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.
Yahia Lababidi remembers late nights in his dorm room at George Washington University, tossing in bed as the voices of Wilde, Rilke and Kafka reverberated around him. Words or phrases, even the tiniest snippets of philosophy, would teem, pulse and swirl to a boiling point, until he could no longer resist formulating his own response, entering the conversation. “They were literally bouncing off the walls,” he told me, “I would go to bed with a stack of napkins or receipts, and I would never put my glasses on because if I put my glasses on it would scare the thought away. The fox would not leave its hole if the hunter was outside.”
But he persisted, and his haphazard notes, over time, became numerous and provocative enough that multiple professors and mentors encouraged him to compile and try to publish them. The result was Signposts to Elsewhere, published in 2008, containing his meditations, in the form of a long list of aphorisms, on what he sees as the central human questions: “We’ve always been wrestling with the same things…It’s still a human being, in a body, trying to deal with other human beings, in a society. It hasn’t changed that much…I’m more interested in those who can distill the matter to its essence.” Just such a project begins in Signposts, where Lababidi liberates the essence of these ideas from the shackles of cliché, which, he believes, are truths that have “lost the initial shock of revelation.” The aphorism is “not just an aesthetic thing, but an edifying thing. They are truths with an –s that we stumble across and hopefully try to live up to some of the time.” Not greeting card rhetoric, but, actually, “we think in aphorisms. If we quote the outcome of our thoughts, they are aphorisms.” Consider the following, from Signposts:
The thoughts we choose to act upon define us to others,
______the ones we do not, define us to ourselves.
Opposites attract. Similarities last.
Time heals old wounds because there are new wounds to attend to.
With enigmatic clarity, Life gives us a different answer
______each time we ask her the same question.
The primary challenge for creators is surviving themselves.
A good listener is one who helps us overhear ourselves.
Previous iterations of these ideas have probably occurred to us, but the delicacy of Lababidi’s aphorisms resides in the fact that, as James Richardson asserts in his foreword to the book, “Unlike the poet, [the aphorist] doesn’t worry whether we’ve heard his exact words millions of times. Nor does he have the Philosopher’s care for consistency. He doesn’t mind that today he warns ‘Time is money’ and tomorrow contradicts that with ‘Stop and smell the roses.’ He has neither the ambition nor the naïveté of the systematizer, and his truth, though stated generally, is applied locally. When he says ‘Like father like son,’ he doesn’t expect anyone to object, ‘Wait, I know a son who’s not like his father.’ He means that right here, right now, a particular son has behaved just as his father might have.’” This dialogic interplay between the universal and the local provide the aphorism its applicability (and popularity). It has a special quality of speaking to the particulars of life while remaining unstuck from time and space.
After Signposts to Elsewhere, Lababidi turned to poetry, for which he is now more widely known. He has published in World Literature Today, Cimarron Review, Agni, Hotel Amerika and many others. Two poems are currently up for a Pushcart. Recently, however, Lababidi has returned to the figures who originally inspired him. Evoking Azar Nafisi, he asserts, “It was these ‘dead white men’ that really did a number on me. It wasn’t a matter of influence, but of initiation. They are closer to me than my own blood.” Lovers of literature have had similar moments. Mine was weeping over the end of The Brothers Karamazov, under a dim desk lamp, with my college roommate sleeping nearby. As budding thinkers, we want to let our copious thoughts, despite whoever else may have already had them and articulated them much better, out into the open. In short, to write. Lababidi remembers how his notes in the margin became journal entries, which became essays, which, we now see, became a book.
Trial by Ink: From Nietzsche to Bellydancing (2010) is the type of book critics want to write. It is an intellectual memoir, a sharing of one’s own personal engagement with those who have had a dramatic impact. In the spirit of Susan Sontag (who receives an entire chapter), Lababidi replaces systematizing and arguing with a Montaignian (whose idea of the essai opens the Preface and serves as inspiration for the title of the book) of figuring things out as we go along. “I’m always in a state of discovery and beginning,” he told me, “what I think I know, I’m trying to communicate. You have to get out of your system whatever is yours, whatever speaks to you.” This, for him, is a refreshing departure from the work of academics, who too often “go to the same well to drink, excluding the regular people who perhaps may be more curious. If you give it to me in a way that is forbidding, I’m not interested.”
