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So Little Depends upon a Little Red Rooster!

By Don Share

140px-Rooster_portrait2.jpg

Image courtesy of Muhammad Mahdi Karim, www.micro2macro.net


Should poets write poems that describe things (like, say, this silly-looking rooster) … or not?


Poetry contributor Seth Abramson recently remarked on his blog “The Suburban Ecstasies” that
Traditional (i.e. fully-determined, fully-resolved, fully-bordered) narratives have been regarded [...] as being inherently more emotional (let us even say weighty, given Jason Guriel’s adjectival stylings, [in his notorious March 2009 Poetry essay]) than non-traditional narrative. The irony in this–in the continued near-religious belief, in short, in the adjective–is that, whatever Jason may personally feel, many poetry readers are not particularly invested in hearing the sound a rooster makes described in the thousandth way it has ever been described (never the same description twice, mind you). I just can’t attach any great emotion to a general movement I’ve seen over and over again in poetry, whether or not I’ve been specifically told in the past that a rooster’s “dark, corroded croak” is like “a grudging nail tugged out of stubborn wood” (Eric Ormsby). That’s beautiful–but is it truly powerful enough to overwrite all those intimate, hard-won, highly-personalized, highly-experiential associations I already have with the words “rooster” and “nail” and “wood”?
Annie and others have been talking about meter on recent Harriet threads… I thought it’d be a good time to bring up subject matter and raise questions about connotation and denotation in poetry.
Over to you guys!

Comments (52)

  • On March 18, 2009 at 1:26 pm james wrote:

    if that rooster is one of the reasons a poet hasn’t killed himself (that is, if a given subject is a constituent part of his formulation of a logic of poetics), then he has to write about it.

  • On March 18, 2009 at 1:54 pm thomas brady wrote:

    “Silly-looking”?????
    Speak for yourself, sir.
    That’s a damn handsome bird.
    Do you see the problem here?
    Involved description is pointless in a poem.
    I have always FELT this to be true.
    Thank you, Don, for I believe I now understand WHY it is so.
    If two CANNOT agree whether a rooster is ‘handsome’ or ‘silly-looking’ when confronted with a DETAILED PICTURE of the animal itself, surely it must be obvious that infinite room for error exists when a poet takes it upon himself to surround an object with speech.
    When eyes disagree, we can be sure that imagination will reach agreement IN NAME only.

  • On March 18, 2009 at 3:31 pm Aaron Fagan wrote:

    Let’s assume that a painter represented THE expression of blissful joy—and I see the picture and say “Maybe she’s pretending.” —Ludwig Wittgenstein

  • On March 18, 2009 at 3:36 pm Don Share wrote:

    Well, I might as well confess that my favorite rooster in a poem looks NOTHING like the one you see in the photo – it’s the blue Andalusian rooster in Frank Stanford’s amazing poem, “The Snake Doctors” (click here). That one’ll change the way you describe good-lookin’ birds!

  • On March 18, 2009 at 3:39 pm Paul Squires wrote:

    I have noticed a very positive change in Harriet over the last month or so. It seems to have become reconnected to poetry and life. The writing is far more readable, the subject matter much more relevant. It is a great relief and hopefully Harriet will become the vital force in contemporary poetry that it could be and should be.

  • On March 18, 2009 at 3:56 pm Aaron Fagan wrote:

    Speaking of cocks, one must not forget Mr. Lawrence’s poem “The Man Who Died.”

  • On March 18, 2009 at 4:25 pm Aaron Fagan wrote:

    “The Man Who Died” is story not a poem by the way. I wrote that wrong. But in keeping with the Stanford poem, Lawrence did write “The Snake.”

