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Micah Towery

I want to do a bit of a meditation on the nature of voice and how the self is written into a poem.

When I first read Augustine’s Confessions, I felt I had discovered one of the hidden hinges of the modern “voice.” I was familiar with classical writing, and the coldness of the speaking voice in classical authors seemed absolutely foreign to me. Perhaps it was the fact that inflected languages do not always use a singular word to express “I.” The “I” in both Greek and Latin is snuck in by sticking an ending on the word, so grammatically the “I” stands out less.

Yet Augustine was radically different. Classicist, film scholar, and popular historian Thomas Cahill articulates it well:

Augustine is the first human being to say “I”–and to mean what we mean today….Open any collection of Great Thoughts or Great Sayings–especially one that, like Bartlett’s, goes in chronological order–and let your eye pick out the I’s. In the oldest literature their paucity and lack of force will begin to impress you. Of course, characters in Homer refer to themselves occasionally as “I.” Socrates even speaks of his daimon, his inner spirit. But personal revelation, such as we are utterly accustomed to, is nowhere to be found. Even lyric poems tend to be objective by our standards, and the exceptons stand out: a fragment (“The moon has set / and the Pleiades: / it is the middle of the night,  / and time passes, yes passes– / and I lie alone.”), attributed to Sappho, and the Psalms, attributed to King David.

When in the classical period we reach the first works to be designated as autobiographies, we can only be confounded by their impersonal tone. Marcus Aurelius, by Gibbon’s standards the most enlightened emporer and the great philosopher of Roman antiquity, speaks to us in epigrams, like Confucius and Ecclesiastes before him: “This being of mine, whatever it really is, consists of a little flesh, a little breath, and the part which governs”–he means his mind. This is as confidential as Marcus gets. Or how about this for a personal revelation? “All that is harmony for you, my Universe, is in harmony with me as well. Nothing that comes at the right time for you is too early or too late for me.” For all their ponderousness, the great emperor’s thoughts are never more personal than a Chinese fortune cookie.

It’s immediately clear why Augustine is often seen as the last classical and first medieval man. He marks the ultimate synthesis of classical rhetoric and sensibilities with the concept of self that marked the Judeo-Christian tradition. As Cahill points out, the Psalms stand out among classical literature, as exceptionally personal. Augustine, says Ronald Heine, was “the undisputed master of using the psalms to lay one’s soul bare before God in the praise and confession of prayer….The psalms permeate everything Augustine wrote.” Rowan Williams points out that the very first sentence of Confessions is a quotation from the psalms. Augustine weaves them throughout such that we hardly know when the words are his and when they are not (a modern citation nightmare).

Consider a few selections from the Greek Anthology:


Reader, here is no Priam
Slain at the altar,
here are no fine tales.
Of Medea, of weeping Niobe,
here you will find
No mention of Itys in his chamber
And never a word about nightingales in the trees.

Earlier poets have left full accounts of these matters.

I sing of Love and the Graces, I sing of Wine:
What have they in common with Tragedy’s comic scowl?

~Strato of Sardis (trans. Dudley Fitts)

And this poem, which is more personal, but even the personal impulse is mediated:


You deny me: and to what end?
There are no lovers, dear, in the under world,
No love but here: only the living know
The sweetness of Aphrodite–
but below,
But in Acheron, careful virgin, dust and ashes
Will be our only lying down together.

~Asklepiades (trans. Dudley Fitts)

One of the more consistently “personal” poets I have found in the several (meager) collections of Greek Anthology poems is Meleagros:


O Love, by Timo’s curls,
by Heliodora’s sandal,
By Demo’s myrrhdrenched threshold,
by Antikleia’s slow smile,
By the dear flowers twined in Dorotheia’s hair–
O Love, Love, I swear
Your quiver is empty:
all your shafts
Have fled unswerving to bury themselves in my heart

~Meleagros (trans. Dudley Fitts)

In addition to Augustine’s unique “I,” I believe that Augustine is relatively unique in his relationship to his audience. His audience is God, the You of Confessions, yet really, we know it’s us. Homer and Virgil invoke the Muse, yet, I don’t get the picture that the Muse is their audience. No, the Muse is there mostly to help them get started. Ultimately, they have some other audience in mind. Augustine, though, intends for us to “overhear” (in the words of John Stuart Mill that Allan Grossman is so fond of citing) his lyrical unbosoming. He wants us to eavesdrop outside the confessional booth.

There is a fascinating double movement going on here. Augustine, himself weaving, imitating, and voicing the psalms, wishes for us to hear, so that we, presumably, can sympathize, but be moved to make our very own confession. Ironically, much of western art has imitated Augustine’s confession. We have a continual chain of imitation that stretches all the way back to one of the Ur-poets of our world: King David (or whoever wrote the psalms).

Yet even the psalms themselves are not single-voiced. Traditionally, it was understood that many voices are encapsulated in the psalms. Early Christians and Jewish interpreters recognized this (though they often disagreed strenuously on who was speaking). Ronald Heine captures the sense that one has while praying through the psalms: “When I read the psalms…alone, sometimes I am instructed or exhorted by the voice of the ancient author as he relates the stories of Israel; sometimes I myself am speaking, addressing God directly in the words of the psalmist; at other times I am directly addressed by God in the words of the psalm. The conversation may move back and forth within a single psalm.” When you add to this the layer of “inspiration,” and all the accompanying debates about it, it becomes clear that any attempt to unthread the twisted ball of connections will be completely futile.

So we have before us what seems like a contradiction, a swirl of voices that somehow manages to lay bare the angst of the single person. Toward the end of my time at Hunter, coming up on what I felt was a dry period in my writing, I decided to try and rewrite various psalms. Psalm 39 was the first. When picking a psalm, one is immediately confronted with the difficulty of various voices. I was used to creating an overall emotional sense in my poems, something that was difficult with multiple voices. Psalm 39, however, was relatively uniform in its voice (or at least it seemed to me at that time).

This is how my poem came out:

Moth (Psalm 39)

Wanting to avoid your violent side, I tried to keep
my mouth shut when I saw the way you
rigged this game to destroy beauty—

and not just beauty, but the gaudy,
fast food smut that I hoard, too—
always savored by the hungry

moth. But you always hated the grudging
“Yes.” You made me broach the issue
of how you snatch away another’s beauty

in gloating silence, leave us bleached,
belly up, whales on the sand’s ecru:
Not even a bone to gnaw at when I’m hungry?

It’s either you or vanity, vanity
So, you have my yes. True,
this might have been the point: your beauty

is a bitter sponge of lye you lift up daily
to my mouth, while I am consumed
by the blows of your hand, our beauty
—yours, mine—a moth, feeding, still hungry.

As you can see, it’s a villanelle built around two ending words (rather than lines): beauty and hunger. It became clear very quickly, though, that I would not be able to encompass all the ideas in the poem. Like Augustine, I was chopping and using what I could to fit into my own voice. But such decisions are hard to make. The psalms are often so layered with meaning and reference that it feels violent to cut any part while still doing justice to the psalm as a whole. In this case, the form worked as a way that dictated what to include and what to “evict” from Psalm 39: what worked went in.

Later, at Tom Sleigh’s recommendation, I picked up Donal Davie’s To Scorch or Freeze, which, as fortune would have it, also included an adaptation of Psalm 39. Davie, you can see, is considerably less angsty.

The Thirty-ninth Psalm, Adapted
Donald Davie

I said to myself: “That’s enough.
Your life-style is no model.
Keep quiet about it, and while
you’re about it, be less overt.”

I held my tongue, I said nothing;
no, not comfortable words.
“Writing block”, it’s called;
very discomfiting.