Trial by Ink, therefore, strives for the opposite. He stresses as much in the Preface:
This…is a subjective work where I attempt to evaluate what I care for and generally test my responsiveness to literature and culture. In the course of such investigations particular judgments emerge, expressions of taste and values. They are my trials, where I am simultaneously scratching my head and my pen across the paper, to determine what I think about a given subject….In turn, what you have before you is a catalogue of interests, possessions, exorcisms and even passing enthusiasms, derived from what I was thinking, reading, watching, dreaming, and living over a seven-year period.
I envy the intellectual freedom, which Lababidi takes up here, to, say, write about Dostoevsky, without the requisite knowledge of Russian language or history, simply because I love him so much. Lababidi has such a relationship with Nietzsche, Wilde, Rilke, Baudelaire, Kafka and many others. He reminded me, though, that to do this, one must always come from a place of relative authority. “Not to dis the blog,” he says, “but they are not essays.” They don’t partake of the type of “deep and continuous mining” and “literary soul-gazing” that are the rudiments of a trial, of an essay.
I agree with this. The first of three parts of Trial by Ink, titled “Literary Profiles and Reviews,” exhibits his mastery of and, frankly, unique and refreshing insights into his masters. He works most provocatively when he puts figures, who, on the surface, don’t seem to have much to do with each other, into an intricate dialogue with each other. Just this occurs with Nietzsche and Wilde. Chapter 3, “The Great Contrarians,” is a lengthy comparison of the two, on the levels of style, their affinity for and belief in the importance of appearances, and their threshold for pain and suffering, especially since they each met with similar types of struggles, including certain levels of moral degradation, which have had occasionally negative effects on their legacies. One need only, as Lababidi does, compare the content of their aphorisms (they were both virtuosos of the form) to begin suddenly to see uncanny similarities:
What fire does not destroy it hardens – Wilde
What does not kill me makes me stronger – Nietzsche
The simple truth, is that not a double lie? – Nietzsche
The truth is rarely ever pure and never simple – Wilde
Public opinion exists only where there are no ideas – Wilde
To say it again, Public opinions, private laziness – Nietzsche
We possess art lest we perish of the truth – Nietzsche
The telling of beautiful untrue things is the proper aim of art – Wilde
Conscience and cowardice are really the same things – Wilde
Not to perpetrate cowardice against one’s own acts!…
The bite of conscience is indecent – Nietzsche
Discontent is the first step in the progress of a man or nation – Wilde
Every great progress must be preceded by a partial weakening – Nietzsche
This type of analysis occurs across the first part of the book. Whereas it might not be critically expedient to place Nietzsche, Wilde, and Susan Sontag into a dialogue, this is nonetheless how they speak to Lababidi. And that’s all he’s worried about. Consequently, “I was told not to write this book, in the sense that it was ‘unpublishable.’ Who didn’t tell me that? Academic publishers thought it was too literary. Literary publishers thought it was too academic. I was stuck.” Perhaps. But, ultimately, Lababidi’s book occupies a space of dialogic freedom in which the personal and the critical mesh with refreshing enjoyment.
The cultural dialogue continues in the second and third parts (“Studies in Pop Culture” and “Middle Eastern Musings,” respectively). While Part II contains interesting ruminations on Michael Jackson, Leonard Cohen, Morrissey, serial killers, and the values of silence, Part III was particularly illuminating. Here Lababidi returns to his Muslim heritage in Egypt and Lebanon (where he spent a good amount of time growing up). His discussion juxtaposes the repugnant effects of draconian sexual repression in Egypt (especially contrasted with ritual belly dancing) with the Lebanese’s zest for life in the face of seemingly constant and imminent death in a way that can enlighten a Western reader to the diversity of the “Muslim World,” a term Dr. Nafisi derided at the Aspen Institute’s Cultural Diplomacy Forum, for obvious reasons.
Lababidi was at the forum as well, and was intrigued by Nafisi. When I reached out to him to discuss Trial by Ink, he responded with the type of enthusiasm Nafisi showed me. “Conversation is very close to me,” he asserts, not just the type of conversations he has with the likes of Nietzsche, “who is very much alive,” but with contemporaries and collaborators. He was generous enough to meet with me about his work, and about this type of work in general. At the end of our discussion, I asked him what was next for him. In addition to more poetry, he says, “I am returning to these conversations in a much more direct way.” Namely, he is continuing his conversation about his conversations with Nietzsche, Wilde, Rilke, Baudelaire, Kafka, and others in a strictly dialogic way. Chapter 2 of Trial by Ink consists of a back-and-forth with poet and critic Alex Stein about these figures. Like the college-aged Lababidi who refused to put on his glasses so as not to scare away his thoughts, “I will call Alex in the middle of the night, without turning the lights on, and just speak.” The result is a series of conversations (I hesitate to call them interviews) between the two that digs deeper, that “mines” for answers.