  • On March 18, 2009 at 4:33 pm james wrote:

    speaking of ‘the snake doctors.’ stanford’s speaking my language. my mom used to run a kitchen in a bowling alley, and once she had to fire a kid for calling her a peckerwood. didn’t someone call someone else a peckerwood in IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT?
    great poem!
    speaking of cocks–clifford geertz’s ‘deep play: notes on the balinese cockfight’ is some of the most amazing interpretive anthropology this side of loren eiseley; there’s a whole section devoted to how to place bets for a balinese cockfight. (note: the essay is in his book, THE INTERPRETATION OF CULTURES.)
    also, here’re a couple related couplets from a poem called ‘fiat justitia’:
    ‘the only thing worth keeping of today’s
    what’s the same as yesterday
    the rooster’s desperate crow
    brother choking on old crow’
    thanks very much, don

  • On March 18, 2009 at 6:05 pm Benjamin Glass wrote:

    Wouldn’t Roethke argue that using highly personal and evocative words like “nail,” “rooster,” and “wood,” actually lends to the poem’s strength–not with the purpose of over-writing previously intimate words, but with the purpose of bringing those intimate, personal words to over-write the poem itself?

  • On March 18, 2009 at 6:22 pm Joseph Hutchison wrote:

    I infer from Seth’s comments that when, in writing a poem, he feels moved to describe something, he first races to a shelf full of anthologies to verify that nobody has described it before; if someone has, he stubs out the descriptive impulse like a half-smoked cigarette and moves on to … what, exactly? Non-intimate, easily-won, highly-impersonal, non-experiential abstractions? Or am I simply missing his point? In any case, it seems to me that “subject matter” involves “matter”: the material world and descriptions of it. Personally, I’m glad that Pound didn’t rip up “In a Station of the Metro” while thinking, “Damn! Petals again! Who needs ‘em?” I’m also grateful that Frost didn’t sit in his horse-drawn wagon, staring into some snowy woods, and shrug off the poem tugging so insistently at his sleeve.

  • On March 18, 2009 at 7:06 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Effective & precise description of ordinary things in poetry is usually just one half of a metaphorical see-saw. In this way description becomes doubly effective : as a concrete representation of something else. Real things are rifled into intellectual meaning.
    This is the same way plain people use metaphor in everyday life. “I’m an ol’ dog, and I ain’t gonna bark up no tree lessen I know how many squirrels is up there.”
    Illustration : see any page in Dante’s long poem.
    So I understand Seth’s complaint. (Where’s the beef? What’s the plot? What’s the point? Why not just bring a camera?)
    Imagism in poetry is a kind of description without this symbolic parallelism. That’s why they have to keep it really short if it’s going to work. Even haiku usually has a psychological or narrative subtext.

  • On March 18, 2009 at 8:15 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    Hear, hear for Clifford Geertz!
    And let’s not forget Bishop’s “Roosters”:
    . . . the roosters brace their cruel feet and glare
    with stupid eyes
    while from their beaks there rise
    the uncontrolled, traditional cries . . .

  • On March 18, 2009 at 8:25 pm Zachariah Wells wrote:

    Writing is description.

  • On March 18, 2009 at 9:20 pm Don Share wrote:

    Nobody forgot Bishop’s “Roosters” – it’s linked in my original post above!! Just click on the word “rooster” for the text of the full poem.

  • On March 18, 2009 at 10:07 pm michael robbins wrote:

    I read Seth’s post, & was reminded of Joshua Corey’s equally inane musings re fiction. Both poets, in different ways, get the form-content relation backwards. It’s how x is described that matters, not x, & if the how doesn’t override yr “highly-experiential associations” (or what less verklempt folk refer to as “connotations”), there’s something wrong either with the how or with the highly. I don’t happen to be terribly interested in armies or window blinds, but when Christopher Logue writes,
    Think of a raked sky-wide Venetian blind.
    Add the receding traction of its slats
    Of its slats of its slats as a hand draws it up.
    Hear the Greek army getting to its feet.
    – all my associations are in permanent override. Description: who needs it, I know, right, the world’s been so perfectly described already. Bah.

  • On March 18, 2009 at 10:10 pm michael robbins wrote:

    P.S. Don, you keep everything in the barnyard upset in every way!

