Read some of Deborah’s poems here and find links to some of the things Ben and Deborah talk about in the interview.
It was the novel, specifically The Brothers Karamazov, that once and for all set me on the path toward dedicating my life to literature. Only recently has poetry come to occupy a similarly sacred space as the novel in my outlook. This delay is not due to any prejudice on my part, but more to a simple lack of sufficient exposure.
The main catalyst for this awakening was John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” When I first encountered it, I had been studying Pynchon, Barth, DeLillo, and David Foster Wallace. Namely, practitioners of the massive, whose major works will undoubtedly stand as monuments to our historical and cultural moment. “Self-Portrait” is one such undertaking.
The sheer philosophical, epistemological, formal and emotional scope exhilarates me every time I read it. It is a virtuosic, dynamic, and ultimately heart-wrenching meditation on self-consciousness and loss, central notions of late twentieth-century art. Like those masters of narrative I mentioned, Ashbery causes me to pause and reflect with awed humility that I could never do what he did in this poem.
Everyone in it dead now––Dad,
three, in a skirt––and I see her
again, the unnamed woman. She
is me. No one to introduce us:
Hello, Me. Unruly eyebrow woman,
eyes sepia but blue––they must be;
hair pulled slant, frame bent
lensward, skeptical mouth
smiling––I know you. How did you
leash your mind, when you
looked through the small window
or stared through water
at your veined hand?
James Schuyler is back from the dead with the lovely “Other Flowers” a posthumous book of his unpublished, uncollected poems. Everything I have come to know and love about Schuyler’s eye and heart is here in generous supply. The poems are – like so many of the poems published in his lifetime – made from a kind of brilliance disguised as innocence; a sadness disguised as joy. They feel closer to jazz and painting than to another kind of poetry. And, like they are peculiarly of their own time: still timeless as any poetry this indelible (though more in the sense of memorable than something held down or restricted by an era), but they are also poems that feel (somewhat like Frank O’Hara, Joe Brainard and, later, Frank Bidart) almost immediately nostalgic.
The subject matter here is still the same as it’s always been: New York, adventures in intimacy, pop culture, gossip, longing and traveling and most of them are famously brief in scope of time and how they fall upon the page. In their brevity, they feel as important and quietly beautiful as leaves we use as summer bookmarkers.
What I find most fascinating about Schuyler’s poems (and probably one of the most interesting aspect of this collection is the fact that there are probably more not so good poems than in his other collections) is how slight they may appear and yet are not slight at all. Like interpretive inkblots that use tea for color instead of ink, the poems are there and not there; emphatic, authoritative, but also whispered. There’s confrontation and resistance – exemplified, in part, in “Vila Della Vite”, which tracks the desire to be a different kind of thinker than he already is:
I’m not happy
My spirits that lifted
me so high, went off like smoke
after a shot. How can
I fear so many diverse things?
I want to think of other things.
Is it all
in how you think?
I want to think of a washing machine
in a basement….
Being a different kind of thinker than he is or wants to be is actually one of the aspects that makes Schuyler such a great poet, if that makes sense. His intelligence is fixed in time but it is also mutable as the subjects it lands on, and rather than the heavy hand of the writer casting a shadow on the subject and/or cadence of the poem, the poem casts the shadow on the writer. In this way, each poem is its style:
It darkens, brother
and your crutch-tip grinds
the gravel the deer stepped delicately along
one breakfast, you were a kid.
Mother says after thirty,
decades clip by
‘and then you have the sum’
or spent it.
(From “Coming Night”)
And each poem – especially this one – is stacked in terms of form – a way of making information happen by making each line take on a different subject – what Richard Hugo talks about in his book on poetics, “The Triggering Town”. Here, each next line in that first stanza stands in unison and independently: it darkens, there’s a crutch-tip, gravel and deer, breakfast, Mother, decades, the sum, and then “or spent it” – the culmination.
And while the eye in many of Schuyler poems is in a beautiful gaze about making the moment larger, the mind is also wondering what is really being seen, considered and what the stakes are. Each poem in a way – whether it literally asks a question or not – is wondering who someone is, what something is. Each poem is deceptively simple in that inquiry, but mysterious, too:
The mind dies down.
Nerves, unsheathed, stir.
Radios. A water tap
Depart, flesh, trailed
by barbwire hair. Sea salt
explores lips of lacerations
cut on you like a christening
nick. A yellow light
in blue light. Twilight
and hydrangeas watery
through hedges. Was the hideous
lesson worth the pleasure?
(From “The Exchange”)
It’s so good to have these poems in the world now; to have James Schuyler back, uncollected, saluting the various field: these other flowers.
Marianne Moore probably would have hated my guts, considering my rather sloppy, and sprawling ways, and she would have been right to do so. She scares me the way Cordelia scares me–by dint of her absolute integrity. She makes me love her the way I once loved an impossibly precise and severe girl in the fourth grade, who in addition to precision and severity, took an absolute delight in whatever she found worthy, surpassing any delight I had previously witnessed. It was calm, yet intense, and of a constancy once formed that made me wish I was a better person. I realized her delight was far greater, and of far more depth than my unbridled enthusiasms. Until then, I had thought myself substantial. Without ever insulting me, or explicitly disapproving of my shallowness, this girl dismantled my high self-notions. I loved and feared her, and wanted more than anything to be someone she would admire. It didn’t happen. I caved into the whims of my classmates, and played the fool, and she knew better.
But all this is fairly common knowledge concerning Marianne Moore. What no one seems to speak of is that this sort of integrity (Katherine Hepburn minus beauty or Hollywood) counts on a quality of character we might not think a virtue, but is, in a sense, an aspect of divinity: arbitrary favor.
Arbitrary favor differs from whim in so far as it rides on precision and integrity, and, yet, we might call it the most laudatory form of caprice. No one could predict what Marianne Moore would love, only that, if she admired it, looked upon it with favor, she would appreciate the thing, or animal, or person with the utmost decorum and skill. Her enthusiasm for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and for her Protestant faith do not seem consistent (the Dodgers of that time were anything but waspish), yet constancy is not the same as consistency, and, for this reason, constancy is always fresh, never stale. It carries within its scope a sense of “oh Brave new World,” and yet makes ordinary and even habitual the mechanisms of wonder.
So when I first read Marianne Moore in 7th grade, I experienced a rather Proustian recall of the girl in 4th, and found myself entering the poems with a kind of gingerly tread I reserve for people I don’t wish to look stupid around. The first poem I was exposed to was “To A Snail.” It was sister Irene’s favorite, and, though she knew better, she made a valiant attempt to export her admiration to the class. “Moore is both sensible and ecstatic,” sister said, “and to read her well, to appreciate her genius, you, too, must be both sensible and ecstatic.” (lots of dumbfounded stares, not a few yawns.) Here’s the poem:
If “compression is the first grace of style,”
you have it. Contractility is a virtue
as modesty is a virtue.
It is not the acquisition of any one thing
that is able to adorn,
or the incidental quality that occurs
as a concomitant of something well said,
that we value in style,
but the principle that is hid:
In the absence of feet, “a method of conclusions”;
“a knowledge of principles,”
in the curious phenomenon of your occipital horn.
In my fifty-second year, I am beginning to understand what Sister Irene meant. At the time, she asked the class what Moore was trying to say. “Snails are interesting,” Barbara submitted. “Yes,” Sister replied, “no doubt, but could we go a bit further?” I slowly raised my hand. I was known for making the best fart noises by putting my hand in my arm pit and flapping my arm. I could also make myself sneeze at will. I was not known for being a literary analyst. “She is saying that the best thing about details, the best thing about anything said, or about the snail’s horn is that it shows the underlying principle underneath everything, and that’s what makes it good style. And she is saying it isn’t just that the snail’s horn is interesting, but that it is… (I groped for a word, a mighty word, a word that would drag me into the most glorious light)… exemplary?” “Yes!” sister exclaimed, and touched her lips three times with the chalk, “yes! That’s certainly more to the point! It is as Aquinas said, ‘all in nature that I see, shows me the creator I have not seen.’” Barbara rolled her eyes. Tommy Mc Gowan whispered, “show off.” Sister said: “Mr. Weil, every so often, you throw off your dunce cap and astound me! Here…” and she threw a book at me (she loved to throw things) It was 101 American poems. It was the first time anyone had given me a book of poetry. “Read it, Mr. Weil. Do not be tempted to regress to your natural state.”
