Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence



The making of poems does not a poet make; there is more to it than that, though what is hard to say. Something sets the poet apart from other creative artists, something ideally recognized as deserving of special consideration even by the philosoper-king of yore. But what in an ancient mode was both misdirection and too close an approach to logos has become in the modern view an investment of self in its projection, not merely of voice or of the linguistic matrix fashioned by the poet, but of some spiritual relict as well. What had been ascribed to some daemon now has biographical consequence; inspiration is drawn not from without, but from somewhere within. The poem retains its creator in imago, as the poet is seen to be composed largely of words.

Something of these words does make the poet, or the writer more generally. It calls for a different reading of Euripides' Heracles, as used as epigraph to Flann O'Brien's At Swim Two Birds:
existatai gar pant' ap' allêlôn dicha
Usually rendered as for all things change, making way for each other, it is literally [bringing into being/setting apart] is surely in every [way/case] a mutual sundering, but containing the sense as the maker makes the made, so the making makes the maker (not without application at its source, as Amphitryon precedes these words with "So calm yourself, and wipe those tears from your children's eyes, and soothe them with soft words, inventing a tale to delude them, piteous though such fraud be"; FO'B's application is clearer, though it should be noted he made late gestures to distance himself from his early novels). And so words come back to haunt.

Relative to other arts, particular opprobrium is reserved for the versifier who falls short of the standard, not just for want of craft (poetaster has overtones of patzer, chess slang from German patzen, to bungle) but also as poseur. (Ern Malley's backstory was the most critical invention of the hoax.) Nonetheless, accomplished poets interpose between themselves and their audience a constructed persona, as a kind of reverse imprint of the poems. This supposed life story colors how the poetry is received, how the poet is read in full. The popular conception of the poet still carries some sentimental residue as the last redoubt of the romantic or as saintly confessional.

Yet the purity of the poetic form may compare to that of the most impersonal of expositions, the mathematical proof. There is no room for anything extraneous or out of place; it is a distillation of thought, precise and rigorous. But the coherence is not broken down into component parts, in localized exposition, and definitions, lemmas and corollaries remain implicit. (I tried to approximate this in my peninaugural post, but my approach to poetry may be that of several blind fakirs to an elephant.) Beyond formal considerations, beyond elemental and grammatical constructs, it is the logic itself (broadly conceived) that bears a personal stamp. It is how one learns to read the poet beyond the poems.

All this came into play in reading The Collected Prose of Elizabeth Bishop. I've been reading poets' prose efforts to gain a different perspective, additional information beyond the scope of the poems themselves. Bishop blurs the line between memoir and short story -- while ostentibly split in two parts, the latter shades back into the former in the end (though the strong "In the Village" is ambiguous in this regard). There are only a handful of stories as such, of which only "The Sea and Its Shore" stood out, the rest being infested by a Hawthornean tinge (that's right, I'm no fan, though I'll concede some excellence on his part; ymmv). Of the memoirs, "Efforts of Affection: A Memoir of Marianne Moore" was the most interesting (its subject's approach to a baby elephant, scissors in hand, worth remarking) and put MM's poetry back on the burner for me. But, throughout, Bishop's prose functions smoothly, single paragraphs encapsulating as much as they can hold, seamlessly folded in to the larger work.

Bishop was a perfectionist. The dust-up between Vendler and Quinn over the latter's editing of what fell short of completion or publication embodied a conflict between canonical and biographical, between the finished object (and subject) and the artistic process. To me, the interest in the object, after it is determined to be worth attending to, is weighted more towards how it is made (and literature is the most self-reflexive of modes). That its maker didn't think it reflected well on her doesn't deter, merely qualifies. I found in Bishop's poetry-in-progress better insight than any of the stained-glass memoirs could provide -- particularly as regards her aesthetic judgment (and my own -- I think "Verdigris" a more interesting villanelle than "One Art", precisely because of the complexity that NYer editors complained of). But the interest was based first on her established corpus.

Other readings:

André Schwarz-Bart, The Last of the Just: What led to Auschwitz began long before. (précis; what it's doing among WSJ's espionage selection I don't know.) After a millenium of being outcasts within nations, is it any wonder that Israel is sensitized to being an outcast among them?

John Banville, Doctor Copernicus: Not quite up to the standard of Kepler; despite fine writing (and ambitious ideas behind it), this orrery creaks and shudders: A perspective shift in Part III (3rd rock and all that) jars, overworking the storyline to mimic publication history. For all that, reimagining the life and times of Nicolas Copernicus was time well spent.

Marcel Bénabou, To Write on Tamara: Coming of age, tragic first love, rerevisited (in time, in prior art). A bit precious, but that's the point, but still ... (précis)


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