Monday, January 12, 2009

Reading Poetry #1

Some Robert Frost's Banjo readers have confessed to me that they just don’t know what to make of the poems posted on this blog. That’s ok: as I’ve mentioned in the past, folks don’t read poetry so much nowadays. The days of sitting around the parlor & reading a bit of Browning (Robert or Elizabeth B.) or Shelley or Tennyson out loud have disappeared from the rearview mirror; & as my better half would point out, such parlor pastimes were by & large the disports of the privileged classes.

So one “issue” we’re up against here is familiarity, but the larger issue may be cultural relevance. What art forms are culturally relevant these days in the U.S.? Film, certainly; popular music, including jazz (which has attained a highbrow status, but thankfully still appeals to a whole lot of folks), television, of course, & by extension, the internet, since that’s probably TV’s future. & books—both fiction & non—are still hanging in there.

Now there are a few ways to look at cultural responses to art. Marshall McLuhan wrote about “hot” media vs. “cool” media. A “hot” medium tends to fill in the imaginative gaps, while a “cool” medium leaves a lot of gaps open for the imagination to roam thru. Among other things, a cool medium would tend to be concerned with process. In this way, McLuhan contrasted film with television, pointing out that (in terms of his analysis), the TV set was not a mini movie theater brought into the living room, but an entirely different entity—McLuhan read film as a hot medium & TV as a cool medium. By McLuhan’s definition, poetry is one of the ultimate cool media, since it should be, by definition, filled with imaginative gaps. So why is poetry so neglected in the TV age?

By the by, this isn’t an anti-TV diatribe: I actually love a lot of TV shows, ranging from the original Perry Mason to Star Trek: Deep Space 9.

& here’s another take on cultural response to art: consumerist vs. participatory—& this moves along an entirely different axis than McLuhan’s model. In McLuhan’s analysis, everything is predicated on an audience—this makes sense, because McLuhan was particularly (but far from exclusively) interested in the impact of advertising, the whole premise of which depends upon a passive audience. Beyond the realm of advertising, an audience may be more or less “passive” depending on the medium involved. It could be argued, however, that participation mitigates some parts of the media bombardment McLuhan writes about. Does this mean we all must be poets in able to really “get” or enjoy poetry?

OK, I’ll admit I’m one of those guys who tends to says, “yes & no” in response to lots of similar questions, & I’ll say it again. Anyone who’s been reading this blog for a while knows that I’m all for making art as opposed to passive consumption. Now this doesn’t mean no one should watch a film or listen to a cd, etc. But there are ways of being overpowered by art, of feeling alienated by it, & I would say that these have to do with a “passive” response. What could be an active response? Well, just to take a few examples near at hand, I could point to the writing Citizen K does about music—check out, e.g., his response to a Hank Williams box set here—or the writing done by Ginger Ingenue & Raquelle & Jacqueline T Lynch about films; ditto for Laura’s writing about books, film & painting over at Beau Monde Library. Look at GX9901 at Ukulele Ghetto, whose response to seeing a video by uke legend Jake Shimabukuro isn’t to be intimidated by the professional player's chops, but instead to figure out a way of playing this tune that’s captured his imagination. & there are countless other examples, both in the real & virtual worlds.

“But wait a minute,” you say, “what does this have to do with poetry? Do I need to start a blog to respond to every poem I read?” No, tho one could, & it might make for an intriguing read itself. There’s a way of looking at reading that equates the reader & the writer—each is engaged in a process of making—& here we remember that the word “poetry” ultimately derives from the Greek word poiein, "to make or create." As Borges wrote, “Are the enthusiasts who devote a lifetime to a line by Shakespeare not literally Shakespeare.”

How can this be? Does the reader have an equal standing in the act of creation? You might ask—basing your question on the premise of “skill,” or “technique”—isn’t the art of making a poem somehow greater than the art of reading a poem? I have two responses. The first may sound dismissive, but it’s not: that would be that I find arguments based on the premise of “difficulty” to be specious. This premise, for instance, might value a difficult poem like “Mœurs Contemporaines” more than an apparently simple poem like Apollinaire’s “La Blanche Neige.” I actually respond to “La Blanche Neige” more deeply because of its emotional content, but in general I find comparisons odious. My second response is—just based on the response of this blog’s readership—it seems that reading poetry is not such a simple art after all.