In the years since I have often regressed, but I did read the book, and I re-read it. It was worth showing off in a manner different than my usual attempts to be ingratiating. It was worth my classmate’s contempt. On the way home from school, I could not stop thinking about the girl in fourth grade, her tremendous love of insects, her refusal to giggle at any other child, her forthrightness. And, as I walked home, I thought, if she had not moved away, if only she had been there,she may have been as delighted as sister Irene, and, for the briefest moment, I would have been more than a fool.
Assignment: Write a poem in which you take note of an animal, or object, but also use description to get at some underlying principle beyond the mere details.
If you are a poet writing in English, you carry Horace in your own voice. I’m convinced there really is no way around this. I’m not sure there’s any possible strain of English poetry that can avoid his influence. And who would want to? Horace is a master of lyric poetry. To learn better how we speak as poets, we should all be looking at and coming to grips with Horace.
This looking back (not so much ad fontes as Jacob wrestling God) is made difficult by the fact that most of us don’t know Latin (or the Greek of the poets Horace learned from). And even for those who do, the collapse that exists between Latin and English can seem insurmountable. I was a terrible student when I studied Latin and Greek and have since forgotten much of it. Looking back now, I can see that I looked at foreign languages more as a different speaking-code that could be translated into English (with a few admitted bumps along the way), rather than another way of thinking–perhaps even another way of being. I’ve realized that language is a rite of sorts into which we are initiated over a very long period of time. Whenever I feel frustrated with my students inability to grasp certain ideas of language, I look up at a large poster of Greek verb endings that I’ve posted in my cubicle to remind myself of the difficulty of learning another language. It keeps me humble (I hope).
Because language is a rite of initiation of sorts, it has to be done with humans. You can immerse yourself in a dead language, but at the end day who knows whether you’re working with the language in a way the original speakers would have been familiar with? I remember reading some translation commentaries in which several possible translations–all very different–were posited by the commentators who then shrugged, essentially, saying–we honestly just don’t know how to translate this. This is maddening if you’re trying to render a translation that is as close to the original in every way possible. At the end of the day, most translators have to admit that they are only able to be accurate in one or two ways, and that these accuracies come at the expense of other accuracies. A translator may, for example, attempt to imitate the free and easy rhythm of the original, but to do so in English, the translator may need to reorder the ideas and images in the original.
A few months back I wrote a sort of prologue to this book review in which I concluded that fruitful translation is possible as long as we are able to recognize and appreciate the “extra layers” of intent that must be layered over top of a translation to make it possible. That is, we first must recognize the limits of translation, while also acknowledging (and appreciating, I think) what the translator adds to the translation.
The collection that J.D. McClatchy has assembled renders the totality of Horace’s four books of odes. The translations are from contemporary English-speaking poets of all varieties, from Paul Muldoon to Charles Simic to Rosanna Warren. All (or almost) have had some experience translating from a classical language. All the poets, with the exception of Simic, grew up speaking one of the major incarnations of modern English (American, British, Irish, Canadian, Australian).
McClatchy’s Odes favors a variety of translators (and inevitably, translational perspectives). As such, it is a valuable collection to add to the stable of Horace translations. From them, you can learn a lot about Horace as a poet. But I suspect you can also learn more about the translators as poets themselves, and that makes this collection a valuable addition to the study of modern poetry as well.
It would be much too large of a task to review how each poet approaches Horace. The good news is that almost every one of McClatchy’s translators take on several Odes each, which creates a sort of arc from which you can study and learn about each poet’s translational perspective. One poem is not probably enough to enlighten us about how the contemporary poet relates her or his poetics with that of Horace, but thankfully, McClatchy has given readers enough to make a study of each individual poet if a they so chose.
Given my own weak knowledge of Latin, I cannot assess well the various ways in which the translations of McClatchy’s edition mediate the gap between Horace’s Latin and modern-day English. The best I can is muddle an assessment in triangulation with another modern edition of Horace I have come to love and admire: David Ferry’s. Where McClatchy’s Odes features variety, Ferry’s translations have a consistency of translational perspective. Over winter break, I also picked up a copy of Mitchie’s translations (which are, amazingly, often done in the original meter–something neither Ferry nor McClatchy’s translators attempt). Legend has it that Auden was scared off from doing his own translations of Horace by what he perceived as the self-evident greatness of Mitchie’s.
As far as recent poets go, however, I believe that Ferry’s translations will last for a long time as a node upon which modern poetics can hang its relationship with Horace. McClatchy’s Odes exists more as a collection of statements of relationship between modern poets and Horace. For comparison’s sake, let’s look at Ode I.23, by both Ferry and Heather McHugh.
i.23 / To Chloë
Chloë, it is as if
_____You were but a little fawn
Needlessly fearful of every
_____Littlest breeze that stirs,
Ready to run as far
_____Away as it possibly can,
Seeking its timid mother
_____Anywhere but here
Where its heart beats fast and it trembles
_____In every limb for any
Slightest shimmer or shiver
_____Of newly opening leaf,
Signs of the spring beginning,
_____Or if a lizard’s foot
Disturbs a single twig.
_____Chloë, I am neither
A lion nor a tiger;
_____I have no wish to hurt you;
Do not run to your mother;
_____Now is the time for love.
You dash from my sight, little Chloë, the way, wth fear,
a stray fawn bolts from path to bush in search
of her lost mother, trembling utterly at each
sweet nothing of the woods, each stir of air.
Let any thorn tree spring the briefest leaf,
let any lizard make the least green streak
toward any under-tangle–and she’ll freeze,
blood knocking, heart at knees.
But I’m no predatory cur, no wildcat appetite,
to rack a baby down and eat her up. I’m only
human: I’m a man. The time is right, in you, for some
bold move. Now let your mother go. Now, let me come.
McHugh, with her percussive wordplay, has turned Horace’s speaker into a sweaty, groping, borderline (if not already there) pedophile. In truth, it’s also there in Ferry’s poem, but ambivalently. The tactfully discharged imagery of Ferry’s poem could be one playing a role in a game of “hard to get” as easily as it could indicate a smooth, but predatory operator. I’ll admit, however, that after reading McHugh’s poem I have a hard time not seeing it her way (that might also be because I just finished watching an episode of Law & Order: SVU, but that’s neither here nor there).
McHugh takes the central conceit of the poem and thrusts the reader into it (“You dash from my sight”). Ferry, on the other hand, layers the desire below the conceit (“Chloë, it is as if…”). McHugh makes the not-at-all subtle equation of Horace’s desire (and the instrument thereof) to the lizard (which itself sparks other associations); in Ferry’s poem, that image is tidied away as a “lizard’s foot.” The way we see both Ferry and McHugh dealing with these images brings me to a larger point about Horace: one of the most impressive things that Horace does–one thing that I badly wishI could ape from his craft–is his ability to introduce a multitude of objects and hold them all in balance. We see what could be Ashbery’s wandering mind under the disciplinary curtain call of form. Whether the “formal feeling” that gives us a sense of the poem’s beginning or end is a “romantic standby,” I’ll leave for other poets to hammer out at this point. In these translations, there is no formalism, but how the translators perceive Horace’s intent becomes a form, of sorts. They must wrestle with all the objects, by squeezing them in, ordering and directing them to their will. This reinterpretive ordering says much about how the translators as poets relate to Horace.
If I had a wider range of knowledge about all the contributing translators, McClatchy’s collection of new translations could do with a thorough comparison, a catalogue of what each poet is doing with Horace in his or her own right. That exercise would, no doubt, yield a large number of insights, and I hope that the readers of this review would do this and return with their findings (perhaps shared in the comment section?). Ezra Pound suggested that there are three major components to poetry: sound, image, and word play. In this review I mostly focused on image (the most easily translated of the three aspects according to Pound). I was hoping to tackle tone, which floats around Pound’s three aspects. I wanted to write about Mark Strand’s translations, but honestly I just didn’t have time (this was supposed to go up at Christmas!). Maybe some other day.
What I wanted to end this review with, however, is with a demonstration of the way that we all carry Horace in our voice, using a poem I wrote as an example. While a student at Hunter, I was given a side-by-side comparison of Wyatt’s “My Galley, Charged with Forgetfulness” and O’Hara’s “To the Harbormaster.” Wyatt’s poem was itself a translation of Petrarch’s “Canzionere 189.” I decided to do my own loose rewrite of O’Hara and Wyatt, and the resulting poem turned out to be a bit of a cipher (to me at least) for the rest of my poems.