Not that I had no feelings.
I was in a feever.
And while I seethed,
abruptly I found myself speaking:

“Lord, let me know my end,
and how long I have to live;
let me be sure
how long I have to live.

One-finger you poured me;
what does it matter to you
to know my age last birthday?
Nobody’s life has purpose.

Something is casting a shadow
on everything we do;
and in that shadow nothing,
nothing at all, comes true.

(We make a million, maybe;
and who, not nobody but
who, gets to enjoy it?)

Now, what’s left to be hoped for?
Hope has to be fixed on you.
Excuse me my comforting words
in a tabloid column for crazies.

I held my tongue, and also
I discontinued my journals.
(They accumulated; who
in any event would read them?)

Now give me a chance. I am
burned up enough at your pleasure.
It is all very well, we deserve it.
But shelved, not even with mothballs?

Hear my prayer, O Lord,
and please to consider my calling:
it commits me to squawking
and running off at the mouth.”

NOTE: In lieu of Grossman today, I’m posting a short essay I wrote on Michael S. Harper’s poem “Dear John, Dear Coltrane” for one of my classes back at Hunter’s MFA program.

Listen to the following as you read: A Love Supreme

It is almost impossible to read Michael S. Harper and not feel as though you are missing out on some sort of gnostic gospel of jazz history. Haper’s poem “Dear John, Dear Coltrane” would be one of the passages from this gospel. When you consider the history of the phrase “a love supreme,” the title and incantatory phrase from John Coltrane’s own album of praise, some of the “gnostic” implications are clear. Indeed, much of Harper’s work proceeds from history and art, particularly the history of African Americans and the art of jazz music. In “Dear John, Dear Coltrane,” Harper models his lines and rhythm, as well as content on John Coltrane’s exultant album. This essay will draw the parallels between “Dear John, Dear Coltrane” and Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, particularly focusing on the incantatory nature of the poem and album. Both are songs of praise. A Love Supreme is Coltrane’s love poem to God; Harper’s poem is to Coltrane. One important difference remains, however: while Coltrane’s art is inspired by the transcendence of God, Harper’s poem, for all its hiddenness, springs out of particulars, the flesh, the events of Coltrane’s life, a decidedly un-gnostic source of inspiration.

Coltrane’s album/opening song opens with a gong and cymbal swell and Coltrane riffing on the pentatonic for a moment, before leaving the cymbals alone to hearken the entrance of Jimmy Garrison’s bass line, the riff from which the album takes its iambic name. Harper, too, begins with this as his epigraph in italics, setting it apart from the rest of the textual tone: “a love supreme, a love supreme / a love supreme, a love supreme.” It is an incantation, and it couches the rest of the poem’s meditations. That Harper’s language becomes almost a musical drumbeat is no surprise, as it mirror’s Coltrane’s saxophone in A Love Supreme, which almost speaks. Indeed, the fourth movement on Coltrane’s album is based on a poem he includes in the liner notes, “Psalm.” When listening to “Pt. IV – Psalm,” it is possible to hear Coltrane literally playing through the poem, continually coming back to the minor third, the incantatory dactyl “Thank you God.” Not only this, but Coltrane actually speaks the phrase “a love supreme” in the album’s first track, repetitively, incantatorially. While Harper’s epigraph certainly alludes to this unexpected moment in Coltrane’s album, it also alludes to the bass line continually thrumbing this rhythm throughout the first movement.

Harper’s meditations on the many particulars of John Coltrane’s life make up the rest of the poem. The poem could be seen as an attempt to rectify the particulars of Coltrane’s life with the phraseology of his music that seems to sum things up so well. Harper opens the poem with the words “Sex fingers toes” (1). It could be a list, undifferentiated by the lack of commas to set the words apart, or it could be a mishmash of all those things: the use of it as a whole line indicating a singularity of these items. The latter seems more likely (and infinitely more suggestive) when one considers the contained completeness of the lines that follow:

in the marketplace

near your father’s church

in Hamlet, North Carolina—

witness to this love

in this calm fallow

of these minds,

there is no substitute for pain (2-8)

Contrary to “sex fingers toes,” each line is rhythmically contained, ending on downbeats, suggesting their end stop. This downbeat end stop continues until line 14, when he ends with the deliberately accented end stop, the first incantation “a love supreme;” (14). Although the line ends on an accent, it is grammatically completed with a semi-colon. But its accent, in addition to the slant rhyme with line 15, sends the reader into the next line with the incantation still echoing, the surprisingly haunting question: “what does it all mean?” (15). This question is perhaps the starkest line in the whole poem, both an angst ridden cliché and startlingly honest plea for understanding.

The next set of lines (16-24) serves to establish some more of Coltrane’s history, a picture of him playing A Love Supreme in Scranton, Pennsylvania. This section ends with the incantation, introduced with a colon, similar to its previous use with the poetic text at line 14. Both are loosely linked to the content of the previous phrase, grammatically worked into the sentence. There is a difference this time, though: “a love supreme—” (24). The long dash at the end indicates a sudden stop, a change in thought even. This dash also brings about the break in stanza, indicative of the larger shift.

The next stanza does not contain much in the way of literal personal history, although many implications could be drawn, especially if one is familiar with the life of John Coltrane and his abuse of heroin. Again, there is the mishmash of words grouped in these lines:

thick sin ‘tween

impotence and death, fuel

the tenor sax cannibal

heart, genitals, and sweat

that makes you clean—

a love supreme, a love supreme— (26-31)

The pace of the phrases increases, due to the assonance that appears in the first part of these lines. Harper also cuts the phrase “fuel the tenor sax cannibal heart” after fuel and cannibal. These line breaks add to the increased pacing and shift in intonation. Harper’s intonations shift with the various meditations, always coming back to “a love supreme,” which shifts with the various tonalities of Harper’s language, the same way Coltrane’s saxophone explores the phrase’s various modalities through “Pt. I – Acknowledgement.” Once again, there is the almost frenetic mishmash of words: “sax cannibal / heart.” It is almost incantatory, almost senseless. The words together, though grammatically absurd, form a cumulative effect, like the repetition of “a love supreme.” It also helps establish the theme of body in the poem. This idea of body is continued with the phrase “genitals, and sweat / that makes you clean— / a love supreme, a love supreme—”. Again, slant rhyme connects the incantation with its neighboring line. Whereas before it connects it with the question “what does it all mean?”, here it is connected with phrases of the body, emphasizing this theme of body, particularly its sexuality.

The theme of the sexual body continues in the third stanza, a playful one, repeating “cause I am” in response to every question as to why a particular person (Coltrane presumably) is so “funky,” “sweet,” and especially “black.” The sudden intrusion of this out-of-character stanza is set off by the dash after “a love supreme” in line 31, performing here a similar function to the identical phrase in line 24. The dash allows for the change in voice and intonation. In the third stanza, Harper is mixing themes of race and sexuality, creating another incantation within the incantation of the whole poem: “because I am.” More interestingly, he is mashing the lines together with little respect for grammar. The first word is capitalized, and there are question marks throughout, but the stanza is largely run together grammatically. This is indicated, primarily, by the lack of capitalization. The lines are cut in ways that would be expected, giving the sense of grammar to one who only hears it, but this whole stanza could be considered a continuation of the mishmash technique Harper employs throughout the poem.

