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Plato wanted poets expelled from his ideal republic because they did not arrive at truth by methodology, but, according to him and the ancient Greeks, poets came to truth by way of being possessed by a divine afflatus: a god, a demon, the muses. Of course, this truth the poets came by wasn’t always verifiable or reliable, and Plato’s Republic is all about reliability. It’s about truth verified by method and maintained by law and system. Utopias do not change insofar as they are predicated on an ideal, a measure of perfection: measure. We should consider this word before we proceed further. Measure is not only at the center of Plato’s Republic (he allowed music as long as it was march music and kept people in step) but it is also at the center of this wild unpredictable thing known as poetry. So if we were going to see Plato’s methodological truth as one side of a dialectic (thesis) and poetry’s non-systematic, irrational truth as on the other (anti-thesis), we could then consider measure to be the synthesis of philosophy and poetry. If we call the former precision, and the latter ecstasy, one might see Plato as privileging precision over ecstasy—a state in which the trains arrive on time as opposed to poetry where the trains might turn into Swans. But, still, Plato’s world of system is related to poetry in terms of rhythm, cadence, measure.

Here is the nice little irony: the more methodological the thinking, the more it is about ideas, and concepts, and information, the more it tends to be irregular in terms of the measure of its language. In a culture that keeps books, thinking, concepts, information soon loses the measure, the method of cadence, and becomes what we now know as prose. Poetry, especially insofar as it is–until fairly recently–always yoked to music, remains far more regular and measured. So Plato was not knocking the cadence of poetry except for one of its powers which he feared: it’s power to conjure, to con the listener by an appeal to the heartbeat and the senses, which exploits both the quality of measured music and flights of fancy, of hypnotized and altered states of being and uttering. The ecstatic, that which is in rapture, possessed, out of its usual senses, deeply immersed in the unconscious, the irrational is contingent far more on qualities of measure than is the methodological and logical arguments of prose.

And yet poets, in order to escape the tyranny of too regular a beat, have also embraced a far more irregular pulse and cadence over the last hundred or so years. Free verse is the most pronounced of these, but there is also syllabic verse, and prose poetry. What remains is what Plato feared: unsystematic thinking and a sense of momentum, of measure that appeals to the human mind not as information or data alone, but as an experience beyond paraphrase: that which cannot be summed up or reduced to a nutshell without losing much of its value. If measure is the common link then between precision and ecstasy, if it is that quality of verbal action that cannot be reduced to full precision or to pure ecstasy, then poetry, like music, like dance, might be defined as the precision of ecstasy, and the ecstasy of precision, an ecstatic precision, and measured ecstasy.

When both terms lose their separate properties and become one, poesis occurs, but we have a problem: since free verse has no discernible measure, is irregular in rhythm, what sort of poetry do we now have that Plato did not intuit? Free verse can be distinguished from prose in what way? We know how it can be distinguished from metered and rhymed verse: no regular pattern of beats, of feet, exist (and if they do, they are soon vanquished before they can set up a rhythmic anticipation on the part of the reader). Free verse usually does not rhyme. It tends to emphasize the line in terms of enjambments rather than full stops. It can be broken into lines in any number of ways, by any number of rules, none of which have absolute pride of place.

That’s how it differs from traditional metered and rhymed poetry. How does it differ from prose? In rhythm, in cadence? In meaning? In terms of intention? What makes it far more effective as a series of lines and line breaks rather than as loosely measured language written straight across the page? There is no real answer to this question. I have my own idea that free verse is that written language which may be either more heightened or flatter than prose. In terms of being more heightened, it often employs the ancient devises of spoken oratory: anaphora, anadiplosis, antithesis, alliteration, metonymy, enumeration, and listing—a sort of speechifying, an utterance conscious of itself at all times as an utterance—speech, but speech raised to the level of speechifying, the rhetorical devices of speech employed to create a sense of voice and speaker on the page (Whitman is a good example of this, but so is Allen Ginsberg. Often, this is used for comic mock epic effect. Ginsberg’s rapsodes often have a high degree of wise ass and silliness.).