  • On March 19, 2009 at 2:57 am Seth Abramson wrote:

    Michael,
    I’m not sure you caught my drift.
    I’m not personally interested in or invested in poetry concerned only with signs (LangPo), or referents (Imagism), or signifiers (the contemporary lyric)–I’m wondering, as many poets have wondered for quite a long time now, at least since before WWI (e.g. Apollinaire), what poetry can do to frustrate the relationships between these three elements of semiotics.
    Writing is manifestly not equatable to “description”–not if one understands what the word “description” means, how narrow a concept that is. Indeed it is a narrow view of poetry that says its function is merely to reinforce (or just “spice up”) the reader’s pre-existing associations and worldviews; my frustration with that mode of thinking is what causes me such surprise that my comment should have been taken to mean the exact opposite of what I intended. I don’t know where in [the entirety of] what I said one reads a sort of “world-weary” attitude–a kind of “yes, yes, nothing new can be said about petals” stance–rather than a more fundamental and quite different complaint, which is that nothing new can be said about petals if the manner of speech (the method, not the content) is the same as it always has been since the epic poems of the Romans.
    For all that Jason Guriel presumes a strong metaphor always causes the reader to see something in a new way, sorry, no, it at base does not and does not intend to: the metaphor, definitionally a rhetorical device, is intended to reify “your world but better,” or “your world in different terms,” or “the room you were born in with new curtains.” Metaphors work because we find them relatable, whether consciously or viscerally. They are–by definition–comparatives, ones whose core rhetorical underpinning is only persuasive to the extent a comparison has been fairly actualized. Those who believe writing is more than mere description take their cue instead from the premise that writing allows us new modes of thinking, not just new descriptive fireworks–new ways of saying.
    When I asked whether the thousandth metaphor for a rooster can actually up-end my own associations with roosters, my point was that it can’t because it doesn’t seek to, it’s not invested in that more difficult work. It seeks instead to buff to a high sheen the patina of beauty I’ve delusionally put on my own life, some romanticized and fundamentally untrue/disingenuous notion I have about how referents and signifiers interact. It’s bollocks–much of our experience of the world is one of disconnectedness, of not knowing where to “put” referents in our psyche or anywhere else for that matter. Sometimes the world is unsafe, and metaphors are rarely if ever so because (again by definition) they are striving to make connections that will, on some level, comfort us. I too wish to be comforted, and need it; I approve of how metaphors speak to my own middle-class yearning for a sense of well-being (which I say non-facetiously; I am and always will be middle-class); yet what comforts me more, and many others besides, is the sort of metonymic thinking which allows–importantly, through decontextualization, not contextualization–the referents of my world to be defamiliarized in a way that empowers rather than alienates me. For me, the notion of a universal implied narrative moves toward this end.
    To me, sign-fetishistic poetry goes too far, one reason I’m more a structuralist than a poststructuralist: to focus on signs only is to accept defeat, to say that the contemporary world is not just alienating, but (importantly) irretrievably broken–as signs are permanently imperfect fixtures in human life/language, and to point it out again and again becomes tautological–whereas “merely” metaphoric writing lacks (to my eye and ear) courage.
    I don’t say others need agree with me, as I think everyone comes to poetry for their own reasons, but the fact is that some do agree with me. And this isn’t a new view, it’s 100+ years old at an absolute minimum. So for Jason Guriel to write a review which gives the back of his hand to the thousands and thousands of poetry-readers of my own inclination is justly upsetting to me, and need hardly be the cause of (or occasion for) reactionary rhetoric in response. The metaphor hardly needs a vigorous defense, it’s an abiding structure. Which is precisely the point: Guriel is acting as White Knight for, in effect, a conquistador–when perhaps he should be asking instead whether under the heap of bodies [of thought] the metaphor has left behind is something of great value indeed. Arrogance in defeat is eccentric, arrogance in victory inexcusable.
    S.