Harper ends the third stanza, once again, with “a love supreme:” connecting it to the song as a whole, acting in many ways, like a chorus of sorts. This time, however, “a love supreme” is followed by a colon, a first in the poem. This colon connects the very final stanza with the penultimate stanza, even though there is a significant visual break between them, and the last stanza lacks the italics of the penultimate (excepting, of course, the final lines). Harper is subclausing the whole fourth stanza to the third. It is a reversal for the poem in that the song-like italics have always been subclaused to the generally fact-oriented non-italics. Before, all the song lyrics were proceeding from the facts of Coltrane’s life. Now, the finality of Coltrane’s end (which seems imminent), proceeds from his music. The tail is wagging the dog, so to speak, and the speaker is disappointed that Coltrane can barely play (43-45). This makes the final two phrases, incantations of “a love supreme, a love supreme—”, all the more poignant. It’s as if Coltrane is trying to gasp out the last phrases himself, but ultimately comes off “flat” (45). The poem comes full circle to the epigraph, only this time, the phrase is cut off by the dash, suggesting the possibility, the hope, of more. But the reader is left hanging by the final dash, an interruption, rather than an end.

Harper’s poem is ultimately rooted in the body and its life in the world, the “sex fingers toes” of Coltrane’s life, the mashing of the saxophone keys that produces his music. And, ultimately, it is Coltrane’s body that betrays him, snuffs out his particulars, rumbles over him, the same way his incantation continues even after he is done. Though “Dear John, Dear Coltrane” was written before Coltrane’s death, it foretells the continuation of the artist, his incantation that arises out of the particulars of his life after it is over.


A Love Supreme


I will do all I can to be worthy of Thee O Lord.

It all has to do with it.

Thank you God.


There is none other.

God is. It is so beautiful. Thank you God. God is all.

Help us to resolve our fears and weaknesses.

Thank you God.

In You all things are possible.

We know. God made us so.

Keep your eye on God.

God is. he always was. he always will be.

No Matter what . . . it is God.

He is gracious and merciful.

It is most important that I know Thee.

Words, sounds, speech, men, memory, thoughts,

fears and emotions—time—all related . . .

all made from one . . . all made in one.

Blessed be His name.

Thought waves—heat waves—all vibrations—

all paths lead to God. Thank you God.

His way . . . it is so lovely . . . it is gracious.

It is merciful — Thank you God.

One thought can produce millions of vibrations

and they all go back to God . . . everything does.

Thank you God.

Have no fear . . . believe . . . Thank you God.

The universe has many wonders. God is all.

His way . . . it is so wonderful.

Thoughts—deeds—vibrations, etc.

They all go back to God and He cleanses all.

He is gracious and merciful . . . Than you God.

Glory to God . . . God is so alive.

God is.

God loves.

May I be acceptable in thy sight.

We are all one in His grace.

The fact that we do exist is acknowledgement

of Thee O Lord.

Thank you God.

God will wash away all our tears . . .

He always has . . .

He always will.

Seek Him everyday. In all ways seek God everyday.

Let us sing all songs to God

To whom all praise is due . . . praise God.

No road is an easy one, but they all

go back to God.

With all we share God.

It is all with god.

It is all with Thee.

Obey the Lord

Blessed is He.

We are all from one thing . . . the will of God . . .

Thank you God

I have seen God—I have seen ungodly—

none can be greater—none can compare to God.

Thank you God.

He will remake us . . . He always has and he

always will.

He is true—blessed be His name—Thank you God.

god breathes through us so completely . . .

so gently we hardly feel it . . . yet,

it is everything.

Thank you God.


All from God.

Thank you God.     Amen.

How do you know when you’re “done” a poem?

I’m not speaking about revision, but rather, the act of writing, particularly lyrical free verse. Donna Masini once described it to me (or a class I was in—can’t remember which), as a settling in the body: a literal sense in the poet’s body that there is no more to write. What a strange way to describe it—yet, I find it has been true with me. I’ll be sitting in front of a computer, write a line, and suddenly, intuitively, I know the poem is finished. It’s a sense of relief, that sighing experience when you’ve just removed a splinter (though the process of removing a poem from your body is usually more pleasurable.

Grossman speaks about the silence from which a poem comes. Silence is the place where “all men agree.” Not only this, but one must overcome silence, the gap between speech and no speech (more on that later). But once you’ve broken this barrier, how do you know when to shut up the stream of words? Often, it seems there is no end to the multiplicity. Once you’ve entered a poem, how the hell do you get out?

Grossman speaks about “closure.” Perhaps this isn’t the same as the closing of a poem, yet, once you’ve reached closure, how much further could the poem go? (Does anyone know of a poem that begins with closure and goes from there?) Grossman says:

The poem achieves “closure only when some new cognitive element has been added to the relationship of subject and object. Terminal closure is “something understood.” Closure brings the poem to an end as apocalypse (“dis-closure”) brings Creation to an end.

There seem to be couple different ideas Grossman is drawing on here. “Something understood” refers, perhaps, to an almost Buddhistic sense of Nirvana. The achievement of enlightenment brings about the end: one has finished becoming and is only being. Naturally, this seems like an ending place for the poem (especially if we understand a relationship between being and text—again, more on that in post 5, which is forthcoming).

On the other hand, there is a strong Judeo-Christian understanding of narrative here: the apocalypse, the end that must come (as the diver must eventually finish his dive). Strange to think of a poem and apocalypse as being in the same category, but it makes a certain sense: the poem is an act of a person (godlike) who breaks the silence (ex nihilo?) and at some point comes riding in on a white horse and ends the poem. On the other hand, is it fair to separate the beginning of writing from the myriad of things that inspire it?

Let’s look at an actual poem. I love David Ferry’s translations of Horace’s Odes, and it always amazes me how Horace’s poems seem to snap shut at just the right moment. (Note: I have been unable to get WordPress to get the exact formating of this poem–apologies to David Ferry.)

To Sestius

Horace (trans. David Ferry)

Now the hard winter is breaking up with the welcome coming
Of spring and the spring winds; some fishermen,
Under a sky that looks changed, are hauling their caulked boats
Down to the water; in the winter stables the cattle
Are restless; so is the farmer sitting in front of his fire;
They want to be out of doors in field or pasture;
The frost is gone from the meadow grass in the early mornings.
Maybe, somewhere, the Nymphs and Graces are dancing,
Under the moon the goddess Venus and her dancers;
Somewhere far in the depth of a cloudless sky
Vulcan is getting ready the storms of the coming summer.
Now is the time to garland your shining hair
With myrtle or with the flowers the free-giving earth has given;
Now is the right time to offer the kid or lamb
In sacrifice to Faunus in the firelit shadowy grove.
Revenant white-faced Death is walking not knowing whether
He’s going to knock at a rich man’s door or a poor man’s.
O good-looking fortunate Sestius, don’t put your hope in the future;
The night is falling; the shades are gathering around;
The walls of Pluto’s shadowy house are closing you in.
There who will be lord of the feast? What will it matter,
What will it matter there, whether you fell in love with Lycidas,
This girl or that girl with him, or he with her?

There is one clear arc through this poem that indicates the end is coming: it moves from dawn (of spring) to evening (of life). While not about a literal day, the movements of a day are naturally contained (and what a beautiful and subtle shift from the seasons to life here—one that’s been done a million times, it’s true—yet so perfect and worth repeating; c.f., Joe Weil on the Ballad. Joe’s post reminded me of a poem from Wendell Berry’s Given—the title of the poem escapes me at the moment—in which an artist states that he would be perfectly content painting the very same river over and over, that this was the ideal of every artist.). The ur-movement from morning to evening, and the association of it with the seasons (and thus life itself) is, I think, what Bly was getting at when he referred to “deep image.” I suspect such “deep images” that are arguably shared between even wildly diverse cultures have something to do with the where and when of our poems, the sense of when a poem “feels” “closed” to us.

But this movement from day to evening is not everything. If it were, the poem would not contain the “new cognitive element” of which Grossman speaks. The whole poem is an address, yet the addressee is not revealed until the very end. Indeed, grammatically, there is no clue that it is a poem of address (as opposed to private musings “overheard” by us, the audience), until the very end. The convergence of the “deep image” of day and the revelation of Sestius helps achieve, perhaps, what Grossman referred to as a “new cognitive element” that is “added to the relationship of subject and object.”

