Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Poetry is...

By Poet Stephen Brockwell

I hesitate to start with definitions, but it’s fair that you understand what I mean when I talk about poems, poets, and poetics. Many take these terms for granted, but the residual math student in my brain can’t resist searching for useful, stab-in-the-dark definitions of these terms. For the sake of inclusiveness (which will be of value later), I think of a poem as a gathering of gestures that a spectator (visual) or audience (auditory) – reader, viewer, listener – experiences as “poetic.” The Greek root of the word poesis suggests making or creating, but I prefer the implied reciprocity of gathering. A poem is never simply made up, never created from nothing; it is always assembled, put together from parts. This is, of course, true at many levels – the simplest, sound and word, are the subjects of this session; the increasingly elaborate gatherings, and gatherings of gatherings, we’ll think about later: line, sentence, utterance, trope, form, poem.

But let’s return to the gestures. I’ve said that I want to be inclusive – I want to include visual poetry, dance, painting, architecture. It may seem too inclusive to use the word gesture for the raw material of poems. But I don’t believe it would be wise to draw sharp distinctions at this point. Do we want to demand, for example, that a tone poem should simply be called a symphony? Do we want to insist that the calligraphic script of traditional haiku serves only as ornament? Do we want to draw a fixed boundary between poetry and song, and thus excise medieval ballads and Shakespeare’s songs from our repertoire of poems? I don’t think we learn much by drawing such boundaries without first thinking about what might be lost if we do.

A gathering of gestures is poetic if it holds certain aesthetic properties that would be absent if the gestures were gathered differently, or if they were presented by themselves. Let me point out that this notion of a poem hearkens back to Aristotle’s definition of tragedy. In The Poetics, Aristotle defined tragedy as an imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude. Some might say that a work of art is poetic if it is whole, indivisible, and integral, or that it should be open, ambiguous, and inventive. The important point is this: the pleasure in a gathering of gestures depends on the spectator or audience. Poetry is ultimately subjective – no single human can authoritatively pass unequivocal judgments on a poem or a body of work. Besides, passing judgment is not the poet’s primary function; passing judgment is a secondary function as the poem’s first reader.

Poetics is the articulation of particular arts of gathering gestures. I like the sound of that, but I think it’s insufficient. It invites the lurking difficulty in this terminological exercise. What’s art?

I think of the poet as nothing but the poem’s first listener or reader, the person who for the first time takes up the gathering, beholds it, re-gathers it and takes it up again.

Poetry begins in the body as sound. The abdomen, diaphragm and lungs propel the breath; the larynx and vocal chords vibrate; the pharynx, oral, and nasal cavities resonate; the lips, tongue and palate articulate – wind, string and percussion in a single blood-and-bone box. Our subtle and elastic vocal apparatus is capable of a greater diversity of sound than any other acoustic instrument that I can think of (if you think of an acoustic instrument that can produce a wider diversity of sounds than the mouth in full flight, tell me). We have taught, or been taught by, our bones, tendons, cartilage, muscles, nerves and neurons to distinguish between ah and eh?, bah! and be, and to make art from such distinctions and their playful variations. The private reader who rides a bus, book-in-lap, whose swinging irises signal their immersion in a text, partakes of the sound of poetry even in silence. I would leave it to a neurologist to prove the following intuition: the act of reading stimulates the same parts of the nervous system that produce and recognize speech.

The first act that fastened sound to a thing, an action or a state of mind is almost certainly lost to us, which is too bad because it was the first mighty good poem. It's easy enough to think of the obvious: a cry of pain or pleasure becomes a sign for pain or pleasure; a … The fundamentals of an interesting poem would have found expression in the first utterances (if there was a big bang of language) – stimulating, memorable, contagiously repeatable sound, a mind-grabbing trope, speech: a poem.

Visual representation of sound ... think of the pictographic quality of hieroglyphics and oriental characters.

Tangible versus intelligible: a dog finds dirt tangible because it can put it in its mouth; it cannot make dirt intelligible. Is language necessary for intelligibility?

At the atomic level of sound, a poet needs to walk with his tongue in stop-motion through the spaces between one sound and another, between vowels in a diphthong, between the consonants in “diphthong”, and between syllables in a word. See Fenolossa on time and transitive verbs. See Ormsby on "Poetry as Isotope."

A poet is the kind of person who will, in the course of an hour or two, hunt for the longest, richest single syllable for the pure pleasure of feeling the sound in the mouth in the same way that a baby squishes applesauce in its fingers: blenched, droughts, fraught, strains, stretched, straights, strengths. A poet – and a decent reader of poetry – must enjoy the sound and taste of these words. Let me clarify what I mean by the taste of a word: I mean its mouth-feel, its physical presence in the mouth, its effect on the tongue over the only apparently brief moment of its existence between other words.

Word as act; word as thing. Certain words seem to resemble what they signify. The word stretch, for example, takes a long time to say. I've heard that the Dutch word for stretch has the same properties. Plato's dialog Cratylus concerns this topic. Cratylus believes that words were once much closer to things in themselves. Hermogenes believes that words are nothing but conventional associations between sounds and things that are established by agreement. I'm of the opinion that many poets are willful cratylists - they want to believe that poems invoke directly what they refer to. Some do; I have no doubt about it. By the way, this goes well beyond simple onomatopoeia. See Genette on Valery (and Cratylus).

Even if poets must accept the conventional nature of language, I think they do so grudgingly. A good poet compresses the distance between signifier and signified to a point, a white dwarf star that shines, out of view, like the phosphorus at the bottom of the sea in A. M. Klein's “Portrait of the Poet as Landscape.”

Things to consider for the workshop:

Carefully choose a single syllable word that you find particularly beautiful, ugly, sonorous or discordant. Describe the physical properties of the word in clear and simple language. Write a brief critique of the word; explain why you find the word heavy, light, gorgeous or gaudy.

Bp Nichol's “Drum and a Wheel” depends for its effect on an asymmetrical moving frame. Pick a simple phrase and put it through a similar procedure.

Think about Rimbaud's “Voyelles”. Pick a few of your favorite consonants and write a few lines for each.

bp Nichol's "Cycle #22"
Peter Van Toorn's translation of Rimbaud's Voyelles
Rimbaud's Voyelles
Eric Ormsby's essay "Poetry as Isotope"
Ernest Fenolossa "The Chinese Character as a Medium for Poetry"
Gerard Genette's "Valery and the Poetics of Language"
Louis Zukofsky's "Peri Poietikes"
George Johnston's "Shadowy"

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