Later, after “discovering” Horace (that is to say, I had begun to read seriously and enjoy), I found that Petrarch’s was itself a rewrite of Horace’s 14th Ode from Book I. It was a very clear demonstration for me that tradition, for better or worse, was a part of all our voices, and–in a sense–we all need that tradition to speak as poets. So I present you with 5 different “versions” of the same poem, the last of which is my own (not to suggest that I am, in any way, an equal to the poets in this list).
i.14 / To the Republic
O ship, O battered ship, the backward running waves
Are taking you out to sea again! Oh what to do?
Oh don’t you see? Oh make for port! The wind’s gone wild!
Your sails are torn! Your mast is shaking! Your oars are gone!
Your onboard gods gone overboard! How long, how long
Can the eggshell hull so frail hold out? O ship so proud,
Your famous name, your gilded stern, your polished decks,
Your polished brass, so useless now, O Storm’s play thing,
O ship my care, beware, beware the Cyclades!
O ship, a ground swell threatens
to set you adrift–look out!
Hurry to reach the harbor–no, don’t stop
to look, but you’ve lost your oars.
The mast has snapped, sails slap at the wind,
your hull needs rope to tie it back together,
canvas has torn, but you no longer
have gods to get you out of trouble.
Though you’re built of the best pine
from the most noble forest, upon a plank
of which your famous name is lettered–
and so beautifully–who can trust paint?
You make a sailor nervous. Be careful
or you’ll become a toy of the storm.
You who, not that long ago, were just
my headache, my pain in the neck,
but who now have my heart aboard,
steer clear of those narrow seas
that cut past the bright lights
marking the rocks of the Cyclades.
My galley, chargèd with forgetfulness
My galley, chargèd with forgetfulness,
Thorough sharp seas in winter nights doth pass
‘Tween rock and rock; and eke mine en’my, alas,
That is my lord, steereth with cruelness;
And every owre a thought in readiness,
As though that death were light in such a case.
An endless wind doth tear the sail apace
Of forced sighs and trusty fearfulness.
A rain of tears, a cloud of dark disdain,
Hath done the weared cords great hinderance;
Wreathèd with error and eke with ignorance.
The stars be hid that led me to this pain;
Drownèd is Reason that should me comfort,
And I remain despairing of the port.
To the Harbormaster
I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks, it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.
Like a forgetful, wind tottered garbage scow
I float. Pity me now
that I have eaten the sun god’s
cattle, and hunger still grips my body.
I wanted to shield it from the gulls
who followed the fat, dull
smell of death from port to
port, pulling out intestines of trash. For you
I have been terrible, increasing,
lashed to a green whale, desiring
spontaneous prose from secret thoughts
to hold me now. Oh how sorry
I am that I ate the sun’s cows
and didn’t feel sorry about it.
Click here to see some of the poems Ben Mirov reads and find some other links to items from the interview.
Ben Mirov, Part 1
Ben Mirov, Part 2
Mary Karr and Christopher Robinson discuss Weldon Kees’s poem “1926.”
What inspires us to write poetry?
I would think that the commonly accepted assumption about poets is that if one is a poet, he or she has always been a poet. The obvious question which should follow this then is “Can someone be a poet without having any knowledge of poetry?” “Are we born poets?”
Let’s begin with this: Most primary, intermediate, and secondary schools include some study of poetry in their curriculums, and yet for the majority of these schools, this is not the primary focus, nor is it rendered a very crucial one. I suppose my first encounter with poetry was a poem written in a photo album of my formative years by my father and mother: “I drop, you catch,/ I cry, you fetch,/I kvetch, you kvetch” (cleverly scrawled next to a picture of me, naked, crawling along the carpet). Of course, this isn’t Pulitzer worthy by current literary standards, but it is actually a good poem in terms of iambic dimeter and rhyme. If I learned anything about the music and rhythm of poetry (two essential ingredients) during my first reading experiences, it was almost directly related to that three line poem I read over and over again. In addition, there were nursery rhymes and clapping-song games that we played early on in elementary school: “Miss Susie had a steamboat/the steamboat had a bell/Miss Susie went to heaven/the steamboat went to hell–/–o operator/give me number nine…” etc. The clever twist about the Miss Susie song was that the words at the end of every fourth line were words that became other words at the beginning of the subsequent line, simply by sound, and so we didn’t get caught singing crass words and obscenities at that young of an age.
Moving on: In fifth grade, there was a lesson on limericks. If we read anybody’s famous limerick, it must not have been very memorable, since I couldn’t right now recite one or provide a poet’s name to help contextualize this point. But I did learn to write a limerick myself, and incidentally won first prize for the limerick’s address to dental hygiene and its advantages. It must have been a good poem, but my memory is foggy and I couldn’t right now recall any of the lines, except that it was handwritten on the lines inside the shape of a very big bicuspid.
In sixth grade, as a part of “The Odyssey of the Mind” competition, my team and I rewrote and parodied the words to a William Blake poem: “William Blake ate too much cake…” etc. I turned into a wild dramatic production with me as writer/director and the four other members of my team as actors, set designers, and costumers.
I don’t know the psychology behind how people train for and develop an ear for poetry, but some of these things must have been of the essence. In the eighth grade, my final project was an assignment to write a book of twenty poems. At that point, I assumed, like most adolescents do that poetry was supposed to be sad. So one of the two poems I remember from that book was a narrative about two of my friends who were very close to one another, until one of them (Betsy) was killed instantaneously when the driver of a car hit her. I thought (at the time) that it was a fantastic poem. I included details. I infused the poem with emotional tropes.
The other poem I remember from that book was partially stolen from one of my parents’ inspirational book of love poems from the 1960s. “Each line in the poem began “Love is”…(with ellipsis, and followed by some simile, and then following an anaphoric structure until the end). So I ripped off the anaphoric structure, took some of the poet’s similes and then wrote some of my own. I feel terrible about this. I don’t remember the other poems, but they were all original poems written by me. I don’t have any idea why I stole that poem. I guess because that was the first year that I was beginning to appreciate poetry as a serious craft, and the poem inspired me enough for me to want to have been the one who wrote it.
But poetry really didn’t get me to see like a poet until my freshman year of high school: to read a poem and want to understand all the necessary complexities, paradoxes, and layers of meaning that prevail if that poem is well crafted. I stumbled upon Rita Mae Brown’s novels that summer at the local library, and read all of them out by the swimming pool at our house. I wasn’t a lesbian, but found myself oriented toward women. Part of it was an adolescent phase, and must have been since I am now happily married to a man. Anyway, Brown’s characters were typically lesbians (“Rubyfruit Jungle,” the most prominent) and the whole idea about a sexuality with which I was not familiar fascinated me, simply for the theory of it. After devouring all of her novels, I went to the bookstore and promptly bought a book of her poems. The poem that finally made me want to be a disciplined poet went like this:
The difference between
my little cat and I
is that I know
I am going to die.
It occurred to me after I read it that cat’s are simply not conscious of their own mortality, and that the speaker (or so it is implied) must want to be like her cat, because it is easier not to be aware of things we would rather not think about or consider. It had me thinking that if humans just died, and had no precognition that it was one day going to happen, it might save us a lot of grief. So the speaker was longing for this ignorance, which makes implicit a sort of inner struggle between awareness and wanting to remain unaware–wanting to be something other than herself–wanting not to know death as well as she believes she does. There is a struggle in the forward momentum of life, the idea of further life or long life deflected by her fear of a finality and the ineluctable condition of mortality which guarantees that we are going to die. She seems to be addressing the idea of inevitability. And the frank way that the statement is made requires that we think a bit about why the speaker would deflect or ignore the frightening details and rather turn it into a philosophical question which forces us to examine our own relationship to our mortality, while at the same time considering the curious manner in which cats exist, without, according to the speaker, the precognition that they are going to die, or the memory of having been born.
So this brief four-line poem made seriously consider writing poetry. Through the years following my encounter with Rita Mae Brown’s poem, I’ve read nearly all of the major poets (and some minor) in the cannon. I have made poetry a daily discipline: coffee in the morning, a banquet of words to choose from, and the assurance that my heart is beating for something cats don’t know–to live, to love, and to always have the luxury of defining and redefining a purpose for this, with poetry as the venue to let the speaker speak, because it is no less than vital and necessary.
Liz Rosenberg is the author of the novel Home Repair and five books of poems, most recently The Lily Poems from Bright Hills Press and Demon Love from Mammoth. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Paris Review and elsewhere. She teaches English at the State U of NY at Binghamton.
