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Wallace Stevens

Revealing the presence of order in “The Idea of Order at Key West”

“The Idea of Order at Key West” was written by Wallace Stevens, a ‘transcendentalist’ in the modernism era. Steven’s poetry reflected works similar to those of Whitman and Wordsworth in that he loved writing on concepts of the natural world to help discover and create personal meaning. Stevens often took vacations to Florida where the serenity of peace and beauty inspired him to write and reflect on deeper philosophical issues such as natural order, chaos, and the deep internal desires of the self (Morse 140). “The Idea of Order at Key West” emphasizes the internal longing to create meaning for order within the natural world, and to discover the role of man’s origin and the self’s purpose. However, in order for such meaning to be made obvious over the chaos, the order at Key West can only be clearly revealed when the beauty and chaos of nature is combined with the role of the poem’s female individual. The poem’s argues that order can be found and already exists among the chaos of nature, but that it takes the individual’s artistic craft to create meaning to make the order’s presence known and evident to the rest of the townsfolk and society.

The first stanza of “The Idea of Order at Key West” introduces two central figures which are used to reveal the poem’s meaning and existence of order: the sea and she. Both of these objects work independently of one another, yet also close together, and require attentiveness to the poem’s themes of imagery and sound so that order can be revealed (Bloom 62). Stanzas one, two, and four, contain descriptive sea imagery which can help one decipher the existence of order within the sea’s chaos. Order within the sea can be seen, but it is primarily masked by Steven’s raw depictions of turmoil, such as “the grinding waters and the gasping wind” (13). Despite this chaotic imagery, the poem goes on to reveal that the sea maintains a powerful consistency of order in that its “waters never formed to mind or voice” but rather remained consistent of that which it was and whose “mimic motion… caused constantly a cry” (2,5). Further support for this existence of order can be read within the opening verse of stanza one, “She sang beyond the genius of the sea” (Stevens 1). Here the language implies that despite the sea’s potential to possess upwellings of turmoil, the sea also possesses ‘genius’, an underlining potential to overcome chaos to regulate life and diversity. Thus the waters of Key West possess both potential for natural chaos as well as order. According to stanza four, these waters can be ‘walled’ with ‘sunken coral,’ and ‘colored by many waves;’ yet due to geographical demarcation along the equator, can also possess a ‘dark voice’ for trouble such as death among species and seasonal abiotic catastrophes. The presence of order can be seen overall within the context of the sea; however, it is and continues to remain unstable because it is constantly undergoing interaction and change. This makes the order difficult to initially discover.

Robert Pack reinforces this idea that the natural world cannot exist without the presence of both order and disorder because “these two things are one” (Pack 130). These two elements must work together to create natural change, and consisted of “Steven’s definition of the world in which we live” (Pack 131). Through “order becoming disorder and disorder becoming order,” the two elements make up a cycle which changes over the course of time (Pack 131). In “The Idea of Order at Key West”, however, Stevens portrayed the townsfolk as failures to recognize that order could be found within natural chaos. Rather than looking for order’s presence in an underlining cyclical concept, the townsfolk’s perception of order’s existence was based dependently upon that which was visibly evident in the experience of the present moment. Thus, this created the need for the role of the female individual.

Throughout the poem, the role of the individual, referred to as ‘She,’ is used to communicate the presence of order among the chaos. This is done through the act of the girl’s song, which breaks the townsfolk’s rational perception of order in that moment, and causes others to stop and ‘listen.’ Without the role of this individual, the townsfolk would continue to lack understanding on the presence of order and its meaning. Steven’s verse “She sang beyond the genius of the sea,” implies that the nature of the song itself contained a unique element which transcended any perspective of chaos and/or beauty that the townsfolk had previously known or experienced (Stevens 1). The simple and structuralized beauty of the art of the song altered the townsfolk’s previous perception on order’s existence around them (Bloom 62); it became captivating and mysterious causing all to stop, and listen:

It was She and not the sea we heard
For She was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing. (Stevens 14-17)

The art (order) of the girl’s song was internally and naturally created within the individual’s self, which when sung, enchanted, deepened and transcended the meaning of order in that moment and allowed others to discover and interpret its origin in a different light.

The order within the art of the girl’s song contained a unique state of ‘unnatural,’ pure order which gave the song’s meaning and words a form of structure. This structure was beautifully arranged and impacted the townsfolk listeners as well as created an internal desire and passion within the listeners to want to pursue the presence of this order more:

More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind…
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. (Stevens 29-30, 37-40)

Unlike the sea, a state of nature that possesses the cyclical relationship between both order and chaos, the art of the song possesses a ‘pure’ state of order which overpowers and sings “beyond the genius of the sea” (Stevens 1). The presence of chaos within this order ceases to exist, and therefore makes the order of the song truly pure and unique to the individual, and unnatural among the understanding of the listeners. Because of this, the listeners, for the first time, are able to both see and hear what order consists of in its purest state despite the disorder of the natural chaos of the sea.

Throughout the song and upon the time that the song of the individual comes to an end, the listeners are overtaken with feelings of awe and contemplation regarding the nature of this unnatural order’s origin. This can be seen in stanzas three and six where the townsfolk ask:

Whose spirit is this? (Stevens 18)
…tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night. (Stevens 44-51)

The order created by the structure of the song impacted the listeners to a point of meaning that transcended their original perception of order’s existence. Not only did this captivate their attention, but it also activated an internal desire which caused them to look for and seek out the meaning of order around them, “in the town” and in the night, in a new, ‘deepening,’ and ‘enchanting’ way (Stevens 48).

The poet closes with the following verses:

Oh! Blessed rage for order…
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
…And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds. (Stevens 52-55)

Here, the poet acknowledges that a ‘blessed rage for order’ is required in life for meaning to be created. The only thing that can do this, however, is an unnatural form of order, disconnected from chaos and nature, which is uniquely pure and originates from the human inner self. Such was the influence produced by the song of the girl at Key West, and remains a unique element, which alongside the use of visual interpretation and the incorporation of keener sounds, allows man to make meaning to share with and/or to inspire others.

Meaning for order consists of more than what is made obvious in the present, but in order for it to be clearly revealed, one has to intently pursue it and/or interpret its meaning through another element. This is expressed in the role of the female individual, and is what Steven’s made evident when one listens for the presence of order within the artistic nature of the girl’s song.

Works Cited
Bloom, Harold. Wallace Stevens. Ed. Harold Bloom. Broomall: Chelsea House Publishers. 2003. Print. p. 59-64.

Morse, Samuel. Wallace Stevens: Poetry as Life. New York: Pegasua. 1970. Print. p.140.

Pack, Robert. Wallace Stevens: An Approach to His Poetry and Thought. New York: Gordian Press. 1968. Print. p.130-131 and 175-176.

____________________________________
DSC07673 - CopyKatharine Sell is a 3rd year student majoring in Biology focused in coral reef ecology and marine organisms. She enjoys writing in her spare time. She loved exploring ‘meaning’ in “The Idea of Order at Key West” in correlation to her passions for people and all that the sea possesses.

There are poetry workshops, but no reading workshops: how not to go over your time, how to choose a set, how to present yourself to an audience. So the poetry improves, but the presentation of it just keeps getting worse. I’m not speaking of spoken word here: I am talking about all poetry. Poets ought to learn how to present work as well as produce it.

I wish I could teach a workshop for a semester like this: first month, the students memorized two poems a week, but also practiced reading poems from the paper.

Second month, they slowly introduced their own work amid the poems they had memorized so that their poems were naked and rubbing up against Stevens and Ai, and whomever.

Finally, in the last month, three students would do a fifteen minute set per class, and leave time for criticism.

I don’t care how shy poets are; I’m sick of their introversion being inflicted on me via their bad readings. The second you stand up in front of an audience, you owe that audience a well articulated reading–not a performance, but most certainly a presence. Of course this would affect how poetry is written as well. Eloquence and the use of good rhetorical devices instead of syntactical sloppiness and an over reliance on images might start to prevail.

Show-don’t-tell is lousy advice. Horrible advice: showing must tell, and telling must show, or both are equally suspect. The ear matters too, and you cannot build that without hearing poems outside the confines of your skull.

Characters:
Wallace Stevens
Marianne Moore
Elizabeth Bishop
W.H. Auden
James Merril
Robert Lowell

Introduction

Lowell: Why are we here? Can someone tell me this, please?

Auden: A little testy, aren’t we?

Lowell: Testy? Of course. I was not planning on being summoned from the grave today, and in fact had plans this afternoon with my dead first wife.

Bishop: Do you mean Jean?

Lowell: Yes, I mean Jean. We were going to visit Boston, MA, so that I might once again visit the stomping grounds on which I bullied my classmates and earned the nickname “Cal.”

Bishop: Short for “Caligula.” And you’re proud of this?

Auden: Proud? He’s positively beaming, the old bully.

Stevens: Bully indeed. I agree with Mr. Lowell, this is a most wretched occasion for being summoned. The malady of the quotidian? I meant to say the malady of the long dead.

Merrill: An elegant turn of phrase, Mr. Stevens – just superb. But less we stray too far from the reason why we have been called from the dead, I suppose I must ask aloud, Who called, and what are we doing here? Where are we, anyways?

Moore: I called. This is my summoning.

Lowell: A-ha! So this is your doing, eh Ms. Moore? Getting lonely with only your mother in the afterlife to tend to your exacting observational powers?

Auden: “To tend to your exacting observational powers”? What happened to the antithesis of long-windedness you developed in Life Studies, by dear Robbie?

Moore: Enough. I called us together for a conversation.

Merrill: A good enough reason.

Auden: Agreed.

Bishop: Hear hear.

Lowell: Yes, and all that.

Stevens: Indeed. But pray tell, Ms. Moore: a conversation regarding what?

Moore: Regarding John Ashbery, my dear poets.

Lowell: Oh god, here we go.

Bishop: Cynical, Robert?

Lowell: Cynical? More like “risible.” I have a deep distaste for that silly man’s work.

Merrill: Ha! “Silly man”? Do explain yourself, dear Caligula.

Lowell: But where to begin? I coined, many years ago – that is, I stole, many years ago – the phrase “raw and the cooked” to describe the difference between my early work and the work of, say, Ginsberg. And yes, with Life Studies I did leave the cooked for the raw. But my poetry always maintained some aspects of the cooked – a certain formality, even in my autobiographical writings. Ashbery, on the other hand, is the rawest poet I have ever encountered, by which I do not mean to praise, but rather simply observe with some disdain.

Bishop: But do explain yourself, Robert. What you mean by “raw,” I mean.

Lowell: We might as well recite something. Here, look at this poem from the poet’s first well-received book, Some Trees. I do not wish to look at the more canonical works – “Instructional Manual,” “Some Trees,” “Illustration,” or “The Painter.” Let us look at something more “minor.” Ah! Here: “Sonnet.” Good and short. (Clearing throat)

Each servant stamps the reader with a look.
After many years he has been brought nothing.
The servant’s frown is the reader’s patience.
The servant goes to bed.
The patience rambles on
Musing on the library’s lofty holes.

