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Breakthroughs

By Ange Mlinko

If I had to pinpoint the moment when I stopped feeling lonely as a poet, it would have to be the day I picked up Susan Stewart’s Poetry and the Fate of the Senses at the St. Mark’s Bookshop five years or so ago. Perhaps I am reminded of it because, looking back at my previous three posts, I feel an unacknowledged debt to it. Or perhaps because of the unusual flood of sensation that accompanies the change of seasons. The eruption of molars–my son’s—could be part of it. One can’t avoid reflecting on bodies, pain, and intersubjectivity when a baby lifts his grimacing face to you for comfort, and the burden is on you to figure out the trouble when right through the O of his groan you see the startling white gleam breaking on the swollen gums.

ORIGIN late Middle English: from Old French enfant, from Latin infant- “unable to speak”

A blog hardly seems the right venue to discuss a 400-page opus of literary criticism, and I can’t possibly do justice to it as a critic. But as a poet I can offer a kind of memoir of my encounter with it. It was after September 11, 2001. At the time I was living in Morningside Heights, commuting to a job on Wall Street on the local train because the express had been knocked out by the “event” (that was how my husband’s law school friends referred to it). So it was taking me about an hour and a half each way to go to and from work, a job I didn’t particularly like, at a time when trains were being regularly evacuated for “white powder” scares, and the short walk from the subway to my building was thick with the scent of burning debris for months, through Christmas. On the sealed window sill of my cubicle were scraps of paper; the glass itself was filthy with ash.
So it was inevitable that I would respond to a book about poetry whose first chapter is called “In the Darkness…” and whose last is entitled “Afterborn.”
In between was a trove of information about the body and the senses, culled from neurology and psychology, poets, artists, and musicians. In addition to the five senses, Stewart talked about the kinesthetic sense and vertigo; the time sense, and the sense of possession. All the evidence of our senses, as told (and enacted, and fed back) through poetry, shows a history of change, of expansion (but now possibly, through technology and capitalism, a diminuition). Our senses provide some ground of universality; sympathy and understanding derive from our ability to individuate ourselves and others. It’s aesthetics as a ground for ethics, not vice versa.
Around this time, too, I went to a general practitioner who, it turned out, had spent three days at Ground Zero in the aftermath, and explained to me that I was not to feel foolish for being upset although I knew nobody that died. He said we all have a chemical bond with one another, and when that many of us die, our bodies know it. We feel it. Communication occurs at the molecular level.
This doctor was corroborating what Stewart’s book would soon be telling me, chapter by chapter, reading by reading. I wish this could be a review, but it’s just a memoir. Posting is fragmentary, provisional. As A.E. Stallings says here, it’s thinking aloud.
And here I sit, in a fortuitous moment: one child is across the street at preschool, the other is napping. It seems he’s found a respite from his aching mouth. And October steals in on silvery skies, but no rain; the light breaks through; roses are still growing; a slow effacement is at work in the sound of the still-green trees at the cusp of autumn.

Comments (15)

  • On October 1, 2007 at 11:46 pm Vivek Narayanan wrote:

    Thank you for this beautiful memoir. It affects me; you move between sensation and intellect here in a way that I find compelling; I look forward to reading the book. I suppose where all this is taking us is the return of the body that everyone seems to be talking about. But if we are to return to sensation, I’d somehow want to do it taking into consideration the cautions that Christian raises over on the other channel; I do feel troubled by his points as well. There ought to be a way to go to the evidence of the senses without slipping into long-institutionalised “structures of feeling”. The senses, as neuroscience tells us, are far from innocent receptors, they organise the information via templates of selection and narrative at the very instant of the image. What role would a derangement of the senses play? The issue I have with so much contemporary poetry, esp American poetry of the journals, whether it labels itself avant-garde or not- it’s not always easy for me to tell the difference– is that it so often seems to want to reach for variations on a particular kind of emotional resolution, which seems to carry the implicit message, “Everything is a-okay, life is good and more than a little chuckle-worthy, there’s nothing to worry about, life will be exactly the same.” Poetry as a sort of 24-hour epiphany channel or worse, experimental poetry as a kind of bourgeois pastime. If I may, this is also my ambivalence about (only) your very last sentence– or more precisely, the part of that last sentence after the words “no rain”…?