It was after an initial reading that left me intrigued yet oddly ill-at-ease, that a tidbit in Caroline Knox’s laconic introduction to her new collection of poems from Wave Books, The Nine Worthies, helped me, if not entirely to penetrate a body of work that at times seems to take as its subject matter the very notion of the impenetrability of language, then at least to begin to understand the cause of my own disquietude. The clue (an apt noun considering that Nine Worthies is perhaps formally closer to a mystery novella than to a standard collection of modern lyric verse) that Knox provides is this: that the eighteenth century New England “real life” characters that inhabit these interlocking prose poems are in the midst of experiencing the “end of [their] Englishness.”
The year, we are told in an epigraph to the book, is 1756; the locations Boston and Newport. If we view history as a series of cataclysmic events interspersed by unremarkable lulls, then it is understandable that an entire generation before the revolution that would make Americans out of a hodgepodge of disgruntled Englishmen-in-name-only would scarcely register as history at all. In choosing as the site of her investigations this historical “negative space,” Knox is laying claim to fertile ground for exploring both the metaphysics of “in-between”ness and our often unsuccessful but poetically rich attempts to craft identity, both personal and national, from the messy medium of language.
It is necessary at this point to reflect briefly on style because this volume makes clear that Knox is a master of it. She shares with her characters both a fixation on accuracy and a reverence for the well-made object.; the latter made abundantly apparent by the beauty of the hand-bound, slightly oversize book itself. The praise bestowed by one of her characters on a Miss Tyndale may equally describe the poet: “This lady is in accurate command of her thoughts, and of those of others as well.” Knox’s obsessive attention to historical detail, as in a poem that is in essence a list of presumably extinct and rather Baroque-sounding varieties of cider apples, suggests the categorizing mind of the librarian or the auction house Antiquarian piecing together from archival flotsam the “story” of the past. However, Knox’s agenda is almost the inversion of the historian’s: rather than laboring to fill in the lacunae to establish a narrative continuity in which events and their artifacts “link up”, Knox’s poems at every turn revel in the disjunctions and inevitable holes, in a self-conscious sense drawing a map of the in-between spaces that give shape to our “knowledge” of the past. In the collection’s opening vignette “[Nathaniel: A Map]”, the painter protagonist of this “verse novella” makes explicit the cartographic intention of the work at hand: “I describe a two-dimensional line in a three-dimensional world. Boston is a map of itself.” The book that follows likewise reads as “a map of itself” in which each personage (one of the “Worthies” of the book’s title) in his or her discrete section attempts, one might say blindly, to draft a portion of it while remaining steadfastly ignorant of the whole.
To inhabit this historical no-man’s-land is also to enter into the American idiom in the very process of its creation. It therefore becomes clear that the vaguely unnerving quality of this work results from subtly rendering English as if it has been translated from English. The speakers in these poems use language in such a way as to preclude conversation. It is as though their thoughts have lost something in translation and can only find form when they attach themselves to physical objects, processes or systems. It is, they seem to feel, imperative to establish identity through connoisseurship, erudition or pedigree. Thus it is that our central character, Nathaniel Smibert, reiterates that he is, “playing at” or “practicing” “stichomythia.” Stichomythia, or the dramatic technique of using alternating, syntactically similar lines of dialogue, usually to represent a violent or passionate argument, is an odd, probably impossible thing to be “practicing at,” as it inherently requires both a partner and a purpose. To “play at” it as one might play at solitaire reminds me of the way infants begin to mimic the structure and sound of words and phrases before they have attached any meaning to them. In these poems, the many voices that emerge seem eager not so much to communicate, though their utterances are contained formally within a communicative mode, but to come into being as they speak. Knox’s poems make visible what we all experience abstractly: that language is fluid and that, like most living systems with which we interact, it makes us as we make it.
Likening Nine Worthies to a mystery novella simultaneously makes sense of the formal construction of the book and attempts to delineate the relationship of text and author to reader. On the latter point, it seems unimaginable to read these intricate and supremely mysterious poems and not perceive their wily author tugging at the strings. Like her protagonist the portraitist Nathaniel Smibert, who is both there and not there as he paints and converses with his subjects, the poet herself sometimes seems to disappear into the rarified formality of the language only to reappear as the unmistakable voice behind the moving lips of her dummy-characters. The “mystery” in which the reader of these poems becomes immersed lies partly in uncovering these points of connection imbedded in an often alienating text.
If writer and principal character, both in the business of representation, are foils for one another, then the spectral appearances of the former are mirrored by the latter’s ghost-like ruminations, full of intimations of death and dream-like meanderings through personal history, that interrupt the rhetorically-dense “sittings” of the painter’s subjects. In the charming vignette “[Nathaniel: Noddles Island],” Nathaniel narrates a childhood memory in which a change in vantage point suggests an entire universe inverted:
Time and again father took me–in 1740, 1742 or so–in the shallop or sailboat to Noddles Island in Boston Harbor. He had painted the city from there, looking back west as if approaching for the first time[…]Who or what was Noddles? Father and I conjectured.[…]He wore his clothes inside out, with the armor on the inside; he ate his pudding before the main course, wearing his nightshirt; thinking he had reached Nantucket, he kissed the ground of the island to which he was allowed to give his dubious name.
These images as seen from the other side of the looking glass encapsulate the energy of the book as a whole. In these poems, Knox creates a world in which things are not only not as they seem, but may be found in their precisely inverted forms. In this world, dialogue prevents communication, subject becomes object, representation invites obsolescence.
That Smibert’s subjects speak out in apparent desperation from the positions in which he is trying to fix their portraits suggests that there is a keen correlation between their immortalization in paint and their demise as physical beings. Among the Nine Worthies Smibert has been “commissioned to paint” is Mrs. Mary Davie, “[w]idow of a sea captain,” who has apparently attained her place among the elect simply by having lived to 117. Among her colleagues, she evinces the most dignified understanding of the fact that to be painted is to abdicate biological being to symbolic immortality. “I am near the end of my own days, Mr. Smibert,” she says, “I will sit here as still as I might.”
The “other side of the looking glass” feel of these poems, and the correspondence they draw between representation and death make all the more poignant and chilling the final section of the section of the book, “Nathaniel Smibert, Self-Portrait.” It takes a modicum of sleuthing to figure out that Smibert is painting these portraits in the year of his death at age 22. It is fitting, and perhaps inevitable according to the equation that Knox has formulated, that Smibert’s death and his final act of self-representation should occur simultaneously. The subject of Smibert’s “self-portrait” is a canoe trip to see the famous Dighton Rock, or perhaps the subject is the “inconvenient rock” itself, standing as an apt symbol for any number of human frailties and hopes.
A “mysterious erratic stone” covered in petroglyphs in the middle of the Taunton River, the rock has been the subject of much fanciful conjecture as to the origins of its carvings. According to one of Smibert’s two companions on this pilgrimage, the prolix Mr. Ezra Stiles, the carvings, “have been called Viking, Algonkin, Chinese, and Portuguese.” His preferred theory is that they are Phoenician. It is the other of the two companions, a “bonded child from the inn”, whose eyewitness account of the carvings-in-progress ultimately holds more water. The child describes how he has seen Indians come to this rock to fish, open shellfish, shoot game, and sharpen their knives. It is in this way that they, “hone away their own marks and the marks of other hunters. This is how the marks came to be.” That the more solid and convincing image of Dighton Rock is that of a palimpsest, incessantly erased and re-written, having neither provenance nor author, and ultimately transmitting no meaning beyond what the last knife sharpener might have gleaned therein before he set his own knife upon its surface exemplifies the point Knox’s book makes about language and other forms of representation. Perhaps here, at the end of his life and at the book’s conclusion, Smibert (and we) are confronted with the realization that all our works of art are only knife sharpenings, destined to be effaced or misconstrued. But perhaps our prospects are not so gloomy, for the book ends with Smibert, “from plain contentment,” singing a song that echoes all across the river. And the words of the song describe a sort reconstructed tower of Babel: “And how can it be that we/In our language understand/Medes and Cappadocians and/Phrygians and Pamphylians,/Cretans and Arabians./In our tongues we hear them laud/All the wondrous works of God.”
Nine Worthies is something of a Tower of Babel: multifarious in diction, opulent in detail, complex in meaning and, finally it seems, reaching toward the heavens. Whether its carefully crafted walls and columns contain within them an ur-language that transcends or a cacophony of voices that attempt speech but achieve only noise is ultimately up to each reader to decide.