  • On March 19, 2009 at 3:34 am Seth Abramson wrote:

    P.S. This is what I get for writing notes late at night: I meant to say referents, signifiers, and the signified. I talked myself into a tangle. I should also have mentioned Barthes (but how lexias can lead to a singularity rather than pluralities) and the French Symbolist painters etcetera etcetera. It’s all above my head at the moment, frankly, but I’m working on it. And probably I ought to have said something derogatory about Derrida, like the fact that while there may not be symbols with an unchanging and universal significance, to allow this to derail an analysis of how language works (or is working in a particular poem) as to the audience for whom that poem is/was intended is to fetishize the study of signifiers to the point of throwing the baby (the audience) out with the bathwater. And then something about Joseph Campbell. Anyway–the point is, as Pres. Obama said recently, the perfect must not be the enemy of the necessary.
    S.

  • On March 19, 2009 at 7:51 am thomas brady wrote:

    Aw, hell.
    No one can describe a rooster.
    If I want a rooster described, I’ll call on Mr. John James Audubon, not Mr. John Keats.
    Don,
    funny, that Stanford poem is all action; if you took away its action there’d be no description at all.
    Not that a verb’s invisible.
    It’s just that, as readers of poetry, we have to accept ‘it happened.’
    We never have to accept ‘it.’

  • On March 19, 2009 at 9:00 am Zachariah Wells wrote:

    There are no narrow concepts. If there were, description certainly would not be among ‘em, as it is by nature circumferential.

  • On March 19, 2009 at 9:42 am Don Share wrote:

    Thomas, agh, but “blue Andalusian rooster” is plain description, and I’d argue that the poem would die without that one phrase.

  • On March 19, 2009 at 9:46 am Matt wrote:

    I have noticed a very negative change in Harriet over the last month or so. It seems to have become reconnected to poetry and life. The writing is far more readable, the subject matter much more relevant. It is a great disappointment and hopefully Harriet will not become the vital force in contemporary poetry that it could be and should not be.

  • On March 19, 2009 at 9:49 am Don Share wrote:

    Meanwhile, look at what prose-writers do with roosters. This is from Chicago’s own Maude Hutchins’ novel, Victorine; after getting tipsy on communion wine in church, our narrator stumbles upon a hen and rooster mating (top the simile herein, poetry-writing smarty-pantses!):
    “Poor Victorine, it looked as if her whole Sunday was used up preparing her for a sexual act and it had taken place in the barnyard, played by very minor stage-hands. Well, the greedy ardor and the final mounting disgust can sure be described as merely physical like too much lobster, and no harm has been done by the extraneous to her soul. A good and dreamless sleep in which she plays no part at all, the sleep of the young and the good and the exhausted, will purify her heart and give her strength for other daylight nightmares – the big exaggeration of real life that does seem to the very young like a king-sized, out-of-drawing and hypnagogic bad dream, as if the lenses in their eyes were borrowed from colts and fillies, and the very size of the extravaganza, the enormity of it, implied hostility.”

  • On March 19, 2009 at 10:07 am Bill Knott wrote:

    i agree with what Michael Robbins says above . . .
    isn’t it the artist’s task, per Shklovsky, to make the rooster roostery?

  • On March 19, 2009 at 11:38 am LH wrote:

    Joseph, Bill, Henry, Bill, Thomas, Henry, Thomas, Bill, Michael, Michael, Annie
    oh, Annie!
    Bill, Thomas, Thomas, Thomas….

