May 29, 2011

Elizabeth Bishop, "At the Fishouses": How Much Is Too Much?

 That's enough hot dogs for one day. Go sit down and read.  Because I said so.

At the Fishhouses by Elizabeth Bishop : The Poetry Foundation [poem]

What is Bishop's purpose in "At the Fishouses"?  Are there any words, lines, passages that aren't carrying their weight in conveying that purpose? It's not a short poem and doesn't have much white space. Does it deserve all its words? I'm not yet sure where I stand on this.

What else do you like or dislike in the poem? Or about the poem?

At the Fishhouses by Elizabeth Bishop : The Poetry Foundation [poem]

May 26, 2011

Ezra Pound, "In a Station of the Metro": How Much Is Enough?

I wonder how often writing, or all art, succeeds or fails because the artist hasn't sensed how much is enough.  And to what extent is that knowledge a conscious, rational strategizing as opposed to an intuitive grasp of matters like rhythm, tone, connotation, emotional ebb and flow?

The other day I once again came across Ezra Pound’s oft-anthologized “In a Station of the Metro,” a two-liner that survives, perhaps, because it illustrates the movement toward Imagism in the early 20th century:

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;    
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Petals? Or Cincinnati Reds Fans?
I respect and sometimes cry out for restraint and understatement in poetry, but Pound's miniature has always left me indifferent. It’s a pleasant enough metaphor, the faces compared to petals, but I it leaves me uninvolved, even as I feel I'm seeing the picture clearly.  I think of someone painting by the numbers, and I’m skeptical concerning the artist’s care for his subject, including any big ideas or emotions the pictures might create. 

In terms of Pound’s place in intellectual history, I guess I can go only so far with the argument that “we had to get there to get here.” That's probably true in terms of the big, big, and purely academic context. But if “here” means poems that succeed in evoking thought and emotion as well as painting pictures, there might be a problem. “No ideas but in things,” said William Carlos Williams. I like that orientation, which may have been necessary at one time, but it’s a bit extreme.

Let's not forget that a few folks have given us images every bit as precise and palpable as Pound’s, but with the added benefit of emotional or intellectual power. I think immediately of  Keats' and Coleridge's shorter poems, plus Hopkins, Dickinson, and, even in prose, Fitzgerald's imagery in The Great Gatsby. In the best work of those writers, there is plenty to see, simply in the gifts of word pictures, but there's also plenty in the way of ideas, verbal music, and emotional impact.

Once again, maybe some smart, talented people have backed themselves into a black-and-white, either-or corner.

May 21, 2011

Bishop's "One Art," Day Two

Okay, okay, here's the whole poem.
One Art- - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More 

I wonder if the tone of banter in the first four or five stanzas serves to dramatize, by contrast, the more momentous losses late in the poem. Or does Bishop foil herself, leading us to take "losing you" less seriously than we might have because we've been led to respond to everything in casual, chatty terms?

Also, are the final line's parenthesis, italics, and curious logic effective, especially when "Write it" is such an abrupt, forceful imperative (compared to the softer, early imperatives)? And all this causes the repetition of "like"? Is that an emotional stutter in "like . . . like," or is it simply awkwardness? Can we paraphrase the line in a way that captures both its thought and its feeling?

Of course, some writers hate teachers' requesting students to paraphrase. If the lines could be paraphrased, they reason, why should poets bother putting them into verse in the first place, with all that metaphor and rhythm and tone business to attend to?  The whole reason for writing poetry is the inadequacy of paraphrase and other attempts at discursive commentary.

I'm in the wishy-washy middle on both of my questions. I usually think Bishop has been ingeniously powerful with the turn in the final stanza, and the command in the last line is at least a little scary. But sometimes the line itself and the poem's whole tonal change from coffee chat to an exectioner's directive (Write it; as in, "Kill him!). It can feel like a rhetorical trick, a gratituitous extreme, as much as an earned utterance and emotion.