There is more going on here that indicates the ending (the repetition of words and the question are a rhythmic indication), but I suspect the address to Sestius (culminating in a question only) combined with the movement from day to evening is the basic structure of the poem. Horace is allowed to end on a question, not because it is open-ended, but it is the natural completion of the thought. Nighttime brings about both closure and anxiety (What will come tomorrow? Was today sufficient?). Thus it is entirely appropriate to end on this note, and not at all a (deliberate) incomplete ending.

On one other note, Grossman believes that the “occasion for generative speech” (i.e., poetry), is “some dislocation or ‘disease’ of the relationship of a subject and an object….Creation is not the speaking itself but the primordial disease or fall which thrusts me into a predicament in which speech is the only way.” This idea seems to conflict with the idea that Wendell Berry articulates, that a poet should be content to stare at the same river, rejoicing continually in it, painting the same thing over and over (though really, is a river ever the same?). For Grossman, poetry comes out of a problem; for Berry, ideally, poetry comes out of a sense of fullness, of completion (not to the exclusion of problem poetry). Interesting to note that in the creation narrative of Genesis, creation is sung into existence (or rather, the creation narrative itself is a hymn).

(Note I’ve skipped from Part 4 to Part 6. Part 5 is still in the works.)

Armond White comments on the decline of film criticism:

Journalistic standards have changed so drastically that, when I took the podium at the film circle’s dinner and quoted Pauline Kael’s 1974 alarm, “Criticism is all that stands between the public and advertising,” the gala’s audience responded with an audible hush—not applause.

Over recent years, film journalism has—perhaps unconsciously—been considered a part of the film industry and expected to be a partner in Hollywood’s commercial system. Look at the increased prevalence of on-television reviewing dedicated to dispensing consumer advice, and of magazine and newspaper features linked only to current releases, or to the Oscar campaign, as if Hollywood’s business was everybody’s business. Critics are no longer respected as individual thinkers, only as adjuncts to advertising. We are not. And we should not be. Criticism needs to be reassessed with this clear understanding: We judge movies because we know movies, and our knowledge is based on learning and experience.

“Truth is the first casualty of war,” runs an old axiom of journalism. In the current war between print and electronic media, in which the Internet has given way to Babel-like chaos, the critical profession has been led toward self-doubt. Individual critics worry about their job security while editors and publishers, afraid of losing advertisers and customers, subject their readers to hype, gossip, and reformulated press releases—but not criticism. Besieged by fear, critics become the victim of commercial design—a conceit whereby the market predetermines content. Journalism illogically becomes oriented to youth, who no longer read.

Commerce, based on fashion and seeming novelty, always prioritizes the idea of newness as a way of favoring the next product and flattering the innocence of eager consumers who, reliably, lack the proverbial skepticism. (“Let the buyer be gullible.”) In this war between traditional journalistic standards and the new acquiescence, the first casualty is expertise.

By offering an alternative deluge of fans’ notes, angry sniping, half-baked impressions, and clubhouse amateurism, the Internet’s free-for-all has helped to further derange the concept of film criticism performed by writers who have studied cinema as well as related forms of history, science, and philosophy. This also differs from the venerable concept of the “gentleman amateur” whose gracious enthusiasms for art forms he himself didn’t practice expressed a valuable civility and sophistication, a means of social uplift. Internet criticism has, instead, unleashed a torrent of deceptive knowledge—a form of idiot savantry—usually based in the unquantifiable “love of movies” (thus corrupting the French academic’s notion of cinephilia).

He continues by deriding the blogosphere:

This is the source of the witty riposte or sarcastic put-down’s being considered the acme of critical language. The Algonquin Round Table’s legacy of high-caliber critical exchange has turned into the viral graffiti on aggregate websites such as Rotten Tomatoes that corral numerous reviews. These sites offer consensus as a substitute for assessment. Rotten Tomatoes readers then post (surprisingly vicious, often bullying) sniper responses to the reviews. These mostly juvenile remarks further shortcut the critical process by jumping straight to the so-called witticism. This isn’t erudition; as film critic Molly Haskell recently observed, “The Internet is democracy’s revenge on democracy.”

Yikes. This isn’t the first time White’s burned all his bridges:

[Pauline] Kael’s cutting remark cuts to the root of criticism’s problem today. Ebert’s way of talking about movies as disconnected from social and moral issues, simply as entertainment, seemed to normalize film discourse—you didn’t have to strive toward it, any Average Joe American could do it. But criticism actually dumbed down. Ebert also made his method a road to celebrity—which destroyed any possibility for a heroic era of film criticism.

At the Movies helped criticism become a way to be famous in the age of TV and exploding media, a dilemma that writer George W. S. Trow distilled in his apercu “The Aesthetic of the Hit”: “To the person growing up in the power of demography, it was clear that history had to do not with the powerful actions of certain men but with the processes of choice and preference.” It was Ebert’s career choice and preference to reduce film discussion to the fumbling of thumbs, pointing out gaffes or withholding “spoilers”—as if a viewer needed only to like or dislike a movie, according to an arbitrary set of specious rules, trends and habits. Not thought. Not feeling. Not experience. Not education. Just reviewing movies the way boys argued about a baseball game.

Don’t misconstrue this as an attack on the still-convalescent Ebert. I wish him nothing but health. But I am trying to clarify where film criticism went bad. Despite Ebert’s recent celebration in both Time magazine and The New York Times as “a great critic,” neither encomium could credit him with a single critical idea, notable literary style or cultural contribution. Each paean resorted to personal, logrolling appreciations. A.O. Scott hit bottom when he corroborated Ebert’s advice, “When writing you should avoid cliché, but on television you should embrace it.” That kind of thinking made Scott’s TV appearances a zero.

While White regularly gets pegged as an intelligent troll, my personal take is that he usually hits the critical nail on the head, even if he comes across as disproportionately strident. On the other hand, his rage is perfectly understandable when you consider that Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris are allowed to fall into the same categories as most “critics” today.

In other news, my very smart and artistically talented friend, Gene Tanta, has started his own blog about…well, it looks like everything so far.

I’ve decided to change my strategy for blogging through Grossman. Not only is it almost impossible to try and successfully capture the first part of the book in any systematic way (the conversation shifts too rapidly and it’s almost maddening to trace any idea), but the second part is so lovely and systematically broken down, that I keep gravitating toward it. So I’ll leave the first part of the book for those of you who desire to read it (very much worth it). Instead I’ll be blogging through Grossman’s “Summa Lyrica,” which is the second part of The Sighted Singer.
Grossman begins his Summa by speaking about immortality:

The function of poetry is to obtain for everybody one kind of success at the limits of the autonomy of will….The limits of the autonomy of the will discovered in poetry are death and the barriers against the access to other consciousnesses….The kind of success which poetry facilitates is called “immortality.”…Immortality is the simultaneity of meaning and being. Immortality can be discussed only in relation to persons….Neither immortality nor persons are conceivable outside of communities.