His pain is the servant’s alive.
It pushes to the top stain of the wall
Its tree-top’s head of excitement:
Baskets, birds, beetles, spools.
The light walls collapse next day.
Traffic is the reader’s pictured face.
Dear, be the tree your sleep awaits;
Worms be your words, you not safe from ours.

Fellow poets, how are we supposed to read something so surreal, so nonsensical? I’m baffled.

Moore: Great question, Mr. Lowell! How do we read this poem?

(Long pause in the conversation as the poets begin thinking.)

Musicality and Narrative

Auden: I feel I owe some explanation for the poem, as I did choose John over his friend Frank O’Hara for the Yale Younger Poets Prize. Back then, I explained that John’s poetry was interesting but dangerous; that it was an interesting experiment, but that too much nonsense could deprive his poetry of too much meaning. And that would be bad.

But let me try to say more, now, about what I liked about John’s poetry, and therefore what I also admire about “Sonnet.” To begin with, a reader must always interrogate his or her own assumptions about what it is he or she likes about poetry. By self-interrogation, I do mean something analogous to the intention of psychoanalysis – that is, the better a reader understands his or her own predilections, the easier it will be for said reader to find the literature that moves this reader the most. Now, the reason I like “Sonnet” – and I know we cannot stay merely on reasons for “liking” the poetry, but I find it a fine place to begin – the reason I like “Sonnet” is because, like my own early work, Ashbery is developing a different way of talking.

Bishop: How do you mean, “a different way of talking”?

Auden: Well, if you can suffer through it, let me recite from memory one of my earliest works, entitled “Taller Today.” Afterwards I”ll explain why. (Clears his throat.)

Taller today, we remember similar evenings,
Walking together in a windless orchard
Where the brook runs over the gravel, far from the glacier.

Nights come bringing the snow, and the dead howl
Under headlands in their windy dwelling
Because the Adversary put too easy questions
On lonely roads.

But happy now, though no nearer each other,
We see farms lighted all along the valley;
Down at the mill-shed hammering stops
And men go home.

Noises at dawn will bring
Freedom for some, but not this peace
No bird can contradict: passing but here, sufficient now
For something fulfilled this hour, loved or endured.

Merrill: Beautiful. But do explain.

Auden: I believe this poem works for two reasons – one because of its music, and secondly, because of its approximation to narrative.

Lowell: And by “music” you mean…?

Auden: This is hard to say. Yet I think I mean something akin to the music that Mr. Stevens creates in his poetry. Do tell us, Mr. Stevens, how you understand what I mean when I refer to the haunting musicality of poetry, and then I shall be happy to continue.

Stevens: I’m not very comfortable discussing my own work, Mr. Auden.

Auden: Humility, expressed grandly! I appreciate the sentiment, Mr. Stevens. Well, let us return to you in a second. What I mean by musicality is something I believe Mr. Stevens refers to in his “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird:” I mean “the beauty of inflections” and “the beauty of innuendoes.” For poetry doesn’t necessarily sound like human speech. I know this sounds shamelessly obvious, but occasionally what is obvious needs to be emphasized, in case it is forgotten, shamelessly. Poetry is not simply embellished speech given a meter. It is a deeply strange and other way of speaking, with roots I would imagine in divination. It is magical. And yet what makes a phrase magical? It’s sound. Therefore, notice the sound of “windless orchard,” “lonely roads,” “Nights come bringing the snow, and the dead howl”. These are haunted, haunting phrases, and they are haunting and haunted because they are other. No one would say, in a conversation, “nights come bringing the snow,” just as no one, doodling in their notebook, would draw an enormous abstract painting the size of ten men. Such experimentation in language, like experimentation in form and color in the visual arts, heightens and augments our consciousness of language, the way that painting does the same for form, shape, color, and line. It is a seemingly deeper way of talking. And this depth, this haunting quality, is what I mean by “musicality.”

Merrill: Interesting, Wystan.

Auden: Thank you. But now, Ashbery’s work. I believe it carries this same sort of musicality. But moreover, it is a musicality that is Ashbery’s alone – he sounds like himself, and no one else.

Bishop: But what about “Some Trees”? I’ve always thought he sounded in that poem like you, Wystan.

Auden: Well, I mean as he develops as a poet. But notice some of the turns of phrases in “Sonnet,” (named, I noticed, Elizabeth, similar to your great poem, “Sestina”). “After many years he has been brought nothing.” “The light walls collapse next day.” These are assertions which are completely nonsensical. They combine the confidence of assertion with the artifice of imaginative freedom. It is for that reason they are so strange, yet lovely and, in a way, hauntingly enigmatic.

Moore: So, Mr. Auden, are you saying you like John’s poetry because he writes creative phrases?

Auden: No, but I think that is a part of it. What I’m saying is that what John is doing is harder than it looks. Here: everyone come up with a nonsensical phrase. I’ll give us ten seconds. 10….9….8…..7…..

Moore: The pelican’s head was a grouchy artichoke.

Bishop: The sandpiper’s library is a crumb of an almanac.

Stevens: Far from the languorous sea, a dog’s asbestos legs rang vividly.

Merrill: Dear, please send me those pool balls shocking the nerves of a kimono.

Lowell: Damn garret in the house sets my cigarettes to flame!

Auden: “Traffic is the reader’s pictured face.”

Lowell: But that’s a line from the poem.

Auden: Yes. I wanted to juxtapose our “nonsensical” statements, in order to show that John’s line is not very nonsensical. In fact, of all the phrases we came up with, I would say that the line “Traffic is the reader’s pictured face” is a very interesting kind of metaphor, which – in a shockingly disturbing way – seems to serve as a mirror for the reader’s own experience reading the Ashbery poem. For aren’t we all, facing “Sonnet,” as confused as a pattern of honking gridlock?

Bishop: So “Sonnet” is a mirror for the reader’s face? And what happened to the “story” you mentioned, along with the musicality?

Auden: I’m getting there. But notice the phrases in “Sonnet.” “Each servant stamps the reader with a look./ After many years he has been brought nothing. / The servant’s frown is the reader’s patience. / The servant goes to bed. / The patience rambles on / Musing on the library’s lofty holes.” Notice how each line is a separate sentence, until the final enjambed line, which is sensible, for musing is a longer process that would carry itself over, past a shorter sentence. Now, is it dangerous to say that it is as if Ashbery were voicing some of our own experiences reading the poem? For what if we were to replace “servant” with “writer”?

Each writer stamps the reader with a look.
After many years [the reader] has been brought nothing.
The writer’s frown is the reader’s patience.
The writer goes to bed.
The patience rambles on
Musing on the library’s lofty holes.

It makes more sense now, doesn’t it? Ashbery, equating the writer with a servant – perhaps who who serves creativity, imagination, new ways of thinking and talking, poetic knowledge and experience – describes one experience reading a poem. The writer makes the reader pause; the reader feels frustrated; the writer, echoing the reader’s frustration, makes the reader feel less frustrated and more patient; the writer leaves the reader, or the reader puts down the book; the feeling engendered by the skillful writer hangs in the air of the reader’s mind like a powerful lingering scent; and this lingering somehow muses on “lofty holes” in the library – perhaps a metaphor for the strangeness of the familiar.

Stevens: Bravo, Wystan! A very nice interpretation.

Auden: But I’m not finished. First, we can sense the uncanniness of the passage now, a little closer. And yet we can also see how John’s work gestures towards narrative, without becoming a narrative itself. It is suggestive – something Marjorie Perloff has also written about. And here it is suggestive, because it seems, in some very bizarre and weird way, to be ahead of the reader, to out-anticipate us, and know our expectations before we ourselves know them.

Moore: So Ashbery knows us better than we know ourselves. A discomfiting position, to say the least. But what does it actually mean?

Installation Art and Complex Moods

Merrill: I think it means something like this. Take Proust for example, that remarkable exemplar of the winding sentence brooking no obstruction, who wove tapestries of sentences that, in their unwinding joi de vivre, wove us different faces, different ways of thinking about and imagining ourselves. Proust set out to write a book, and the book turned out to be a book with a style innovative enough to spawn myriads of imitators. Why would people try to imitate the master? I believe because it was as though Proust had placed a new face us for within our own hall of mirrors. He had imagined himself and others within a new kind of vocabulary, a vocabulary that stretched our self-image, made it more elastic, more expansive, less fixed or dull. Is this what you believe Ashbery is doing, Wystan?

Auden: Precisely.

Moore: But then what is the difference between sense and nonsense? Wallace, you are famous for saying a poem, pardon the paraphrase, “resists the intelligence half-successfully.” Do not Ashbery’s poems err too much on the side of the resistance?

Stevens: I have wondered about that, especially in the poet’s second book, “The Tennis Court Oath.” For what do we do with passages like, (and this is from “How Much Longer Will I Be Able to Inhabit the Divine Sepulcher…”, a more-praised poem from the book):

Stars
Painted the garage roof crimson and black
He is not a man
Who can read these signs… his bones were stays…
And even refused to live
In a world and refunded the hiss
Of all that exists terribly near us
Lilke you, my love, and light.

I mean, this at least makes some sense, and comes from a poem that itself makes some sense. It is as if Ashbery were giving us some raw blocks of experience, some raw linguistic (and poetic) data, and were asking us to assemble this data in a way in which it makes sense to us. Like a piece of installation art. We walk into this installation, grabbing at particulars that appeal to us, and with these particulars we form our own experience of the artwork. Perhaps Ashbery is simply calling overt attention to the way in which we actively construct meaning.

Bishop: Yes, but then what of the very obscure Ashbery, such as his “Europe”?

Moore: Elizabeth, give us an excerpt.

Bishop: Alright. Here is the opening four sections of “Europe.”

1.
To employ her
construction ball
Morning fed on the
light blue wood
of the mouth
cannot understand
feels deeply)

2.
a wave of nausea –
numerals

3.
a few berries

4.
the unseen claw
Babe asked today
The background of poles roped over
into star jolted them

Now I find these passages suggestively rich, but too lean on the meaning to satisfy.

Lowell: I agree.

Moore: But isn’t that exactly the point? Isn’t the poet simply experimenting, like any poet, with how much he can give us, and how much he can hold apart?

Merrill: John Shoptaw’s book, On the Outside Looking Out, illuminates what “Europe” is ostensibly about. But imagine if we had not read this book; what would we make of this poem?

Stevens: I confess I have never been able to finish it.

Bishop: Ditto.

Auden: Harold Bloom claimed it was an abomination, to put it mildly.

Stevens: Yet other poets, like Charles Bernstein, have claimed it as an important poem, one that figures as a precursor to the Language poets’ experiments.

Moore: So what is it? An abomination? A prescient experiment? What?