In terms of being flatter than regular prose, free verse may emphasize blunt statement, parataxis, a complete deadpan presenting of disparate facts either aided and abetted by, or resisted by line and line breaks (think James Tate’s prose poems). Suppose I write: “Pass the soup please Veronica. All over the earth toads are gathering in the gardens of reasonably well fed men and woman.” I could line this any number of ways to emphasize different words, to isolate them in strange patterns. First, these two sentences are paratactic (one statement after another with no conjunctions or connective phrases). We can call this style of paratxis a sort of rhythmic non-sequitur (something Getrude Stein employs to perfection), but there is also actual ongoing non-sequitur, things jumping about, or said in a non-sequential, illogical manner that creates a sort of strangeness. In such a case, uber-flatness of utterance heightens the sense of strangeness, creating a language that may be both comical, and frightening in its emotional affect. In this case, no one would possibly speak this way (though we often do without being aware of it). This is the free verse of much New York school and language poetry, and all the variants in between. It comes from the conversational lyric (a type of poetic thinking on the page first developed by Coleridge and used most extensively by Wordsworth). The conversational lyric is the most common form of free verse.

The confessional, or narrative poem also uses the conversational lyric in which the measured sound is neither the strangeness of the oracular or the dead pan of uber flatness (glibness), but that which approximates a sort of ordered consciousness, a speaking consciousness in the act of relating a meaning, an atmosphere, a poetry that attempts to move a reader to laughter, tears or deeper appreciation of a theme. This is the poetry closest to prose in terms of wishing to communicate a truth that is not, to a large sense, swallowed up by its own utterance. It is serving information, communication, and expression of emotion. Very often, in order to do this, such poetry will be middle of the road, seek a sort of measured prosaic voice that does not draw too much attention to itself as a voice at all, but is trying to convey something beyond itself. Examples of this type of free verse might be the poems of Philip Levine, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Sharon Olds, Stephen Dunn. This poetry seeks to be clear—to be understandable. It does not seek to razzle dazzle as does speechifying, or to create a strangeness of deadpan as does that free verse which is flatter than most prose. Some poems contain what might be called hybrids of all these types. Very often, even poets such as Levine and Gillan use the list, or anaphora, or contrast and they tend to do it far more than writers of prose, but they do so sparingly. Very often young poets write poems that use all three of these types of free verse in a single poem, and not successfully. This is why it is important to know your method of intention, and the way to do that is to read and learn from all these practices of free verse.

Now take some time to read George Trakl, who wrote in German. These translations by James Wirght and Robert Bly rendered Trakl into a sort of poetry that mixes the paratctic, flat style of free verse cadence with the last type I mentioned: the sense of a poet merely report what is scene, what is there for the sake of some meaning beyond the poem. If we could read these poems in German, if we could hear them in the natural measure of their utterance, we might have a very different poet before us—a poet carrying Holderlin and Heine, and Goethe, and also his contemporaries such as Rilke and Stephan George on his back. In meter and rhyme, these poems might seem totally different in character. We must read them here as English poems which have, through parataxis, a ghost of what I call “Ugg” clinging to them. “Ugg” is that overly stilted, stiff, sometimes simplistic English we have so called “primal” peoples speak: noble Indians, Tarzan, etc. We also use sophisticated Ugg for most Chinese and Japanese poems. It has the following features:

1. Usually short, declarative sentences, or even fragments, which have the rhythmic non-sequitur feeling of paratactic speech.
2. Dependance on image more than on rhythm, and on general rather than idiomatic phrasing. 3. Tendency toward eloquence in its new language which is not necessarily the same species of eloquence it had in its original language (for example Chinese poetry in Chinese is full of puns and verbal slights of hand. It is not: “the cherry trees bloom. I think of mustard” we tend to in English translation).

Translation of Japanese and Chinese poetry and other forms of ancient poetry tended to influence the actual writing of poems in the native language—to such an extent that it is hard to tell whether the imagists were imitating the Ugg translations of Chinese and Japanese poems, or Chinese and Japanese poetry was being reiterated into the flat, clear, paratactic “Ugg” measures of imagist poetry. Both are probably true.