According to Grossman’s understanding, we must first understand that poetry is a tool, a “machine that speaks.” Poetry is not an end in itself (and perhaps, by extension, art is not an end in itself). Yet the purpose it serves is not a political, economic, but rather social. It is “moral work” in service of persons.
This is because the only success that poetry is capable of is that of “immortality.” Thus, it would be impossible to put poetry and art in the service of other ends.
As far as the poetry of immortality, I immeidately think of of Ginsberg’s “Kaddish”:

Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village.downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I’ve been up all night, talking, talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonographthe rhythm the rhythm–and your memory in my head three years after—And read Adonais’ last triumphant stanzas aloud—wept, realizing how we suffer—And how Death is that remedy all singers dream of, sing, remember, prophesy as in the Hebrew Anthem, or the Buddhist Book of Answers—and my own imagination of a withered leaf—at dawn—Dreaming back thru life, Your time—and mine accelerating toward Apocalypse,the final moment—the flower burning in the Dayand what comes after,looking back on the mind itself that saw an American citya flash away, and the great dream of Me or China, or you and a phantom Russia, or a crumpled bed that never existed—

What is interesting to me about this poem, is the way that Ginsberg seeks to immortalize not only his mother, but also all the objects that are present in his grief. He names them, and sometimes it seems as if he feels compelled to expand upon them (“Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonograph”) as a way to help preserve them. I wonder how much Ginsberg’s attempts to preserve objects (ultimately in the service of preserving persons) fits into Grossman’s scheme? Is it possible that Ginsberg is using all these objects to create a sort of pseudo-community, a sense of there-ness, that gives him the ability to speak and preserve his mother?
The idea of community in poetry seems very important. It certainly fits in with my idea that we write more from what we share than from what separates us. Yet Grossman insists also that poetry (indeed poetic knowledge) comes at the price of the abandonment of the will. The poet says “Sing, muse…” and hence gives up something in order to speak with the gravitas (and knowledge) of the transcendent.I am less enthusiastic about this latter idea. Grossman says in his conversations with Halliday that this poetic daimon is “the voice not of the self but of that transcendental artifice that I have formally called ‘personhood.’” A speaker seeks to attain personhood (and hence immortality). Yet this can only be possible if the speaker is willing to give up “self” and allow it to be overcome by that which is transcendental. This is where Grossman’s distinction between “self” and “person” gets dicey for me. If self is what I am, my consciousness (in the Freudian sense, I suppose), then where does this “person” come from, and how much is it actually me? What makes us willing to give up self for person in poetry? I suppose it is the attempt to breach the limits of our autonomous wills (death).
Some of this unease also has to do with my unease of the Freudian conception of self. Let me quote from JPII’s essay “Thomistic Personalism”:

A hallmark of Descartes’ view of his splitting of the human being into an extended substance (the body) and a thinking substance (the soul), which are related to one another in a parallel way and do not form an undivided whole. We can observe in philosophy a gradual process of a kind of hypostatization of consciousness: consciousness becomes an independent subject of activity, and indirectly of existence, occuring somehow alongside the body, which is a material structure subject to the laws of nature, to natural determinism. Against the background of such parallelism, combined with simultaneous hypostatization of consciousness, the tendency arises to identify the person with consciousness.

What Grossman refers to as “self,” I think, is what JPII describes as the result of the “hypostatization of consciousness.” I suspect Grossman is trying to get past the inherent limits of the Cartesian view of the human being by thinking of “Person” as some sort of transcendental leap that is allowed by the “machinery” of the poem. Yet, I suspect this distinction between person and self is not ultimately helpful and only furthers the unhelpful Cartesian formulation. For Grossman, persons are value bearing, undeniably moral. Yet the modern emphasis on consciousness is inherently subjective. Hence he must find a way to valorize the person over and above limits of consciousness. Poetry, he believes, allows him to do this.
Yet it seems to me to come at a cost: the moral person is still an admitted fiction. Doesn’t this designation of “fiction” castrate Grossman’s project? Why must we value the fiction over the reality? Is reality not actually beautiful?

I’m planning on doing another entry today about Grossman, but I’m at work and I forgot my copy of Singer. In the meantime, I wanted to share a BBC series that is available on YouTube. A professor I know shared this with me, after I shared a link to Simon Schama’s Power of Art episode on Rembrandt.

I’m sharing this video (and my e-mail response to that professor) in an attempt to balance my Grossman post from last week, lest you think I’m only a cranky traditionalist.

First, the video…

And my email response to this professor…

an interesting set of videos.

though i’m not sure i’d start where scruton starts: art being buffeted on two sides by the cult of ugliness and the cult of utility. i think that’s putting the cart before the horse, in a sense, because it implies a sort of propriety about what art should contain and what it should not. i’m not the only poet who is grateful for the high modernist poets like eliot and pound and for the postmodern cornucopia of styles. on the other hand, i recognize the crisis that this freedom has unleashed.

for me, it seems the proper place to start with art is with the person, with a love of persons. in a sense, i would begin where scruton ends. and move backwards through the videos. i think it’s interesting when scruton finally talks about the value of persons (around video 5), he begins to acknowledge the way that messiness, filth, even ugliness can be great art. i’m thinking of a piece like guernica, which is just awful to stare at and ponder. it’s incredibly ugly, in a sense, yet what makes it great and vital, in part, is the fact that it contains the tragedy of persons.

when i look at emmins bed, i see an egoism that is ugly because it the artist has no care for the opinion of the those who see the art: “it’s art because i say it’s art and i don’t give a damn what you have to say about it.” there is no reaching out, no interest in the community that art could serve. the painting of the bed does not demonstrate this hatred for neighbor.

i’m really interested in the idea of the person, and have been reading a lot of jp2 recently. i want it to be less about finding a place where the “real and ideal meet.” i can appreciate that statement but i’m not sure how helpful it is. i feel like the “personalistic norm” is important somehow, but i’m still trying to figure out how.

What did you think of the video? Is Scruton just a cranky traditionalist or does he have valid criticisms about “the cult of ugliness”? Does this cult even exist?

In their second conversation, Mark Halliday and Allen Grossman attempt to answer the question “Where are we now in the history of poetry?”

I figured I’d highlight a few of the most interesting takes on poets of the last hundred years. I want to then use it as the basis of a discussion on the relation of past poetry (and other art) and its relation to the present situation of poetry. Overall, there is a rather nice arc that Grossman paints…

On the “high moderns” (Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and I think he later includes Crane):

[They] used up the idea of greatness or implicated that idea in complex ways with aspects of civilization…that produced the Second World War….Poetry was not helping us learn how to live because the High Moderns…set poetry against life. They seemed to have established the outcome of poetic enterprise outside of life in unreachable transcendentalisms which no longer made any sense at all [to poets coming after World War 2]. The immediate response to the High Moderns was to conserve them academically and therefore neutralize them, and then to retrench upon the world not of transcendental reality but of what, loosely speaking, can be called an immanent counter-reality.

Lowell came along to take on the mantle of “immanence”:

Life Studies (1959) [was his attempt] to effect a disencumbrance of mediations, to obtain a direct relationship to the life of his own consciousness unmediated by the vast structural impositions of the greatest predecessors, of whom Yeats is the example that most often comes to my mind….I think that the sentiment which surrounded Lowell’s massive and persevering effort to obtain a poetry which was more fully immanent to the world of his consciousness, and less fundamentally characterized by the self-reference of poetry to its own history, represents a response to that predicament which I was speaking of in our first conversation. It represents an effort to obtain a poetry which is in harmony with the life of sentiment; that is to say, the life of human immediacy rather than, as in Yeats, a poetry which demanded of what he called “the intellect of man” that it choose between a perfection of the life, for which he had little talent, and that perfection of the art for which he was so massively gifted.

Grossman is careful to note that Lowell’s search “did not indeed constitute a disavowal of greatness, a disavowal of universal stature.” That is, Lowell did not disavow transcendence in favor of immanence, which Grossman defines as follows: “initially a theological word,…it means indwelling; and that inness always implies an internality to the human world.”

On “immanent” confessionalists:

There is the mortal family and the immortal family. The immanent confessional poets, who announced the world in which you began writing, turn from the transcendental family to the mortal family, attempt to construct a poetry internal to that mortal family, a poetry founded in the notion that the language adequate to produce the picture of the person as precious is consistent with the language of ordinary life.