Don Paterson, the leading contemporary Scottish poet, throughout this book cites previous critical studies of the Sonnets (especially those written by Stephen Booth and Helen Vendler), but when he does it’s almost always to differ from them. Did he expect to get applause or even grudging acceptance from literary scholars? I’m not sure. To the task of exegesis and evaluation, Paterson brings neither academic credentials nor a rigorous critical method but instead a sharp mind, some serious homework, emotional engagement with the topic, a willingness to take risks, and the technical experience of a practicing poet. Apart from having written sonnets himself, he has translated (or “imitated”) Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus and is the editor of the Faber anthology 101 Sonnets. Clearly he has a partisan interest in the form itself and for that reason alone might want to comment on one of its greatest practitioners.
Still, if someone had told me a year ago that we were soon going to see a book in which a contemporary poet would read one of the central works of Shakespeare and assign grades to various parts of it, I wouldn’t have believed it. To remark that it’s too late for our likes and dislikes to have any effect on the reception of canonical literary works like Shakespeare’s raises a more general question, one that can’t be instantly resolved. To what extent do the classics belong to our actual, lived experience? How can we make use of them? These questions may sound shocking or naïve, but consider the following. Even if the best of Shakespeare’s sonnets were submitted to magazines today as being the work of a living poet, no editor would publish them. As for the stage, producers wouldn’t get past the opening scene of Hamlet or King Lear before tossing these plays on the reject pile. Renaissance or Jacobean English is not what we speak, in fact, we’re almost at the point now when Shakespeare, like Chaucer, requires a translation for new readers coming along. We know that our response to Shakespeare isn’t and can’t be the same as his original audience’s because the weight and connotation of the words he uses has shifted (and sometimes vanished) since he wrote. Apart from that, no historical reconstruction of the staging and performance of Shakespeare could have the same effect on us as it did for Elizabethan audiences unless our minds, too, could be reconstructed in a 16th century mould. It has always struck me as too blithe when critics say, “Yes, of course we read Dante differently from the way his contemporaries did. It’s in the nature of great literature to support many kinds of responses, each valid for its time.” But then why, if a literary work is just a Rorschach test whose meaning is nothing more than what we attribute to it, are certain figures (Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton) consistently deemed worthwhile occasions for our projected meanings while others (Hesiod, Ennius, Ariosto, Jonson, Marvell) are much less often considered? Besides, if we say that we don’t mind if our way of appreciating Shakespeare differs from his audience’s, we’re implicitly dismissing as irrelevant the actual abilities and targeted efforts of an author who wanted to evoke specific responses.
In fact, it’s the aim of most literary scholarship to reconstruct the mental and verbal compass of classic authors and of their audiences, so that we can measure the success of a given work according to the author’s own aims and, in varying degrees, appreciate that work roughly as its first audience did. This is the literary equivalent to time travel. Without the specialist’s literary archeology, we’d have only partial access to any work dating from earlier than the 19th century. Hence Auden’s well-known finger-wagging at Yeats for his poem “The Scholars,” a satire mocking academics who, “Edit and annotate the lines/ That young men, tossing on their beds,/ Rhymed out in love’s despair…” Auden reminded Yeats’s ghost that without scholars we’d have erroneous texts and mistaken notions about what their authors intended. Scholars can also inform us about prevailing tastes in the era when a given work was written. For example, dealing with Shakespeare, they can tell us that punning and metaphorical conceits were highly prized during the age of the Virgin Queen. This makes a sharp contrast with our own day, when “the lowest form of humor” is always met with a groan, and audiences experience literary conceits as excruciating artifice, contrary to our demand for seriousness and for discourse that is direct and uncensored. That same demand would put a low value on the hyperbolic tendencies of the Elizabethan sonnet sequence, which, following Petrarch’s lead, hoists praise of the beloved to a level that contemporary taste would find overblown and dishonest. (Granted, we’re not under oath when we write love poems or epitaphs, but even Shakespeare is aware of the problem, to judge by his sonnet “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun,” a stab at anti-Petrarchism that, despite its truth-telling aims, seems less successful than its hyperbolic counterparts.)
Once familiar with the earlier standards, do we then enjoy or at least admire Shakespeare’s double-entendres and those elaborate metaphors extended for a dozen lines, along with his promotion of the beloved to quasi-divine status? The tutored reader can, I think, admire them at one remove, or at least acknowledge the author’s vast resourcefulness in devising effects he knew his readers would approve. Yet it’s not easy for us to suppress habits of thinking and feeling like those that led Max Beerbohm to write Savonarola Brown, a wicked parody of a Shakespeare play. What seems to happen when we read the Sonnets is that we remain in a kind of affective limbo, half believing, half disbelieving in them, yet consistently impressed by Shakespeare’s wordsmithery, his inventive figuration, and sonic finesse. It doesn’t matter that present-day editors would consider them overdone and their author a show-off meriting only a printed rejection slip: the Sonnets will never go out of print or cease to be included in English Lit courses. Nor can we rule out the possibility that a later age will place a high value on elaboration, artifice, and hyperbole: in cultural history, shifts in taste have often taken surprising turns.
Don Paterson certainly doesn’t attempt to transform himself into a contemporary of Shakespeare. Though familiar with Elizabethan literary standards, he evaluates individual sonnets according to contemporary taste or else his own. Apparently not bothered by the fact that his strictures won’t stop them from being read, he’s quite ready to pronounce the first seventeen of the Sonnets (the so-called “procreation sonnets”) as “rubbish,” a judgment based on the artificial and implausible feelings they express. In a speculative vein, he cites and gives some credence to the narrative premise behind A Waste of Shame, William Boyd’s BBC drama of several years ago. In Boyd’s plot, the rising playwright is commissioned by the mother of the young nobleman William Herbert to write the “procreation sonnets.” The widowed matriarch, distressed at her son’s celibacy and failure to provide continuance for the family line, pays a handsome sum for the bardic propaganda, and eventually arranges a meeting between the two men. At which point Shakespeare really does fall in love and begins writing out of emotional rather than financial motives. Though it made for an entertaining play, I don’t find this narrative plausible. Moreover, it involves some harum-scarum speculation about the nature of Shakespeare’s sexuality, a topic on which Paterson has no doubts whatsoever:
The question ‘was Shakespeare gay?’ is so stupid as to be barely worth answering; but for the record: of course he was. Arguably he was a bisexual, of sorts; though for all the wives, mistresses and children I’m not entirely convinced by his heterosexual side. Mostly, his heart just wasn’t in it; when it was, his expressions of heterosexual love are full of self-disgust.
In that period, though, there were no homosexuals, only homosexual acts, these termed “sodomy” and punishable by death. The “gay identity” hadn’t yet been formed, so the most we can say is that some people of the time were gay without knowing they should be classified as such. A man so prominent as James I could marry and produce heirs, while still spending the lion’s share of his hours in bed with a series of young favorites, concluding with George Villiers, eventually made Duke of Buckingham. As evidence contrary to the assertion that James had sexual relations with men, scholars cite the very harsh legal stance he took towards “sodomy.” Yet the full account of the struggle for acceptance and civil rights for gay people includes incidents of strong opposition coming from figures who were later revealed to be gay. Opposition was simply throwing dust in the eyes of potential enemies as a clever way of avoiding arraignment and prosecution. Any person who “protesteth too much” should be aware that those very protests to strike us as a card played in order to evade exposure or at least self-knowledge.
Paterson doesn’t do anything like this, in fact, he is more than sympathetic to the attraction that one man might feel for another. Discussing Boyd’s TV play he says:
Certainly if Herbert [William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke] looked anything like the young actor who played him on the box, I can see WS’s problem. (Although he almost certainly didn’t, if we’re to trust portraitists of the time. Wriothesley [Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton, often proposed as the subject of the Sonnets], on the other hand, is clearly gorgeous. Though I admit that playing the game of ‘who’d you rather’ at 400 years distance does not, perhaps, represent the leading edge of scholarly research.)