Try to look at these Georg Trakl poems as free verse translations. Try rhyming them, complicating the sentences, emphasizing rhythmic pattern rather than image and see what happens. If you can, look at the original German. The point of this labor is to learn what exactly we mean by free verse and how exactly we become conscious manipulators of this tradition.

Georg Trakl has influenced many poets writing in English, especially the deep imagists, and poets such as Bly and Wright. His tone is that of the dream, the deadpan, almost drugged voice of disconnection we have come to see as one of the basic touch points of modernist, and post-modernist poetics.

Prompts for further exploration:
1. Take one of the Trakl Poems and try to retranslate it as a metered rhymed poem, keeping all the images, but playing with word arrangement and word choice. What does it do to the mood or effect of the poem? Now take this rhymed poem and retranslate it into free verse, rearranging as above.
2. Read “Locust Tree in Flower” by Williams–both published versions if you can. Try to reduce a poem of your own in this manner.
3. Take a movie review from the newspaper and play with it as a free verse poem. See what you can get rid of, what you can keep. The review should be three hundred words or less.

The great English literary critic, William Empson, wrote a work called 7 Types of Ambiguity in which he promoted Ambiguity as one of the chief indicators of great literary texts, most especially of modern literary texts. Most contemporary poets start to publish when they learn this sort of ambiguity–to not over determine the meaning of a text, to make it somewhat ambiguous. Ah, but there is a great difference between ambiguity and slightness of meaning, poverty of meaning, or out and out lack of it–though most post modern editors would rather have a meaningless poem with poetic turns of phrase, than a clear poem that didn’t sound “poetic”. This just goes to show idiots wait on both sides of the fence.

To be ambiguous means the meaning floats, hovers, resonates, is everywhere present and no where seen. To be confusing means that the poet can not convey either the mood, voice, or cognitive meaning at all, or that neither mood, voice or meaning exist. How much a reader needs in the way of determination varies wildly. A language poet snubs any meaning that isn’t either ironic, dadaist, or so denuded of emotional resonance and voice as to be fey, contingent, hardly there. They have political “reasons” for this–or used to, having to do with authority, but now that thousands of poems have been written as “language” poetry, it has developed its own all pervasive voice. In short, their non-inaugurated I is as much a rigid orthodoxy as that against which they reacted.

Narrative poetry is, by definition, over determined–it has a story to tell. Lyrical poetry is poetry doing its utmost to draw attention to itself as an act of language–heightened speech, the vatic I, the extremes of both ecstasy and precision. All these “kinds” of poetry have their thousand gradations and often bleed into each other, and are better off for being somewhat mongreled. Each of these, done badly, will not achieve the ambiguity Empson extols. Each of these, done supremely well, can achieve all seven types of ambiguity and then some.

At any rate, on countless occasions a student has handed me a poem that did not do what Pessoa claimed a poem must do: make a bridge between the “personal” and the “human.” The personal is all Pessoa defines as endemic only to that particular consciousness. The human is the rough translation of that consciousness into an act of language that is capable of being apprehended and understood by the other. Great poetry not only makes a bridge between the personal and the human, but makes this bridge tentative, almost invisible, so that the reader feels at times as if they are composing the poem out of their own consciousness. This is why language poetry can be faulted in its theory though I believe their goal is commendable): they never take into account to what degree the reader already shares in the authority of the poem, co-creates the inaugurated I of a poem, how a poem, especially one in which the author does not seek too much certainty, can be co-opted by a reader as his or her poem. In short, it isn’t necessary to be non-linear, multi-voiced, non-authoritative. It is only necessary that the author leave enough room in the poem for the reader to step in and co-create it. I once had a student give me a poem in which dogs were bleeding and stars fell onto the bodies of lepers, and a coffin rose from the grave, and opened to reveal a guitar. The student was highly surprised and upset that I didn’t know this was a poem about the death of his beloved father. I realized he’d done the opposite of what Pessoa had said: He’d taken a well known trope (The death of a father) and personalized it to such a degree that no one would ever know unless he told them. This is fine so long as you don’t care that no one gets it. but if you do care, then a little clarity helps.