About Ginsberg:

…in Howl, [he] undertook “to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose” on the basis of immediate relationship between persons. The enormous opening sentence of Howl constitutes an effort to extricate a single relationship from the predation of transcendence upon the fragile scene of human love. In Ginsberg’s poem, the whole world of drugs in indistinguishable from the central culture of decadence, and the angelic transcendence of a prior metaphysicalism embedded in the Beat jargon which he practiced, hardly distinguishable from the Moloch which he calls contemporary society.

Grossman points out that an important shift happened in 1950s America: “the national symbol, always a resource for the grounding of poetic authority, was discredited….The discrediting of the national symbol—“America” for the American poet—continued relentlessly through the sixties and early seventies…and disempowered one great basis for legitimation of the self—the nation.” He goes on to say that “the absence of a world that is organized by authority…[is] enormously disabling, and yet at the same time, enabling in a fashion so open it lacks the magnanimity of direction.”

On Ammons:

…situates his poetry on the fundamentally romantic problem of epistemology, the problem which focuses the business of personhood upon the question as to how the way in which we know the world affects the way in which the world is experienced.


…[writes] in virtually autistic isolation…a poet whose creative power, particularly whose capacity to conceive of ways of entering into discourse inconceivable to me until he showed the way…seems to search the resources of discourse without ever allowing them to complete themselves….Ashbery is an epistemological genius whose world has arrayed itself around him as a world in which it’s possible for a man to live on condition that he reserves his passion for totality, as it were for another life. His world is a separate world in which it is impossible to meet another soul….Ashbery is not so much an epistemological writer as a writer about ontological orientation.

(Halliday described Ashbery as “melting together…syntactical fragments that could have been quite at home in a poem from an earlier age.” For a fuller explanation of this, I recommend Chris Robinson’s opus on how Ashbery composes poetry.)

OK! Flurry of quotes done. Since this conversation happened in 1981, it seems appropriate to try and update this arc. Admittedly, I left out a few other poets that Grossman had fascinating takes on, mostly for the sake of space and forwarding my rather tidy narrative of poetic fragmentation.

I would be very interested in hearing your reactions to Grossman’s characterizations as well as your own thoughts on the state of current poetry. What follows is mine.

I confess that there seems to me to be a crisis in current poetry. There is so much free space to carve out, nobody knows where to begin, and everyone seems to be waiting for the next great someone to do something that wows. Stephen Ross talks about this in the Oxnian Review, the trend in recent poetry to be hybrids only:

Hybrid poets have also breathed new life into the use of caesura, a break or a sense pause in verse often marked by white space between the words. In this regard, they have been inspired in equal parts by sources ranging from Beowulf to John Berryman’s Dream Songs. Sometimes, they break their lines into a kind of staggered ladder, a la William Carlos Williams. Other times they just write in prose. All of it flows from the postmodern horn of plenty.

Hybrid poets are by-and-large adept, though sometimes shallow, name-droppers from the western and eastern intellectual traditions. In American Hybrid alone, one finds direct references to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone Weil, the pre-socratics, Cornel West, Paul Celan, Hsuan Tsang (a possibly fictitious Buddhist monk), Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ezra Pound, Sophocles, Maimonides, Alfred North Whitehead, Wallace Stevens, J.M. Coetzee, and Hegel. Thomas Aquinas and scholasticism also appear surprisingly often; indeed, the hybrids have a kind of neo-scholastic penchant for (often inane) logic-chopping and for communicating in breathtakingly precise terms.

My sense of crisis lies with this question: Are we so poetically promiscuous out of a sense of freedom or because we don’t know what else to do? Ironically, modern poets name drop as much as Pound and Eliot, but for completely different reasons. For the High Moderns, there was a sense that they could realistically “shore these fragments against [their] ruin.” Today we shore them because we’re garbage collectors of the dump of the past. Less-educated poets often have no idea who they’re channeling. More-educated poets sometimes channel so much it’s suffocating. Moreover, the channeling is less about inspiration, using the poetic past as a way forward.

This brings me to another crisis in current poetry, that of publishing (ironically, I am speaking from the platform of a brand-new poetry blog, self-powered by WordPress). Many of you might have read David Alpaugh’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The New Math of Poetry” in which he repeats the oft-heard lament that the current world of poetry is so large and unwieldy that it is completely impenetrable:

Every now and then someone asks me, “Who are the best poets writing today?” My answer? “I have no idea.” Nor do I believe that anyone else does. I do have an uneasy feeling that a Blake and a Dickinson may be buried in the overgrowth, and I fear that neither current nor future readers may get to enjoy their art.

We recent poets have two great tools at our disposal: freedom of poetic license, and freedom of publishing. Generally, we can say whatever we want, and get a significant number of people to hear what we have to say. The question is whether this freedom has led to better poetry or degeneration. Perhaps that’s not the best way to put it. The question should be, even if somebody is doing something amazing and new in poetry, would we even see it? Will we travel all this way to find that we really did need the gatekeepers of poetry??

What should our attitude be toward the “postmodern horn of plenty” that has affected both poetic license and publishing? Film also seems to be facing a similar crisis with the question of digital vs. film. I found an interview with one of my favorite film critics, Armond White, in which he addresses this question.

Steve Boone: What it suggests to me is that radical visions from people who would otherwise not have been bothered because of the mountain you’d have to climb to get a film completed, the translators you’d have to employ, would no longer be an issue, and you’d take camera in hand. Super 8, Pixelvision, Hi-8—all that stuff was nice, but it was low-resolution and if you put them up against a 35mm projection, audience prejudices would discount these other media. Now we have these new cameras that, if you know how to light and compose and expose, your image is going to be free of those subliminal triggers that provoke an audience to dismiss a film as “not film.” All that stuff goes away.

Armond White: Well, you say “audience prejudice.” I say “audience preference,” because the screen is not a level playing field. And Americans are very fortunate to have had Hollywood, to have experienced–to know– how great photography can be. So don’t give me no bullshit. I know what great photography is. I don’t want to see somebody scrambling with their camera and trying to do things modestly. I’ve seen Joseph August and Gordon Willis. I don’t want anything less.

Two last points:

1. All this reminds me of the indie trend of a few years ago (a trend I think is dead, as indie has largely gone mainstream, right?). Everyone was obsessed with finding/naming the “greatest lost track of all time” (as Wilco put it). Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of great “indie” rock—but there’s also a lot of trash.

2. Why do I always feel like I’m complaining in my blog posts? I will say something nice in my next post, or say nothing at all.

3. OK, one more point: Who are the greatest poets writing today?

Canada, it’s spring-break time. We’ve already got trees budding. Actually, many schools have gotten the whole Winter Olympics off for two or three weeks of extended spring break drunkenness. I’ve been glued to CTV for the last week or so, watching my new favorite sport: curling. No joke, this game is intense. It’s the skill of bowling with the strategy of chess. Not to mention, curling and hockey are two of the few things that get Canadians riled up (they go from passive agressive to just plain aggressive).

In the spirit of breaks from routine (are two weeks of blog posts long enough to be considered a routine?), I figured it would be good to take a break from the Grossman inspired posts and do a little reflection on a recent article in Wired magazine: “How Google’s Algorithm Rules the Web.” And in the spirit of Spring, I want to see if I can connect it to W.C. Williams.

Ever since I read an article on cloud computing and Google’s ability to translate web pages based upon its database alone (that is, nobody programmed the various language rules in it; it literally translates via algorithm), I’ve been interested in Google’s relationship with language. Now, any of you who have used Google Translation know it’s pretty awful, but the idea alone is impressive, and there’s no telling where improvements will take it.