From my time with Yahia and by reading the early stages of these new dialogues, it is apparent that face-to-face conversation, where one can engage another on more dynamic and intimate levels, suits the type of broader cultural and intellectual dialogue he has spent his career trying to foster. He doesn’t mind living like an aphorism, unstuck from time, space and generic classifications, asserting, “I don’t think of myself as an aphorist. I don’t think of myself as a poet. I don’t think of myself as an essayist, which leaves me with nothing to say, so to speak…but I’m clarifying something that I suspect I see. I don’t get why from 18 to 22 I chose aphorisms, or aphorisms chose me. It seemed like the most instinctive way to talk, to communicate…at some point it shifts to poems…words have a life of their own…ideas have a life of their own. They decide how to dress themselves…the form doesn’t matter as much as trying to communicate a territory that on some days I have been privileged to have been shoe-horned into.” This openness has organically led him to the dialogic form as the best (only?) way to convey what he sees as the real essence of all these thinkers, “and this is where I wish that the lights could dim and I could whisper it into your ear so no one can hear. This is about the artist as mystic. If you think it’s mad, it’s mad. If you think it makes sense to you on a personal level, then it does…If it works as literary soul-gazing, take it. If it works as pure fiction, then it does.” The ambition, and the already apparent spiritual depth of this new trial, is titillating, the type of book I want to write. But what happens when the conversation is finished? “Ten years of silence, under a rock somewhere.”
I don’t usually have an idea in mind when I begin to write. Today, a student looked at me and said: “you haven’t been writing lately, have you?” She was right; at least I have not written poetry. It made me angry that she was right, then oddly comforted because the jig was up and I realized that I didn’t feel much like writing. I felt like watching people catch fish on a winter pier while I wore a long camel’s hair coat and kept my hands in my pockets. I always thought that one of the few reasons I wanted to be tall was because tall people look better in camel’s hair coats. I wanted to look attractively gaunt. Seagulls hovered over head as fisherman threw their remaining bait to them. This desire to be on a fishing pier in winter first came to me as I watched a couple of herring gulls up here in Binghamton, swooping and gulling forth above the Barnes and Noble parking lot. The day was that sort of neutral gray when, if it were ten degrees colder, snow might fall. It made me lonely for the ocean. It made me want to wear a camel’s hair jacket, and dig my hands deep into my pockets, and watch gulls slash and dive for torn pieces of air born clam. How do you explain something like that. As Pessoa said, the personal is not the human. We must make a bridge.
But I don’t want to make a bridge. I don’t want a greater ontology to standing in a Barnes and Noble parking lot watching herring gulls when, if it was ten degrees colder, it might snow. I once had a camel’s hair coat, and I left it on a school visit during one of those days when the weather couldn’t make up its mind. It was cold. It was hot. In the tradition of schools, they put the heat on full blast as it warmed. I was teaching fifth graders to write poems, to play the guitar, to live large. We were making progress. I forgot my coat. I forgot my gloves. I was home getting ready for bed before I remembered that I’d left my prized coat seventy miles south on the New jersey Park way. I never went back to retrieve it. I kept thinking perhaps someone my size might find it, and start wearing it. He might take better care of it cherish it not as an idea, but as a coat. Since then, this imaginary short man haunts my consciousness. He walks out of the sea late at night, his coat perfectly dry. He has a beautiful zippo lighter and roams through the universe, lighting the cigarettes of willowy femme fatales. He speaks both French and Norwegian. He’s the complete package.
This is how my mind works. It needs to drift in order to write. It needs aimlessness, the sort of frittering away of time most people associate with sloth. Improvisation is vital to structure. Without it, structure is too “received.” Even in the purposely “received” structure of fixed forms (sonnet, sestina, that sort of thing) the thought must seem fluid, unforced. To have an “idea” for a poem is already to “receive” a structure that might make the actual poem impossible to write. So, when people tell me they have no ideas for a poem, I never believe them. They are lying. They have plenty of ideas. That’s the trouble. The idea for a poem competes with the poem. or worse, the idea of writing a poem competes with the poem. They stand frozen before the prospect of writing a poem. It stuns them into being blocked.
