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What is Being Said

In Rae Armantrout’s 2007 book, Collected Prose she considers linear vs. lateral thinking as ways of expressing. In a quote of that she says,

“When people ask me what I mean in a poem or whether I mean it, I’m stymied. I mean/don’t mean. I mean that experience is double, that doubleness is the essence of consciousness.
…clarity need not be equivalent to readability. How readable is the world? There is another kind of clarity that doesn’t have to do with control but with attention, one in which the sensorium of the world can enter as it presents itself.
What is the meaning of clarity? Is something clear when you understand it or when it looms up, startling you?”

Going at a meaning directly is something that Natalie Goldberg talks about in Writing Down the Bones as well. In The Chapter Goody-Two Shoes Nature she says a discipline of writing can hamstring into dutifully recording. Instead, wait for a need to speak, for the tumble. Until there’s that pressure, do other parts of life.

One’s own competence can hamstring. In Goldberg’s chapter, A Large Field to Wander In, she talks about a class

“who were very coherent straight from the beginning. They wrote complete sentences, were descriptive, detailed, and grounded.[…] I heard stories of tornados, winters, grandmothers, but after years of that, I felt there was no where to go in their writing. Because they did write very well, they were unwilling to leave what they knew, break into new frontiers and crack open their world into the unknown[…]I was eager to shake them and couldn’t.”

In a way it is like competent draughtmanship vs. artistry. Learning to be competent is a huge number of hours. You can pretend to be an artiste before you get the skills down and the range of gesture is good just as an attentiveness and study in the how and why is also good.

Artistry has the skill and risks the lack of control, the lack of meaning in order to break to another layer of meaning. Writing competently descriptively, accurately, is hard. It risks failure. Writing to catch more is a different risk of ego. It makes failure a little more certain.

When writing for clarity it is hard not to be didactic and spring the conclusion before the argument. One can hold an audience by successive sensationalist surprises of opinions and keep people hanging in for the next interesting tidbit or eye candy. Some poems are built for quips like that. If the language is beautiful or amusing enough, one will keep reading even without an interesting in what will happen. With a cadence there’s a pull by sound as it moves like music building to crescendos and a crash.

One can tell your story and bring the facts plainly forward, or in an exciting hyper-stimulated deluge, or be a storyteller and bring the audience into it.

It’s more compelling for there to be a gap of surprise and enough complexity to seed curiosity to keep attention, to keep hooking forward into the unfolding. How to get people to anticipate, wonder what will happen next, feel a set up as in a joke but then the punchline coming from a different but not arbitrary direction. Not a tacked on ending, not predictable but makes sense and satisfies.

The so-what effect of saying what one already could predict or a succession of random that keeps its own kind of pattern allows one to drop the poem but maybe pick it up later. The surprise structure is tiring reading because each line is a sort of commercial speed plot. It is less cooperative. It is telling rather than walking with the reader.

When a poem is unfolding slower with less obvious narrative through line, other tools are holding it together. People want to complete. Like a soap opera, ideas that complete on the next line drag one forward more than end-stopped lines.

Poems can move from bringing someone into the experience and suggest ways though it so the reader comes to their own conclusion of the priorities and salient features. As Pound put it, concise, simple, clear with “predominantly more objects than statements and conclusions”.

Some poems are vignettes of one quiet moment of juncture. They are an impression of a feeling. They are mini story. In photography it is “a clarity shot”, an illustration. Which is very hard to do well. It is useful for the poet and the reader but one reading tends to show all there is to see. It’s a more naked raw poetry, even if it is buff(ed).

But there is another angle which is impressionistic of something different. It’s less easy to define what one is saying or reading yet gets towards making something else.

If done poorly a poem that doesn’t have a lesson/story arc/buzzword upshot can be as much of a muddle as a composed “clarity shot”. Each if done well achieves as much of a wow.

Consider this poem below by Charles Wright. It doesn’t go from A to B and tell a direct simple story of self. There is no I, no my, only eventually, our. It is about “out there” but doesn’t claim to be objective. It’s “aboutness” is forest. Is his intention forest? Or capturing the experience of being in a moment in a forest?

It has an energy which is not stiff and proceeds like one should walk in a forest, this way and that, not along a paved route. It is from Scar Tissue, p. 56-57


This is the north, cloud tatters trailing their joints across the ground
And snagging themselves
In the soaked boughs of evergreens.
Even the heart could lift itself higher than they do,
The soaked and bough-spattered heart,
But doesn’t because this is the north,
Where everything dark, desire and its extra inch, holds back
And drags itself, sullen and misty-mouthed, though the trees.
An apparitionless afternoon,
One part water, two parts whatever the light won’t give us up.

The north is not the memory of the north but its repeat
And cadences, St. Augustine in blackface, and hand to mouth:
The north is where you go when there’s no place left to go.
It’s where our altered selves are,
Resplendent and unrepentant and wholly unrecognizable.
We’ve been here for years,
Fog-rags and rain and sun spurts,
Beforeworlds behind us, slow light spots like Jimmy Durante’s fade-out
Hopscotching across the meadow grass.
This is our landscape and our landing zone, this is our dark glass.