As for paraphrase, I'm one of the sociopathic dullards who's asked students to do it--yes, suborned the young to Commit paraphrase.

On the other hand, I do agree with those poets who say one of the main purposes of poetry is to (try to) express the inexpressible, thus rendering the act of paraphrasing (turning poetry into prose) a felony of the intellect and soul.

On the third hand, I think my job is to guide students (persuade, badger, trick them) toward liking poetry and understanding it, on their own terms, in which case the argument against paraphrase can sound like highfalutin, "aren't I special," mystical frippery and fraud, which alienates a lot of students. They'll get comfortable with exotic frippery and foppery as they grow old; they'll even practice it plenty. But let's not push them there any faster than necessary. 

Of course, the real argument is that students who really, really, really get poetry already know, or suspect, or will know soon, that what makes any art special is beyond paraphrase. And they'll probably intuit that you can't kill art with paraphrase even if you try. It's bigger and fuzzier than that.

One Art- - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More


May 19, 2011


Does he looks as if he's lost something?
It’s been a while since I’ve ranted about a poem’s obligation to offer gifts along its way to completeness. So, for a couple of days, I’m going to offer only chunks of Elizabeth Bishop’s deservedly famous and masterful villanelle, “One Art,” in the hope of demonstrating that this is a poet who earned her time on earth—not just with one poem, but with individual lines and stanzas. On the third day or fourth day, I’ll provide a link to the whole poem (as if you can’t find it on your own—but try to restrain yourself).

First, let’s remember just how difficult the villanelle is as a form. It’s a French invention, comprising five three-line stanzas (tercets) and a concluding quatrain.  In those 19 lines, there are only two rhyming sounds, which occur in a pattern of aba five times, followed by abaa in the quatrain.  Mind you, that’s not just a first and third line rhyming in each tercet, but the same a and the same b sounds throughout.

As if that’s not enough, Line 1 is repeated (verbatim or nearly so) in lines 6, 12, and 18, while Line 3 is repeated in lines 9, 15, and 19. 

By comparison, the Shakespearean sonnet, a rigid form in its own right, permits seven—SEVEN!—rhyming sounds: abab cdcd efef gg.   Viewed beside a villanelle, it’s a downright flabby hippie of self-indulgence and ought to be ashamed of its lack of discipline. 

Redwing: Lost in the Branches?

And one more thing! Speaking of people who might be mistaken for self-indulgent hippies, Dylan Thomas in the famous “Do Not Go Gentle” and Theodore Roethke in “The Waking” go still further and impose a rather chanting iambic pentameter upon their admirable villanelles. Bishop's iambics in “One Art,” are less emphatic and thus might seem more natural, conversational. The poem contains more variations upon the iambs, and most of its a-rhymes are feminine (that is, their final syllable is unstressed—the “er” in “master” and “disaster,” for example).

The inner nuns, the ascetic souls in these three poets are alive and well, bent on self-flagellation and various other forms of abuse (even as they perform good works for the rest of us hooligans).

So here is Bishop’s opening stanza in “One Art,” in which she commands my attention, astonishment, and admiration. After completing the first tercet, or just the first line, the poem is hers to . . . lose (no pun intended).

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Bishop’s labeling of losing as an art is well on its way to being a poem in itself. Also, the almost good-natured, self-effacing, chatty tone—the tone that personifies and accuses “things” of having the “intent/to be lost”—almost holds its own against the dark weight of “losing,” “lost,” “loss” and “disaster.” Almost . . . . 

We hear her irony, her almost light-hearted invitation to us, along with the (perhaps) blithe accusation of herself. However, we also hear the poem's potential for turning grave any minute, if it hasn’t already.

Note also the enjambment (unpunctuated running on) between lines 2 and 3; things are filled with "the intent" . . .  and we pause slightly for the end of a line.