Sometimes better structures come to us while we are screwing around.
For example, in the fall of 2008, the stock market crashed. I was not much concerned since I have never had enough money to invest in stock. I felt terrible that venerable businesses went under. I felt worse that other firms were going to plunder what was left, get a bail out from the government, then loan the bail out money back to that same government at three percent interest. It seemed like a crime synidcate scam. I thought of a woman I once saw denied welfare because she had five dollars in a savings account. I just figured Kenneth Burke was right: in terrible times, a man ought to write decent sentences.
So I was sitting around in my bed room, looking out the window, thinking about how my mother used to take my hands and make them do patty cake. I thought of how the nun made us clap out the accents of syllables in second grade. For some reason, they were enthusiastic about the accentual qualities of English. I wrote “clap out love’s syllables. Then I wrote: Stock markets fall.” I did not know what the hell the two had to do with each other, but it was in iambic pentameter (thanks to the nuns) so I continued:
Clap out love’s syllables. Stock markets fall.
The gravity of apples and of gold
has nothing on the way our bodies sprawl
and touch the accent of what we two now hold
both tensed and tendered. Touching, we disdain
all commerce, and all wantonness seems blessed.
So I got this far, and I relaized I was going to write a love sonnet using terms from finance, old and new. “tendered” for example. I continued:
We grope and cop at leisure. We remain
stable in our instability.
To remain stable in instability seemed something devoutly to be wished for at the time, and I liked that I got nine syllables into such a short line, an acatalectic line to make up for the extra syllable of line four. It took place at the volta, the turn, so I thought things were going well. But what was I going to do next? The sentences moved against the lines, muting the rhymes somewhat. I was happy that gold and hold were a noun and verb because I heard the ghost of John Crowe Ransom telling me it is always good if one of the rhyme words is a noun and the other is a verb. I was feeling so good about it that I wrote:
And this is good, and this is good. We kiss
all nipple and thigh pleasured, we descend
to where no share, no bonding gone amiss
can cheat us of a happy dividend.
So I was having fun with the word bonding, and the word dividend. I was using banker’s language in a love poem without implying prostitution. I was being playful, but now I had to write the concluding couplet, and I always hated that part of sonnets– too much like an essay. I’m not good at sewing things up. I’d prefer for them to just scab over, but my knowledge of sonnet form told me I had to recapitulate the pertinent ideas. The main point seemed to be that things fell, but it did not interfere with the love making of the couple who, because they have “fallen” can not fall. So I went with the obvious:
Stocks fall, leaves, fall, we fall, yet, falling, praise
the fields of lust on which our bodies graze.
I should have said the “banks” of lust, but I kept changing my mind, and I’m lazy, so I left fields. I wanted lust to be a good thing. I wanted to redeem the lust for life and love from the lust that made stock markets fall. By drifting, I had stumbled upon a sonnet in which I used the words of commerce and banking to speak of love. I was happy. I later thought I chose “fields” for its relation to fall and falling– the f sounds.I looked it over and say instability at the turn did not rhyme with remain. It was accidental genius. I was in full sonnet mode and I would have rhymed, but John Donne’s ghost of oxymoron was upon me, and I said: good. It’s good that the rhyme does not pay of here.
So this is how I wrote a sonnet–by accident, but also by having read hundreds of sonnets, and by knowing the traditions of courtly word play, and by having had nuns who made us clap out syllables obsessively.
So I drifted at the beginning of this essay. I trusted that my loneliness for the sea, and fantasy about a camel’s hair coat would produce some sort of structure or metaphor I could hang A post on. And now I leave, pretending I am Fran Sinatra with that jacket draped over my back. A final suggestion: spend the week just jotting down random thoughts. Don’t be a control freak. All thoughts are silly, and unoriginal–including Plato’s. It’s how they are used and structured afterwards. Write them down and don’t get in their way. Then take whatever you know, and recognize patterns in the drift. Make some poems out of that.
Grammar didn’t come natural to me. The first time, when I learned there was such a thing as grammar, when we were introduced — like, “Daniel, meet grammar,” “Grammar, Daniel” — things did not go smoothly.
It was more like sliding bare-bottomed down a sandpaper hill.