I am going to share a pretty good poem then by one of my students in the 350 class a poem that uses ambiguity effectively. The poet’s name is Carrisa Ely. Watch what she does.

An Image

She will remember everything
but the color of his harley. She’ll
forget which one it was
in line with all the others; was it red
or was it blue or was it black?
She’s too distraught in
the swirls of his vanilla ice
cream on a cone, it is sugar, it is
sweet the way his tongue follows
the ridges, is caloused hands
turning it.
He does this softly.
Softer than the cracked leather
of his clothes, than the part of his face
around the mouth, softer than the pavement
they both stand on now, a part.

And in this light, he makes her
think again of delicate things– bathing in
claw foot tubs, long cigarettes– God and
the sound walking.

The very end might be a typo. It imght be sound of walking (This is how it was published in arc of a cry), but there is no mistaking the sensual, erotic, sexual charge of this poem, even though the only action is of a “she” watching someone whose bike she can’t remember eating a vanilla ice cream cone. Why do we think the vanilla might just be her? Why do we think, if it isn’t her, she wishes it were? How does she know his hands are calloused, or is this a girl thing– much as men like legs? Note the wonderful mis-use of the word distraught, so much better than caught here: “She’s too caught up… distraught means this action is having an effect on her that is exquisite both in the sense of pleasurable and accute to the point of painful. What we have here is licking, and soft, and leather, and claw foot bath tubs, and long cigarettes, sugar, sweet, etc, etc, etc, but nothing is spelled out except she won’t remember his harley and she will remember everything else. This is ambiguity working to create an erotic charge. In point of fact, all the best erotic poems beat around the bush so to speak. Suggestion is always far more erotic than coming straight at it. We could ask Clarissa Ely if she meant it to be erotic, and she might say not at all, and that would be fine, because a writer is not the only author of the work. After it has been written, there is a different author every time it is read. Someone who wasn’t getting the erotic charge might complain and say: This is vague writing. We don’t even know his or her name, and who cares about some biker eating an ice cream cone? This poem skirts the danger zone. Someone else, someone looking for the sexual in everything, might think this poem too obvious. In short, it can be argued over, and that’s a large part of why it is a poem and not greeting card verse. It is very hard to argue over a hall mark greeting card. A poem might be said to begin when the arguments begin, when it makes us define what we mean by both meaning and poetry. Good job Clarissa.

I don’t make any claims to be an authority on Jazz. This is my personal take from what I’ve been listening to and hearing for my entire life. My definition of Jazz is pretty wide. Any syncopated or swung music that likes brass and uses blue notes as well as sampling from many sources fits this category for me. Jazz is another word for stew–cool or hot.

In all cultures that are oppressed, forced to go underground, made to wear two faces, there is a mythology of night and day–the day world and the night world divided. This division exists as a projection of the divided soul, that which is enslaved, and that which is free. It was true of the early Christians. This was true in Ireland after the British occupation. It is true in all Creole and African diaspora cultures–the soul divided which can find genuine release and a modicum of dignity through a union of music, story, art and folk ways in which the tension between day and night, good and evil, the spirit and the letter is ongoing. This meets commodity when it enters the urban sprawl and is patronized by a ruling elite who have never thrown off two tendencies that both sustain and often distort the folk: the myth of the genuine (what fed the romantics and continues to feed both pop and so called art cultures) and the need for novelty, for slumming, for the “primal.”

We make a mistake if we believe the primal is simple. In terms of form, nothing is more contrived than the primal, more tied to the idea of showing off, strutting chops, because it is a release of power and ferocity, of spirituality and sex/death; true power and ferocity calls for the ecstasy of precision–never sloppiness. Such forms become simplified only when they are turned toward the marketplace: blues, for example, was heavily chromatic, and based on line rather than chord changes. If you listen to early blues, it is not only chromatic, but micro-tonal, falls into the I/IV/V chord patterns only as it is being re-interpreted for mass consumption. It is not inexactitude, or inferior tunings, though the instruments may be home made: it is a sound come from traditions in which communal call and response and the counter-point of that call and response is poly-rhythmic.