  • On October 2, 2007 at 2:34 am john wrote:

    Your piece here inspired me to want to find the book — and also to read poetry afresh, anew. Thanks.

  • On October 2, 2007 at 3:35 am Alicia (AE) wrote:

    I must get this book! Gads, I’ve spent the past ten years or so translating a poem which is all about the senses as the basis of knowledge… I think I’m going to have to respond with a post!
    You’ll appreciate that the modern Greek for baby is “moron”–the same idea; it can’t speak yet.
    Teething bites.

  • On October 2, 2007 at 12:32 pm Ange wrote:

    Vivek,
    That ending was conceived purely formally, as a way to work in “cusp” (of autumn) — everything depends on that nasty little tooth. I sort of hoped I was cutting against the cliched lyric moment. Not so?
    At least I tried. Which is to say, I know what you mean about our structures of feeling being ossified in these repetitive lyric forms (not forms as in sonnets, but emotional patterns). Endings in particular get wrapped up in a bow. It’s hard to resist, for even great poets do this: I remember a reading John Ashbery gave at MIT in 1997 to a packed auditorium; he warmed up by reading Elizabeth Bishop’s “2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” which is not your garden-variety cathexis; and still the audience breathed a collective “Ah!” at the final line. Ashbery himself who has done so much to undercut the cliches of the lyric poem gives us final cadences in organ-notes too. And speaking of Christian – what about the ending to Eunoia? It leaves us pretty chipper, plus we are flattered by getting the references!
    I think there are *lots* of poets who subvert the usual patterns; they’re not always avant-garde, or at least not in the thick of the scene. I’ll come back to this at some point in a post. I’ll name names!

  • On October 2, 2007 at 2:41 pm john wrote:

    I’m fascinated by the topic of the structures or patterns of feeling, but I don’t share an aversion to the standard. I’m at least as wary of the deliberate avoidance of the standard patterns. Deliberate avoidance of standards has long been a cliche as well.
    I’m a musician, not a poet, so I approach things from a different angle. I don’t know whether this story will be illustrative, but it resonates for me. A couple of years ago I dug my ears into some songs by Stephen Sondheim, and repeatedly got put off by the big, showy endings that said, “Ta-da!” His songs shared a harmonic approach and a verbal/social milieu with those of Bacharach and David, so I checked out the Bacharach/David stuff to see how they managed their endings.
    As I recall, the large majority of their big hits ended with a fade-out. Bacharach and David were making records, not writing for the stage.
    Vivek is right that endings convey Weltgefuhl (the “feeling” analogue of “Weltanschaaung” — worldview), the poet’s “feeling about the world.” Thing is, a lyric doesn’t have to pretend to summarize or universalize. It can be particular and specific. And sometimes I do love those big organ chords and that temporary feeling that all is right with my world, which is not The world.

  • On October 2, 2007 at 8:38 pm Ange wrote:

    I’m so glad you brought this up, John, because later I thought: Well, we live in a culture that for the past, how many decades? has produced thousands and thousands of short songs, variations on just a few simple structures and emotions. So is it any surprise that the audience for poetry replicates this in many ways? And is it really so wrong?
    Because really, I’ve consumed an awful lot of three-minute songs in my life.
    But then I think of this acquaintance in our town — he had a music career (he played on six James Brown records!) and then he burned out on touring I guess, and took to supporting himself playing local gigs. Weddings, etc. And he started to hate music. The repetition of the forms was not pleasurable.
    And in my own experience — I think there must be a scientifically verifiable number of times you can hear a single song before you simply can’t stand it anymore. You can’t get me to sit through a Beatles song, any Beatles song; they’re great songs, I’m told. But I can’t listen to them after a lifetime’s worth of hearing them on the radio, in the supermarket, in the mall, on TV commercials, in movies….
    So with poetry: you read variation after variation of the same elegaic sunset, or the motherhood poem, or the grandmother-dying poem. And then you start singing “Is That All There Is?”