  • On March 19, 2009 at 1:49 pm michael robbins wrote:

    Seth, that clears some things up but gets my position backwards: clearly what you call “sign-fetishistic” systems are concerned to undermine referentiality, at least in the sense I intend. De Man goes so far as to speak of the absolute random nature of language as meaning-making. I am, rather, interested in the way signs describe things, not how they fail to do so. That is to say, when I say I am not interested in the rooster, I mean I am more interested in what the adequacy or newness of description tells me about language’s relation to the world, about how language can illuminate or obscure the world, than I am about whether it teaches me something about roosters. I am excited by Whitman’s “The resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its graves, / The tinge awakes over the willow-tree and the mulberry-tree” because he has managed to express the familiar in a way (what strikes me as a beautiful or aesthetically compelling way, which is harder to talk about) that reminds me of its strangeness — but this is not a matter of being excited that my associations are overridden as much as it is an excitement that words can be put together in ways I did not expect to tell me what I already knew but had forgotten to know was very strange indeed. I suppose I am a formalist in the Shklovskian sense: “in considering the feeling one must consider it from the point of view of composition” (& yes, I could discuss the drawbacks of this model, or of “Art as Device” or formalism in general, but I am talking about how I respond as a reader). As for metaphor, it is not necessary for description except in the sense that all language is metaphorical — of course the two often coincide, but even then I am taken by Donald Davidson’s thesis that metaphors are literal: they are not deliberately false but mean exactly what they say.

  • On March 19, 2009 at 2:20 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Michael Robbins, you wrote:
    “Description: who needs it, I know, right, the world’s been so perfectly described already. Bah.”
    It isn’t that the ‘world’s been so perfectly described already,’ it’s that it will NEVER be described to our satisfaction. And this is why we write poetry–which has nothing to do with description, which is an escape from description. The “Greek army” in your example is powerfully NOT THERE. This is the point, I suppose, on which we can all agree.
    Description implies lack, since description is the attempt to replace, or re-make, what is absent. Description never replaces; it clumsily re-makes, and often does so with errors, and poetry gains importance precisely because the descriptive task is so wanting.
    I’m reminded of Hegel and his explanation of “this.” When we say “this,” we think we are being specific (descriptive) when actually we are being as general as can be; the tree, “this,” is really the forest, “this.”
    The same applies to our rooster friend.
    Between ‘strutting male,’ ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’ and ‘Gallus domesticus,’ abysses yawn from which we shall never return.
    Description is a cul-de-sac we meet when running from cliche.
    Good poetry has nothing to do with it.
    Thomas

  • On March 19, 2009 at 4:17 pm Zachariah Wells wrote:

    Thomas Brady,
    Just so I know where you stand on this, would you say that Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Bight” is not “good poetry”?

  • On March 19, 2009 at 4:39 pm Krishna K. Bista wrote:

    wow, poem about the whole roster. That will be a real big poem. Why don’t you think about composing one only on leg or wing or any other part. That’s lovely nice bird with so much creativity–each of us let us write something on………………….
    A poet can see what I can not see! You could be that…
    Krishna Bista

  • On March 19, 2009 at 7:49 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Seth writes :
    “yet what comforts me more, and many others besides, is the sort of metonymic thinking which allows–importantly, through decontextualization, not contextualization–the referents of my world to be defamiliarized in a way that empowers rather than alienates me. For me, the notion of a universal implied narrative moves toward this end.”
    Seth, would you mind elaborating a little on what you mean by “a universal implied narrative”?
    For me this relates to the tendency of mid-20th cent. Chicago critics like RS Crane, who rejected the strictly verbal fixations of the New Criticism, and went back to Aristotle to ground poetry in a concept of mimesis. By this they (& Aristotle) meant something other than “realism”. Rather they argued that the “substantial”, structuring form of poetry resided not in the surface elements of the verse form or the diction, but in the plot – with which the listener identified on some level, emotionally & intellectually.
    For me this also rhymes in a curious way with D. Chiasson’s essay on Cavafy in the current New Yorker, where he contrasts Pound’s poem CONTAINING history, with Cavafy’s sense of LIVING IN history – of people defined by a “universal narrative” which is not past, but inescapably present, personal & transpersonal.
    But maybe you have another sense of this entirely.

  • On March 19, 2009 at 8:12 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    I wonder if Seth’s objection to metaphor is related to the objection many critics have made to Romantic poetics, on the grounds that it appropriates and objectifies the external world, simply to reify and express the poet’s emotions.
    Don, that’s a subtle way to involve EB that she probably would have loved.