Wait! What intent? We have to go on to Line 3 to be answered, to hear the (suddenly?) ominous "to be lost." It's little-big situations (tricks?) like this that push me to insist that good poems are as suspenseful as mystery novels when we take the correct, patient approach.

So, what's coming in the poem, do you think?  Next post, the second tercet, maybe more if I'm convinced you're hungry by then.


May 13, 2011

"Anecdote of the Jar," "Ozymandias," Permanence and Perception

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley : The Poetry Foundation [poem]

Anecdote of the Jar by Wallace Stevens : Poetry Magazine [poem/magazine]
Jean Arp, "Torso of a Giant," 1964, D.I.A.

The visitor comments in response to the May 9 post on Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar” are unusually interesting, thoughtful, and provocative. So, as I’ve done a few times, I’m using today’s post to respond.

Readers dropping in for the first time today will get a lot more from the discussion if they first look at the May 9 post. Yes, this is time-consuming; for that I apologize, but I like the points and questions visitors have raised.

I wonder if anyone will take on the turbo-charged Jeff and Barbaro. FYI, I recently bought a Kindle; satisfied owner, I am. But let’s make that a later, separate discussion.

In what follows, I refer to Shelley’s poem, “Ozymandias,” as an argument about art, or monuments, that runs counter to Stevens’ suggestions, so here’s a link to “Ozymandias” as well as a link to Stevens’  “Anecdote of the Jar.”

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley : The Poetry Foundation [poem]

Anecdote of the Jar by Wallace Stevens : Poetry Magazine [poem/magazine]

AltadenaHiker, do you mean you hear Stevens winking (at the outrageousness of his proposition?)?  I hear the wink, but not the outrageousness.

Brenda, isn’t all this simply the way the eye-brain connection works, a simple physiological and psychological fact? Was it Sesame Street where one puppet said, “One of these things is not like the other” and “It isn’t easy being green”?  We see what stands out, and often it stands out just by being unlike everything around it. 

I don’t know if that difference causes fear in animals and plants, but to the human eye and brain, it would make the forest—yes, the huge, “slovenly” forest—seem to surround the jar, seem subservient to the jar as focal point, at least in the mind of a human observer. And maybe, yes, this would make the forest seem “tamed” because, in a way, it’s been conquered by, made secondary to, this man-made or simply other object, force.  Now add in the fact that the jar will likely outlast all the forest organisms, and we have the classic conflict of art vs. nature (immortal shape or words vs. perishable life). The jar doesn’t even have to be pretty to win.

Let me paraphrase the philosopher Berkeley, with his tree falling in the forest and the question of whether it makes a noise if no one is there to hear it: . . . “If a jar is placed in the forest, and there’s no one there to perceive it, does it still make the forest slovenly and subservient to the jar?” In the same way, can a bright, melodious bird humble the rest of the wild? Oh my.

Now if you mix in what I hear AH saying—that there’s at least some playfulness or downright ornery mockery from Stevens as . . . instigator? . . .  then maybe it’s Oh, Oh, My, My. 

One of the most common explanations for why humans create art (and children) is that we feel it’s a hedge against mortality. We die, but our art doesn’t. Our art and our children live on after us.  Of course, that’s not foolproof thinking (or is it just sensing or intuiting?), as Shelley’s great poem “Ozymandias” reveals. However, barring unusual circumstances like defacement, a painting will outlive its painter.  After two thousand years, we still go to see the objects in Rome, not the dead Romans who made them.

Barbaro, should Keats have left the nightingale alone? That’s hardly a perfect analogy, but think about it. 
Song Sparrow

Like you, I’m much more likely to be stirred by nature than art, but organisms die, whether they live downtown or on a Tennessee hill. Art and architecture don’t technically live forever, but left untouched, they outlast tree, bug, bird, and human—by centuries.

Jeff, in the end, long after humans, yes, cockroaches will probably survive jars. Is that what you mean by nature's order, its triumph over chaos or entropy? Well, in that long, long view, you're right. But Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale" will survive both its creator and its bird.