There’s a fusion of contemporary and something evoking King James English with the suggestion of seeing through the mirror darkly in this mortal life. Glass and reflections as perception being a a step removed from actual reality run through his poems. That sense that what we know one should be skeptical of. And yet viscerally one can’t help but feel. The external world is also the internal world. There are suggestions that there is timeless and profound and there’s the immediate. But how does it all fit together. It is not structured as a persuasive argument. It is not a narrative of an incident. It has too much movement in it to be a postcard. There’s a tension in the 20 lines.

16 of them ending on a stressed syllable, most of them roughly iambic with two emphatic lines “one part water…” and “the north is where we go” being largely stressed syllables slowing them while “resplendent…” takes flight with the speed of the Latinate (and Biblical-colored vocabulary of repent and ear rhyme with holy) in its 5/17 (stressed syllables to total syllables) matching the lighter racing feeling of being ecstatic in nature and words that are more abstract than the grounded Old English and Norse bough and snag, dark, soaked.

The poem travels through a transformation from being weighed down to rejoicing in the landscape, claiming ownership of it and self, transitory but glorious.

One can also make a poem that doesn’t have a conclusion but put ideas on the table in a rich way that suggests significance without saying one direction of what the significance is. For example, the poet mulls and offers a fragment that somehow holds together. Such as Armantrout’s Spent:

Suffer as in allow.

List as in want.

Listless as in transcending
desire, or not rising
to greet it.

To list
is to lean,
to one side.

Have you forgotten?

Spent as in exhausted.

In a way she plays with language but as a means to turn meanings in her head. Considering possibilities.

The set of vocabulary is always the subject. In a group we did an exercise where we each scrambled the vocabulary of a draft for 20 minutes and rearranged it so there’d be no sentence syntax. Yet it was remarkably consistent with each person. There’s an internal integrity that holds for a person and what they pay attention to. Even broken to pieces there’s a cadence in the world choice, in the showing of objects vs. telling of slanted opinion words, in the amount of words, the number of articles and proportions of parts of speech. Take away the plot and the line and the phrase and the word play and there’s something individual still in the selection of pieces.

What lights any one of us up is distinctive as a finger print. In The Capilano Review, (3:19) Nicole Brossard says, “The mystery of how we process meaning is the most exciting one because there is the excitement of the process itself as well as the excitement of discovering new meanings, new possibilities.[…] The pleasure of the words is what we always come back to because that pleasure is made of our nervous system, heart, memory. No matter if you are immersed in joy or disaster while you write, what keeps you going is the pleasure it gives while you are processing thoughts, feeling, emotions, images, language itself into the written word.”

The navigation among the words is the story, not the Story itself. The attitude embedded. The bullet of bias. What matters leaks into any subject.

In the Sensation of Space essay Goldberg suggests spending half an hour to write 10 poems. Each is a physical object you see in front of you. Salt, glass, etc. You have 3 minutes to write 3 lines. Then move to the next object. Your perspective is infused in it, can’t be extricated. You are writing about this and in this way and not something else in some other way.

Doing the rapid fire writing trains the brain to think in short units, she says. Read a kind of form, write a kind of form and the structure of that will come more easily when you need. Practice writing a plain way or a way where you’re not sure what you mean and refuse to edit it until it “makes sense”. Set the censor aside for a time out. Use Write Or Die. I did 1200 words in two units of 15 and 10 minutes. None of it was poetry but it cleared the pipes. Once much is spilled, what is salient is more obvious. What is dull is more obvious. Where’s the nerve that is lit up?

In Nicole Brossard’s Notebook of Roses and Civilization, p. 46

the c of cerise that it not yet a comma
between you and me and this foretaste of translation
trace like an arc in the mouth
an obsessive curve that would look like
your belly, or those typos found
in books
noise of goodbye or movement of the lips

The language is dense and unkempt like a forest. It moves instead of among boughs, among parts of the body, a landscape of mouth to belly. In a way a strange cross-tie of the holiness of St. Augustine’s hand to mouth.

Like Wright’s poem in my head simultaneously, this begins in a quiet and ends in a quiet as well. The opening quiet is a sort of temptation, an unsteady start, a maraschino cherry on stem offered as a start of a word and the ending is a crushing ache, something broken and fixed. The noise of goodbye as opposed to the meaning of. The surface clatter surrounding goodbye, the mechanics of it of the words making shapes in the body.

In a way the words with so much weight on them, (in books, ardour) have the finality and force of Charles Wright’s lines with a high density of stressed syllables. They are slower for all their space.

The poem defies a sort of linear. Each image is a lateral jump that doesn’t follow storytelling in a way and does in a way. The first line is dense. You can take that in and then it expands and hooks into line 2. Line 2 has its two part and Line 3 then collects up all the elements from before and they move as one in the mouth. The rightness and wrongness, the measure of what maps well and doesn’t. The comma dropped into the first line is picked up again towards the end when typography returns. Even though books are concrete they are abstract in the sense of constructions. What is more immediate is the sensory of this moment of goodbye and the ache that lingers after. In a single word ardour there is something transcendent and mysterious as much as resplendent is. It is that inwards and outwards explosion in the same way.

Can we say what the poem means, what its aboutness is? Any summary of a poem loses the vitality which rests in the how, suggests the why. The answer of meaning isn’t in the what or when or who or where. It’s more in the thingness of the words.

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Categories: Currently reading, Poetics.

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One Response

  1. Really enjoyed this thoughtful reflection, Pearl. You’re probing matters currently on my mind, (but as usual, you’re probing more assiduously :-)

    Jean Van LoonMay 15, 2013 @ 10:36 am

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