I was in first grade, and we had “writing time.” The teacher was young and teaching a split, first-and-second grade class. There were too many students, and even at 6, 7, 8 and 9, we knew her control was kind of tenuous. The class was always on the edge of anarchy. As the year went on, the teacher, Miss Lane, added an increasing number of “quiet times” into her lesson plan. We had story time, where all of us were supposed to put our heads down and listen to the story. We had writing time, where you could go anywhere in the class room, sit anywhere, lay anywhere, as long as you were quiet and turned something in at the end of the hour that looked like writing.
I loved writing time. I went to the little side room where the assorted recess equipment was kept and spread out on the floor and chewed my pencil and wrote. I remember the first story was about a saber-toothed man. It was awesome. He was part superhero, part prehistoric creature, and he was walking through the woods, a saber-toothed man.
I’m pretty sure that was the whole story. My strong suit was description, not narrative arc.
I got it back about a week later. Maybe it was two weeks. Miss Lane had, in that time, very carefully murdered my story. As far as I could tell, she hadn’t paid attention to the story part of the story, which was awesome, but she had marked each and every sentence as wrong. That’s how I learned what grammar was. She’d written “GRAMMAR” on the top, in the same bleedy, red, felt-tip pen she’d used to draw angry squiggles all over my story.
I felt kind of like I’d just been criticized for walking. Or breathing. Like, this was something I felt I knew how to do. It seemed like it was just natural, I’d been doing it and everything had been fine, and now someone stops me to tell me there are rules. And I’m doing it wrong. I was walking along just fine, and now I’m getting yelled at.
“STOOOOOP! That’s NOT how you walk!”
“Are you ignorant? Are you from a bad family? Is your family poor?”
“I don’t understand.”
“There are rules. And everyone knows them except you. It’s called GRAMMAR. Now everyone thinks you’re stupid.”
This was how I became a descriptivist. I have since learned that there are some really good reasons to be a descriptivist. At the time, though, it was purely defensive. I was a descriptivist in exactly the same way I was a put-your-arms-around-your-head-and-duck-tivist when the 6th graders yelled “faggot” and threw rocks. It wasn’t exactly a philosophical decision.
The one grammatical correction I remember, from that murdered story, was about how you shouldn’t start sentences with conjunctions.
“What’s ‘conjunctions’?” I said.
“Like ‘and,'” she said, “or ‘but.'”
“You can’t start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’?”
“It’s against the rules. It’s GRAMMAR.”
The whole idea that there were rules, out there somewhere, was a little disturbing. How was I supposed to know what they were? Who decided the rules were the rules? Also, they seemed kind of arbitrary. What was wrong with conjunctions? Was I the only one who was starting sentences with conjunctions and I just never noticed that no one else did it?
This is a little like wondering if you are retarded, and everyone’s just been too nice to tell you. Or maybe they tried to tell you, and you were just too slow to actually get what they were saying.
But wait — I wasn’t the only one who started sentences with “but” or “and.” The Bible has sentences that stat with “but” and “and,” which meant that my grammar was like the same as God’s.
I tried that defense with Miss Lane, but she said I was still wrong. She didn’t say so, but apparently she would’ve marked up God’s writing too.
Which didn’t really make me feel better. And I still didn’t like grammar.
I did learn grammar, eventually, though not from Miss Lane. A whole slew of copy editors and editors taught it to me during my time as a journalist, and I took several years of Latin in college, where I got poor grades but finally figured out what “dative” meant and what an adjective was. I figuring out how clauses worked in the middle of an Episcopalian morning prayer service, where they used the old prayer book, which has a lot of archaically-constructed sentences. I’ve actually spent a lot of time with grammar in the last few years, as I’ve been working as a grammar teacher, teaching German university students who want to study English, and as a freelance proofreader and line editor. I think about that first experience I had, though, that slide down a sandpaper hill, when I hand back papers I’ve marred with my markings.
I try to remind them and to remind myself what grammar’s good for. Besides beating people over the head, besides flaunting one’s class or excellent education, besides pedantry and dickishness, what grammar does, what grammar can do, is give one excellent control over language. I am still a descriptivist — I believe usage is paramount, that there are no rules, really, only use — so grammar is not, for me, about being right, but about breaking down the language and taking it apart, so that one can know how it works and can make it work most effectively. I try to teach it the way I would teach mechanics.
It’s like, I sometimes tell my students, I know you know how to breathe, but I want to teach you how to breathe so you can run for hours.
