Sunday, October 03, 2010

Poetic Tides Pulling You to the Side

Lately, when writing the few poems that I've been writing, not many at all, in the long-line prose-poem form that I can only call a Letters form, strange things seem to happen. The poems keep pulling themselves off to the side, towards the moon. I struggle to stay focused, to hold on to the main story, the central narrative, the sunlit path, the thing I want to talk about it. But their is always a pull over to the side, to something apparently off-topic, and I find myself having to rein the poem in, to constantly get it back on track.

This isn't discursive writing in any way I've understood it before: discursion being the point of some writings, such as Tristam Shandy, in which the asides and digressions are more fun than the main plot of the novel. Discursion also being the method of some language-based, surface-gleaming kinds of poetry lately. None of that is going on here. I don't set out to write the kind of poem that eludes consciousness or is puzzle within an enigma, or just plain isn't supposed to make sense.

I do, however, set out to write poems that reflect in words the motion of the self across the face of the planet. I do set out to write poems from non-human viewpoints, and from viewpoints not that of my own ego-personality. I agree with Gary Snyder that my values are not Modernist but Paleolithic, just as I agree with Robinson Jeffers in his usually-misunderstood idea of Inhumanism that human stories are not the center of either the Universe or of what we write about it. Or of what we make of it. I don't write, I hope, either narcissistic little poems about how I felt when my lover left me, or poems about nothing. I work hard to find and make the kind of poem in which the writer's ego is absent, either dissolved away, or transcended.

The tidal pull off to the side that I keep feeling in these new poems in the Letter form is like being on belay, tensioning the ropes while another climbs. Or like reining in a willful horse, trying to keep it on the trail. It takes effort. I keep having to pull the writing back on task. Perhaps discursion is built into the form itself; its model after all was also fairly discursive.

It's as if you want to pull the whole world into the poem. Maybe it's not discursiveness, but inclusiveness. Things keep finding their way in. Each poem is the track of a roving mind and an associative memory—both characteristics of my ordinary mind, not just my artist's mind—across many parallel sideways and dead alleys surrounding the poem's main path. Perhaps it's not so much discursion as circling-around-the-center. I do keep coming back.

I find myself not very interested, these days, in writing a single-topic, tightly-focused, small poem. Some excel at that. Others who excel at it are focused more on the words themselves than on the meanings the words carry. Opacity is not something I find interesting, though, except for house walls. The small poem, even the non-haiku, has a definite place in things. Perfect little miniatures. Often exquisite, jeweled in their precision. I don't always mean that as a compliment.

I'm not very interested in writing a poem that tries to bring life into control, into some sense of order out of the chaos. I'm either not interested or not able to make a lapidary poem that forces imposed order onto life. Life is messy, not neatly organized. Poems that are too tightly-controlled, too pat and apt in their answers to the unasked question, seem designed to conceal. Things we want to believe rather than what actually is.

I'm more interested, as truly I always have been, in retrospect, in writing a poem that reflects consciousness. Consciousness in the here-and-now. Whose bizarre syntactical or non-grammatical aspects are in fact normalized to the way consciousness moves, although we usually edit them to force conformity to consensus reality. Formalist poetry often pretends it's not so artificial as it actually is; or, in mannerist applications of formalist style, it exaggerates itself to show how self-conscious it is of its own artifice. As though that mugging ironic self-consciousness were a virtue. What is poetry trying to avoid saying, when it becomes mannerist and focuses all its effort on how to say a poem rather than on what the poem is saying? When the intentional focus is on the manner of saying, not on what's being said? What are you all trying to avoid? (I pity equally the over-controlled and the purely self-expressive and chaotic, as neither are complete in themselves, and both are trying to distract themselves from some basic truth they don't want to face.)

Of course the world is hollow and we're all going to die. That's a given. That's not a truth to be concealed, but the very fabric of where we start from. Start where you are. The manner of your dying matters.

As long as my hands stay on the rock, I don't feel totally lost, but like I can make it to the climb's goal, the top of the cliff, even if I have to take a winding path, or have setbacks and have to change course.

