Saturday, October 15, 2016

Some thoughts on Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art”

I’m remembering a moment in my past: I’ve told someone that I write poetry and in response she tells me, ‘Oh, I love poetry’. I’m taken aback. In my memory, the speaker of this perplexing statement is a young woman, fresh and glowing. I remember her distinctly, or at least I believe I do; I have so completely attached her statement to a memory of a particular physical person that she has become iconic. Other women and men have told me something similar, only perhaps not as directly. They have been less startling in their clarity, and perhaps because of that, my memory of their faces, the shapes and positions of their bodies has disappeared. I remember only that I have heard this same passionate declaration on several occasions.

Even in this very moment, her statement makes me wince: Has she read the same poetry I have? I wonder. Has she read postmodern poetry, the Language poets, for example? It seems unlikely. My own feelings about poetry are less definite. There is some poetry I love, some that I hate, and much that I dislike or am unmoved by. For me, the problem with this young woman’s professed love is that it’s generic. What I imagine she loves is an idea of how poetry should be, of how it should function in the world. She seems to me like any entranced lover who has projected her desire onto the impassive face of the unknown beloved. If I were to place her sense of poetry in a world of dualistic discourse it would be ‘good’ and therefore ‘at rest’ and ‘light’.

Such lovability, poetry’s lovability, seems entwined with the musicality of the lyric, whose function – because it is fuelled by eroticism – is to uplift, to present a world awash with beauty and optimism, even while lamenting love. Lyric poetry seems to eschew the dark side of life – those aspects that are attached to injury – and are found in cruelty, the impulse to hurt others or the self – or it uses these darker impulses as a plaything, a rhetorical device to enlarge its stance and throw its imagination of love into high relief. 

Consider Shakespeare’s many cleverly framed sonnets, some playful and others philosophical, even mystical, such as Sonnet 53 with its collision of metaphysical and modern viewpoints in which multiple perceptions of those who surround his beloved become images or ‘shadows’, or death-like shades, and the lover the locus of some intangible but dark substance:

What is your substance, whereof are you made, 
That millions of strange shadows on you tend? 
Since everyone hath every one, one shade, 
And you, but one, can every shadow lend. (93)

The use of sonic lyricism to lighten sorrow or pain is also found in Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art’, her well-known poem on a lost love. For the reader, her wit and careful use of the villanelle form mediate the pain that she feels over that loss. Besides the sounds that soothe, the formal techniques of irony and a complex traditional structure of rhyme require and suggest intellectual detachment, which in turn competes with the emotional chaos intrinsic to deep loss. The lines may be laced with ache but the self-consciousness of the piece as art suggests that the pain is managed, converted into a rhetorical device. There is something almost insouciant in the overall metaphor, the repetitions of the third line of the last stanza and the repetitions throughout the poem. In the last stanza the irony is kept on the side of sorrow only by the parenthetical remarks, which break into the rhythmic expectations of the lines by their implied sotto voce:

– Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture 
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master 
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster. 
(Poems, Prose, and Letters 166 )

In her book, American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms, Mutlu Blasing comments on ‘One Art’, suggesting that the poem, which depends on repetition, is linked to loss because of its formal need to devise distinctions within words that are the same. Every word contains within it, Blasing remarks, shapes of Otherness:
Writing and losing are one art because the formal repetition of loss, which promises mastery, simultaneously finalizes disaster: ‘(Write it!) like disaster.’ Repetition duplicates and divides, both masters and loses, and thus makes for ‘disaster.’ The division-by-duplication of the ‘aster’ is the ill star that governs poets. (112)
As seductive as Blasing’s idea is, it doesn’t address poetic forms that use repetition and its potential for shifting lexical meaning into humour and play, such as limerick and children’s nursery rhymes. Nor does it address current linguistic theory, such as that described by Michael Arbib in How the Brain Got Language, which posits that recursion (168–169), which is the structural repetition used to create complex syntax, is intrinsic to all language grammar – poetry or prose, Indo-European or Hmong-Mien – and that repetition is a feature of the neurological basis of learning and the development of language. What the success of Bishop’s poem’s emotional tenor depends on, I believe, is not the lyric form or repetition but the reader’s experience of loss in love, which allows for a shared emotional experience – a sympathy for the pain of lost love and the seeming impossibility of assuaging the grief caused by that loss. 