This is funny enough to inspire in me a response just as unscholarly. We have no proof that Shakespeare did or did not sleep with the young man described in the Sonnets, or with any man. My speculation is that Shakespeare was no “gayer” than Paterson is, who, precisely because he isn’t threatened by any imputation of homosexuality, can be so relaxed about the topic. On the evidence of the Sonnets, Shakespeare could recognize male beauty and form strong bonds of affection with men, bonds that could be described as love (or, nowadays, “bromance”). But the keen bite of physical desire for men that we discover in Marlowe or Whitman is absent in his writings. Where we do find it is in the so-called “dark lady” sonnets. Further, if Shakespeare did in fact have sex with a man, he wouldn’t be so imprudent as to record and publish his desires, thereby risking arrest and a pre-mortem funeral pyre. On the other hand, there was no law against one man loving another so long as that love never involved sexual expression. A quasi-biblical text for the European Renaissance was Plato’s Symposium, which concludes by recommending a non-physical love on the part of an older man for a younger, as a means of transcending Nature and attaining knowledge of the realm of Pure Ideas. In Dante and Petrarch, the gender of the beloved changed to female, but there was still no physical consummation, and the purported result was the same: propulsion (by sublimation, we would say) into the upper atmosphere of divine truth. Meanwhile, if we’re going to read the sonnets as autobiography, then number 121 “’Tis better to be vile than vile esteemed” can easily be understood as a repudiation of slander to the effect that Shakespeare’s feelings for the beloved were ever actualized sexually. In Sonnet 20, he had already spoken of the physical mismatch (which further demonstrates his total lack of experience concerning male-to-male sexual relations) between himself and the young man:
Till Nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure.
The pun on “pricked” was active for Shakespeare’s time as for ours. The sense is clear: “I can’t make use of your genitalia, but we two have a non-physical, Platonic love, and that’s the most essential thing; where sex is concerned, women can handle that for you.”
Paterson represents this conclusion as tragic, but the tragic note is nowhere sounded. The speaker calmly accepts the impossibility and is, if anything, only too content to keep their love on a Platonic plane. The poem includes a couple of instances of what Paterson describes as Shakespeare’s “knee-jerk misogyny” (found elsewhere in the Sonnets, not to mention the plays) without going so far as to say that it is proof of the poet’s gay orientation. A good thing, because, as we know, gay men are far less misogynist than straight, indeed, the greatest percentage adore women, beginning with their own mothers. That adoration often takes the form of diva-worship, and some individuals will carry it to the point of simulating their iconic figures, cross-dressing as Judy, Barbra, or Madonna. Dismissing women as “stupid cows” or “bitches” is more the habit of straight men because of course a woman can grant or withhold what they most desire. Frustration and anger when desire isn’t reciprocated take the form of misogyny, whereas sex with women is for a gay man “one thing to my purpose nothing.” He’s fully satisfied with women’s company and friendship, which they are much more often willing to offer than sex. Paterson wants to see the misogyny of the “dark lady” sonnets as the inevitable side-effect of his homosexuality; in fact, it suggests the opposite, to the extent that evidence drawn from these poems can be used to argue anything about his biography.
Putting aside Plato, in what human narrative is it psychologically plausible for a man in love with and lusting after another man to urge the beloved to marry and have children? That is the burden of the first seventeen Sonnets. On the other hand, if we decide that Boyd (or Paterson) is right about the far-fetched commissioning theory, we have to regard Shakespeare as the most mercenary sort of hack, his palm crossed with enough silver to stimulate the drafting of sentiments passionately expressed and yet never in the least felt. That hack (to follow the hypothesis) couldn’t automatically rule out the possibility that the young beloved would accept the faked protestations of love as genuine and possibly begin to have feelings for their author in return. In that eventuality, how would the perpetrator of this literary imposture then behave? It’s too damning a scenario to conjure up and amounts to a character assassination of Shakespeare.
Even when we decide that the first 126 Sonnets are dealing with a purely Platonic relationship, the sheer number of them and the variety of tacks taken suggest that a “marriage of true minds” needs as much treatment as a full-blown union would. In the real world, would it be salutary (if the author really meant to make use of them) to devise so many literary approaches to self-therapy, some of which seem like pettifogging or avoidance? Modern readers can’t help wanting to recommend a professional counselor, at least in those moments when they forget that the poems are fictions. To a degree that we find disturbing, it is literary convention more than autobiography that governs the production of poems in the Elizabethan era. Nothing requires us to believe the Sonnets had more than a casual basis in Shakespeare’s life; it’s even possible that they were written not to win over or reproach any existing beloved but instead simply to produce poems, poems exploring feelings more hypothetical than actual. We certainly don’t suppose the Shakespeare underwent the experiences of the characters represented in his plays, no matter how intricately and convincingly developed their feelings may be. Many contemporary poets, though presumed to be working within an aesthetic of sincerity and authenticity, are ready to admit that they invent the subjects of their ostensibly autobiographical poems. How much more likely it is that Shakespeare did the same thing. The speculations we make about his motivations reveal more about us than about the author.
That sort of revelation, in fact, is the value-added aspect of this book. It provides us with an indirect portrait of the mind, technical preoccupations, and emotional commitments of Don Paterson. Because of his first-rate work elsewhere, we’re interested to read this practical account of his own literary standards—well, more specifically than that, the motions of his thinking as he confronts the subjects dealt with in each sonnet and the rhetorical strategies used in their composition. Judging by the diction he uses, you can see (and this is useful information about him) that he wanted to avoid academic pomposity at all costs, the result, that the prose sounds spoken, informal, and American, with lots of slang and some Scottish diction thrown in for flavor. Sentence fragments abound, along with interjections, and the text deploys as many underlinings as Queen Victoria’s diary. If the zingy style wasn’t sufficiently noticeable in the excerpt quoted above, here’s another example:
Yikes. SB [Stephen Booth] explores the various textual knots and cruces here at some length, and very instructively, but let’s see if we can find a more direct route through the poem, and take it line by line. OK. Suit up, scrub, and on with the gloves. This is going to get messy. At least five lines here present real interpretative problems. Scalpel….
The ensuing analysis is presented through the conceit of a surgical procedure, involving metaphoric use of artery clamps as the poem’s “blood pressure” drops, and a final stitching up. It’s as though the Sonnets’ persistent use of conceits had overtaken their critic, this time in prose. The effect of using diction more often heard on talk shows and Facebook is unsettling at first, but the fact is I quickly stopped minding and focused instead on the content being conveyed. Reading pace through these pages is brisk, and they never have the sleeping-pill effect of most academic prose. Yet, though Paterson circumvents the dead hand of scholarly style, he never entirely abandons the explicator’s task, even when says, “Sorry, it’s late, and I’ve been drinking.” If I were teaching the Sonnets to undergraduates, I’d assign this book, knowing in advance that they would sense an ally in the author, one who understood their language and mental universe. So primed, they would also be able to absorb content in the commentaries apart from what’s based entirely on the author’s personality.
The classroom would allow me the space (as a review doesn’t) the to single out the many brilliant insights Paterson arrives at along the way and to disagree with just as many others. Well, one of each then, beginning with a disagreement. I don’t find all the “procreation sonnets” worthless, an assertion Paterson tries too hard to prove. Discussing Sonnet 12, for example, he says that its first line, “When I do count the clock that tells the time,” is padded out with the phrase “that tells the time,” since, as he says, all clocks tell the time. But the etymology of the word “clock” is from “glokken,” which meant “bell.” The first public clocks were bells, intelligible to a populace unable to decipher a clock face yet still able to count. The association with “passing-bells” rung at funerals is part of the meaning. Beyond that, a master theme in the Sonnets is the passage (and ravages) of time, so it fits to get the word into the first line of this sonnet. Further, time takes on a numerical aspect in an art that requires counting—counting of metrical feet and lines, and, for that matter, some thought about the numbering of individual sonnets. Paterson (and here is where I agree with him) thinks that Shakespeare did indeed arrange the Sonnets in the order given to them in the Quarto; and that in the great majority of instances the number assigned to a given poem in the sequence is connected to its meaning. Numbers have a kabbalistic or magical dimension (think how much has been made of the Trinity); and, while we can’t say that Shakespeare was a mathematician, he was certainly an arithmetician, one whose rhythms and numbers were a key component of the spell being cast. In Paterson’s keen analyses of the numerical aspect of the Sonnets, he demonstrates his own skills with numerology, plus an awareness of at least one poet’s opinion to the effect that, “Poetry is speech that counts.” This book has sustained some heavy attacks in the press, so much so, that, to use a Shakespearean conceit, Paterson could be described as “down for the count.” However, because he is a poet, he’ll be able to use the experience and soon be standing up for the next round. A review is never a permanent impediment to the marriage of true minds, in this instance, between the poet and his reader.
NOTE: This is the third in a series of posts by Colie Hoffman about her experience while a writer-in-residence at Sangam House, India.