Bishop: I think this depends on the reader’s taste, to be honest. If the reader enjoys a poet who does not make overt meaning, but gives us the building block of sense, of intelligence, of imagination, of memory, and asks us to do with it as we please, then perhaps The Tennis Court Oath would be their favorite book. For my taste, I enjoy the Ashbery who does more with meaning then simply barely alludes to it. I like the Ashbery that is funny, that writes long sentences with their own idiosyncratic elasticity, that is brimming over with original ideas, that is wacky, that is fun.

Moore: Is there a specific poem you are thinking of?

Bishop: Yes, actually, Marianne. I’m thinking of “The Skaters.”

Moore: Let’s hear some of it, keeping in mind that it is a much longer poem.

Bishop: Indeed, let’s do that. “The Skaters” begins with these two stanzas:

These decibels
Are a kind of flagellation, an entity of sound
Into which being enters, and is apart.
Their colors on a warm February day
Make for masses of inertia, and hips
Proud out of the violet-seeming into a new kind
Of demand that stumps the absolute because not new
In the sense of the next one in an infinite series
But, as it were, pre-existing or pre-seeming in
Such a way as to contrast funnily with the unexpetedness
And somehow push us all into perdition.

Here a scarf flies, there an excited call is heard.

Bishop: Many critics have pointed out that Ashbery is hearing the sound of people ice-skating, that these sounds are the “decibels” that are “a kind of flagellation, an entity of sound / Into which being enters, and is apart.”

Imagine the poet typing beside a window, and he hears the sound of the ice-skaters. The sound allows him to in some ways “enter” the scene, participate in it, but at the same time the poet is distant, apart from the scene, both in the game and out of it. The sound of this activity does not make the poet want to ice-skate, but rather makes “for masses of inertia” that paradoxically make a demand on the poet. What is the demand that “stumps the absolute”? It seems as though Ashbery is commenting on a preternatural quality of the ice-skating – that the sounds and colors seems somehow to have already existed, that they are a kind of given, a kind of fore-grounded immanence, as opposed to a receding transcendent that constantly eludes the poet; but that this preternaturalness, this givenness of the skaters, contrasts funnily with the way in which their sounds are “unexpected.”

One might therefore create an analogy between the experience of the sounds and colors of the skaters, and the experience of the tradition of poetry within which Ashbery writes. Both the skaters and the tradition are simultaneously given and surprising, old and new, expected and unexpected, traditional and innovative. Ashbery himself, steeped in French poetry, in the works of poets as varied as Pasternak, Rimbaud, Stevens, Auden, the Metaphysical poets, Whitman, etc., still finds a way to make it new. Thus Ashbery is commenting on a dynamic that is rife throughout his own work – the play between the old and the new, between originality and continuity. Indeed, as we read further, Ashbery writes,

The answer is that it is novelty
That guides these swift blades o’er the ice,
Projects into a finer expression (but at the expense
Of energy) the profile I cannot remember.
Colors slip away from and chide us. The human mind
Cannot retain anything perhaps but the dismal two-note theme
Of some sodden “dump” or lament.

But the water surface ripples, the whole light changes.

As you can see, Ashbery now is sort of expanding on this dynamic between innovation or “novelty” and older ways of being. It’s as if we are watching a symphony of colors, light and dark, and the light stands for novelty, which can be exhausting, and the dark stands for habitual ways of living, which can also be exhausting. So that Ashbery is navigating himself and us through this symphony of colors, through desire for change and desire for certainty. We hear that these “Colors slip away from and chide us”, perhaps suggesting that they bring to the poet a kind of regretful nostalgia. And indeed, “The human mind / Cannot retain anything perhaps but the dismal two-note theme / Of some sodden “dump” or lament,” meaning that the human mind is incapable of nothing except a kind of familiar, weary lament, an existential complaint. “But the water surface ripples, the whole light changes” – and yet, and yet, and yet. As you can see with the two stanzas that are sentences –

Here a scarf flies, there an excited call is heard.

and

But the water surface ripples, the whole light changes.

The changes in the activity of the skaters, which seem to precipitate changes in the poet’s mood and mind, consequently precipitate changes in the mood of the poem, and pragmatically effect transitions in the poem from one mood or sentiment to another. We are all going to hell, the first stanza suggests, but “Here a scarf flies, there an excited call is heart.” All we can do is listen to the sad horn in our mind, “But the water surface ripples, the whole light changes.” It is akin to a sad mood interacting with a gloriously aesthetically pleasing landscape – in that bittersweet confluence of longing and temporary satisfaction, we have a tonally rich experience that demands a poem (as Ashbery recognizes, and delivers) to do justice to the pungent, fragrant, potent contours of that experience.

Moore: Bravo, Elizabeth! But you said earlier that Ashbery is a funny poet…?

1.

What makes a work of art satisfying? What is the difference between a poem we call mawkish, or overly sentimental, and a poem that carries the right amount of sentimentality and wit? How do we judge or evaluate these questions of taste? Aside from all the contentious feelings that immediately crop up when considering questions of taste – questions of taste are elitist, say, or only matters relevant to a leisured bourgeoisie – how do we evaluate a work of art? What criteria do we invoke? Is there such criteria?

Charles Wegner writes, “Fundamentally, human beings are capable of aesthetic satisfaction because they are intelligent, imaginative, active, and percipient beings, not because they are educated, ‘cultured,’ leisured, or ‘artistic.’ If we can at least hesitantly agree with this proposition, then we might ask, What is it about a poem, a work of art, or a piece of music, that can inspire in its listener, viewer, or reader an aesthetic satisfaction that brings the participant back for another viewing, listening, or reading? What makes something beautiful, or sublime? How do we even talk about such a thing? And if the work of art is not sublime but kitschy, how do we make that distinction? How can we make a distinction between kitsch and art when history sometimes blurs that distinction?

2.

Here are two excerpts from poets who are not read widely anymore. The first is by Delmore Schwartz, the second by Algernon Swinburne. Both make heavy use of rhyme, meter, assonance and alliteration. Yet the Schwartz excerpt, I would argue, is mawkish and bloated, and the other is sentimental and beautiful. Since both poems are utilizing the same techniques, what makes one poem successful, and the other unsuccessful? What is the difference between a “good” and “bad” sentimentality?

A tattering of rain and then the reign
Of pour and pouring-down and down,
Where in the westward gathered the filming gown,
Of grey and clouding weakness, and, in the mane
Of the light’s glory and the day’s splendor, gold and vain,
Vivid, more and more vivid, scarlet, lucid and more luminous,
Then came a splatter, a prattle, a blowing rain!
And soon the hour was musical and rumorous:
A softness of a dripping lipped the isolated houses,
A gaunt grey somber softness licked the glass of hours.

and

O heart of hearts, the chalice of love’s fire,
__Hid round with flowers and all the bounty of bloom;
__O wonderful and perfect heart, for whom
The lyrist liberty made life a lyre;
O heavenly heart, at whose most dear desire
__Dead love, living and singing, cleft his tomb,
__And with him risen and regent in death’s room
All day thy choral pulses rang full choir;
O heart whose beating blood was running song,
__O sole thing sweeter than thine own songs were,
____Help us for thy free love’s sake to be free,
True for thy truth’s sake, for they strength’s sake strong,
__Till very liberty make clean and fair
____The nursing earth as the sepulchral sea.

I find the first excerpt, by Schwartz, dull, childish, jarring, and juvenile. Many of the sound plays – rain with reign, “luminous” rhymed with “rumorous” – seem ostentatious, more interested in calling attention to themselves than doing any work in the poem. “Where in the westward gathered the filming gown” might seem at first glance like a powerfully eloquent line, perhaps because of its feverish meter, but on further investigation should strike the sensitive reader as pretentious and bombastic, an overly fancy way of talking about fog. Much of the poem’s play with sounds strike me as similarly overly fancy and foggy – they do not seem like necessary stylistic or technical choices, but rather razzle-dazzle meant to distract the reader from the actual weakness of the poem. The first seven lines, which are all one sentence, exhibit a breathlessness that borders on hysteria; one feels Schwartz is working himself into fits, but one isn’t sure why. It’s as if the poem’s philosophy is that “good poems must be intense to the point of hysterics,” or that “a real Romantic poem must rhyme and make heavy cooked use of meter.” But neither of these assertions is necessarily true. Perhaps this is why the poem, in my book, fails to move or please. It is sentimental in the “bad” way, in the sense that it is hysterical without providing pleasure for the reader. It is pathetic (embarrassing) without being pathetic (full of pathos).

Swinburne’s poem, on the other hand, while seeming perhaps to partake in all the vices characterized in Schwartz’s, does not partake, I would argue, in a single one. (I think Swinburne is in line for a re-consideration, if he isn’t already. He can be absolutely wonderful.) It is a beautiful and strong poem, though sentimental, but why and how? We might say that all its stylistic decisions are commensurate to its content – that its form and style – sentimental as they may be – are equal to its soaring diction, and that it is eloquent rather than bombastic. “O heart of hearts, the chalice of love’s fire” is a wonderfully rich and varied line, full of interesting vowel variations. It somehow manages to speak about the most clichéd subject – love – in an interesting way – as a cup that holds fire. What a powerful image! The rhymes are not ostentatious, but unadorned and lovely. One senses that Swinburne is dealing with complicated subject-matter, and the poem is not an easy read. But the poem’s complexity in its discussion of love is part of its pleasure. The subject of the poem is mysterious – “the heart of hearts” – a burning inner core within the metaphysical heart, out of which desire and passion stem and stream. Yet despite or because of the mysteriousness of the subject, we are given images that are equally mysterious, provocative and enigmatic: flowers “hid round” it, together with “all the bounty of bloom”; a heart “at whose most dear desire / Dead love, living and singing, cleft his tomb”, (meaning, if you can pardon the clumsy summary, a heart powerful enough to awaken or resurrect in tired dead hearts a passion again); a heart whose very “beating blood was running song.” These are very eloquent and un-ostentatious lines. They shadow forth great strength in a pounding pulse, while utilizing the same techniques that Schwartz uses to such a detriment in his poem – rhyme, assonance, alliteration, rhythm. They are sentimental in the richest, fullest sense, as lines in a poem that are moving, beautiful, wrenching, and captivating.

It is for this reason that I have never placed too much value on generalized arguments that “rhyme,” say, “is always too conventional, too elitist,” or that free-verse, according to Frost, is like “playing tennis with the net down.” In the hands of a skilful poet, rhyme might be the best technique for conveying the complexity and beauty of her thought; in the hands of a different poet, free-verse might provide the poet with adequate freedom to explore the possibility of meaning in longer or just more “free” extended lines. These arguments depend upon the time-period and the countervailing trends. Yet such choices are also contingent upon the powers and predilections of the poet. They do not, in and of themselves, make a good or bad poem. In other words, as these examples hopefully make obvious, it just depends upon how such technical devices are used. (In the same sense, then, sentimentality is not a good or bad thing. It’s just the way in which it is invoked and evoked.)

3.