So, even if Stevens is delivering his argument with a wink, he probably thinks there’s truth in it. First, the jar is different and therefore commands our attention, whether or not we like that fact. Our rods and cones have a mind of their own.

Secondly, even if it’s not a wonderfully sculpted jar, even if Stevens or we would never call it ceramic art, even if it’s just a pickling jar, it will not only visually and mentally dominate, but also outlast each tree, bird and bush in the raggedy ass, mortal forest.

It seems all wrong, doesn’t it.  That jar is just a crappy, functional kitchen item or umbrella holder ("tall and of a port").  But it’s the star of the show in the forest, even in Tennessee, where forests are especially grand. Man made that jar, and in the poem, a man chose to place it there, where it would necessarily take dominion, simply by virtue of the way human perception and the process of decay go about their business.

I humbly submit that all this irony—this seemingly wrong, daft hierarchy—is why Stevens is winking, if he’s winking. And just to repeat the obvious (is that what I’ve been doing all along?), if we remove the human element as the perceiver, all bets are off. Will ants and chickadees and poison oak feel the primacy of the jar? I humbly submit that we’ll never know, and that’s not Stevens’ point anyway. He’s interested in what art does to, and for, the eye and mind of the species that's created it.

Jeff, palm fronds in Missouri? But more importantly, I like your paint analogy, though I still have stains from quite a few folks, both those in the flesh and those on the page. For that, I'm grateful.


May 9, 2011

Wallace Stevens' "Anecdote of the Jar" and the Perception Process

You have left your house. You are walking around. Where does your eye go, or your ear? Your mind? Your heart?

My final two paragraphs last Saturday (April 30) felt right for Langston Hughes’ “Daybreak in Alabama,” but they might apply even more clearly to Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar.” Therefore, I brashly, narcissistically repeat last Saturday’s words here:

“I’ve recently heard a couple of poets say that witnessing—that highfalutin, almost mystical form of observation—amounts simply to paying attention, honestly close attention. We must shut up and observe. I’m only so-so at it, but when I succeed, the payoff feels tremendously good.

“. . . I like the colors, patterns and shadings of the tangles of brush before complete greening obscures them. Buds are nice, but those browns, grays, and lines should be enough to please anyone. If I then find a bird who is, intentionally or not, making himself the interesting center of attention in that tangle, I’ve seen something that matters, and it's been a good day.”

If we keep looking at something—until we feel we have witnessed it—there’s usually a focal point that has captured our attention and held it. That’s pretty basic (though it also strikes me as interestingly complex.  In evolutionary terms, is this the eye of the hunter detecting what’s different, what’s other, which might become food? Or an encroaching enemy?) 

Why then do many readers warm slowly, or never, to “Anecdote of the Jar”? Maybe it’s too much brain, too little heart?  Maybe its central idea feels both obvious and passion-less? Maybe we’ve seen the graffiti or the scrawling on walls in public restrooms:  “Wallace Stevens is an emotional skinflint?”

Maybe we want Wordsworthian rapture when speaking of nature and Keatsian rapture when speaking of art, and Stevens gives neither—though his final line strikes me as a controlled exclamation.

Whatever the case, “Anecdote of the Jar” has grown on me over the years. I find myself in the midst of its central truth more and more frequently as I look around, in both city and country.

So in today’s photos I offer two common birds (like Stevens’ common “jar”), the cardinal and robin, in a context meant to illustrate Stevens’ point. The birds would be appealing on their own, but they—and the scene as a whole—are more powerful because of the interplay between the focal point and its larger context, the lines and shades of brush that simultaneously point to the bird and try to ignore or obscure it.

The two loud singers might seem to be trying to make themselves the center of a piece of art, like a jar on a hill in Tennessee, but I doubt that they have anything more in mind than claiming territory and attracting hot chicks.