When I was in grad school, my friend Dave and I used to lift weights at the gym. The undergrad demographics at our university skewed largely male, so naturally, the weight room was populated almost exclusively by beefy, college-age boys. I was usually the only woman there, and Dave, a compact, physically efficient-looking sort of guy no taller than 5’7,” was the only man his size. Technically, we went together so we could help each other work out—but really, we went together for mutual protection. Alone, we’d get stared at. Together, neither of us had to be the only one getting stared at. Or, maybe it felt safer to get stared at together. Or, maybe we just noticed it less.
As a foreign woman in India, you get stared at almost constantly. (Though Indian women get stared at too.) Additional variables make it worse: having blond or red hair, being tall, wearing Western clothes, buying alcohol, and—my personal favorite—going running. The last time I went for a jog, two kids followed me down the path until they got to their house, where (I love this) they went inside and asked their mother to come out and look.
Sangam House and the dance village are stare-free—but the second I venture outside the gates, it’s unavoidable. So while this essay isn’t technically about either Sangam House OR writing, the experience of being stared at all the time is such an essential part of being in India that I couldn’t ignore it. And, as I prepare to leave Sangam House to travel around the country for the next six weeks, it’s going to take up even more space.
My main concerns are 1) What the hell? and 2) Why does this consume so much of my energy? Why do people do it here and not in the U.S.? Why does it feel so violating? And why does its message vary so much from one situation to another?
The Undressing Stare
This is by far the most common—and offensive—stare. Men look at you because you’re a woman, and because you’re there, and because they can. It helps if you’re white, because that adds to the novelty, but Indian women experience this all the time too. This staring, and all the inappropriate sexual behavior that can come along with it—“accidentally” brushing against you, adjusting the rearview mirror to look at your chest, lewd comments, and even just whipping it out—is why there are ladies’ sections on trains and buses. Well, theoretically there are.
The Novelty Stare
Some people—especially in rural areas where there aren’t many tourists—stare just because you are something different. With me they’re staring because I’m white (and a woman, and usually alone, which is unusual), but it’s possible they’d also stare if I were an Indian guy in a Western shirt and pants, or just anyone they’d never seen around. And when I say “stare,” I don’t mean the “stare and look away” spiel we do on the subway in New York—I mean people grasping you with their eyes until their vision is blocked by an interfering object. It’s like in the movies when the stranger comes into the small-town dive bar, the jukebox stops, and everyone gives him the narrowed eye.
It’s easy to forgive curious people for staring, the way it’s easy to forgive little kids for saying things in the grocery store line like “Why is that lady fat?” and “Mom, that guy has something on his face.” It’s still uncomfortable, but you can usually tell it’s harmless.
The Appreciation Stare
In a quest for photos of men staring (does it count as a quest if it’s easy?), my friend Mathilde (also a foreigner) and I walked the mile to the local chai shack. We got both the novelty stare (an old man at the shop) and a very efficient undressing stare (a bunch of laborers speeding by on a truck bed), but we also got a new one: the appreciation stare. A forty-something man rode by on his motorcycle, looked at us in a “you’re hot” way, and smiled. It was actually kind of nice—when you come to expect disrespectful behavior, you really appreciate it when people break the mold.
The Hostile Stare
This is the uncurious, judgmental stare women sometimes get from other women (and older men)—the one that says “why are you not following the rules.” Women (both Indian and foreign) get this for wearing clothing that more traditional women think is slutty: shorts, anything that bares the shoulders, or sometimes anything that at all shows the contours of a woman’s body (e.g., jeans). Men also give men this stare in a power struggle, just the way they would in the West.
Lots of stares mix it up: hostility and curiosity, hostility and undressing, appreciation and curiosity, curiosity and undressing.
In the West, we see excessive staring as (at best) an invasion of our privacy or (at worst) a threat. According to this article in Wired, humans are programmed to stare for 3-5 seconds at anything new or unusual that doesn’t fit into the models our brains recognize. So, for example, when we see someone with a deformity, our lizard brain says “stare, determine threat and nature of object,” while our conscious mind says “don’t stare, it’s rude.” (For the sake of people with deformities, I hope we usually arrive at a non-obnoxious in-between.)
But this instinctive staring happens only once in a while, and for a very short span—and when no threat is determined, it’s over. This is not the staring of India. In India, men just gape unabashedly… forever.
At first my perspective was one of humility: Hey, maybe it’s not offensive here because people have different notions of privacy. But really, Indian women feel just as violated by it as foreigners do. Then I thought well, maybe it’s because people get married early—guys and girls can’t screw around in cars and behind the school when they’re 15, so this is what happens to all that built-up sexual curiosity. But that doesn’t make sense either: First, then women would be staring too, and second, just a couple generations ago in the U.S., people were getting married early and not allowed to screw around, and we did not have this situation.
A friend was recently telling me about being stared at and grabbed (crotch, breasts) by guys on the street when she was traveling in North India. In one incident, three boys rode by on a bicycle and one groped her. She ran after them, grabbed the offending boy by the arm, and lit into him: “What are you doing? What would you do if your mother or sister came home and told you someone did this to her?” Immediately he acted totally ashamed and was all “Sorry madam, so sorry madam.” When another man groped her on the street, she yelled at him and threw a bottleful of water on him, soaking his clothes. Everyone on the street knew exactly why. He acted ashamed, she said, but was he just publicly embarrassed or did he actually feel bad about his behavior?
So, if it’s not just natural, and men are ashamed of it when they get caught, I can’t help but draw the following conclusion: Men stare at and grope women simply because they can. Because no one will stop them. Plenty of women here face enough trouble and judgment just for being out of the house, and even more for being out of the house without a male escort. And deep down somewhere, men know their staring is an act of power: They wouldn’t dare stare at a man from their own town who was more powerful than they were.
But still: why aren’t they taught not to stare in the first place?
Polish people, pretending, wheatishness
When little kids play, they’re the best pretenders ever. But they’re notoriously unable to fake their emotions or hold back their real thoughts. In the Polish short film Anything Can Happen (Wszystko moze sie przytrafic), a father videotapes his young son riding his bike around a park where a lot of old people hang out. The boy stops and asks the old people whatever questions pop into his mind: “How old are you?” “Are you going to die soon?” And the people in the movie answer with such abandon! It’s as if they’re refreshed that someone finally said what was on his mind.
But at some point, society decides that a certain kind of pretending enables the world to function in a civilized way. We go to great (and sometimes ridiculous) lengths to restrain our impulses and to separate public from private. On a rush-hour train in New York, there might be so many people your face is smashed into some guy’s armpit, but your job is to pretend you are not looking at the armpit and definitely not looking at anyone’s face. You can stare, of course, but once that person catches you, the game is up. (Obviously I’m excluding mutual sexual attraction here.)
Or suppose you’re getting a massage: Intellectually, you know the context is therapeutic and the touch clinical. But to make the relationship work, both you and the therapist must actively pretend this clinicalness is the act’s entirety. That it is not, in fact, a stranger touching you while you’re naked and that there are no erotic implications on either side.
Imagine what might happen if we didn’t restrain these impulses and feelings—if everyone who wanted to sleep with his boss or his wife’s friend told them about it! Holy shit! At best, we face social consequences (embarrassment, divorce) for transgressing these rules. On a bigger scale, the law. Or job loss. Or, total descent into barbarism. And with good reason: It’s this grown-up pretending/restraint that lets us live with other humans with a base degree of safety and comfort.
It’s not like people in India have no sense of pretending—they definitely do. Hosts are ridiculously polite and generous to guests, as guests are expected be in return, regardless of everyone’s real feelings. If you check out the “matrimonials” section (akin to our “personals”) in any Indian newspaper, you’ll find them just as rife with euphemisms as ours—in American personals no one is fat, and here no one is darker than “wheatish.” And Indians have a mystifying inability to answer questions with “no” or “I don’t know,” so they just make up stories—a dance that can be totally entertaining when you learn to recognize it, but that really sucks when you need directions to the bus stop or, say, a real answer. I once spent half an hour in the post office with a friend who was trying to send postcards to Denmark, and rather than say “We don’t know the price and don’t know where to look it up,” the four (!) guys behind the desk insisted she bring in the cards so they could see their size. After trying to sell her some cards, of course.
How to get robbed anyway
In my previous post I talked about how much I was warned about things versus how much those things were worth being wary about. What’s paranoia, and what involves actual safety? What is it really worth my energy to avoid?