  • On October 2, 2007 at 9:32 pm Don Share wrote:

    I’ve heard Louise Gluck remark that poets feed on poets… and then move on. I suppose there’s a ghoulish accuracy in that observation, no different from noticing the sense in which we are what we eat, despite which and because of which… we keep on eating. Yet surely there are poets (musicians, painters….) whose work we turn and return to, and whose work continually enlightens, surprises, and delights us. Maybe we each have one or two masters in this sense who never fail to teach us, who seldom let us down – or if they do, they let us down usefully. In a way, variation is all we have, nothing new being under the sun… Our appetites for novelty arguably lead us (and I know this isn’t what Ange is either saying or advocating) to over-consumption, which exhausts ourselves and eventually parts of our own environment; and lack of patience leads us to cursory patterns of thought. For me there’s a real activism in the sort of contemplation I’m devilishly advocating, so I’m not getting at anything merely bookish. (One aspect of this is never to write anyone off.) Some things are endlessly revealing, and when you receive revelation, you have to go and do something with it. More, maybe, to the point, if a poetic structure is or seems worn down, that’s the fault of the practitioners, not the form. I’m not saying “formal” is better than “not-formal” at all, just that you can’t blame structure for its bad incarnations. And the best practitioners are never completely predictable… I’ll stop before I become predictable!

  • On October 2, 2007 at 10:22 pm Emily Warn wrote:

    Ange,
    Now, thanks to Ashbery and the avant-garde, we can read variation after variation of an anti-lyric that resists closure and lacks all affect. (Googling “Is That All There Is?” brought me to a website offering free Peggy Lee ringtones. No wonder no one reads poetry.)
    But I’d wanted to chime in earlier to say your lovely story about encountering Susan Stewart’s book might never have been written if you’d chosen the “right” venue “to discuss a 400-page opus of literary criticism.” At the moment, I’ll take the debate in the blogosphere over standard lit crit.
    Also, if you haven’t read Susan Stewart’s poetry collection Columbarium, it moves beautifully, as Vivek Vivek Narayanan said of your post, “between sensation and intellect.” I especially like her long abecedarian of “shadow georgics.”
    Emily

  • On October 3, 2007 at 12:08 am john wrote:

    Ange,
    Fascinating — though sad! — story of the burned-out musician, and though I love many Beatlesongs, I won’t try to talk you out of your sick-of-them-ness.
    “Is that all there is?” was Leiber & Stoller’s only popularly successful attempt to write an arty song, after having gotten rich writing rhythm & blues and rock and roll hits for the Coasters (“Charlie Brown,” a dozen others) and Elvis (“Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock”). So I dig the richness of your allusion. They were sick of it!
    I think Don rang the bell: The too-many-grandmas-and-sunsets-feeling you’ve gotten is not the fault of the organ-chord ending-style, but because the various grandmas and sunsets are not imagined specifically, particularly, uniquely enough. As Barthes knew with his “I like / I don’t like” — we’re all specific, and our grandmas are too — and not only that — but if we really listen, our organ-chord endings — our feelings about our grandmas and our sunsets — are unique and specific too. Uniquely and specifically ambivalent, really; and too many grandma-poems elide the ambivalence. Which is a hallmark of Hallmarkery.
    David Antin’s career rings my bells on these issues. His first book of talk-poems, he keeps that hard, modernist, anti-sentimental stance; and he even talks about the big organ-chord ending at the end of one poem, and says how he could do it if wanted but he doesn’t and he won’t.
    By his 3rd book of talk-poems, “what it means to be avant-garde,” he no longer avoids the sentimental, and even writes/talks about grandmas, and when he pulls off those elegiac endings, it’s thrilling and gorgeous.
    To get back to Bacharach and David — that fade-out business, that’s really something. It’s specifically designed to *lose* the audience’s attention. Is there anything like it in any other art?
    “The song is over but we don’t want to call attention to its conclusion and we’re just going to fade away, fade away, fade away, fade away, fade a . . . . . . . . ”

  • On October 3, 2007 at 8:10 am Anonymous wrote:

    I never thought about the fade-out that way! Obviously, someone had to have invented it. Thanks for that!
    Emily, I totally agree about Columbarium. (I have all of her books.) Labels and programs are petty in light of a poet like her. In fact, the great unspoken thing in my post is: after reading Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, I stopped worrying about the avant-garde. (There. I said it.) And there’s also Ashbery’s Other Traditions, (Don, we’ve mentioned this before) to gently steer one away from categories and toward, well, love. Love of other poets’ minds.