This particular article goes under the hood of Google’s search engine, and we find out the real difficulties lies not so much in web crawlers, page ranking, or any of the stuff Google is known for (although, that is certainly a feat), but rather interpreting the desires of the Googler:

“We discovered a nifty thing very early on,” Singhal says. “People change words in their queries. So someone would say, ‘pictures of dogs,’ and then they’d say, ‘pictures of puppies.’ So that told us that maybe ‘dogs’ and ‘puppies’ were interchangeable. We also learned that when you boil water, it’s hot water. We were relearning semantics from humans, and that was a great advance.”

But there were obstacles. Google’s synonym system understood that a dog was similar to a puppy and that boiling water was hot. But it also concluded that a hot dog was the same as a boiling puppy. The problem was fixed in late 2002 by a breakthrough based on philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s theories about how words are defined by context. As Google crawled and archived billions of documents and Web pages, it analyzed what words were close to each other. “Hot dog” would be found in searches that also contained “bread” and “mustard” and “baseball games” — not poached pooches. That helped the algorithm understand what “hot dog” — and millions of other terms — meant. “Today, if you type ‘Gandhi bio,’ we know that bio means biography,” Singhal says. “And if you type ‘bio warfare,’ it means biological.”

Did you catch that? Google uses Wittgenstein…Holy Mother of all snake-eating-its-own-Postmodern-tail!

Google, of course, is probably at the forefront of product innovation. Google has created an environment where failed ideas are OK, a sort of decentralized and messily creative workplaces that capitalizes on an excess of time and resources. Knowledge workers rejoice! (See here and here)

But that wasn’t what caught my attention most of all. It was this:

One unsuccessful search became a legend: Sometime in 2001, Singhal learned of poor results when people typed the name “audrey fino” into the search box. Google kept returning Italian sites praising Audrey Hepburn. (Fino means fine in Italian.) “We realized that this is actually a person’s name,” Singhal says. “But we didn’t have the smarts in the system.”

The Audrey Fino failure led Singhal on a multiyear quest to improve the way the system deals with names — which account for 8 percent of all searches. To crack it, he had to master the black art of “bi-gram breakage” — that is, separating multiple words into discrete units. For instance, “new york” represents two words that go together (a bi-gram). But so would the three words in “new york times,” which clearly indicate a different kind of search. And everything changes when the query is “new york times square.” Humans can make these distinctions instantly, but Google does not have a Brazil-like back room with hundreds of thousands of cubicle jockeys. It relies on algorithms.

The Mike Siwek query illustrates how Google accomplishes this. When Singhal types in a command to expose a layer of code underneath each search result, it’s clear which signals determine the selection of the top links: a bi-gram connection to figure it’s a name; a synonym; a geographic location. “Deconstruct this query from an engineer’s point of view,” Singhal explains. “We say, ‘Aha! We can break this here!’ We figure that lawyer is not a last name and Siwek is not a middle name. And by the way, lawyer is not a town in Michigan. A lawyer is an attorney.”

This is the hard-won realization from inside the Google search engine, culled from the data generated by billions of searches: a rock is a rock. It’s also a stone, and it could be a boulder. Spell it “rokc” and it’s still a rock. But put “little” in front of it and it’s the capital of Arkansas. Which is not an ark. Unless Noah is around. “The holy grail of search is to understand what the user wants,” Singhal says. “Then you are not matching words; you are actually trying to match meaning.”

My current job is teaching upper level writing to ESL students who are entering graduate school. Most of them will go on to do MBAs, but I try to give them a heavy dose of the liberal arts, which many of the students (especially ones from China) are lacking. It’s an incredibly frustrating process, at first, but it has turned into the best kind of reward, as I get a glimpse of my own language and system of thought from an outside (alienated?) perspective. For as many discernible, overarching truths and rules about the language, I often find the same number of beguiling nooks and crannies, particularities that indicate a long history of human choice and situation enshrined in our very words. Almost everyone knows this about language, but to actually encounter it on a regular basis is a bizarre experience.

I think my experience teaching is the same experience that Google’s engineers must deal with: Why do we associate certain things, and what complex process takes place in our brain that allows us to instantly recognize them? The question of lines in poetry adds a layer of complexity to this question. Grossman says that “lineation” is one of the defining qualities of poetry (even prose poetry is defined by its lack of lines, isn’t it?). As I was attempting to write poetry for the first time in high school, I remember obsessing over my lines. I could never understand why I wanted to break a line here one day and there on another day. As I write, I feel pretty confident about cutting my lines. That isn’t to say I still don’t play with line breaks, but I have a pretty intuitive sense of when to hit the Enter button. Sometimes I break a line for the sake of a playful slight rhythm, but usually it comes as a sense of whim–it just seems right. Is this an intuitive sense that has a core? Or is it really just whim?

This leads me to my question: How would Google parse a poem like W.C. William’s “The Red Wheelbarrow?” It reminds me of a passage from a paper I wrote in the beginning of grad school:

Even though this poem is essentially a sentence, each image is carefully isolated by means of juxtaposition. Each stanza contains images that are a juxtaposition within itself according to the line breaks: “depends” versus “upon” (two directional words going in opposite direction), the particulars of the wheel barrow (its redness and wheel[ness]) versus the wheel barrow in its wholeness, the glaze of rain versus the rainwater, the chickens versus their own whiteness. The details of the things are pulled apart and highlighted, bringing out a rich multi-faceted view of each object. Williams’ accomplishment is almost that of the cubists, allowing the reader to see these objects in many different ways, from the different angles of detail. Yet despite this almost excessive juxtaposition, the poem has a unity. It does not communicate the same fractured nature that a painting like Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. Rather, this poem explores the unity of objects, their interconnectedness, while also evoking the particularities of objects and, in some sense, how they vie with one another. What is even more striking about this poem is how commonplace it is. These are objects that many Americans in Williams’ time could see on a regular basis. For Williams to find so much juxtaposition and still unity, to be so common and yet absolutely metaphysical is a feat. More important here, we can see the way he perceives language. Each word is isolated either visually or by juxtaposition in the same way each imagistic object in the poem is isolated. This is one thing Williams does often in his poetry: isolate each word visually, either through an extreme sparseness of form or by simply leaving a word on a line by itself. What would today be considered gimmicky by most MFA students, Williams accomplishes with verve in a way that is not gimmicky in the least. This is because Williams largely helped pioneer this technique, but also because the reader senses the whole power of idiom behind Williams’ language. Its commonality is the source of its power. The idiom arises from the commonplace here. And more importantly, Williams communicates this idiom through objectness.

That passage contains perhaps one of the most absurd phrases I’ve ever written: “the chickens versus their own whiteness.” (No post-colonial analysis, that!) But no matter what you think of my analysis, the question of where these words are “broken” from one another and why is a question that I suspect Google could never answer in the form of an accurate search. Google can tell when “little rock” means the capital and not a small pebble (or some sort of midget music genre), it’s true, but humans are capable of something even more complex than that: breaking things apart and still recognizing the relationship. As the passage from my paper indicates, I believe this ability stems out of idiom (in William’s case, the American Idiom).

Ironically, Google sees everything as fractured. When you search johnny cash hurt, Boolean logic looks for johnny and cash and hurt. Google uses modified Boolean logic and has accomplished the ability to tell when certain words probably go together.

Now for the second order language intelligence of poetry: can Google understand line breaks? Could Google help us become better writers?

I probably should state right off the bat that I am not a philosopher by trade. If I mess up philosophical terms and definitions, feel free to correct me. I tend to have a more intuitive approach to philosophy, rather than a systematic one. Thus, I tend to explain things by analogy. I recognize the limits of this, but I hope, nonetheless, to contribute to real discussion. Also, I am skipping ahead in Grossman significantly, past the discussions with Halliday, about halfway into Summa Lyrica. I am doing this because last week I read the passage “‘I’ in the Lyric” and was excited by Grossman articulating something I have been trying to articulate for a long time.