My first peace offering toward the staring was relaxation—the strategy I adopted regarding all alleged “scary things of India.” Just relax, let it happen, go with the flow. Logically, I thought, the amount of staring far surpasses the amount of unwanted physical contact. Most men stare (and if you’re a foreigner, a lot of women stare too), but how many of those people would dare touch you or even comment? Chances are higher if you’re alone and the men are in a group, or if you’re in a crowded place where it’s easy for someone to get away with something. But statistically, starers versus touchers (or masturbators, or anything else) is a laughably uneven comparison.
On the other hand, this situation is pretty different from getting malaria or stepping on a cobra. Sexual incidents (beyond staring) might be lower than the warnings advertise, but they’re not lower the way Japanese encephalitis is lower. And there’s no remedy or protection—you can’t go to the hospital because some guy showed you his penis, nor can you prevent him from doing it. But, certain precautions can help (or so they say). Thinking about it in this logical way makes me feel less anxious—but why doesn’t it make me feel better?
Here why: Because being stared at feels gross! It’s just gross to be groped, mentally undressed, commented upon, and generally feel your body become an item of public consumption—and it’s worse when no one considers the behavior inappropriate enough to combat, because you know it’s not just happening to you. (You also know that when the staring turns into concrete physical harassment, you’re out of luck unless you can do something about it yourself.) And I’m not even talking about the threat some Indian women face daily as a matter of survival, or all the ways this behavior contributes to a culture in which rape and sexual assault are trivialized and unreported—I’m just talking about feeling on guard every single minute. No, it’s not rape—but it definitely takes away from your freedom and from energy you could be spending on other things, like being alive. It’s basically like you’re guaranteed to be robbed and have to watch your stuff all the time, and then get robbed anyway.
Turn to the dead people page
Indians don’t squelch their curiosity the way we do in the West, which can be refreshing and lovely and creepy and also wildly invasive. In its first few pages, the Deccan Herald (a major daily paper) always runs a few juicy, horrifying death stories—a murder involving a multi-caste love triangle, a stampede at a religious site, drownings from a truck accident. But unlike U.S. papers, which would print sterile photos of the rescue crew at work or the accident site or yearbook photos of the dead, papers here print the photos that the dark, dirty, Law & Order-watching part of us secretly longs for—bodies in a pile near the temple, bodies being fished out of the river, bodies drooping lifelessly as a fireman carries them away.
Whatever the reason, in India people have a different sense of what’s public and what’s private. Personal space (the way we think of it) is a foreign concept here—buses and autorickshaws are packed beyond imagination, and the streets, even in small towns, are riddled with people, dogs, cars, motorbikes, cows, and pretty much everything else. Poor people often live in one-room houses where a whole family sleeps together. (How such families get made, I don’t know. And I’m not being an ass—I really don’t know how people get the privacy to have sex.)
A vision of hell
On the innocent side, this curiosity and lack of private space means total strangers don’t feel rude asking you questions like “Are you married?” “How much money do you make?” and “Do you have any children?”—and if you’re blond, just going ahead and touching your hair.
On the not-so-innocent side, a writer from Calcutta was telling me that some people there (slum-dwellers, mostly) have no private access to water, so they bathe using public taps or the Ganges. To do their business, they use public bathrooms (anyone seen Slumdog Millionaire?) or just the street. Without a bathroom, these people have no privacy, ever. If that sounds unimaginable, add to it the reality that women on the street are bathing with their saris on—and passing men, hoping to glimpse bare flesh, stare at their every move as they shift the cloth around bit by bit, washing each part of their bodies.
Along those lines: My friend was once the only woman on an eight-hour bus ride here. She’s foreign and was traveling alone, and the rest of the bus was packed with Indian men watching her every move. If she scratched her head or turned the page of a book, their eyes followed. Exasperated (and creeped out), she finally covered her head and face with a scarf to give herself the illusion of privacy. It took mere minutes for a man to pop up right in her face and ask, “Which country? Which country?” To top it off, there were no toilets along the way, so at every bathroom break all the men poured out of the bus and pissed along the side of the road. My friend, however, with no trees or bushes in sight, was not about to get out and drop her pants with 30 men watching her. She held it for eight hours, while she had a bladder infection. That… that is my vision of hell.
Besides the actual staring, the crazy part to me is that women here have somehow gotten used to it. They find it creepy and offensive too, but for the most part, they accept that it’s how things work—that it’s a part of daily life they can’t waste energy on. But there are people who are actively fighting against it. A friend of mine in Mumbai works with an anti-street harassment campaign called Blank Noise, which holds events where women descend in large groups on specific places in the city—spots where men usually hang around to just… stand there and stare at women. Essentially, the women take that space for themselves. The campaign also takes pictures of men in the act, advocates ways to respond, and offers general moral support.
Despite all this, there is a flip side: When men do something nice and don’t act creepy, you appreciate it infinitely more. And over time, you grow more intuitive about people’s intentions in general. A couple days ago, two women friends and I were walking on a rural road when a man driving a logging truck slowed down and offered to give us a ride to the nearest village. We weren’t going that far, but were so warmed by his honest intent, and his non-leering, that we wanted to take him up on it just to show how much we appreciated him.
So thanks, logger-truck guy. Here’s to you and all the classy Indian guys.
Anthropology, publishing houses in elementary school, estrangement, ants conferencing over Frank Zappa. Morgan Parker describes herself as equipped with the eyes of a surrealist, ears of an ethnographer, tongue of a cynical comedian, and heart of a brooding sixteen-year old.
Morgan Parker, Part 1
Morgan Parker, Part 2
NOTE: In this new series, THEthe writers share their first experiences with poetry or discuss the first poems they ever loved.
My first sense of poetry was music, songs my mother told me taught me, as they say. My father loved to scream Milton at me, so my first memory of my father is: Hurled headlong flaming! Or Disemboweled (the word alone).
He also loved to say: Bah Humbug! Or Latin poems: Non amo te nec possum dicere quarere hoc tantum scio.
I do not like thee Doctor Fell–my mother read poetry to me at night and my father had the family recite Shakespeare: Be not afeard the isle is full of strange noises.
My father and my uncle the pianist were best friends in high school and they both loved to write poems. My uncle was often in the NY Times with a sonnet–my father would test us as violinists memorizing many pieces–Who dost defy the Omnipotent to arms–My father also did a good Tyger, Tyger.
Now it comes back to me a lot, my father screaming Lasciate ogni speranza you who enter here. Longer and longer passages I memorized and received money from a neighbor for Paul Revere. And I certainly knew Antony’s oration.
If you had memorized your concerto you could just practise with no music-stand and walk around the room and think. I knew the genius of music listening to my grandfather pray and sing at gigantic Brooklyn synagogues and his records.
Later I loved reciting The Waste Land–at least the part l knew by heart–and I set some of it to music composed (too Coplandy).
I hated school because the poems were terrible or Mrs Popper’s apothegms: Before you spread a rumor Put it through the three sieves–the golden sieve of truthfulness, the silver sieve of kindness, and the pearl sieve of necessity.
I did love speed in counting and multiplying and concentrating. I loved music and words together madrigals, Christmas carols. (We hid from our grandfather in case he saw my Mom singing and carolling delightedly. We felt such guilt I felt God would kill me when I played O Come All Ye Faithful.)
Epithalamium with Rust
I remember the dream of rust on its own vague terms:
dredging the canal as though it were oneself,
hoping for trinkets that fix life to a landscape of flowers and trash,
and settling for bothering the levee with a stick,
notching my time card in the holy city.
In the margins of sky and dust––distance specific to the dream of distance––
the thought of water comes on like vanity. It is error,
as are the certainties of children, to make much of the dumb bend of sun
on copper, to heed what God writes in the sand with his pretty little feet.
Crows flood from the factory shell and out over trump ground,
into the easy marriage of actuality and nothingness that is the long patina
of days, drunk on lawn seed and disquiet.
I remember it again, but differently. Archipelagos of debris and glow,
stars fashioning what light benefits the dead…
Brandon Kreitler‘s poems have appeared in Boston Review, DIAGRAM, Web Conjunctions, Indiana Review, Eoagh, Sonora Review, and Maggy. His criticism has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Proximity, and Village Voice among others. He was a winner of the 2010 Discovery / “Boston Review” award and a finalist for the 2010 Ruth Lilly Fellowship. A native of Arizona, he teaches at Queensborough Community College and is working on a manuscript of poems.