What about visual art? What makes Thomas Kincaid’s paintings of houses such easy targets for ridicule, while a Hopper painting is interesting and powerfully enigmatic? For your viewing pleasure or displeasure, here is a Thomas Kincade painting, following which is the Hopper.

kinkade_foxgloveCottageB

House-by-the-Railroad-artist-Edward-Hopper

Both paintings make use of the same general techniques: they are interested in line and color, shape and texture, mood and tone – just as Schwartz and Swinburne are interested in line and rhythm, sound and diction, form and tone. But the way these painters use these categories is radically different, leading to a radically different product.

So: what makes the Kincade painting bad, and the Hopper painting wonderful and haunting? (Apologies to the art history majors out there, for whom this comparison probably strikes one as obvious and juvenile.)

We might start with a question about expectations. What do we turn to art for? Do we look at a piece of visual art in order to have our weaker convictions confirmed, or decimated? Kincade’s painting, I would argue, confirms a tepid taste for art. It is condescending, meaning it does not have very high expectations for its audience. It is an overly sentimental, mawkish representation of a house that could not exist, for nothing in the real world could be so garish. The colors do not accentuate the life or vividness or story of the house, but rather simply call attention to themselves, like Schwartz’s line about the fog. It is an infantile painting that feels mass produced, but not in an interesting Warhol-esque way, with interesting ramifications for such mass production – rather, the painting seems to prey on the audience’s desire for some kind of complacent cozy satisfaction. It does not even have the relevant quaintness to be considered a relic of folk art. This is a bad painting, and it is acutely unpleasant to look at. It hurts the eyes, while doing nothing for thought. It seems to put an end to thought, rather than provoke a beginning. It strikes one as lazy, as exactly the kind of thing you would expect. Therefore, in an odd way, Kincade’s painting meets our expectations, yet these expectations are low ones, the kind we might have when entering into a depressing nursing folks home or hospital. Rather than taking us out of ourselves, it simply confirms the weakest of our expectations. It is, in this sense, the opposite of strange.

Now look at the Hopper. The house is immediately striking. It looms above the railroad tracks like some ancient, gaunt grandfather. It seems to partake simultaneously of the actual world and of the vision of the painter – like the Kincade painting, I suppose, although here the artist’s vision is mature, idiosyncratic, and very mysterious, as opposed to childish, conventional, and disgustingly familiar. It is strange how the house appears above railroad tracks, which heightens the sense of isolation in the painting, a kind of distance that is both haunting and surprising. Kincade’s house is surrounded by all the bathetic coziness you would expect for such an unimaginative painting – flowers, bushes, trees, an old fence. Hopper’s house, on the other hand, is completely alone. There are no trees, shrubs, or flowers. It is not a house one could easily imagine. This mood of austerity is heightened by the dramatic way in which light falls on the house, and the painting seems to be on the borders of something surreal, something out of De Chirico maybe. Perhaps, then, one of its virtues is its compelling strangeness, its difficult-to-place beautiful oddness in the virtually empty landscape that Hopper chose to represent. It is idiosyncratic, and it defies the viewer’s expectations, while simultaneously supplying these expectations with large doses of viewer pleasure. It is simply a massively wonderful painting. Like Swinburne’s poem, it uses the techniques of its art form to create something marvelously new. Yet it is not exactly sentimental, so much as marvelously puzzling – it seems to raise just as many questions as it answers, and in doing so, provides its unique and enigmatic pleasures.

4.

Yet it is not only strangeness in and of itself that makes for a compelling read or viewing experience. There are many strange poems out there that miss the mark, that make a virtue out of strangeness without making that strangeness compelling. For that reason, I want to make our first virtue of satisfying art be a compelling strangeness. (This idea is not original; Harold Bloom, for example, has written much about aesthetic uncanniness in the same way, and much of the Russian formalists’ work on the familiar-made-unfamiliar strike a similar note.) It is the difference between Ashbery’s greatest poems, and the poems of many of his imitators (including me). It is also the difference, I would say, between the best songs of Bob Dylan, and the worst, or between the great novels of William Faulkner versus the so-so novels of John Steinbeck. It is a strangeness that pulls us out of ourselves. When we return, we are different; we have changed. It is makes the quality of the greatest aesthetic work so idiosyncratic. I cannot imagine another Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson, because each is so fully and astonishingly their selves. A compelling strangeness, therefore, is as deep as ontology. It is an ontology and an epitstemology, and it gets at the heart of what makes art satisfying versus disappointing. The marvelous, the wonderful, the provocative, the sublime, even the beautiful, all fall under the rubric of compelling and strange. It is for this reason that a truly poignant and authentically weird work of art is the most satisfying of all.

5.

The last poems we looked at, successful and unsuccessful, were both fairly ostentatious – they dealt with assonance, alliteration, rhyme and meter in a somewhat heavy hand, which might strike a modern reader as somewhat overwrought. Is there a way to produce a compelling strangeness that is not ostentatious so much as vividly, lucidly, fully austere, like Hopper’s house? How do we describe, for example, some of Wallace Steven’s late work, or for that matter, the poems of a young Allen Grossman? For both poets can be marvelously strange, and yet their compelling strangeness is different stylistically and aesthetically from Swinburne’s – equally mysterious, but somehow barer, less baroque, more hauntingly Protestant, though still convincing. Let’s look at an early poem by Grossman first, called “The Room,” from his wonderful book, Sweet Youth: Poems by a Young Man and an Old Man. “The Room” reads,

A man is sitting in a room made quiet by him.
Outside, the August wind is turning the leaves of its book.
The door is open, everything is disclosed, each leaf, all the voices.

The man is resting from the making of the quiet in which he sits.
The floor is swept, his books are laid aside open, his eyes are open.
All the leaves and voices are outside in the restless wind.

Soon he will rise, or take up a book, or someone will enter;
Or, perhaps, a leaf will come across the threshold, or a voice
Will blunder through the room, blind and unanswerable on its way elsewhere.

But now the room is quiet as the man has made it.
Everything in its place is at rest inside the room.
And the man is at reset, seeing each leaf, and hearing all the voices.

What is this poem about? Why is it, as I believe it is, so beautiful?

I think the answer to this question lies for this poem in a certain remarkably dramatic simplicity that, for all its lucidity, is more strange because so simple. The poem is ostensibly about a topic that might in another context reduce its audience to yawns and tears: a man, sitting in a quiet room, doing nothing. One can be forgiven, then, if, upon hearing what this poem is about, they might imagine something written by Nicholson Baker. But in this case, such an interpretation would be far from the truth. For the first part, the poem is not funny; actually, it’s incredibly serious. And secondly, the poem is not about minutia, so much as it is about minutia’s opposite: the profundity of the sublime, the sublimity of a kind of high contemplation. It is as though Grossman, with a beginner’s mind, starts with first principles; and the simplicity of the poet’s mind, reflected in the work, is beautiful, captivating, and seemingly artifice-less.

For these reasons, this is arguably one of the most peaceful, startling poems I have read in a long time. It is so exquisitely simple, both thematically and stylistically; and yet the poem conveys the great weight of thought, the great weight of contemplation going on in this man, this poet perhaps, who makes the Stevensian quiet in which he sits. There are many, many Stevensian echoes: the “turning” of the leaves echoing Stevens’s “Domination of Black,” the reference to a man sitting near books reminiscent of Stevens’s “Large Red Man Reading,” and the whole barren emptiness of the lines absolutely influenced by Stevens’s late and exquisitely modulated plangent-with-simplicity work in Auroras of Autumn and The Rock. Grossman, like Stevens and Yeats, weaves a profound tapestry out of the simplest of words – “man,” “book,” “leaves,” “wind,” quiet.” It is for this reason, perhaps, that his poem is so strange – not because the imagery is necessarily alien, but the echoes of the imagery as they accumulate in the lines is haunting, compelling, and very difficult to forget. It stays with you, even as you put the poem down; it lingers like a powerful novel, or a song that you cannot get out of your mind, because it is so overwhelmingly beautiful; (I think of the chorus of Bob Dylan’s “Nettie Moore,” from his late album Modern Times).

What about Stevens? How do we even discuss his haunting late work, which makes Swinburne look even more decadent? Here is “A Quiet Normal Life,” from The Rock.

His place, as he sat and as he thought, was not
In anything that he constructed, so frail,
So barely lit, so shadowed over and naught,

As, for example, a world in which, like snow,
He became an inhabitant, obedient
To gallant notions on the part of cold.

It was here. This was the setting and the time
Of year. Here in his house and in his room,
In his chair, the most tranquil thought grew peaked

And the oldest and the warmest heart was cut
By gallant notions on the part of night –
Both late and alone, above the crickets’ chords,

Babbling, each one, the uniqueness of its sound.
There was no fury in transcendent forms.
But his actual candle blazed with artifice.

It is as if Stevens and Grossman’s poems were talking to each other – as if Stevens’s poem provided the context for Grossman’s poem, explaining the reason why and how the man in Grossman’s poem achieves such masterful quiet. For in Stevens poem, which is also very quiet, we are given a glimpse into a certain conflict, a conflict that has faded in a magnanimous, noble way, but faded nonetheless into night, into the present that Stevens calls “here.” That conflict has to do with Stevens’s entire poetic enterprise, his interrogation in his previous poems of transcendent forms, of the “bodiless,” of the abstract, of anything whatsoever that could lead the mind away from the present moment and into a kind of shadowy cave of contemplation. Anything notional – any notions of night, or of cold, are for Stevens in this poem too distanced from reality, from the “warm heart.” And yet this diminishing does not produce depression or disillusionment, but rather makes the present stand out more vividly, more starkly, as a kind of “artifice” made “actual,” (another way of talking about poetry, among other things). And that is the achievement of his, as well as Grossman’s poem – their ability to make the present stand out more boldly, with a kind of visceral haunting embodied thrust. In this sense, both Stevens and Grossman’s poems are about poetry – each posits a scene that is half actual, half artificial, in which the sounds of the words produce an incantatory rhythm that creates the quiet in which they stir. They are so quiet, they are almost – almost – surreal, though these are not surreal poems. And both poems interrogate the very strange notion of no notion – of a sort of quiet in which sitting and being is enough, in which thought itself is made aware of its own eventual demise. Both poems are therefore compellingly strange, for they interrupt our thought, pull us out of ourselves, and return us to ourselves, so that we may see ourselves, as Stevens writes, “more truly and more strange.” They are just barely sentimental, yet they are profoundly moving. In exploring what eloquence looks like when it is reduced to first factors, they give the reader a zen experience of head-shaking clarity, austerity, and, in the Stevens poem, a haunting elegiac strain of loss.