  • On March 19, 2009 at 10:04 pm Zachariah Wells wrote:

    I think Annie Finch raises an interesting question. It’s not just post-Romantics who have raised such objections. John Clare didn’t like the way that Keats used the nightingale as a trope. Keats’ complaint about Clare, funnily enough, was that Clare described too much…

  • On March 19, 2009 at 11:18 pm Seth Abramson wrote:

    Henry,
    I think providing the best approximation of what I mean would send us back to Tristes Tropiques by CLS; his accounts of shamanic healing suggest that there are narratives whose force resides almost entirely in connotative meaning, narratives which even when they do not entirely cohere for a particular listener (one example given is a woman struggling with a difficult childbirth) nevertheless call upon such powerful and sub-/semi-conscious associations that they can actually beneficially affect the biology of the subject/audience. All of this is related to the semantic content of medieval heraldry, Yeats, Apollinaire, Symbolism/Aestheticism, maybe even Donovan Leitch’s believe in the “natural high,” but as to methods and temperaments moreso than ends: “art for art’s sake” (the Decadent battle-cry) is about as far from what I mean as possible (which instead is probably much closer to “art for people’s sake”). Deep Image poetry and surrealism are not quite right either–they create diffusion, not singularity.
    I guess the question is, how is it that what Barthes called “writerly” literature, which often evokes moreso than describes, does *not* always lead to a plurality of readings but to one? How can many disparate readers “complete” or find comfort and solace in a single fractured or non-cohesive narrative? Campbell had ideas on this, and good ones, yet to take Campbell at face value would lead us to over-determined, mapped-out texts (as Propp’s work was dedicated to delineating with numbers), essentially “readerly” texts which would, like much metaphoric writing, merely make of the audience a spectator (or worse, a sign-accountant) and lead only to an inarticulable/non-participatory sense of peace/well-bring. Easily won, and thus useless.
    I think there are ways to simultaneously a) force the participation of each individual reader, while b) bringing many disparate, participatory readers to the same reading of the text and the same experience of their own humanness. In the first part of this equation lies “implied narrative”–a device both “mainstream” and “experimental” writers are equally hostile toward, as one group says it goes too far and the other not far enough, so that neither sees its utility or purpose (i.e., it’s in everyone’s aesthetic blind-spot)–and the latter portion is the “universal.” Iconology, biosemiotics, all of it probably has something to say about why a lion on a banner connotes courage, when there’s no literal reason or basis for the connection whatsoever. In other cultures it may not be a lion, but an otter, or an antelope, but whatever it is it represents a unique language for that group which is a) instinctive, b) inarticulable, c) non-literal (extra-descriptive), and d) *intensely* persuasive in the way the most advanced rhetorical techniques are persuasive.
    In both requiring the reader’s instincts and frustrating his/her context-dependent cognitive processes, in simultaneously suggesting structure (narrative) but also disjunction (narrative-by-implication) and using decontextualization/defamiliarization (universality) at the same time as emotionality (through the familiar oral devices native to both rhetoric and storytelling, the same reason talented attorneys win jury trials and that Campbell’s “monomyth” is an emotional experience as well as a metaphysical one), an implied universal narrative (or universal implied narrative) can alter our time-and-space-dependent (context dependent) modes of thought.
    A lot of this involves the use of archetypes whose semantic content is, again, extra-rational and born of instinct rather than experience. In the Amazonian river basin, these were such a powerful natural/non-pharmaceutical narcotic that they could actually bring new life into the world which otherwise might have perished. This is tapping into a force far more potent than the merely descriptive.
    I don’t agree with whoever said, above, that metaphors help us to “remember what we’re forgot,” as–as a matter of craft–a metaphor fails if it addresses a comparison we make only unconsciously, because metaphors as rhetorical devices attempt to persuade us at the chakra (to steal from a Hoagland essay I actually largely disagree with) of the head, not the gut. Thus the metaphor only helps us see what we already think we know, but better, and does not get to the primal. But (again) this isn’t a Deep Image rant, as I strongly believe head-oriented craft devices like rhetoric and rhythm and sound and narrative and metaphysics can be used to access the primal. Head-and-gut poetry, I’m speaking of here, not merely one or the other. A poetry which, consequently, maps itself atop the entire semiotic chain of referent-signifier-signified, and not just one piece of it.
    I think a “third-way poetics” is in there somewhere, honestly I do, and one day someone will “find” it.
    S.