What grammar did for me was enable me to analyze sentences. This has made me a better writer, but also — and this is something I’ve never seen promoted in a grammar book, never heard in a grammar rules rant — it made me a better reader. I am able, now, in a way I wasn’t before, to analyze a writer’s writing by looking at the writing itself. I can dig in, on the sentence level, and see what’s happening.
Consider a few examples, just looking at how independent and dependant clauses are used. I teach clauses to my students so they’ll know how to avoid sentence fragments and comma splices in their academic writing. I want them to be able to identify simple, compound and complex sentences, and use a variety of sentences to write with a more sophisticated rhythm. Too often, beginning writers, especially those, like my students, who are writing in their second or third language, write with the rhythm of a Dick and Jane book. It’s just DUM dum dum, DUM dum dum, forever and ever. I teach it for the sake of their writing, but it’s also helped me be a better reader.
For example, Joan Didion opens her novel Democracy with a single complex sentence, followed by fragmentary rephrasings, followed by a simple sentence that’s repeated with increasing complexity, increasing specificity. It’s structured as a struggle to find the right phrase, and the altered iterations expand outwards like ripples:
“The light at dawn during those Pacific tests was something to see.
Something to behold.
Something that could almost make you think you saw God, he said.
He said to her.
Jack Lovett said to Inez Victor.
Inez Victor who was born Inez Christian.
He said: The sky was this pink … ”
Then, in crescendo, Didion lets this sentence that’s the sentence of a writer trying to write, trying to find the right words, take off and just go. It’s a description of the pink of the Pacific island sky after the blast of a test bomb and it starts with a banality and unfurls from there, a description that tells us more about the man than the sky described, and then as it almost falls apart she puts in a comma and a complete sentence — a comma splice, technically an error — as if everything should be ignored and this is the thing, the sentence has resolved with the phrase the narrator wants:
“The sky was this pink and the air was wet from the night rain, soft and wet and smelling like flowers, smelling like those flowers you used to pin in your hair when you drove out to Schofield, gardenias, the air in the morning smelled like gardenias, never mind there were not too many flowers around those shot islands.”
Her comma splice communicates this need to re-state or re-phrase, which captures both the problem of the moment of these two characters and the whole novel’s expression of an ennui that isn’t boredom but an inability to exactly say. The whole problem or project of the novel is expressed, actually, in that comma splice, which is brilliant, I think, and which I wouldn’t have known except that I’ve been focusing on clauses.
Or consider, for another example, Walt Whitman’s poem, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” Almost the whole first stanza is dependent clauses — “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking, / Out of the mocking-bird’s throat,” — cascading down in one long sentence without a subject until, finally, in the 20th line, we get the subject “I.” There’s a missing “what” for 19 lines, and an ambiguity about the subject of the poem that is sustained by the structure of the sentence.
A lot of times people talk about Whitman like he was just wild, like his free verse had all the structure of a kite-high hippie dance. If you look at it, though, if you look at the grammar of it, this is a very carefully constructed sentence that very carefully puts the “I” of the poem in a very specific relationship to the world around it. The grammar isn’t incidental to Whitman’s poem; it is the working out of a major part of Whitman’s project.
One doesn’t need grammar to read Whitman or Didion or anyone else, of course. It’s not even necessary to read them well. Part of what makes good writers good, though, is their ability to sometimes, somehow, do everything they’re trying to do with the placement of a single comma. I want to be able to read that comma, to see what’s happening when the subject of a sentence turns up in a place you wouldn’t usually find it.
I know that’s not the point of grammar, and it certainly wasn’t what Miss Lane was trying to teach me when she wrote GRAMMAR on the top of my paper, but this is the other thing that grammar’s good for.
For most of us, I think, grammar is a brutal, brutal thing. It doesn’t come natural. Most of the time, even the word signals a fear, a panic even, at being embarrassed about being wrong. There’s something about it that can evoke deep shame. We imagine our mothers’ being embarrassed for us, as embarrassed as if we’d went out in shit-stained pants. We’re afraid of grammar because “grammar” means making stupid mistakes — there, their or they’re, or something like that — and we imagine stupid mistakes being taken as evidence of our real intelligence and value. That’s too bad, though, because it doesn’t have to be that way.
Grammar can be empowering. It can be about being a better writer and a better reader. It was, eventually, for me. I now know that it can be about knowing how the language works, instead of just driving along, listening to the rattle and choke under the hood, waiting, clenched up tense inside and waiting, until the whole thing breaks down.