It’s always a relief to me when I see a book published by somebody outside the “poetry ghetto.” Though I’m sure Troy Jollimore has been to his fair share of poetry workshops (who hasn’t?), he is (by trade?) a philosopher, teaching at California State-Chico. It might be wise, therefore, to keep Randall Jarrell’s words on Wallace Stevens (from Poetry and the Age) in mind as we approach Jollimore’s work:

Poetry is a bad medium for philosophy. Everything in the philosophical poem has to satisfy irreconcilable requirements: for instance, the last demand that we should make of a philosophy (that it be interesting) is the first we make of a poem; the philosophical poet has an elevated and methodical, but forlorn and absurd air as he works away at his flying tank, his sewing-machine that also plays the piano….When the first thing that Stevens can find to say of the Supreme Fiction is that ‘it must be abstract,’ the reader protests, ‘Why, even Hegel called it a concrete universal’; the poet’s medium, words, is abstract to begin with, and it is only his unique organization of the words that forces the poem, generalizations and all, over into the concreteness and singularity that it exists for.

I think the primary concern here mirror’s Joe Weil’s opinion that “The idea for a poem competes with the poem. or worse, the idea of writing a poem competes with the poem.” In that sense, the idea, of a poem–of the arrangement of poems–can sometimes destroy the poetic. It’s possible that the arrangement of Jollimore’s book was influenced by philosophy, inasmuch as the poems seems to be grouped thematically, and this becomes a fault early in the book. The book begins with the clever poem “The Solipsist,” which assures us that “when you lay down your sad head / …you lay down the whole / universe.” Whether this is Jollimore, the philosopher, speaking or Jollimore, the poet who might be channeling other voices and personas, is not exactly clear. But the next several poems seem to indicate that solipsism is the primary concern of this book. Poems that alone may have contained a certain self-aware charm come dangerously close to beating the dead horse. Lines like “Where what I see comes to rest, / ….against what I think I see” (“At Lake Scugog”) ring the same thematic bell as ones like “I’d like to take back my not saying to you” and “I’d like to retract my retracting” (“Regret”); the reader may fear being sucked into yet another black hole of poetic solipsism, since many contemporary poets are solipsistic, whether they intend to be or not.

The shape of the book, if we are concerned with such things, might be a very slow moving line. Happily, though, even when Jollimore’s poems risk getting stuck in neutral, they do so with formal concerns, which keep the poems from drifting and

falling out of tune
like a disabled satellite

in a slowly decaying
orbit ____ abandoned
by its callous makers
who trusted it to do

the right thing, to burn up
before hitting the ground

Jollimore projects solipsism into numerous objects, situations, and personas. Most memorable is the image of purgatory (presumably a theme from this first work Tom Thomson in Purgatory, which I have not read). In At Lake Scugog, the purgatory image is best captured by the poem “Gate,” in which “A seraph with a clipboard sang, Hurry up and wait” in a strange sort of heavenly airport. One is also reminded of that pagan purgatory, the “dreary coast” on which the shades of the unburied wait, all jostling to get on Charon’s boat.

In a way, both the Christian and pagan understandings of purgatory is a mirror of sorts for the world of the living as well–since we’re all waiting on earth to be buried, waiting to enter into our rest. One is not sure what Jollimore’s solipsist is waiting for, though. At times there is the hope of “ascension” in his poems (as in “Gate”), while at other times his speakers eschew the Platonic vision, hoping for a taste of the ‘real’ (or something like it) right here and now (“Heaven can go to hell, my sweet”).

***

Thankfully, the book does not solely focus on the dilemma of the solipsist. In fact, it seems to move more toward the dilemma of the poet, who must rein in and focus the many voices and selves inside into something communicable. Later, the book moves toward a dialogue between the various selves that we contain within our self. It’s not so much an opening up, a revelation, but more a casting lots for the one-pieced garment. Again, the two primary poems concerned with this theme are next to each other in the work; this time, however, they converse more than repeat.

“Free Rider” dramatizes the sense that many writers feel when it comes to wrestling with their own inspirational “daemon”–something that feels like US, yet is also at the same time an alien presence: “He doesn’t like the way I use my mouth. (Our mouth?)” And in the poem that follows, he says “It all began to make sense / when the doctors told me / I had two hearts.” Later “Organ Music,” a hilarious sort of debate between the parts of the body seems to channel these various selves into the desire of the body and its senses.

***

One of the most mysterious poems in the collection is “The Hunter,” which I read as a sort of creation myth, in which the miracle of being is dashed as we are eventually “rendered foreign.” Readers should sense a strong connection to the idea of being “rendered foreign” and the “sound” in Jollimore’s “Remembered Summer” that “filled our atmosphere like the drone of some far-off / crop duster, like a universal headache, like the decrescendo / moan of a piano that has fallen to the street / from some high apartment window and smashed like a body” (the piano is one among many images that Jollimore repeats throughout the book with some success). These poems, along with the final, tend to suggest a sort of primal state, scarred by something (“the sound”…a fall? Manichean duality?). As a result, many of us turn inward, turn into solipsists, in order to avoid the pain.

We also begin to observe in “Remembered Summer” that Jollimore sees “all the little engines / we had so painstakingly gathered and constructed” as being part of our solipsism. The solipsist, it seems, is not just the person lost in their head, but the person lost in what Erazim Kohak describes as a world of “artifacts.” The world of artifacts is not personal and acts as a sort of mirror to ourselves. A TV is as valuable as we believe it to be. In Kohak’s opinion, nature is personal and resists the solipsist. Notably, one of the strong presences lacking in Jollimore’s work is nature. This is not a fault, per se, but one wonders where nature has got to. The one “nature” poem “At Lake Scugog” is so concerned with the “I” and “You” almost to the exclusion of natural surroundings.

***

It seems to me that At Lake Scugog does trip over the philosophy/poetry dichotomy, but this does not make it entirely unsuccessful in both regards. Jollimore brings insight to the dilemma of the solipsist, and he writes some interesting poems along the way, poems worth some chewing and multiple reads. I sense though that, in the end, the places where the book falters are the places where the philosophy daimon won the debate with the poetry daimon.

Carl Jung’s work on introverted and extroverted personality types based on four functions of thinking/feeling (the rational) and intuition/sensation (the irrational) has been modified by various experts in relational dynamics, most especially Meyers Briggs and its various off shoots. Some sort of personality test is now administered by businesses interested in relational dynamics and team productivity” Active listeners, North thinkers, Explorers, negotiators…all these terms used by education and corporate movements are meant to gauge the mechanisms of personality by which we see, move through, and relate to the world. It is nothing new. Shakespeare and other dramatists used the four humors in their construction of characters. Astrology links the personality types to stars, dates, location and time of birth. All these systems of gauging personality types are inexact, what we might call, if we used a machinist’s term, an “eye ball estimate.”  But, as such, they can be useful for entering constructs. Eye ball estimates are dangerous if you are doing close work, but, if you are first entering a structure (and relational dynamics are a structure) it might be a foolish waste of time not to do a quick eye ball estimate of the work at hand. Our mistakes are most egregious when we confuse a useful inaccuracy (an eye ball estimate) for a true measure, but it may be equally dangerous not to use our gut  instincts (sensations) or intuitions when approaching or apprehending a structure.  We must not think of personality types then as a determinate, but as a good eye ball estimate of how a certain type might relate to the world. To use a designation from Meyers Briggs, no two ENFP’s (Intuitive extrovert feeling Perceivers) are alike, though they share many tendencies toward, and certain affinities for how they view and relate to the world.. To wax Machinist again, they are all “specialty molds” under a certain type of mold set–modifications of a type.

For the purpose of studying a poem through the four function, we are going to add to these types, the Bentham’s dislogistic, neutral, and laudatory register of terms. We are also going to look at contemporary literature as favoring those types most often associated with intuition, or introverted sensing (which, as a function seems very much like intuition). If we considered postmodernism as a personality type, we might see its basic personality as intuitive introvert thinking perceiver (INTP) with INTJ ( Intuitive introvert thinking/judge) being a close second. INTP,  types dominate–both in science as well as post modernist literature (this makes sense given the process and system driven dynamics of both) Post structuralism might further be seen as a movement away from the intuitive introverted feeling Perceiver (the idealist introverted feeling type) and the INFJ (feeling judge) which dominated the early aesthetic periods of modernism. INFJ’s, supposedly the rarest personality type in our population, are common in my writing classes, as are INFP’s and ENFP’s. My university still values the lyrical narrative, which relies on the feeling faculty, which allows for the feeling and is not prone to postmodernist detachment, but, of the two students I had accepted into Columbia and the New School (both favoring a sort of New York school/post modernist/experimental aesthetic) both students were thinking types, INTP, and INTJ. Feeling as a rational function has been greatly reduced in post structuralist poetics, while thinking, as the filter for intuition (both extroverted and introverted) has been raised to the chief mechanism through which irrational  functions of sensation and intuition are expressed. Let’s run the registers of post modernity in relation to the feeling function:

Dislogistic:  tending towards sociopathy, dadaism, insanity, nihilism, alienation.
Neutral: tending towards the Non-conformist, free spirited, ironic, agnostic, and favoring uncertainty, unsentimental feeling toward  engagement with form and experiment.
Laudatory: Liberated, self realized, spiritual rather than religious, emotionally complex, but not dependent on the feeling faculty, and oriented toward formal innovation.

This movement towards the domination of the irrational functions existed in romanticism and the decadent/aesthetic movements, but their chief filter as to the irrational functions of intuition and sensing moved from feeling (sensibility) to thinking (realism). First feeling in an ever more complex ambiguity dominated as the chief subsidiary function. Now, thinking as system/process dynamic dominates (Post-modernity). If I had to tie this schema of relational dynamics into one broad look at literary history, I would do so as follows:

Before Modernism: Either the feeling or thinking (rational functions) dominate with sensing and intuition (the irrational functions) acting as the chief filtering mechanisms in terms through which image and metaphorical invention play out the agreed upon tropes of thought/feeling. This made for a literature in which feeling is more or less uniform, and thinking also uniform in terms of the audience and auditor: fellow feeling, fellow thinking. The co-ordinates of thought and feeling were largely “understood.” Sensation and intuition moved through images and rhetorical schemas that  expressed known tropes of feeling/thinking. Their diversity increased as the commonly agreed upon feelings and thoughts become less stable. By the time of the Romantics, the interest in the Gothic (a genre of literature in which sensation and intuition begin to dominate thought and feeling) and the break down of the agrarian life under the terms of urbanization and industrialization lead to a reversal of functions: Sensing and intuition begin to dominate (Poe, Baudelaire, Rimbaud) and thoughts and feelings turn towards becoming supporting mechanisms, filtering the discoveries and creations of the irrational sensing or intuitive functions into the forms of symbolist, imagist, surrealist, cubist, dadaist, objectivist, and, most recently, language poetry. In any of these schools, either feeling or thought could be the prime secondary function, but with language poetry and its objectivist forebearers, all feeling becomes suspect as a reliable filter, and thought becomes the prime secondary function for intuition and the sensation of process. In terms of intuition, the rise of the subjective, the unconscious, and the surreal. In terms of sensation, the null position of science which claims to have no eye ball estimates, no preconceived thoughts and feelings toward the sensual world, but only the scientific method by which it tests all things under the rule of deductive process. In terms of poetry Oppen called it “A rigorous test of sincerity.”

