Feb 2, 2012

Poetry, Hopkins, Pitch, Honesty and Trust

High, Pretty, Alone in the Wind


    In Hopkins’ “terrible sonnets,” here is the short passage I find most wrenching and representative (from “No worst there is none”): 
    O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
    Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there.
However, as a whole poem, I prefer “Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend.” Its final three lines are not for sissies either:

    Justus quidem tu es, Domine, si disputem tecum; verumtamen
justa loquar ad te: Quare via impiorum prosperatur? &c.
    Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
    With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
    Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
    Disappointment all I endeavour end?
    Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
    How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
    Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
    Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
    Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
    Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
    With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
    Them; birds build – but not I build; no, but strain,
    Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
    Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.
The post that will follow next time got away from me in length and tone (too formal, not much fun). But to avoid being the squirrel halfway across the road, I’m going to post it later, in two parts.

    So in a more casual vein, appropriate for a blog, I want to continue the discussion about poetry (Roethke, Hopkins, and now T.S. Eliot) in a way that amounts to looking at honesty and trust in general. One reason more people should look more often at poetry is that it asks us to think more carefully about spoken experiences, our own and those of others, including how honest and trustworthy we or other speakers are being. 
How Clear Is the Focus?
When someone—lover, boss, friend, government, for example—offers excited or dire statements, how much attention has that speaker earned? How do we know how involved to become?

One answer is to respond to those people as we’d respond to a poem. We listen carefully to the language being uttered. What do the words mean, at the literal, denotative as well as the emotional, connotative levels? In what tone or mood are they offered, and is that appropriate to the situation? 

    Are we given enough specifics to make our own judgments? Is the speaker being honest and accurate in the way he presents and evaluates information? Too emotional? Or maybe not emotional enough? Too self-protected in irony, long-windedness, lame humor, and other defenses? And of course, what’s the other side of the story?
How Heavy's the Load?
Although we are often fooled, we keep on making such human decisions almost every day in response to things we hear, whether in person or through the media. Very few good responses are made in a True-False or Multiple Choice mode. We look at motive, context, tone, and a host of other variables in sizing up why our friend wants to go out with that person or make that comment to the boss or be defeated by that situation. 

    Those are the very kinds of considerations we need in approaching poetry. Hear the poet or his speaker as a friend or acquaintance who is, presumably, saying something he considers urgent, or at least important enough to be worth our time. Is it conveyed in the right kind of detail. Why is he telling me that? Is it just some hysteria or some fancy dance? How much of it do I believe, or care about, or think I should respond to?
How Loud Is the Flap?

 So when someone (like me) gets long-winded, obsessed, overblown, or tediously technical about poetry or some other subject, maybe he's just to trying to make sense of his conversation with a poet who was worked up about something.

    Next time, onward with Hopkins and Eliot.



Anonymous said...

I'm sure someone has said this before, but some poems tug at the sleeve, insistently. They simply won't go away, until I finally turn around, sometimes many times, and say, "What? What do you want?"

Banjo52 said...

AH, I like that. It seems indisputable to me. Are these Hopkins sonnets doing that?

Hannah Stephenson said...

It's a question that came up in my classes this week, with students: "Who's talking to us, and what do they want to tell us?"

We read "One Art," and it was great fun to hear them experimenting with the possibilities of the speaker's voice.

I always like thinking about how close the voice of the poem is to the reader...is it an across-the-table poem? Across the room? On the phone? Yelling across a field? Whispered?

Banjo52 said...

Hannah, I suppose it's obvious that I really like those questions. May we assume they do get students involved in a poem in a more natural, probably more intelligent way?

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Ever listen to someone speaking in a foreign language or a mathematician put a complicated formula on the board and you think you should get it? You recognize the sounds, shapes and symbols, but it's just out of reach? Thats where I am with this.

I do get behind the idea of something to say, but I'd also argue that as an artist, there is a certain degree of discipline involved in the practice of projecting. You can hit dead ends, but while your in it, and while your promoting it, you don't know it. Art is time based and getting there first (or breaking through/shifts in discourse) doesn't always allow distance for that kind of perspective.

Banjo52 said...

PA, thanks. Sometimes I've wondered what visual artists do when it comes to revision. I keep referring to poets who've said 40 or 50 revisions, or at least that many returns to the page, before they even think of sending a poem to a magazine. Is there an equivalent to that in painting, drawing, etc? Sculpture, ceramics? How do you revise a sculpture?

By the way, Hopkins was experimenting with tricks of language based on Welsh and with "sprung rhythm" and other experiments. At times, I find he's just trying too hard, but I also find that when it works it really, really works.

Stickup Artist said...

Regarding revisions: Speaking as one who makes a living creating digital art, often in the service of advertising and/or retail sales, there is always a deadline. Multiple revisions lead to dismissal or losing a client. And digital art can be revised till the cows come home. Revisions also effect my ability to make a decent living. Even on my blog which is for pleasure, it's so engrained that if I spend more than a few minutes noodling a photo or concept, I consider it a loss and move on. If something doesn't come off naturally, spontaneously, almost effortlessly, I'm not interested in pursuing it. But that is just me.

Banjo52 said...

Stickup, good info. Thanks. Reminds me of one of PA's recent comments about the problems of mixing business with art. I suppose it's always been that way. We always hear it's that way with novels too. Books of poetry, I'm not so sure. Most of the poems have already been published in magazines, so maybe they're ready to go when it's time for a book?

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