  • On October 3, 2007 at 8:18 am Anonymous wrote:

    Enjoyed the post and comments, especially the phrase: “Communication occurs at the molecular level.” It reminds me of a poet/friend/mentor who, when telling me why he didn’t like (or stopped liking) this or that particular poet I did like, would say, matter-of-factly, “it’s chemical” And would go on to say that he was careful to never dissuade someone (especially a younger poet) from reading this or that poet because he understood that as readers, we all bring something uniquely our own to a body of work. My gripe is when people (in “both camps”) summarliy dismiss those who don’t share their tastes (“You like HER work?!”)
    “Communication occurs at the molecular level” also richly evokes how the pleasure I gain from poetry is often visceral and not wrapped up in “meaning”. So that a poem I enjoy, whether it be a passage of _My Life_ by Lyn Hejinian or _History of My Heart_ by Robert Pinksy (yes, I can imagaine some rolling their eyes here) might be doing something with language that causes me to react in a bodily way.
    As for David Antin, I had the immense pleasure of hearing him perform, as well as have lunch with him (when he visited Notre Dame a few years ago) and hear him at length on his ideas about poetry. I loved what I heard, and yet detected in him a certain impatience with poets who, for him, were just too “bland”. Is it possible that some people (with prodigious memories and prodigious reading habits) might just tire of certain poets more quickly than those of us less voracious?
    But yes, I can certainly empathize with the sensation of growing tired with a certain type of poem after reading it over and over. I’ve had this happen with poets whose early work I adore, only to tire if they seem to be repeating themselves book after book. The poet Alice Quinn likes to solicit work from is one example. A poet I studied with at UC Berkeley is another. And yet I always teach these two poets because I remember the sensation of discovering their work twently years ago, and making me want to persue the art. At the same time, it is exciting to discover new voices doing work that seems “newer”.

  • On October 3, 2007 at 9:00 am Vivek Narayanan wrote:

    Ange,
    Point and examples taken! I was thinking about some of Ashbery too, much as I like him, and in a way about what Ashbery and William Stafford might be said to have in common. And your great review in the mag does preempt what I said.
    One thing though, (to John as well) when I was talking about resolution, I wasn’t really thinking about cadence– whether to end on a bang or a whisper. Personally, I like both, and the face of *today’s* poetry cliches, as Emily notes, I’d probably prefer ending tightly on a bang, or even on an unholy mess of an explosion. If I may trade in reductionist stereotypes for a split-second, we like our melodrama here on the subcontinent.
    But I was thinking more about the moral resolution, if one could separate the two, the sense that “all is well”. For some reason, not very helpfully, I can at this moment only think examples in lines, not even endings, from Bob Marley songs, but if one could lay aside the question of how they are sung, one kind of moral resolution might be: “everything’s gonna be alright” and another, “many more will have to suffer, many more will have to die–don’t ask me why”. The former kind of moral resolution (in contemporary poetry) often tries to comfort with an appeal to timelessness, the cycle of the seasons, the endurance of nature, the calm of letting go, the little sprigs of hope–usually understated, not too melodramatic, because that would constitute a risk that might cause a little bit of tut-tutting at the workshop meet. Somehow, one leaves these kinds of poems untroubled or, at most, feeling “a little pain”. The endings seem to reinforce a trust in the status quo.
    I’m not saying this is universally true, of course– things go up or down over the course of a collection of poems, and sometimes a nagging tooth lingers on as a hidden memory. And I’m not saying that there are not many American poets who are able to leave the reader disquieted, or unquiet as opposed to heartwarmed on a moral level. Your review points to a few poets, three at least, including Rae Armantrout who you specifically talk about in the context of epiphanies and resolutions, who in different ways are determined to avoid this. I was referring to a certain kind of generic moral resolution, the kind that makes my eyes glaze over, that one came across in the workshop and that one continues to find time and time again in many a print or online journal, mainstream or super-avant garde, including some of the very best and most famous. And I cant shake the feeling that this particular kind of moral-emotional resolution– the gently understated mild epiphany, is a particularly American mode of reassurance. (Even some flarf, which ends up doing the same, but throws in some condescending stoner chuckles for good measure.) There would be many, many exceptions of course.
    Oh, and I was embarrassed to find that the term “structures of feeling” had slipped into the bloodstream of my language from Raymond Williams, and that I had misused it slightly. What to do.