The opposition of intuition/sensation to thought/feeling

Scientists have little trouble admitting much discovery is made through intuition, but they are loathe to admit that feeling or thinking (in terms of preconceived assumptions and notions) has anything to do with the discoveries of science. Nothing that cannot be proven through scientific and controlled experiment is considered to be valid. The position on thought and feeling is a null position.All must be testable under the laws of method. This may seem the opposite of intuition, and, to a degree, it is, but its antipathy is more towards preconceived thoughts and feelings than toward the irrational function of intuition. We tend to think of science as “rational” but this is an over identification of the word rational with objective thinking which is the populist view of science (which, by the way, is not at all scientific). Intuition also shows more antipathy towards feeling/thought as prime functions than toward sensation. We might describe modernism then as a slow movement away from the dominance of thought/feeling with an agreed upon set of contexts toward the dominance of intuition/sensation, with no agreed upon context.

During the transition period of this shift, fear, neurosis, a sense of doom and emptiness begin to dominate. There is no set context for one’s thoughts, feelings, or actions, and where there is a context, it usually appears in the form of parodying, deconstructing, or dismantling older, once stable beliefs, images, and metaphors. Oddly, God gets jettisoned from the world around the time intuition and sensation begin to dominate. God after all is best understood in societal terms as contextual authority, the context of all authority. The chief expression of God is through the dominating and rational functions of thought/feeling. God in this sense is antithetical both to sensation and intuition. It is not the authority, or power, or even arbitrary power that an intuition/sensation based literature protests in traditional beliefs in God, but, rather the grounding in a context of authority, power, and arbitrary power known as God that can not allow either for verifiable science, or the undogmatic mysteries of intuition. Mystics, to an extent, were always dangerous to God in this contextual sense. The operative word is agreed upon “context.” In a sense we could see modernism as an attempt to wrestle arbitrary power away from the overly contextualized scene, from agreed upon contexts, or ground of “God”, and not only God, but all previously agreed upon contexts–especially as God is expressed through preordained contexts of thought/feeling. Rather than seeing the old literature as believing in God, or proceeding from a context of belief, we could re-phrase it this way: Pre-modernist literature: God equals the context of the given. Modernist: God equals an “away from” or a “toward” the context of the uncertain.  All must be grounded in having no ground. God is either too late or too early, missing over here or there, but never of this moment or of this place. To paraphrase Kafka: the messiah will arrive the day after he is no longer necessary. God is either arriving or receding, and so God cannot be the context of either intuition or sensation. God exists then only in the subsidiary functions of thought/feeling. Yet God’s attributes: power, arbitrary power, not only continue through modernism and post-modernism, but grow in proportion to the fact that there is no longer an agreed upon context or locality. Thus God’s absence in the form of a non-contextual and all pervading power is everywhere (see Kafka, see Panopticon). In a sense, while God disappears, the power, especially the irrational and arbitrary power of God through intuition and sensation is distilled into all places and situations.While thought and feeling may no longer proceed on the given contexts of a dogma, the arbitrary power grows in direct proportion to losing its chief name/context.  In this sense, the atrophy of God’s name and context leads to a hypertrophy of those powers usually associated with God:

Dislogistic: totalitarian forms of regime and the literary movements drawn to them (Futurists, Pound and Eliot, Communist writers).
Neutral: belief in social reforms and systems of redistribution that replace God’s providence, mercy towards the poor, and sense of equality within organized and supposedly non-arbitrary forms of governmental “providence” (social programs, the dole, unemployment, welfare, health care, etc)
Laudatory: Self actualized and evolved human beings (the hipsters and life style leftists) who need no power in heaven to live with compassion and wisdom upon the earth.

Let us look at this in terms of the irrational functions as independent from a rationalized deity/ contextual schema of agreed upon thoughts/feelings:

In Terms of the Intuitive:

1. Spirituality, belief in the supernatural, powers beyond the  so called natural laws but with little or no dogma (though often elaborate methodology) opposed to rational religion. Mechanisms of discovery independent both of dogma and scientific method. To a certain degree,part of the rigor of magic, but without the agreed upon communal contexts of magic. Private and subjective ceremonies rather than social ones.
2. Re-location of the context for such power in the “Self” or in the self’s “communion” with forces in the terms of a visions quest, and self-created self (lifestyle) and expressed through myth (the primal) and futuristic speculations, as well as a sense of the present anchored in certain mechanisms of “mindfulness and “attention”. Many of these mechanisms are borrowed from Eastern forms of Yoga, meditation, and the practice of manipulating energy (most often one’s own energy, or the energy of nature rather than other human beings).
3. Improvisation as a way of trusting seeming chaos as a more complex form or of order.

In terms of sensation:

Positivism in all its variations as progress, as “learning experience” as self-experimenting, as mind/body balance. Nutrition, aerobic perfection, and the belief in sensation for its own sake or as a mind altering experience. The manipulation of matter as a mechanism for well being: drugs, altered states, body-engineering, the mind as neural re-mapping. Any physical sensation made optimal or toward the optimal, and, when in context with a non-physical or metaphysical concept, the transformation of such a concept to the realm of the meta-biological.

We might see recent developments in post structuralism as the extension of “against a contextualized and localized deity” to all power structures–a destabilizing and deconstructing of the language of discourse itself. Feeling and thinking are functions of discourse. They imply rational choice. Sensation and intuition lose their power when they enter too deeply into discourse (having to be filtered through feeling/thought as subsidiary functions) and can best maintain power through mystification, non-cognitive abstraction, or hypertrophic resorts to process (ceremonies, rituals, routines); the medium as message, paint as paint, poem as thing made out of words. This is the question: is this extension against contextualized structures of power, an attack on power itself, or merely a more elaborate terministic screen of order (fractal and chaotic order) with the unconscious purpose of hiding the arbitrary power under the terms of sheer process? In effect, a movement from “I” and “We”  to “it says so.” In the shift of filtering mechanisms from the nuanced feeling states of catharsis, and epiphany (the chief subjective states) to a realm where sincerity and rigor of methodology become disassociated from coherent feeling/thinking states, intuition and sensation become the highest “virtues.” Self consciousness is often, under this dominance of the irrational functions, a playing with tropes of self as mechanism (meta-fictions). The self becomes a fabrication, the other a fabrication, and the relationship between them is seen at a remove from emotion towards the filtering  mechanism of thought. In effect, introverted or extroverted intuition/sensation as dominating functions with thinking as the secondary function and feeling in a tertiary or inferior position. If the intuition is introverted, the thought will be extroverted, seeking, in however difficult a way to make the intuitions of the subconscious articulate through some sense of system, usually a complex system that is fractal in its particulars. This system will not be applied as with an ENTP, but will be more along the lines of an interpretive schema of process and ceremony, “pure system”–more the tendency of the INTP.

I think it important to remind the reader here that this is an eye ball assessment of tendencies, and that giving any literary era a personality is not much different than saying the wind whispers. It’s a personification, an attributing of human motives to inhuman things, but this does not rule out its usefulness. I want to look at what I consider a poem in a transitional phase between late romanticism/realism, and modernism, a poem that emphasizes intuition and sensation, and places thought/feeling in subsidiary positions: “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock.” Before I do, I want to make a distinction between emotion and feeling, as well as thought and idea. Emotions and ideas may belong as much to the realm of the irrational and the sensational as intuition and sensation. An emotion  turns up, unbidden, and we may not know we are “feeling it” until we say: “I feel sad (the judging, interpretive, rational function). The judgment may be wrong as when a person attracted to another feels they are terrified (the hormonal relationship between fear and certain forms of attraction are well documented). Feeling and thought then are judgment functions. They rationalize to affirm or refute an emotion or idea, and to express sensations and intuitions.. We decide. We will. Perhaps it would be better then to call intuition/sensation undetermined functions, and feeling/thought acts of will. Knowing this might serve us in entering this great poem.

The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock

Eliot first wrote Prufrock in 1909 (though I do not trust Eliot in this respect anymore than I trust Coleridge, and it would suit his purpose to say he wrote the poem in 1909 in order to escape the charge of being in the midst of the modernist revolution. Eliot would much prefer not to be in any midst). As the case may be, it was published in 1917, and is part of the modernist movement that precedes and presages the dadaist/nihilist slant modernism took after world war one. It is a frightening and grotesque poem, but no more so than “The Walrus and The Carpenter” or the opening of Dickens’ Bleak House (I think Elliot’s famous fog owes something to Dickens’ Fog in  Bleak House). Much has been made of his innovations in rhyme and meter, but they are not innovations. The off-meters of Prufrock are taken from many precedents of the time, one being the off-meters of light verse, and nonsense verse, as well as a poet who does not get enough credit for being a goad to Eliot: Vachel Lindsey. Lindsey was also from St. Louis and far more famous at the time than Eliot could ever hope to be. Like Eliot, he believed in the primal, and atavistic rhythms that might be found in metrical experiment. His poem “The Congo” was a performance piece that now seems rather naive and dated (as well as unintentionally racist), Lindsey became famous for performing it. His tendency to perform put him in the camp with Sandburg, and it was the Sandburg’s and Lindsey’s of American poetry that Pound, Eliot, and the modernists replaced. We might see this as two possible roads that diverged in a wood. American poets chose the road less taken called modernism, and it made all the difference. Had they taken the road of Lindsey and Sandburg, American poetry may have ended up linked to music and spken word much sooner. More on that at another time. Like Eliot, Lindsey screwed around with sonic and metrical effects obsessively. Some teachers might stress the irony of this poem, its implied attack on the enervated posturings of the vapid and superfluous modern day “Hamlet.” I am more interested in the absence of feeling and thought in the poem. Sensation seems to be the order of the day here, yet sensation denuded of will, and based partially on paralysis.  terms that might prove useful here: Phatic language (In Eliot’s case, Phatic allusion), neurasthenia (Made popular, and at a fever pitch in the early 20 th century, with sanotariums all over Scotland and England for its treatment. Elliot’s wife was diagnosed as having it). The symptoms fit the tenor of Prufrock’s twitchiness), Bovarysme (neurasthenia and Bovarysme are favorite terms of Eliot–not me) and what I call pathetic troth (The attempt to woo by appealing to another’s sense of pity, either by saying self denigrating things about one’s person, or saying that the world is sad, so let’s get it on. “Carpe diem” is a more vigorous form of pathetic troth).

So let’s put these terms together: Phatic Language (allusion), neurasthenia, bovarysme and pathetic troth.

Phatic language (From the Penguin dictionary of literary terms and Literary theory):

Phatic derives from the Greek phasis, ‘utterance.’ A term in linguistics which derives from the phrase ‘phatic communion invented by the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. It was applied to language used for establishing an atmosphere and the communication of feelings rather than of ideas, and of logical and rational thoughts. Phatic words and phrases have been called ‘idiot salutations” and, when, they generate to a form of dialogue, ‘two-stroke conversations.’  It seems that the term may also be applied to the kind of noises that a mother makes to her baby, a lover to his mistress, and a master to his dog.