For me that raises another interesting and perhaps contradictory point:  in “Anecdote of the Jar” a human mind and hand are necessary to create a visual, aesthetic, psychological center in the tangle of raggedy forest. If the jar were removed, would nature return to its state of randomness, a condition not far from chaos?

At the risk of trying to one-up Ruskin’s notion of the “Pathetic Fallacy”—attributing human characteristics to nature—I ask, why shouldn’t we wonder if the birds have aesthetic, philosophical awareness and intent in placing themselves in an eye- and mind-catching place.  The brightly colored, vocal critters are creating objects of art in which they are the main characters. Over the protests of trees and brush, the birds are both the artist-creator and the art itself. Maybe it’s something like performance art.

Surely the birds are at least opera stars, all soloists, central targets for reviewers’ pens. Or cheerleaders. Or oiled body-builders flexing. Or skinny models strutting down a runway. Or children (of all ages) who sense that negative attention (hawks, wild cats) is better than no attention at all.

Oh my yes, that’s a stretch. Isn’t it?

("Anecdote of the Jar" has also appeared here at Banjo52 on Nov. 12, 2009 and March 30, 2010).

Anecdote of the Jar by Wallace Stevens : Poetry Magazine [poem/magazine]


May 5, 2011

e.e. cummings, "O sweet spontaneous"

In the backyard, this young squirrel would seem ho-hum daily fare. But in the woods, I felt as if I'd discovered the essence of squirreldom  (Independence Oaks, near Clarkston, Michigan).

Ditto the Tree Swallow pair; a purist might be put off by their being coaxed, trained, hoodwinked by that box. Not me. Except for cages, a nice bird is a nice bird.

"O sweet spontaneous" is one of the cummings poems I fell for in college, and I still like it. It's the best of both worlds; I don't have to admit to being a completely mindless sap in youth or a jaded, dessicated academic in the 21st century, too learned for such hormonal advocacy of the irrational. 

O sweet spontaneous - A poem by e.e. cummings - American Poems

May 4, 2011

TWEET. e.e. cummings.

The Finch Boys have got their yellow back. Look out.

e.e. cummings:  I'd rather learn from one bird how to sing
than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.

With 40 million hits on YouTube now, Ukulele Boy, whom I posted last May and still love, could teach cummings a thing or two. Try him for a minute.

YouTube - I'm Yours(ukulele)


May 3, 2011

"The Wild Swans at Coole" and "Song of the Wandering Aengus" by W.B. Yeats (poetry reading)

"The Wild Swans at Coole" is okay, though not my favorite Yeats.  However, I think this reading of it is perfect, a comment you don't often hear from Banjo-grouch (see my extended complaints here last October 15 & 19, February 19-20) about the mosh pit of poetry readings and the Hollywoodizing groupie-grope poet-hugging that abounds therein (should there be a comma in there somewhere?).

Also, I just happen to have a swan shot or two.  

YouTube - "The Wild Swans at Coole" by W.B. Yeats (poetry reading)


Notice this elegant pair, who think they are somebody, swimming in mud, more or less, and pretending to be too symmetrical and lofty to care about food, while in the foreground three mallards manically bob for minnows, octopi, or corndog leavings.

Actually, I was misremembering. I was thinking of a Canada Goose in a setting I like. But you can have him too if you'll admit to liking "Song of Wandering Aengus" just a little. Last time this came up (November 28, 2010), only one of you rose to the occasion. (Do you know who you are?).

"Aengus" is an early (1899) Yeats poem that draws little enthusiasm from serious scholars or those readers of Banjo52 who are full of gravitas. I admit it's a bit sappy and perhaps too reliant on Gaelic mythology, but I like it anyway. Here is the same guy reading; maybe his presentation will sell the poem. That can happen.

YouTube - "The Song of the Wandering Aengus" by W.B. Yeats (poetry reading)


Lovers' Lane