So what could Borges & others who have written about reading as a creative act mean? One paradigm of poetic creation is that of the poet imparting beauty or truth. This paradigm supposes that the reader is a student seeking instruction from a master. One could describe this in terms of the student being a passive vessel to be filled with knowledge, & this would be one extreme of the readerly activity, & an extreme that seems fraught simply by putting the reader in such a passive (powerless) position; to some extent, this might be comparable to TV watching, as that is commonly practiced. A less extreme position, but one that’s still related, puts the reader in the position of an exegete. Here the reader is active in the sense of an investigator seeking the truth. The truth imparted by the poet is there to be discovered if one has the proper critical tools to do so. In this paradigm the reader isn’t powerless, tho his/her power is limited because it must follow a straight & narrow path. & here again, the reader is placed in a subordinate position.

Eberle & I were talking about this essay after she read a draft version, & she pointed out that a person confronted by a poem may be assailed by feelings of unworthiness—the reader feels powerless because he/she isn’t capable of getting the poem. She pointed out that no one hesitates to turn on the TV because they feel incapable of understanding it. This is a valid point, because it means that TV doesn’t typically exist in an exigetical realm—watchers don't believe there's necessarily anything to get (in the sense of getting a joke or understanding a poem).

There is of course a third path in which the reader is neither passive nor straitened in his/her response. That’s the path suggested by Borges, or the path Wallace Stevens writes about in the following poem from his 1947 work, Transport to Summer:

The House Was Quiet And The World Was Calm

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,
Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom the book is true, to whom
The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.
The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.
And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself
Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

Wallace Stevens
© Wallace Stevens, 1947

Note that Stevens says, “The scholar to whom the book is true,” not, e.g., “The scholar who finds the truth in the book.” From this perspective, no two people read exactly the same poem; your “Ode to a Grecian Urn” isn’t my “Ode to a Grecian Urn” (a lot more on that poem next week in the second installment). Now, let’s look at a very short poem by the poet Bill Knott whose work I admire as good deal:


If you are still alive when you read this,
close your eyes. I am
under their lids, growing black.

Bill Knott
© Bill Knott, 1989

This poem might be termed “enigmatic” in the sense that it would be hard to summarize—suggestions of absence or displacement, an absence or displacement that may almost feel like a death, or a vanishing—what does this add up to? For me the poem presents a concentrated image & a complex emotional state; & this poem has personal “meaning” for me in the sense that I understand something particular about love & absence when I read it. Some perceptions concerning “Goodbye”:

The painful disconnection of absence—I don’t know about your life anymore—don’t even know if you’re dead or alive; the impossibility of making any request of you, which I can only now face by making a request—the intimacy of “I’ beneath your lids—somehow seeing the lid itself, the lashes, the exterior world even as “I” am enclosed in this fold of flesh—& dying to you, which means reciprocally you are dying to me—I am your eye—in my wish, seeing your world, which I can no longer see; nor see myself as you see me, as we understand ourselves in the eyes (I's) of others & particularly in the eyes of our “other”; a negative image now—a photographic negative, a fade to black—a fade—“growing”—nothing resolved in the “now” of this poem, a “growing black,” not “I” have already become black; a sense of drifting into oblivion—the “I” fading to black as the “eye” sinks into sleep’s oblivion, or at least the oblivion of not seeing.

A poem is a world, small or large. It isn’t exclusively the poet’s world, nor is it exclusively any one reader’s world. It’s a world constantly created in a circle between the words (i.e., the poet) & the reader. The world exists between them as they each create it, bringing their separate experiences of language, which are ultimately their separate experiences of life. The reader isn’t passively entertained, nor is he/she walking the straight & narrow path of an ultimate truth. There’s an old Scottish ballad called “Thomas Rhymer” that describes the 14th century poet Thomas of Erceldoune being carried away by “the Queen of fair Elfland.” I’ve always read this as a story about the path of “true poetry,” & in the context of this essay that includes the path of readerly creation. The Queen of Elfland shows Thomas three paths:

‘O see not ye yon narrow road,
So thick beset wi’ thorns and briers?
That is the path of righteousness,
Thou after it but few enquires.