By phatic allusion, Elliot sets an atmosphere in contrast to Prufrock’s paralysis of action. If this is a love poem, it is a love poem that constantly deconstructs itself and never gets to the point, which makes it a species of “pure courtship” (pure in the sense that it serves no utiliatrian end other than its utterance), Eliot alludes to several poems of courtship, namely Andrew Marvel’s “To A Coy Mistress.”

“To squeeze the universe into a ball, and roll it towards some overwhelming question.”

Marvell’s poem gets to the point by pussy footing all around the point and then zeroing in for the kill: listen, we are going to die, we don’t have much time, let’s get it on (“Carpe Diem”–cease the day). Prufrock says: Indeed, there will be time.” This both deconstructs the “Carpe Diem” idea of time being of the essence, and is a form of phatic appeal: “we can wait, do we really need to draw the moment to its crisis? Come on. We have time. Indeed, we have time for indicisions and revisions until the taking of toast and tea…. Prufrock is, in part, a travesty and deconstruction of the idea of carpe diem, but it uses and misuses the devices of carpe diem in order to show that such pathetic appeal to action has become phatic–an idiot’s game of fellow feeling. This device of phatic allusion is a major part of Elliot’s schtick. His allusions are meant as much to deflate the force of literary history as to bring it to bear. “there will be time” is also an allusion to the Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow speech in Macbeth:

There would have been time for words such as these:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
creeps in its petty pace from day to day…

The communion Eliot would engender here is to contrast his indecisive hero to the “Coy Mistress” of Marvell. Where once the love object was coy, the so called lover is coy, hemming and hawing. His other phatic repetitions:

In the room the women come and go,
Talking of Michelangelo.

Do I dare? (eat a peach, disturb the universe).

The section in the poem where Prufrock imagines others noting his bald spot, his thinning hair, his thinning legs–all a species of phatic chit chat, and the fellow feeling of casual remark. Something on the order of this sort of conversation:

“Meg! Meg Darling! How wonderful to see you! OH look what you’ve done with your hair!”
“Do you like it?”
“Like it? I love it! It’s, it’s amazing how good you look. How is John?”
“John got the promotion.”
“Oh my God! That’s wonderful! I can’t think of any one who deserves it more… and you… are you happy?”
“I can’t complain… I saw Marcy Wentworth yesterday… poor girl… the divorce seems to have sent her into a tailspin.”
“I know… Oh my God, did you see how much weight she’s gained?”
“Anti-depressants… you really need a hundred yoga classes for every pill… I bet that’s it… she looks terrible… poor Marcy, and her hair looks like it’s falling out.”
“It does seem a bit thin… My daughter Lisa lost all the weight she gained during her pregnancy. My God, what I wouldn’t give to be 22 and able to lose weight like that.”
“Isn’t that the truth… listen I have to run… is your number still the same?
“Yes…”
“I’ll give you a call. We have to catch up.”
“Let’s do that.”
“We will I promise… well, good seeing you.”
”You, too.” (air kiss).

Eliot, by juxtaposing his chit chatting, nervous, twittery Prufrock against the allusions to Marvel, to Shakespeare, to the idea of “Carpe Diem,” implies that all of history has been made phatic and, largely beside the point. The social observances and pleasantries that once held society together have become forms of insanity, the inability to say what one really means, the inability to act (do I dare) have denuded feeling and thought of all substance. Michelangelo is a subject of idle chit chat for women in a room. We might do well to see how Elliot juxtaposes allusion against the Phatic and frantic questions Prufrock poses. There is a great deal of frantic questioning, and refelction, but nothing, absolutely nothing happens, as with the Rabbit in Lewis Carol’s work: “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date. No time to waste, hello, goodbye, I’m late, I’m late, I’m late, I’m late:”

I grow old… I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?”

As Molinowski said, this is not language come forth out of logic, or a rational schema of thought, but language meant to create an atmosphere of fellow feeling (or to mock fellow feeling), also of fear, and disassembling, of timidity, and nervous enervation. The train of thought is inward, and in some sense, Prufrock’s conjectures are as stream of consciousness as Molly Bloom’s meanderings. There are repetitions galore, verbal ticks that come and go as randomly as the women in the room talking of Michelangelo. Sensation (there is much made of the fog, of the tea and marmalade, of the city streets)and intuition (in the form of somewhat hysterical conjectures) prevails and the thoughts and feelings  serve the enervated sensation and the intuitions. This is a poem written in transition between agreed upon feelings and thoughts, and their collapse. It is pastiche, but pastiche that laments– that pines for a significance both the narrator and his creator are convinced has been lost. No one can say what they mean, because meaning itself is lost: “that is not what I meant at all.”

As I said, Postmodernist question the validity of all discourse, and here, in Elliot, the deconstruction of relationship and discourse is already prevailing. Instead of making a bridge between the present and the past, Elliot lets them sit side by side, each oddly ridiculous in the light of the other, a cohabitation which shows as much about their disparity as their connection. Eliot is a master of non-sequitor. The use of parataxis (one thing after another, without conjunctions, without priority or relation to order), the use of  something akin to non-sequitor (a phrase or an allusion just thrown in), the deconstruction of formerly poetic images (Evening is a patient etherized upon a table), all of these tricks will become standard fair for modernist and post modernist poets. And we may know the dissenters from this school by their hatred of allusion, and disconnection. Thought in this poem becomes, in the sense of Flaubert, an inventory of received ideas. Feeling becomes “oh dear me what shall become of me?” and enervation as to any decisive action. The most animate forces in the poem, the forces that act at all are inhuman. The fog is far more lively and humanly active than Prufrock: it licks, rubs, lingers, slips and sleeps, as does the smoke. Streets follow. The afternoon sleeps, stretches on the floor, malingers. Personification swells to the size of a supernova while human action is all conjectural. As with introverted sensation the world of the senses is alive and threatening to swamp consciousness. The unconscious life of the natural world is projected on to the subconscious sensations of the introverted. The fog that is so active at the beginning of Prufrock echoes another equally famous, lively and surreal fog in Dickens’ Bleak House, a novel about a generations long law suit that goes nowhere–a suit, a courtship, a troth that sinks into the bureaucracy of its own process and leaves nothing in its wake. So much for both the phatic allusions, and the use of phatic utterance. Let’s move to neurasthenia.

This was one of Elliot’s favorite words to describe his age, and a very popular buzzword at the time. First coined in 1869, it had become as pervasive a diagnosis by the turn of the century as ADHD, OCD, or depression is now. One of the pet names for it was “Americanitus”:

Americans were supposed to be particularly prone to neurasthenia, which resulted in the nickname “Americanitis” (popularized by William James). Today, the condition is still commonly diagnosed in Asia. (Wikepedia)

The symptoms of neurasthenia were exhaustion of the central nervous system’s energy reserves brought on, Beard believed, by modern civilization–particularly the urban industrial experience. It was associated with upper or upper middle class people, especially professionals with sedentary employment. Listlessness, fatigue, nervous exhaustion (a lot of fretting but no action), a lack of will. Freud (I love this guy) thought that it might be attributed to excessive masturbation. It’s chief symptom was fatigue, listlessness. Elliot used it in a more broad metaphorical sense for the lack of significant action or will power in his age. French languor and enui were fairly common literary conceits by the time, and Prufrock owes a debt to this sort of tired, and flatulent sense of superfluous and weary via the Symbolists. All sensation becomes introverted. One receives sensations, dwells in them, but is powerless to act upon them. Neurasthenia would give way to an almost violent despair by the time Elliot wrote The Wasteland.

Bovarysme

Madame Bovary dreams of perfect romantic feeling states, and more so, dwells in an inner realm of hyper sensations which are more and more fantastic and hysterical as she heads towards her ruin. She is close to sociopathic in her quest for higher transports, and, in all situations where real love is called for (her child, her husband) she is cruelly indifferent and even hostile. Bovary wants what is promised in romance novels. Her name becomes associated with people who saw life as a series of scenarios. Here, in Prufrock’s conjectures about the immediate and less immediate future, we find the hero of the poem imagining himself a pair of claws scuttling alone the sea bottom. He projects himself into old age where he will wear his trousers rolled. He imagines what people are thinking of him. He puts himself into several imaginary situations, and then retreats from any real action. Unlike Madame Bovary, he does not act on his fantasies, attempting to make them come true. He is content to let them pass before his mind’s eye:

But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen

In modern terms, we have all become voyeurs of the real. We do not participate. We live in our imaginations and fantasies. Real life is too overwhelming. The mermaids cannot drown us, but “human voices wake us, and we drown.”

Pathetic troth

In all courtship, the lover is beneath the beloved in terms of worthiness, in terms of desirability, and, when this is not literally true, it is true in a tongue and cheek way, or the poet feigns subservience. So all courtship poems are, to a certain degree, a pathetic troth, a plighting and a promising of bliss if so and so will just agree to be with the one who loves.. In Prufrock, the ratio of pathetic to troth is totally out of proportion. Supposedly, he is addressing a “you.” At one point she lays beside him on a pillow, or he imagines her doing so. Her’s is the only voice in the poem to be directly quoted and it says: He offers her a sky that is like a patient etherized upon a table. He offers her street that follow like an argument of insidious intent. He offers her loneliness, and urban squalor, and he offers a self he calls balding, and aging, and not at all a Hamlet. The Adynaton (hyperbolic appeal to doing the impossible) is reverse adynaton. Not only is the impossible impossible; but the possible and even the typical is, also, out of the question. Only in his fantasies has he heard mermaids singing each to each. He says he does not think that they will sing for him. He offers the supposed “beloved” a man who claims he should have been a pair of claws. This love song seems anything but, and yet it is a love song in so far as it is a lament, a courting to action, and the lost meanings of courtship.. His “beloved” is that action he is incapable of. I said before that sensation and intuition do not fare well when they enter discourse for they are not determined or willed functions. They may exhibit their wears, or passively watch the introverted movie of the subconscious played out through the magic lantern, but they hold discourse only through the subsidiary functions of feeling and thought, and, here in this poem feeling has become a series of vapid tropes plus nervous exhaustion, and thought has become a series of phatic allusions and received ideas. “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” might be seen in the light of another famous poem, Dover Beach. Anthony Hecht did a wonderful job of pointing out the delay and hemming and hawing of the speaker in this earlier poem by writing a sort of update on it called “A Dover Bitch.” In that poem, the girl says it is lousy to be addressed as “some last cosmic resort.” She is thinking: “fuck me already, and get it over with.” Sensation turned introverted is “pure” sensation. Intuition filtered through nervous exhaustion and received ideas is merely the fear of death, an inconsequence so vast that it leaves the very sky inert like a patient etherized upon a table.