Sarah Schweig, neighbor to airfields, estrangement, mythology, imagination, opens up about how she came to be a poet of departures. Pardon my inability to pronounce Catullus.
Sarah Schweig, Part 1
Sarah Schweig, Part 2
He’s like those children who take apart a clock in order to find out what time is
“Fog forgets. Fog is forgetting.”
This was hard for the drunk man
on the shuddering train to say
clearly, but he managed in fits
and spurts—thoughts through
a kinked hose. In a past life,
when you wiped the counters,
the dogs stared up with saucer
eyes from the hardwood floor
as if you were a cleaning deity.
I was in the kitchen, too, waiting.
You’d stare into the vacant lot
through a window on the socially
awkward sycamore disrobing amid
frozen beer bottles and losing lottery
tickets. You were your own
undocumented fog. Years pass.
I’m still an inverse of the spiritual—
still feeling merciless forgetting
can’t mean joining cosmic order.
Above, a building rakes sky
as if it were the obscure index
finger of want, losing its end
in a belly of low, concise cloud.
Evan Hansen lives in Portland, Oregon, where he is a public high school teacher. He has work forthcoming in Issue 50 of The Cortland Review.
Dust of Snow
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
A student, choosing to write a two page paper on this poem, quoted a critical authority who had managed, by the magic of stupidity, to turn it into a comment on racism. The crow is not described as black, and this apparently, is Frost’s way of saying that such stereotypes are evil. Now how this interpretation could exist is beyond me, but what could the teacher say to the student? The critic is stretching her own agenda beyond all proper bounds? Well, I wasn’t the teacher, so I told him that. I said: “experts can be stupid, too, you know… especially when they are trying to shove everything into their own theory, even if it does not fit.” The kid went on for two pages about racism and Frost’s remarkable foresight given that he had lived in a lilly white section of new England. His essay never quoted the poem.
We can go any number of ways, some of them might even include the actual poem,but what of it? If we know something about the literary tradition pertaining to crows, we can see the crow as a trickster, an intelligent creature who likes to cut the unsuspecting down to size.In a sense, even a sane interpretation of this poem is a distortion of it. Even if we go all Brooks and stick strictly to the poem at hand, as if nothing else by Frost existed, as if historical context and the life of the poet did not matter, we would still offer only a distortion. Interpretation is distortion. Some distortions are useful. They makes sense. They offer a new way of entering the poem, of understanding and enjoying it. Others make us shake our heads in dismay, but all interpretations are digressions and re-writings of the text. It is unavoidable. And this is what a poet should keep in mind: when we have an “idea” for a poem, a desire to do something or express something in a poem, the poem must win over the idea or both will be lost. An idea for a poem is always a competing poem. So, instead of just editing our poems after the first draft, we should do a close reading. And it is sometimes helpful to refer to ourselves as “the poet.” What is the poet trying to do here, and why, and how? What is his agenda? I am going to take a poem I admire by one of my students, Melissa Liebl, and model this method of first revision:
She lifts her
sharp collar bones
in a shrug
the rain so hard
the spaces between
I lean toward
the edge of her body
and one sweet
defers me to
So what can we say about the poem at first glance? It is short, and thin, never more than five words per line. This might be considered the law peculiar to this poem. The longest line is five words. Given the rules the poem implies, is five too long? I re-write the poem, shortening the five word line just to see what happens.
I look at it visually and decide the poet is justified in having that five word line because, otherwise, the poem is too funnel shaped. So why so short, and so thin? Re-reading it I think: it’s a single action, a brief moment, and it would not make sense to have the poem any longer or fatter than it is. I comb through my thinning memory bank and think of two poems by Williams: “Fine Work with Pitch and Copper” and “The Locust Tree in Flower” (second version). Ok, the single gesture, the sense of a small and intimate moment justifies the choice of line and proportion. Good.
Now, I ask myself: what is the sonic action of the poem? Experience has taught me that a writer often goes wrong in a poem in terms of lineation and sonics before any other failing. So I investigate the sounds. Ah, two sibilants (s) one in initial and the other in terminal position! One has the h added to create the “sh” sound. Only the first vowel sound is pronounced– high e, the highest pitched vowel in the language. So “she” is the star in sonic as well as narrative terms. The i in lifts and the e in her are muted. There’s a labial in the L of lifts. So, in terms of sound, the chief action so far is muted vowels, and sibilants,as well as a labial.This creates softness, euphony, a sense of the delicate– as much as what she says. The meaning is also in the sound! Will this be the case once more in the next couple lines?