At the same time, these musicians pick up sounds on the fly, and they took as much from so called sophisticated (actually simpler) European ideas of melody and structure, especially marching bands, and certain forms of choral singing. No truly musical ear is ever pure. It steals freely and often, and this is where blues, jazz, and, later, rap comes into conflict with middle class ideas of property values. Musicians rip each other off constantly, and their ears are whores. If their ears are not whores, I don’t trust them. Someone truly musical listens and hears whatever moves him or her. Lester Young liked good polka tunes. He loved the sweet, decidedly un-Lester clarinet of Dorsey. He also cried shamelessly when he watched the 1939 movie version of Wuthering Heights. He didn’t sit around saying, “I’m Lester Young; I’m inventing cool as we know it. I can’t listen to polka and I can’t like Puccini.” That’s the bullshit of gatekeepers, snob asses–not musicians.

If you’re going to get into jazz, do some research and listen to marching bands–New Orleans and Sousa. Listen to the cut time of Jazz dance music because it’s a little like syncopated polka. Listen to early black gospel, but also the innovations made on Catholic traditions in New Orleans. Showing off, bragging, gangster styling, spiritual lament and celebration does not begin with rock and roll or rap.

Jelly Roll Morton worked as a bouncer, a gambler, and a pimp. He was also a 15 year old boy who played his first professional gigs in a New Orleans brothel. When his grandmother found out (he told her he was working nights in a warehouse), she threw him out of her house for playing “devil’s music.” The spiritual terrain of the outcast, the slave, the bonded lives on intimate terms with both God and the devil. But one must not begin therel; instead, begin with two different versions of faith–the faith of priest/genteel, and the faith of prophet/outsider. Both are equally important to Jazz and both could be found mixing it up in New Orleans for over a hundred years before Jazz was known. The dynamic between the spirit and the letter, the spiritual release of the night, and the longing for respectable life during the day is an ancient mystery. The two fuel each other as often as they fight. Not only is the divide between good and evil, night and day, but it is also between respectability and the raw dignity of that which must find its fortunes through a gravitas the world cannot bend to normative standards. There is a centuries-long dynamic between the whore house and the church.

There is an inwardness so vast, so total, that it has a true integrity—not the pretentiousness of artistic temper, not the vanity of professional mysticism, not the neurosis of social anxiety disorder, but a forthrightness, an honorable, hourly withdrawal from the world that seems, for lack of a better word—ecstatic. Emily Dickinson’s passes this test fro me so that, beyond her artistic temper, and beyond her neurotic social anxiety, and beyond her “Bride of calvary” routine, her retreat seems legitimate, necessary, vital. It shames me. It makes me want to be a better man, though not enough to change my life.

Dickinson’s gate keepers make me vomit. Her worshipers make me want to kick them in the shins. Her poems have the same effect upon me as the transports of saints. Before them I want to droop my head, and surrender like the unicorn, and let the little tough guys from the middle ages sink their spears into me. I sense the true virgin—not the prude, not the sexless, shrill old maid of 19th century households (though she wears those uniforms), but the true virgin—intense, blessed with a mystical and erotic chastity.

Poem 258 by Emily Dickinson stirs this sense in me, but not as an isolated particular. I do not read poems in isolation. They leap their borders, and commune with other acts of language, with other slants of light. My favorite poems do not exist as singular deeds.. This is not my absolute favorite by Emily, but it comes close (My favorite begins “I dreaded that first robin so”). 258 is one of her more canonical poems, and Harold Bloom has explicated it well. I do not compete with Harold, but I am taking it from a different angle.