Life is a pun. Puns are the result of thinking associatively, across the tracks. Puns are considered to be either the lowest verbal artform, or the highest, depending on your prejudices. Puns in a poem are those doubled, layered meanings, that open up a poem and pull side-meanings in, giving the poem resonance and depth. And connecting it more to real consciousness, real life, which works that same way. Puns are metaphors, analogies, sideways thinking that gets at some truth obliquely rather than via blunt force.

A lot of my poems are bread-crumbs, tracks of where I've been. Some are just purely records of experience. Something more than just a journal entry, hopefully with a little artistry invoked. But records nonetheless. I don't intentionally bury hidden meanings in the poems, making them into puzzles, so that I know the "real meaning" of the poem and everyone else has to guess. I get asked a lot what my poems mean. I usually reply: Well, what do you think it means?

I wonder if this attitude regarding poetry's hidden meanings, which I don't find to be a very useful attitude, is the product of the way we teach kids to think about poems in school. Poems are usually presented as objects that have to be interpreted or analyzed to be understood. The presumption in the classroom is that you have to be a detective or an academic to understand a poem. No wonder poetry teaching turns off kids, by making them feel stupid. Only a poet can understand a poem. Everyone else needs a scorecard.

Or poetry is presented in writing classes a means of self-expression, a pretty art like flower arrangement, whose only purpose is to write out your feelings so that you can feel better about them. And maybe share them with the world, as well as with your diary. Your deathless insight, which is actually as old as Sappho, into your personal world must, after all, be shared with the world. Your job is to fix the world by making it feel what you feel, think what you think. Poetry, ultimately, as self-validating rhetoric. As, ultimately, solipsistic narcissism.

Both of these ways of teaching poetry do more harm than good. Poems don't have to be puzzles to be solved, nor is the lyric confessional poem the ultimate end. Yet look at what styles dominate most contemporary poetry right now: the puzzle-box and Language poem, and the lyric confessional poem. (I lump the neo-formalists in with the Language poets, because at root the neo-formalists are equally intent on their focus on the words themselves rather than on what the words can convey.)

If I choose to use a poetic form, and I usually write in forms I've invented (except for haiku and haibun), it reflects consciousness in the moment as much as does the poem itself. Things fall into forms I've invented because in that moment that's how my mind is shaped. All this currently popular fiction about werewolves and shapeshifters misses the truth that all shapeshifting starts within the consciousness, with the reshaping of one's own mind. (As usual, popular culture takes things too literally: surface meanings only need apply.)

There are no deliberately hidden meanings in my poems, although you might have to reshape your consciousness to get all the way inside. A few years ago I wrote a notorious poem from within the group mind of a fire-ant colony in rural New Mexico, and what happens when a stray horse accidentally steps on their mound. At other times I've done my best to shapeshift my own consciousness into other forms, and write a poem from within that Other. Lots of people seem to dislike these poems, perhaps precisely because they're not centered on human desires or activities, yet some of these poems are among my personal favorites.

I wonder if the reason people prefer poetry centered on people is really tribal and individual narcissism, or if it merely reflects a failure of imagination. One thing puns and associative thinking are good for is getting you outside of whatever cage you're in. A certain mental agility is required along with imagination inn order to be, in the poem, something other than yourself, or the other post-apes in their little box apartments full of random sentimental stuff. I guess we really are that narcissistic, as a culture, or as a species. Nothing matters to us but what we do, and what we care about.

There is an ensuing failure of imagination to envision the outcome of our actions and desires, as well. Sometimes I think that the environmental movement is composed of those few people who have simply woken up to the uses of imagination, that most would ignore, or conceal. While Rome burns around them, bread and circuses for the masses, to keep them passive, entertained, and unthoughtful. Most avant-garde poetry is bread and circuses poetry, caring nothing for the eagles and foxes, caring little even for those people who end up by their own hands because life is too much more painful. Most avant-garde poetry is mannerist, and irritating, precisely it fails the imagination. Which makes it no better than bad television, in the end.