This is not to say that a reader needs to have experienced the exact same kind of love that Bishop has lost, but rather needs to have known the loss of something loved – an experience than can be written into much more removed incidents, such as a child’s despair over the loss of his pink blanket when his mother temporarily confiscates and condemns that blanket to the laundry. Our childhoods – and life in general – give us a thorough enough understanding of potentially dire situations, especially when they are placed relatively on the spectrum of experience. That is to say we have the imaginative capability of extrapolating painful moments. Form, also, mediates the reader’s experience. For example, I find Bishop’s poem cold and unfeeling because of her form. Other’s would disagree on both the effect of form and its influence the reader’s empathy. Neither stance can be denied by the other, really. What I believe is accurate in Blasing’s implied understanding of poetry is not about the effects of form but rather that the poet is most often engaged with and compelled by darker emotions, and that loss is primary among them. 

Friday, September 23, 2016

A poem for my uncle

I recently started a project with my uncle, who is doing a series of sculptures using wood trimmed from the trees in his yard. Here is the first print.

And here is a letter I sent to him along with the poem.

Dear Bob,

I’ve been meaning for a few weeks now to send some thoughts on the print that I sent you. So here I am, beginning. These thoughts are meant to explain the poem in relation to the sculpture.  

This particular photo of your work reminded me imaginatively of Brancusi’s Bird in Flight series. The single ray of light, gold surfaced, slicing through the air. But one of the things that engages me about the line of light in your sculpture is that it is natural; it is not a sleek, polished surface, it is not homogenous in line or surface. The subtle shifts that are part of tree branches and that are more acutely part of nature engage the eye in a way that Brancusi’s do not. We cannot really examine Brancusi’s sleekness. The eye just slithers away from what it sees. It does not rest on the surface but rather “looks at” the whole. “Reads” the whole. This is not true of your sculpture: the organic snags the eye at almost any point, but in a way that is pleasing. There is elegance in the sideways shifts of the organic surface.

So while the upward movement seen by the eye, and perhaps in the memory of Brancusi, suggest flight in the photo detail of the “animal” from your “ménagerie”, I wanted to move away from that in the writing. There is only one image in the poem that is connected with flight, and that is of the shoes – a person – running through heaps of apricot blossoms in the street. That running is intertwined with falling, something oppositional to flight. So the questions that came to me before writing the poem was: how? And where to start?

I wanted the poem, physically, to inhabit the negative space of the photo. So three columns, differing in width. Here it is, in an easier way to read:

A painting here                  columns of              forecasting
in the Uffizi.                      darkness                  round
Sky gold leaf                     into which                fruit, pink      
the air sacred                      warm sun                 cheeked
space cleaving                    does not                   apricots,
to the figures of                 reach — rise            a bite, mouth
Mother and Child               and fall of                full of sudden
who have in turn                surface, the              sweetness.
vanished from the              lean slope                How hearts
wood panel paint                dividing                   beat in the
peeled in gauzy drops        air’s  thin                 elastic space
faded tears or perhaps        integrity                   of moments,
evaporated dispersed          — slow rain             defying
into bright air. Gone          of blossoms,             algorithms of
the eyes nose mouth           unfastened,              perfection.
cheek and chin. The           rising again              Spin of breath
long fingers wrapping        in the scuff              zephyrs,
the child’s leg. Only          of shoes                   and light’s
their outline remains,          and running feet      vortex
the void of their                 the texture of           — gleam
substance. And the             petals. Rain              of gold
blazing sky

I started from the idea of gold, which has had so many meanings in art, but one of the most fascinating I’ve found is the substitution of gold for the sky in medieval religious painting. Gold is reflective and yellow, almost the opposite of what we sense when we look at the actual sky. In the poem, the column on the left describes a painted wood panel I saw in the Uffizi. It was of a Madonna and child but all the paint had disappeared, leaving only the shape of the two figures and the gold-leafed background.  In contrast, the right two columns of the poem move back to the photo of the sculpture itself, they describe the sculpture but in terms of a natural world phenomenon – the falling of apricot blossoms, which is known in parts of Asia as an apricot rain. The warm color range of apricots seemed similar to the warm background of the photo.

Well, I think that’s all I have in the way of comments.

All best to you and cousin Glenn,