‘And see not ye yon braid braid road,
That lies across yon lily leven?
That is the path of wickedness,
Tho some call it the road to heaven.

‘And see not ye that bonny road,
Which winds about the fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,
Where you and I this night maun gae.’

In “my” “Thomas Rhymer” I can see these paths describing various modes of being, including not only the poetic endeavor in terms of producing poems on a page (or a computer monitor), but also creating the poem as a reader. For those of a musical bent, you can find a lovely setting for this ballad in Oak Publications’ A Bonnie Bunch of Roses, a book I’d highly recommend to any folk song enthusiasts.

Next week: Can a poem be summarized? Can we read “Ode to a Grecian Urn”
? Can we read Breton's "Non-lieu"?

By the by, as a late addition: I stumbled across a fantastic poetry blog this morning: Memo from the Fringes. Having read several recent entries, I'd most assuredly recommend this blog. Folks interested in topics poetical should certainly read this post. The notion of poetry being an "activity" that's "
a spreading of a fan of meanings" seems germane to the discussion in this post.

The photo at the top of the post is a public domain image from Wiki Commons. The title is "Henny Porten in her house in Berlin-Dahlem, 1922"; photo by Waldemar Titzenthaler


  1. Thank you for the link, John. I love that you include poetry on your blog. I sometimes manage to slip some in on my New England Travels blog, mainly by New England poets, though not always.

    I wonder if people consider poetry today to be either highbrow, or more often, the realm of depressed teenagers or other exclusive types who seek to express themselves by shutting out the rest of us. This idea is a knee-jerk reaction, but a prejudice difficult to overcome.

    In the 19th century, poets could make a living writing poetry. Longfellow was not highbrow; he was the latest in popular entertainment. Later poets who followed strived for literary reputation among their own set, rather than commercialism. (This is an over-simplification of Longfellow's career, obviously, merely calling it commercial.)

    I wonder if the poets who followed in the next century were overpowered by film and TV as the preferred choices of entertainment, or if rather their shift from the inclusive style of writing of the 19th century that appealed to the general population to a more ego-centric and exclusive style helped lead poetry from the masses.

    Perhaps the Internet will be the new TV because broadcast TV has become the nearly exclusive realm of "reality" programs and infomercials, and cable TV has split itself into individual channels for individual tastes. The Internet may be the current great meeting place for everybody.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Jacqueline, & for checking in. There's a lot in what you say about "career"; not just Longfellow, but Tennyson, too, & plenty of others. Of course these days poets tend to make a career for themselves in academia, typically in MFA programs-- or since there are so few jobs-- however they can hook into academia. This in itself has an effect, I think, on the "highbrow" reputation.

    Also, the "exclusive 20th century" vs. inclusive 19th has some validity, tho I also think academia has tended to "boost" more "highbrow" writers like Eliot, Pound, & others at the expense of poets who tried to aim for a wider audience: Sandburg, Kenneth Fearing, Kenneth Patchen, etc.

    There are a lot of twists & turns in this story.

    Anyhow, thanks again for stopping by. I need to check out your New England blog.


  3. thanks for looking at my poem with such intelligence and empathy...

    would you be kind enough to mention my blog,

    whereon i have posted all my poetry for open access,

    and via which all my books of poetry can be downloaded FREE as pdfs—

    regards from
    Bill Knott

  4. Mr Knott:

    I appreciate your kind words, & yes, I'll certainly make a follow-up post about your blog & the info about your books being on pdf-- I'm excited to know this myself, as I have enjoyed your work. I'll also link to it from the front page, not that I think this will generate such traffic that it'll crash your server or anything like that.

    Thanks Again.
    John Hayes

  5. I love this 'The House Was Quiet And The World Was Calm'...nice thought, isn't it?

    If the world is calm, the house is quiet
    If the house is quiet, the world is calm!

    I think I could write a whole 'nother poem on top of it.

    Course mine wouldn't be as pretty. :)

  6. Ginger: Yes, so often one or the other isn't true (of houses & worlds that is).


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