – and there are very few of them in this verse – all apply to the horse. Even at the second "good boy" we are still given nothing as concerns the girl. Which is actually the something we are given about the girl: she is not remarkable in any way except for that she is unremarkable.

Now we come to the sixth stanza, where the sense of quotidianness breaks.

  now where the frightening

last shudder of lungs that we've been
            warned about
   does thank you darling does

not come

There's a major shift: the narrative 'I' has entered the verse. Up to this point the subject of the verse was the girl and the horse – and the verse wants the girl to be the subject, thus the repetition of the phrase "and all this while the girl" at the end of the verse. But now the action of the girl and the horse is put into a frame, that of the observing speaker. And that frame has the only direct presentation of emotion: the speaker – it's "we" so it's the speaker and at least one other person – has been warned about the moment of death, that it can be "frightening." The lines thus present a combination of fear of what might happen and relief – "thank you darling" – that it does not.

For the observers this is not quotidian. They have never seen this before, and it is for them a charged event. But in opposition to that there is the girl, who, thanks to the absence of emotional cues, is cast, as said, as being quite in control of the moment. This is the central opposition to the verse, the ideational dynamo of the verse. It is safe to assume from the proffered "good boy"s and the last lines

   good boy unbuckling the

halter lifting the beautiful head
            to her
  lap and all this while the girl

that there is a connection between the girl and the horse. But there is no reason to impute the emotions being felt by the speaker to the girl. The contrast between the speaker and the girl is what energizes the phrase "and all this while the girl": the speaker is in a state of heightened emotion, and yet in front of them is this girl who handles the event not dispassionately but as calmly as if the event were as unexceptional as the setting of a high sun over a greening earth. It matters not if you read the fear of the speaker as being extended toward the girl: that is, that this is as new an event to the girl as it is to the speaker, and the speaker fears for how the girl will respond to the death shudder as much as they fear the event themselves. The verse, even in its light economy of words, plainly sets the behavior of the girl and the emotions of the speaker in opposition to each other.

After stanza six the verse goes back into its sparsely presented description of the event. Which is something worth noticing in that it fully establishes that it is the emotions of the speaker that is the exceptional part of the event. And, those emotions are given their due by being an irruption in the event, not by dominating the narration. What is said of the emotions is all that needs to be said, and the verse can move on to complete the action in the same manner as it began the action.

It's an elegantly structured verse, ideationally and semantically. And its worth giving attention to how it is pulled off: with very few adjectives, with very brief and direct statements of action, with a running style of delivery (once the horse starts to die the verse runs through continuously to the end), and with the ideational dynamo of the verse being a sudden and momentary irruption of emotion in the middle of that narration, set in a frame that distinguishes it from that narration..

I have one gripe, though. I think the word "darling" is a mistake. Compare the way it is written to a variation:

last shudder of lungs that we've been
            warned about
   does thank you darling does

not come

last shudder of lungs that we've been
            warned about
   does oh but thank you does

not come

The darling presents the necessary other person in the "we" of the speaker. It is unstated whether the girl is to be included in that "we" and as such I myself do not include her. It makes no sense to say the girl is "darling" – why would the speaker be thanking the girl for what does not happen with the horse?

But that is the mistake: why would the speaker be thanking anybody – and with "darling" that anybody is a specific somebody – for what does not happen with the horse? It makes more sense that the "thank you" be presented as a non-directed, generalized "thank you." Though the "darling" does serve to give body to the "we," it does not serve well as an object for that "thank you."

 

(2)

It is worth talking a bit about syntax. (I'm mostly exploring writing here, rather than critiquing.)

The verse begins with three sentences ended with a period. From then on out it is a single, unpunctuated run. But not without coordinating syntax. The conjunction "and" is used four times to move the reader to the next thought. What is more interesting though is how the spoken phrase "good boy" is also used as a conjunction.

its toxic everlastingness has done
             its job
   good boy unbuckling the

halter lifting the beautiful head

It works very well both as a means to close and open up a thought, as a means to not let the run of words end nor to let statements blur one into each other. It works so well it leads me to question whether the two previous appearances of "good boy," which are used with "and"s, are weaker constructions. Would the earlier constructions be better without the "and"s? For example, instead of

            that minutes
   ago was still so sweet for

grazing and good boy and on the
            ground
now

what if it were written without the "and"s?

            that minutes
   ago was still so sweet for

grazing good boy on the
             ground
now

Does that weaken the use of "good boy"? It's worth the time to explore with variations.