And I've digressed. I need to rein myself back in. Or perhaps that's the point, and the form of the essay, in Montaigne's original conception, was digressive exploration of the consciousness of the writer. Whatever we turn the light of consciousness upon is a valid topic for our consideration. Montaigne was the poet-inventor of the essay form. Does it matter if I use a poetic form that is similarly discursive? It gives me a chance to stretch out, to be expansive and thus expand consciousness, to bring the whole world into the poem. A chance to let the horse run, even if it strays off the trail, and has to be reined back in, at least sometimes. Sometimes, when you leap.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

The problem with trying to write a poem from the perspective of an animal is that we, as humans, naturally anthroporphise everything; we really are quite shallow creatures in that respect. I look at our bird’s behaviour and although we talk about him as a cross between a grumpy old man and a petulant child the fact is that he a little ball of fluff driven solely by instinct, responding mechanically to changes in light or heat. It’s one of the recurrent cries in horror films: “I don’t understand. What do they want?” If we can’t define something in human terms we’re pretty much lost.

I see you as a ‘life is about the journey’ kind of a guy and the same with your poetry. Not that your poetry is pointless but getting the point is not the point. I can grasp that but it’s not something I’m comfortable with, lying back and letting life flow over me. I want to get to a point. Life is about achievement. You set up a target and take aim. That the arrow changes direction mid-flight is what makes life interesting. The novel I’m writing just now is nothing like the book I set out to write and the journey has been an interesting one but when I hand it to my wife to read she’ll know nothing about that journey, she’ll only be able to judge if I’ve hit a target.

Life is messy. I’ll give you that. I don’t see why my poems should be. My poems are artificial, they’re based on the mess but they are not the mess. I’ve always like those photos taken at very fast shutter speeds, the one that capture a bullet passing though an apple, the kind of thing we don’t have time to see in real life. A poem for me is a snapshot that one can scrutinise and pore over, an oasis in the middle of the mess. When I read your poems what I get to experience is another person’s mess. That’s an interesting experience. But it’s also an alien mess, an uncomfortable one. It finds meaning in things I find meaningless. Or more often than not doesn’t bother looking for any; the meanings I think I see are ones I’ve brought with me anyway.

As for puns – love ‘em. “In the beginning was the pun,” Beckett wrote. I have always been a great fan of pun-based humour. They don’t creep into my poetry too often but I’m always on the lookout for them.

12:43 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

You ARE up early.

And I'm up late.

I responded to the anthropomorphizing issue on the previous post, oops. But as you say, when you read my poems you get to experience my different, alien mess. And if one can experience a different, alien mess coming from another human, it's not that big a step to be able to imagine experiencing life's mess from a slightly more alien perspective.

The typical argument against "the pathetic fallacy" is so full of holes, it's barely worth reciting them. The fundamental assumption that that argument makes, which is easily proven wrong, is that we are all alien to each other and can never understand each other or empathize or walk a mile in each other's shoes. Which is obviously ridiculous, since we CAN get some of that even from a poem or a novel or a memoir.

Don't think I don't have goals, that it's all about the journey and nothing but. I have plenty of goals, I just have learned that goals are pointless unless you ALSO enjoy the journey. I'm not an either/or person, I'm a both/and person. Most goals are never attained, not even all the smaller, easier ones. So it's too easy to tie one's life up in knots about never achieving any of one's goals, and completely miss the lessons from the journey.

As for artificiality in art, certainly. That's the root of "artifice" after all, in art. But there's artifice that evokes a real experience, and then there's artifice wherein one can see the scaffolding a bit too clearly, and then there's artifice which is completely divorced from the reality of life's experience.

I think one of the single most wrongheaded bits of poetry criticism I've ever heard was perpetrated by Yvor Winters, who once opined that emotion in the poem must be as much as possible divorced from the experience. In my Universe, that's not only absurd, it's quite impossible. Not to mention wrongheaded.

So I'm okay with having different approaches to writing poems, and also having different kinds of poems as an outcome. And I've described what works for me, and how I do it, as what also works for me. I can't change that, and don't intend to try to.

1:32 AM  

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