  • On October 4, 2007 at 5:12 pm Matt Cozart wrote:

    “You can’t get me to sit through a Beatles song, any Beatles song; they’re great songs, I’m told. But I can’t listen to them after a lifetime’s worth of hearing them on the radio, in the supermarket, in the mall, on TV commercials, in movies….”
    Not to seize on a small beside-the-point detail, but I just want to point out that most Beatles songs you hear on the radio are just the hits. Kind of like how an anthology of selected poems gives you just the tip of the iceberg lettuce. Once you sit down with the albums and listen to them from beginning to end, with headphones, paying close attention to everything you hear as if you’re hearing it for the first time, then you might begin to see the genius. But I don’t know, maybe you have to grow up with it as a teenager, like I did (in the 90’s).
    I know what you mean about getting tired of the same old formulas, and I love atonal, formless music, but I’d hate it if that was the only kind of music there was. I guess poetry is kind of the same way. The weird experimental poetry I love probably wouldn’t have the same appeal if I didn’t have anything to contrast it with.
    And anyway, occasionally there are moments when you have a pattern of thought that culminates in some kind of definite stopping place, not necessarily an “epiphany,” but just some kind of “oomph…there… done” moment. And Ashbery doesn’t want to exclude any type of thought process (which is also why he embraces cliches), which is why he sometimes ends poems with a cadence kind of thing. (I think he even makes fun of it at the end of “My Philosophy of Life”: “Now I want you to go out there / and enjoy yourself, and yes, enjoy your philosophy of life, too. / They don’t come along every day. Look out! There’s a big one…”).

  • On October 5, 2007 at 9:52 am Ange wrote:

    Matt, when you grow up in a “classic rock” town like Philadelphia, you hear Beatles albums front to back on the radio every Sunday of your life! Honestly. No offense. I can hardly even hear Bob Dylan anymore, either —
    Vivek, I am truly the last person to seek clarification on the American penchant for tidy feelgood endings. Well, one of the last. This actually might be a good topic for Rigoberto’s post on Susan Meyers (last Wednesday’s shout-out). While I like some of the poems he points to on his shout-outs, this one seemed to embody the vice you speak of. He might have an interesting rebuttal.
    Glad you liked the review in the mag. But you’re really one of the few commenters I’ve come across who seem tired or impatient with the standard American epiphany poem.

  • On October 6, 2007 at 12:58 am john wrote:

    Maybe I’m not sick of the standard American epiphany poem because I don’t read much of that type; and it seems that organ chords are the wrong musical analogy for what you speak of — the poems I’m thinking you’re alluding to are more quasi-conversational (as NPR is conversational; namely, middle-class stilted), and things get softer for the epiphany, softer and stiller, and the epiphanies are accompanied by a triangle ting.
    There’s nothing wrong with a triangle ting. A triangle ting can be a lovely thing.
    The real organ-chord epiphanizers — I’m thinking of Robert Duncan and Ronald Johnson — I love them. And their epiphanies. And their organ chords.
    And as for the standard American epiphany — well, I wouldn’t mind experiencing one.
    Look — there she goes — the Goddess!
    (Sorry. Epiphany is a funny word, that’s all. The Goddess ducked into a magazine stand, and the cigarette butts of the gutters sparkled in the brief afterglow of her fleeting presence.)
    (Sorry.)
    (Donald Barthelme’s story “The King of Jazz” is the funniest satire of music-crit I’ve ever read, and it has one unforgettable gem of a phrase: As jazz hounds try to top each other in their descriptions of a fictional trombonist’s playing, one says, “it has that epiphanic glow.” Satirical or not, I love that.)


Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, October 1st, 2007 by Ange Mlinko.