I am by the syntax of the long run also brought to question the use of periods in the beginning. The verse is shifting gears through those first lines, trying to get up to speed. The question to be asked, the point to explore, is: is the use of periods a cheap means to get the reader into the verse? Could the text have been written entirely as a running string or does writing it as a single string reveal that the periods actually do work well, in a way like the pause in sound during the change of gears in a car?

Sun at the zenith
            greening earth
   and a slight buckling of the left

hind leg and all this while
            the girl

But I am there using line breaks as a means toward syntax. Which is something Gregerson completely eschews. Which leads me to my third issue.

 

(3)

Click on the audio button above the verse on the page and listen to Gregerson read her work.

It is brutally apparent, right from the start, that how she reads the verse (except for but a couple of places) has nothing to do with how the verse is written out. There is zero evidence in the verse as written that the lines were written to be heard, and as such overwhelming evidence that there was not much attention paid to the lines outside of that they come out to be about the same size from stanza to stanza.

By happenstance – and looking at the verse as a whole it can only be attributed to happenstance – there is a passage where the lines do work in an interesting way as written.

And all this while
the girl
at his ear good boy and now
the hip giving way and mildly as
was ever
his wont the lovely
heft of him lists toward the field

There is something interesting at play there. That play does not hold up with the rest of the verse, but it does show that an aural structure might be able to be made out of shorter, more abrupt lines.

But that's beside the point. Gregerson does not read the verse that way. And since it is her verse, I believe it is fair to assume that we as readers are not meant to read the verse that way either. (A very fair assumption when, as I said, such reading is only sustainable in the short term.)

The question to be asked, then, is why not write the verse as it sounds in Gregerson's own ear. If that is the way the verse sounds best to Gregerson, why not write the verse in a way that guides the reader to that reading? After all, writing verse is an aural art. (Or, at least, is in part an aural art.) And if it sounds a certain way in the writer's ear, it should be safe to a assume that for the writer that way is the best way for it to sound. So why not write the lines that way?

What if we restructure the verse according to how Gregerson reads it? There only needs be added a few line breaks where the lines as spoken run long. (Which, actually, do not need to be broken but for the sake of typesetting I will – plus I think the results are interesting.) I keep the periods in the opening because I think they do their job well, though I add a period at the end to balance things out: the action of the verse has ended, so let the verse end too. I'll even throw in keeping the three-line-stanza structure. Following that, this is what we get:

 
Sun at the zenith.
Greening earth.
Slight buckling of the left hind leg.

And all this while the girl at his ear
good boy
and now the hip

giving way
and mildly as was ever his wont
the lovely heft of him lists toward the field

that minutes ago was still so sweet for grazing
and good boy
and on the ground now

where the frightening last shudder of lungs
that we've been warned about
does thank you darling does not come

and feeling for a pulse
no pulse
and warning us

touching the liquid eye which does not close
which means the slender needle
with its toxic everlastingness has done its job

good boy
unbuckling the halter
lifting the beautiful head to her lap

and all this while the girl.
 

I'm not completely happy with the "does thank you darling does not come" line (maybe dashes marking off "thank you darling"?), but other than that I really like how it turns out. (I'm not 100% on whether I prefer stanzas to a single stanza.) The lines have identity, strength, and even play up and play upon the aural structure of the verse. The line breaks also reveal the general ideational structure of the verse. I might also argue that the thoughts in each line are brought into greater play with each other by their being isolated into visual and – just as Gregerson does in her reading – aural units.

Push come to shove, I think it's a superior verse when written the way the Gregerson reads it.

Which, again, prompts the question: why write it otherwise? Especially, why write it in a way that works counter to how it is read? to how the author herself reads it? What reason is there . . . . except perhaps that that is the convention. That is how "verse is written" nowadays.

Only, convention is the last and weakest reason to do something, in verse or elsewhere. And anything done in verse simply because of convention should be struck as poor writing. Which it is.

 

(4)

Bonus comment: I've no idea on the title. But that's cool.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

"Black Locusts" by Cameron Barnett

from The Drowning Boy's Guide to Water(Autumn House Press)
"Black Locusts" is found on Verse Daily [link]
 

First lines:
There are no gardens in my neighborhood,
just three black locust trees

 

after closer reading . . . .