Poem 258

There’s a certain slant of light,
Winter afternoons—
that oppresses, like the heft
of Cathedral tunes—

Heavenly hurt, it gives us—
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the meanings, are—

None may teach it—any—
“tis the Seal Despair—
An Imperial affliction,
Sent us of the air—

When it comes, the landscape listens—
Shadows—hold their breath—
When it goes, “tis like the Distance
On the look of Death—

When I first read this poem, I was fifteen, and reading Saint Theresa of Avila’s account of her vision:

I saw an angel close by me, on my left side in bodily form. This I am not accustomed to see unless very rarely. Though I have visions of angels frequently, yet I see them only by an intellectual vision, such as I have spoken of before. It was our Lord’s will that in this vision I should see the angel in this wise. He was not large, but small of stature, and most beautiful – his face burning, as if he were one of the highest angels, who seem to be all of fire: they must be those whom we call Cherubim…I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it, even a large one. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of his goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

The imagery in Dickinson’s poem seemed familiar to me— the certain slant of light I had experienced in countless works of art from the high masters. A “certain slant of light” does not have to be the product of knowing the New England Winter. It can as readily come from having read deeply and looked at reproductions of the Florentine Masters (especially when one considers how much Emily loved the Brownings, and their Roman retreat, and that her father’s amazing library no doubt contained such picture books). Her comparing this slant to the heft of cathedral tunes, making this light as heavy as the bar of a cross, and creating one of the most wonderful examples of synesthesia in American poetry… well, I took all that for granted.

Being a Catholic, it did not seem complex or baffling to me—but wonderfully accurate. Light when it is slanted is always certain, and seems to have mass—like a board of wood, and, given the imperial despair in the later part of the poem, and given my own inundation in both the mystical and erotic agony of the Catholic Church, I had no trouble with this. I found it remarkable because it seemed so precise—as true and as ordinary as Theresa seeing angels, and yet it was coming from a woman in the heart of the Puritan tradition— a tradition that did its best to tame all such erotic/mystical transports. I remember sitting there and thinking: “Wow, I love this poem. She must have read Theresa of Avila, too.”
This sort of reading is heretical, as heretical as Emily. The mind selects its own anthology, paring off poets who no self respecting scholar would place in the same room, but I think it not an unlikely pairing. Both Theresa and Emily were practical women. Though Emily reduced her world to her house, she was convivial, even wickedly funny within its protective borders, and St. Theresa had just as wicked and satirical a sense of humor as she rode about Spain, founding convents and reforming the church. Both had the gift of mystics: to normalize the extraordinary, and to make extraordinary the common, the lowly:

“heavenly hurt it gives us—
we can find no scar,”

“the pain is not bodily but spiritual”

“None may teach it—any
’tis the Seal despair—
An imperial affliction,
Sent us of the air”

“The pain was so great that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain that I could not wish to be rid of it.”

The imperial seal of despair, Dickinson’s whole take on despair is not far removed from St. John’s Dark night of the Soul, or Theresa’s sense of a pain so excessive yet more desirable than any earthly pleasure. Mystics slaughter the dialectical oppositions by investing the “value” of one extreme of the dialectic with the qualities of the other. Despair is, in Emily’s mystical realm, a sort of ultimate triumph. The first is last and the last first, not to reverse priority, but to re-invest the dialectical oppositions with their original spiritual freshness and force.

We should not be surprised by the eroticism of Dickinson or Theresa, and just as I know my imposition of my Catholic upbringing upon this poem is not one of scholarly argument, but of a chance leap in my mind between these great woman figures, so, too, the imposition of contemporary ideas of sexuality, Emily’s lesbianism, is a limited reading of her work. To look for evidence of her sexuality is like 19th-century scholars looking for historic proof of Jesus. It somewhat misses the mark. Emily’s eroticism, and much of it could be interpreted as towards the female, is ordinary and even defining as part of the mystical tradition. Her love of Keats would make her prone to such mystical oxymorons. In such a realm, the pure music becomes the spiritual ditties of no tone. In Dickinson, chastity, virginity becomes the purest form of eroticism. It makes sense within the verbal construct of mystical oxymoron. In this realm, it is most divine horse sense.

I am not through with this poem. In a 2nd post I hope to write, I’ll remember how I came to know that Elizabeth Barrett Browning (more so than even Robert) was of great importance to Emily, as was Keats, and that the famous couple’s abiding interest in the Franciscan heretics of the mystical persuasion may have had as much to do with her refusal to officially surrender to faith as any other reason proffered.

My overall point is that the leaps and landscapes we enter through reading are every bit as real as actual locales and travels.