In this passage it seems that Grossman is attacking the idea of “otherness.” I recognize that many philosophers and critics have used the term “other” to mean many different things. Everyone from Hegel, to Husserl, to Pope Benedict have used the term to describe entities that are not the subjective self. I am mostly familiar with this term through the work of Edward Said, whose vision of post-colonialism was heavily pushed by several professors at Binghamton University, where I did my undergraduate. I initially recognized the term “other” to be a handy way to say “not me.” It also seemed to capture the sense of alienation that can exist between the self and some other object/subject.

By my senior year, however, I was quite uncomfortable with the binary of self and other because it seemed to carry the connotation of an uncrossable gulf between persons. Now, there is undeniably a gulf in many senses: you cannot make a choice for me, for example. But does that mean that another person is inaccessible to us in a meaningful way? I tend not to think so. So, you can imagine my happiness when I read the following passage from Grossman:

Consciousness of self is only possible if experienced by contrast. I use I only when I am speaking to someone who will be a you in my address….Here we see a principle whose consequences are spread out in all directions. Language is possible only because each speaker sets himself up as a subject by referring to himself as I in his discourse. Because of this I posits another person, the one who, being, as he is, completely exterior to “me,” becomes my echo to whom I say you and who says you to me….It is a polarity [of persons], moreover, very peculiar in itself, as it offers a type of opposition whose equivalent is encountered nowhere else outside of language. This polarity does not mean either equality of symmetry: “ego” always has a position of transcendence with regard to you. Nevertheless, neither of the terms can be conceived of without the other; they are complementary, although according to an “interior/exterior” opposition, and, at the same time, they are reversible. If we seek a parallel to this, we will not find it. The condition of man in language is unique.

And so the old antinomies of “I” and “the other,” of the individual and society, fall. It is a duality which it is illegitimate and erroneous to reduce to a single primordial term…. It is in a dialectic reality that will incorporate the two terms and define them by mutual relationship that the linguistic basis of subjectivity is discovered.

In the margins I scribbled, “*** Grossman demolishes “the other” yay!!!”

In short, Grossman is positing that any concept of subject is impossible without another subject. And not only this, but this relationship is defined by a reversible I-You, not the static self-other. Admittedly, many powerful people have tried to break this I-You. I believe it was Buber who talked about I-it dialogue (in which, I think, there can be no echo, no reversibility) as opposed to I-Thou dialogue.

I guess at the end of the day, my quibble is not with the word “other” but rather with the idea that persons are opposed in such a way that they are fundamentally alienated beings. I just don’t buy that. We are relational beings, with things that inter-est (literally, it is between) us both. This relationship could not exist unless there were some fundamental assumption about that “other” person (namely, they are a person, like us). This belief, whether we admit it or not, is a fundamental assumption with every form of discourse.

I believe acknowledging this is important; I believe it frees us in important ways. We are not gripped with the anxiety that we are the only self, among alien others that we hope are selves (but are not sure). No, we are in a relationship, and therefore, discourse is possible. The solipsistic idea of discourse with an alien other denies its own terms of possibility.

It also frees us from the desire to become one with the other, I think. When we are gripped with that anxiety, like a person drowning, we grasp desperately; we are in the pit of loneliness. This, of course, is impossible and futile (and the basis of co-dependency). However, if we recognize that we are persons who are able to engage in discourse because the relationship already exists, we are much more free to explore the capacities of that relationship.

OK…so, what’s the connection with poetry? Good question. This ended up more of a rant. I do think there is something to be said about the position we speak from as poets (and artists in general). For Grossman, the lyric, the speaking mode of the subject who is “overheard,” is based in a community of discourse (not to imply other communities could be “other”). There is no sovereign speaker. We all take on some mantle (Grossman connects this with the idea of inspiration).

Incidentally, the ideas in this post might have some interesting connection with Adam’s first post on Keat’s disputed Ode. How is address to the urn possible if the urn is not a person? Is address different than discourse?

Hopefully this all adds up to something…As always, feel free to tweak, commend, denounce in the comment section. I probably need it.

First, I want to say it is an honor to be blogging with so many great minds and poets. Some of you I’ve met in person, and many of you I haven’t. I hope to get to know all of you, at least virtually. It will be fun to see where blog goes. Now, onto my first post!

I’ve been reading through Allen Grossman’s The Sighted Singer in the last few weeks. The book is actually a combination of two works: a series of conversations Grossman had with Mark Halliday and Grossman’s own summa (literally) on poetry. Much like the Angelic Doctor himself, Grossman provides many interesting terms, definitions, and distinctions that are worth pursuing. Even better, Grossman and Halliday often disagree, and this back-and-forth opens the terms up even more. Forgive me as I muddle through these ideas myself.

So….where to start?

I think I’ll begin with what immediately appeals to me about Grossman. Grossman is interested in the idea of “persons.” Recently, I began to encounter the philosophical concept of “person” through the work of Erazim Kohak, whose book The Embers and the Stars closes with the importance of the person. The person, I guess, could be seen as a basic unit of value. Animals have personality (cue the Pulp Fiction scene), and folks like Peter Singer consider animals to be persons, but let’s not go there (at least not yet!).

Grossman, too, sees persons as “value-bearing,” and he differentiates persons from “selves” along this line of value. The self is something that can be discovered or found. The self is what Freud parsed: a hurricane of secret desires, phobias, and complexes. Persons, however, are what poets write about; they are “artifacts.” Now, to say it is a construction of sorts, does not mean it has no “presence.” I don’t think of this construction as a mask, a falseness, something that obscures, but rather the actuality of what we perceive when we encounter other selves. In other words, I experience “Micah Towery” as a self—myself. You, however, encounter me as an object (in the Thomistic sense), but more: a person. You encounter my presence through my writing.

How does this connect with poetry? Grossman says that the role of poetry is the preservation of the images of persons. But it is more than just a way of remembering a person, who they were, their achievements. The poet is more than just a historian:

Horace’s assertion that the heroes before Homer were inlacrimabiles, incapable of being wept for, does carry with it an implication different from the mere suggestion that Homer was the principle of the transmission of a message [the recovery of the image]. It suggests that there’s something fuller, and more consistent with the whole nature of the person as precious, about the holding-in-mind by the poem of the picture of the person.

Some people often speak about poetry being purposeless; “art for art’s sake” it is said. I think this is usually a protective stance against reducing art to pure utilitarianism. It is still striking, though, that Grossman has no problem ascribing certain tasks to poetry: the preservation of images, and making those images present.

This brings me to another aspect of Grossman that appeals to me: his discussion of images. I use the word “image” in a more theological sense, as I am speaking from the Christian tradition. Theologically, the image is more than simply a picture. Humans are made in the image of God (who, incidentally, is a person—three actually). Eastern Orthodox Christians have long spoken of icons as a “window to the divine.” Even Christ was called an eikon (image) of the invisible God by St. Paul. (I would be very interested in hearing from other religious—or non-religious—traditions and seeing how other streams of thought think about the idea of the eikon/image.)

So, in my understanding, Grossman is advocating the poetry as an art against “forgetting.” The comparisons between Grossman’s concept and Forché seems inevitable. Forché’s poetry is a poetry of “witness.” Is this a purely historical witness? Or is it about the preservation of persons as Grossman states it? This is a question for those of you who know Forché better than I do.

That’s all I have for my first post here. Feel free to debate, tweak, or denounce in the comment section below. There are just so many things to discuss in Grossman that I suspect this “blogging through” will take quite a long time…I look forward to a lively discussion.