 

— a little text added at the end, Nov. 2, 2017

 

I do occasionally go back to the daily sites to see if there is something interesting to talk about, especially if I have nothing else on the burner (or nothing that I can get finished) as is the case now. This time I found on Verse Daily "Black Locusts" by Cameron Barnett, posted a couple of days ago.

It's an average bit of verse over all. There's nothing spectacular about the versification, but at least he's writing in lines, which is something. I like the general idea being played out, how the verse works two conceits simultaneously: the idea of the three trees as children, and the condensation of a lifetime into the seasons of a single year. But there are problems with the verse. Interesting problems, though, which may be worth pointing out. I'll go through some, one at a time.

 

(1) Begin with the simile that starts on line 4.

All spring, cream-white petals
blooming like baby teeth,

(I'll quickly say that I like the verbless construction of that sentence.) The phrase "blooming like baby teeth" works very well, giving the idea both of the whiteness of the flowers and of their size. But what about the next line?

Thursday, September 21, 2017

"On Poetry" by Ai Weiwei

AI Weiwei's "On Poetry" can be found here [link]
 

on the transportive quality of poetry

 

The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's short statement on poetry found in an issue of Poetry Magazine from a couple of years back was recently brought to my attention. As statements on poetry go I don't think much of it: it's disjointed and a bit pell-mell, and mostly empty rhetoric. But at a couple of places, if we take Ai's words at face value, accept them as they are written, there may be something interesting to be found.

Beginning with the statement in the second paragraph.

Reading Walt Whitman, Pablo Neruda, Federico García Lorca, and Vladimir Mayakovsky at a young age, I discovered that all poetry has the same quality. It transports us to another place, away from the moment, away from our circumstances.

That is a very often seen claim for poetry, that it "transports us to another place." Unfortunately, it's also a very common claim for prose fiction, which right off the top should make the claim suspect as to its value as regards poetry.

And then we also can consider this:

One gloomy January day in 1863, Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, the world's wealthiest and most celebrated painter, dressed himself in the costume of Napoleon Bonaparte and, despite the snowrall, climbed onto the rooftop balcony of his mansion in Poissy.

That's the opening sentence to Ross King's The Judgment of Paris, a book about the rise of Impressionism in painting. It is presenting historical, verifiable fact. And yet, it also can be said to "transport us to another place," making the claim not only trivial about poetry, but one that can't even be limited to literature.

Friday, September 8, 2017

"The Circus Animals' Desertion" by W.B. Yeats

W.B. Yeats’s “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” can be found here [link]
 

the contextual nature of meter in English

 

Trigger warning: this post is about scansion and meter. Results may vary.

 

I want to take a look at one line of verse – at one syllable within the context of one line of verse. It offers what is to me a curious moment within meter in English. The conclusion I will draw from this little excursion is so fundamental it is barely worth being a conclusion. Still, it is a conclusion important enough that it merits being made every now and then. And I do come upon arguments about meter or prosody that fails to hold to this rather fundamental idea. Besides: in the least, everyone needs to see it a first time.

That line of verse is found in the opening stanza of Yeats's "The Circus Animals' Desertion."

I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
Maybe at last being but a broken man
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animals were all on show,

Iambic pentameter, the rhyme irrelevant to the discussion. So that we are all on the same page with the scansion, which is not irregular by any means, let me set it out.

i SOUGHT / a THEME / and SOUGHT / for IT / in VAIN,
i SOUGHT / it DAI / ly FOR / six WEEKS / or SO.
may BE / at LAST / being BUT / a BROK /en MAN
i MUST / be SAT / isfied WITH / my HEART, / al THOUGH
WIN ter /and SUM /mer TILL /old AGE / be GAN
my CIR / cus AN / i MALS / were ALL / on SHOW,

I believe all would agree to this reading. The only real variables are the "maybe" of line 3 (which can be: MAY be / at LAST) and perhaps the "satisfied with" on line 4 (reading it: be SAT / is FIED / with my HEART), though I tend to consider the latter a less satisfactory reading. Both speak in their own way to where I want to go, but I want to focus on another word.

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]

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.

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.

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

that

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, voilà, 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.