In Mathew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” the narrator can still make a plea for fidelity in a world where belief has retreated. By the time of Prufrock, such a plea is impossible. Yet, one can still lament the loss of will, of “I” or “we” said so. By the time of the mid century there is no grief at all among the most experimental writers for the loss of will, or the impotence of will. Process becomes its own will–a bureaucracy of sensation and intuition in which the discourse of feeling and thought is a series of tropes. that do not always adhere. Feeling is muted to the point of being almost absent. Of all the poets who master this reversal of dominant functions, there is none greater than Wallace Stevens, though, being a vital and creative admirer of George Santyanna, Stevens redeems thought and feeling as a species of sensation and intuition–what he calls the poem of earth. He claims poetry must resist the intelligence–almost. Reality is a necessary angel. In a sense, Stevens treats thoughts and feelings as decors, as scenic events. As scenery they may still hold beauty, but one’s actions must be those of sensation and intuition. That arbitrary power that lies in “because” is handed over to an it–the process of the poem, the poem as an utterance made out of words,  an “order” making machine in which a great disorder is still an order, in which the “rage to order” is detached from all stable thought, all stable feeling, and given over to a dominant sensation and intuition. So this is my eye ball estimate. I find it useful as a gadget to enter a poem, but it is not accurate at close work. At close work, one will find a thousand exceptions to this rule, but this does nothing to negate the rule. As Kafka said: “The crows maintain that a single crow could destroy the heavens; doubtless this is so, but it proves nothing against the heavens, for the heavens signify simply: the impossibility of crows.”

 

This is one of my favorite Stevens poems, and I was very cheered when I found out years later that Stevens felt the same.  When I first read “Large Red Man Reading,” I thought he had Matisse in the back round of his mind. Years later, I found out he was, indeed, a great admirer of Matisse. The elemental colors, and the longing of the dead to get back into the world—to feel thorns, cold, anything elemental—the pots above the stove—this was a much greater version of what Thornton Wilder attempted to get at in his play, Our Town. It is the implied mystical oxymoron of desiring and longing for what we already have. In this sense, Stevens is the great poet of the obvious.

Poeisis is not a form of intelligence, but, rather, stupidity in its old sense: as that which arrests the intelligence, which stuns us from “being” into being. Stevens leaves us standing before the one who reads, and what he reads is the new law of what Wallace called the poem of earth. To state the obvious—to truly state it—is the most difficult task of poetry.  Stevens is saying what Rilke said: rock, tree…name them. This poem invokes. It is about invocation, the most ancient of poetical powers.  It conjures. The large red man might be the sun fading in the west. He invokes what is living before night returns the dead to their rest. It is Stevens’ poem of the living and the dead. I am in awe of it.

Large Red Man Reading

There were ghosts that returned to earth to hear his phrases,
As he sat there reading, aloud, the great blue tabulae.
They were those from the wilderness of stars that had expected more.

There were those that returned to hear him read from the poem of life,
Of the pans above the stove, the pots on the table, the tulips among them.
They were those that would have wept to step barefoot into reality,

That would have wept and been happy, have shivered in the frost
And cried out to feel it again, have run fingers over leaves
And against the most coiled thorn, have seized on what was ugly

And laughed, as he sat there reading, from out of the purple tabulae,
The outlines of being and its expressings, the syllables of its law:
Poesis, poesis, the literal characters, the vatic lines,

Which in those ears and in those thin, those spended hearts,
Took on color, took on shape and the size of things as they are
And spoke the feeling for them, which was what they had lacked.

Can a good poem be so intellectual that most readers don’t get it, and is not “getting it” an impediment to enjoying the poem? Hell, I sure hope not.One of my favorite poets is Wallace Stevens. I will admit I do not get Wally. As a young man, I fell in love with his verbal confidence. He “conjured” me (alluding here to a slightly better poet than Wally). I hate snobbery, but not if it can earn its lofty perch, and sneer at the masses because it is truly beautiful. The snobbery of gate keepers and young poets trying to make a name for themselves makes me ill. It is sad because it is fearful snobbery (I must own the gates) or premature snobbery (I have been published in the Paris Review; I am destined to be a professor who is tenured and on anti-depressants).

In terms of Stevens, I was smitten and terrified by the same thing the people seemed smitten and terrified by in regard to Jesus: “He speaks with authority.” That vatic voice, that voice which flows from a mind and aesthetic impersonality so vast that I can no longer care about sincerity, or insincerity—that is what thrilled me, and I no longer cared what he meant. I was enraptured by what the Irish critic, Dennis Donaghue called “the gibberish of the vulgate.”

Years later, I was able to see some of the mechanisms of thought and feeling in Stevens and I said to myself: “Joe, you can now sound out the idol, and make a more judicious appraisal on your hero. You can sit back and see his faults, and still admire him, albeit, without fear and trembling.” I was wrong.

Being wrong, I turned to Lacan. Why not? If you are wrong, it is best to turn to the French. They have been making correctives almost as long as they have been making wine. So I looked at Stevens in an extra poetic way.

Snob A: The one who, through his supreme talent, must find a rage to order, must ignore the rabble, must be an asshole in the service of heaven.

Snob B: The one who called Gwendolyn Brooks a “nigger,” who enjoyed every drab pleasure of old shoe Harvard; the one who could behave like a lesser Tom Buchanan out of The Great Gatsby: a man so larded with his self-regard, with his cigars, with his trips to Florida, with his success, that he made Hemingway a hero (supposedly Hemingway punched him out); the one who had no trouble living in an icy marriage, and resembled a sort of well done beef Wellington: a cliché snob, a snob fit only for graduate students who have pulled a Kafka and transformed the Beef Wellington of the first half of the 20th century into the couscous of this more “enlightened” age.

Snob C: The one who, like all of us, wants to be a rabbit as king of the ghosts, who wants the cat of death to be a mere bug in the grass; the one who is lofty because he knows at the end of the day, that he, too, must end—and never well. No one ends well. We lie. We die. Lord, have mercy on us!

I took all three of these snobs into consideration, tossed them into the blender, and realized that my aesthetic test for music when I was 13 still applied: if I play a song one hundred times in a row, and, on the last playing, it still has an effect, then it is part of my synaptic hit parade and can never be vanquished. It is the love Shakespeare speaks of when he says “No! It is an ever fixed mark!” This “fixed mark” only exists within instability. It is what the eye or ear or heart seeks and finds while everything else is wobbling. It is a lie, but such a beautiful lie that God (like the gods with Theseus) understands that our lie is wanton in the best sense, and “hath a spirit precluding law.” Such a lie allows us to retrieve what has been lost to the underworld. It is the necessary lie of rising from the dead:

just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.

Music is feeling, then, not sound:
And thus it is that what I feel,
here in this room, desiring you.

Thinking of your blue -shadowed silk,
Is music. It is like the strain
Waked in the elders by Susanna.

Helen Vendler made a whole book showing Wallace Stevens was not heatless. Of course he was heartless—all the better, because that meant his liver, and kidneys, and wonderful eyes, and faithfulness (almost) to the tropes of 19th century poetry (the best 19th century American poetry) brought him to a place where only snobbery A and snobbery C mattered. I hope after all these years, I still love Wallace Stevens.

Picture Credit.

Episode 4 now available on YouTube. Wallace Stevens’s poem “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts.”

Life consists of propositions about life.

—Wallace Stevens

I.

A certain esteemed professor requires that those enrolled in his poetry workshop meet with him in his downtown studio apartment, right off Washington Square.

Once inside, the student hands over a few poems and watches the professor–clipboard in one hand, red pen in the other–scrutinize every word of every line of every stanza of each poem.

At the end of the hour, the student will rise from the couch, the professor will rise from his chair, a small ancient French bulldog that has since settled, drooled and snored on either available lap (usually the student’s) will remove himself begrudgingly and resituate his arthritic corporeal freight on the floor, and fall back asleep.  The student receives his or her scarred poems, exits the apartment, takes the elevator downstairs, crosses the courtyard, goes through a stone tunnel, and passes through the tall iron gate onto Waverly Place.

That is, believe me, the easy part.

II.

Upon arrival for the appointment, the student would stand outside the gate.  He or she would locate the correct code and buzz the professor.  A corresponding buzz would sound.  But nothing happened.  The gate, unwavering, would not open.

The student would have, then, three options:

1) Buzz again, knowing that each additional buzz directly corresponded to the professors heightened annoyance level.

2) Wait for a resident of the building to pass through the gate, then sneak in behind them.

3) Run.

3a) Away.

III.

Let me take a moment to reproduce here the beginning of Kafka’s “Before the Law”:

Before the Law stands a doorkeeper.  To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law.  But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment.  The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later.  ‘It is possible,’ says the doorkeeper, ‘but not at the moment.’  Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior.

(Let me interrupt for a moment.  This man trying to gain admittance to the Law has it easy compared to the MFA student trying to gain admittance to Poetry.  The gate to the Law is just standing there wide open!)

Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: ‘If you are so drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto.  But take note: I am powerful.  And I am only the least of the doorkeepers.  From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last.  The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him.’

(Ok, sure.  This guy’s situation looks a little bleaker.  But I’d hedge my bets that no doorkeeper is so terrible that a little monetary persuasion wouldn’t go a long way.)

These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone….

(These were difficulties the MFA student from Virginia had not expected; Poetry Class, I thought, should surely be accessible at the appointed time and to me.)

IV.

I started bringing an accomplice whose function was to ensure that I enter the gate, not remain stuck outside it, crumbling to a ruin of a human being into a pool of my own tears and sweat.

This is how we’d work it:

1) Dressed in inconspicuous clothing, arrive a half hour to an hour before the appointment.

2) Wait for a resident to pass through the gate, going in or going out.

3) Student thrusts a limb between open gate and its jamb.

4) Accomplice waits outside the gate; Student waits inside the gate.

5) At the appropriate time, Accomplice buzzes Professor, impersonating student, if need be.

6) Student waits for signal–the sound of the mechanism buzzing but not unlatching.

7) Student hurries upstairs; Accomplice hurries to nearest bar.

V.  Intermission

The Gate

by Marie Howe

I had no idea that the gate I would step through
to finally enter this world
would be the space my brother’s body made. He was
a little taller than me: a young man
but grown, himself by then,
done at twenty-eight, having folded every sheet,
rinsed every glass he would ever rinse under the cold
and running water.
This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This—holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This, sort of looking around.

VI. Sentimental Ending

Time is marked, I’ve found, by eras in which a certain combination occurs–that class, that job, that boyfriend, that song, that idea, those people, that uptown train, that crosstown bus, that metaphor, that place for coffee in the mornings.  This winter, I’ve been thinking about that winter, the first winter I was finally living and writing in New York, when I felt like I was just outside the life I was trying to make for myself.  That was the winter when, once a week, I’d take the 1 train to the R to 8th Street, where I had an appointment to hear about all the things I was still doing wrong.  That was the winter when I’d meet Accomplice at the gate and we’d just stand there together, waiting.