Yes! Here’s comes “sharp,” (sh again), here comes L in the medial position (collar), but note: there’s now a hard c, and the ominous arrival of plosives: p in sharp, and b in bones. The vowels have also gone a little violent here with the two “ar” and the one”Oh sounds. There is a subtle form of what I call ghost rhyme going on. At the sonic level, a lot is happening. Let us continue:
Following this trail of sounds we find out that S and sh are the stars, with a brief but memorable cameo appearance of plosives, and the lowest vowel sound in the English language: “Uh.” “In a shrug.” H also figures in all its many guises. The question is why?
Here’s a nice conjecture: if there is a turn in the poem, I bet the s and sh sounds go away, and if there is a return or climax, I bet they show up again. One more thing about the plosives: this is hard rain. it no doubt “pelts.” Now, let’s see if the s sounds disappear:
Voila! They, indeed, do. In the middle section of the poem, for three and a half lines, there are no further s sounds until the word sip. Fricatives appear in form and find. Also, dentals show up in the t and d sounds.: Sip, sweet, sigh, and then for the very last lines, our hero, the s sound is gone forever, replaced by the rise of the dentals in sweet, turns, defers, and to. If we reduced the poem to only its s sounds in initials position we’d get:She sharp shrug spaces sip sweet sigh.
Turn that into two sentences: “She sharply shrugs. Spaces sip sweet sighs”. The s sounds alone almost carry the tale. So I say: this writer, however unconsciously, was moving through the sonic as well as the narrative fairy tale of her poem. The ghost rhymes, and effects are so subtle, no one but a nut job like me might notice them, but this is the pleasure of poetry when you stop paying attention to only what the poem means.
Now, onto the grammar: the poem has no punctuation. To me punctuation controls the speed at which beauty moves through the room. If there is no punctuation, two questions must be asked: are the lines well enough constructed, and lucid enough using only the white space to justify no punctuation? Question two: if there is a grammatical ambiguity created by the lack of punctuation, does that ambiguity lend a greater possible meaning to the poem, and is it justified by the law of greater complexity (rather than mere confusion)? Is the writer conscious of the effect (ok. That is a third question)? So I put punctuation in: She lifts her sharp collar bones in a shrug, the rain so hard the spaces between form cups and fill.” A nun would kill me for that sentence because, if read in terms of grammar, the spaces could refer to the rain or the collar bones. How would you “fix” that? She lifts her sharp collar bones in a shrug, the rain so hard, the spaces between her collar bones form cups and fill.” Too wordy.
Definitely, this is not prose, and, in spite of the ambiguity, I’d let it stand as is. This is a complex sentence with the greater part of its length given to the dependent clause. The lineation, and white space, by breaking the parts up, actually helps rather than hinders, and so it is justified. Now the next sentence is compound: “I lean toward her body to sip, and one sweet sigh and turn defers me to the air.” The “and” is a beautiful pivot here. Because, in the poem, there is no punctuation, I initially thought the speaker of the poem was turning and sighing, which, in emotional terms, she is, but it is the object of her attempted sip who turns and sighs. This is nice. This is using uncertainty to best advantage. Ok. Finally, possible objections to the poem:
There are vulgar readers who will ignore all these virtues and say: so what? What’s the ontology of the poem? The ontology is rejection, but a rejection so soft and nuanced that it is also an unforgettable gesture. The speakers action is also an impulse, a reflex of the moment The use of the verb “defer” gives both the hint of rejection and the sense of a course diverted, not a final rejection. Wonderful! If she had written “leaves,”instead of “defers” I, too, might be tempted to say: “Nice poem, but so what?” Delicacy, if it be truly there, defeats philosophy, and thwarts despair. We do not ask the ontology of a swallow swooping at dusk. So, I give this student an A. And now some assignments:
1. Go over one of your poems the way I just went over this. See what you might discover that you didn’t realize.
2. Decide that a certain number of sounds will be threaded through your poem. Let their appearance and disappearance mimic a turn or change of meaning.
3. Read “Fine Work With Pitch and Copper,” and “The Locust Tree in Flower.” Try to render a single moment, bereft of punctuation, but in such a way that the white space, and the mabiguity will increase the possible meanings.
4. Go and read some favorite poems, and forget the meaning for a moment. Enter them through sound, through detail. Then return to meaning and meditate on how closely sound shadows sense. Good luck.