  • On March 20, 2009 at 7:54 am thomas brady wrote:

    Zach,
    Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Bight’ is a great example, thanks. It SEEMS to be a descriptive poem, but it’s not; listen to how CHATTY it is:
    “like this”
    “how sheer”
    “and the boats”
    “dry as matches”
    “rather than being absorbed”
    “if one were Baudelaire one could probably hear”
    “it seems to me”
    “There is a fence”
    The poem’s best feature? The WORD-COMBO “awful” and “cheerful” at the end.
    “Description” is the least of what this poem actually does.
    Thomas

  • On March 20, 2009 at 11:03 am Thomas Brady wrote:

    I’ve always thought of Lowell/Bishop as looser, anecdotalized, watered-down Auden, and Bishop’s ‘chattiness-disguised-as-description’ style (a nice style, don’t get me wrong) comes right out of Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts, which is THE 20th century poem, in my opinion, a poem that manages to sum up Eliot, Pound, Williams, Larkin, Bishop, and Ashbery, etc etc. The entire 20th century canon whirls about “Musee des Beaux Arts,” a hub-poem on a Northern European late Renaissance painting. Auden, and a bunch of others ‘got it’: poetry tells; it does not describe.
    Thomas

  • On March 20, 2009 at 11:12 am Zachariah Wells wrote:

    Thomas,
    Engines have fan belts and radiators, but they’re not what propel the car forward. The prime motive force of “The Bight” is description. Without it, all the little qualifications and asides–some of which are highly descriptive–you’ve snipped out are pointless, as are “awful” and “cheerful.” Does one need to point out that these are ADJECTIVES and that their grammatical role is to DESCRIBE the activity in the bight? Granted, a description in abstract terms and one that seems to point to the speaker’s state of mind, but a description naetheless. You can say that Bishop’s description, like Clare’s, transcends mere description. You can say that mere description ain’t poetry. But this is tautologous. And it ain’t what you said.
    Z

  • On March 20, 2009 at 1:29 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Zach,
    Do you speak of the Well Wrought Internal Combustion Engine?
    When did Clare and Bishop become major poets? To speak of Poetry is to speak of What is Best in Poetry and How that Best is Best acheived; to do otherwise betrays us into a giggly, teenage realm of ‘Oh, I like that!’
    Evaluation of the sort our discussion warrants demands a certain sobriety; if carried aloft by a bauble by Bishop, how are we to reason ourselves into any depth whatsoever?
    Bishop was an inspired amateur, not a master. “Bight” has a slight charm; its descriptive qualities are ponderous and clumsy, as if a teacher had planted a student in view of a harbor and, as an exercise, said, “Now describe everything you see!” The poem’s charm mostly lies in the similarity of ‘awful’ and ‘cheerful’and the overall ‘inspired amateur’ vibe previously mentioned. The reference to Baudelaire is too self-conscious by half. The poem is no supporting document in our quest.
    If ‘description’ is its only virtue, “Bight” collapses. And no, ‘Bight’ does not transcend description. My critique is a radical one.
    I suppose the whole thing could be summed up this way. Who would make a better poet? An illiterate naturalist with 20/20 vision or a highly literate blind person who mostly stays indoors?
    Thomas

  • On March 20, 2009 at 11:56 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    Interesting that Keats made the complaint that Clare described too much. Not numerically, but proportionally, Clare does describe more than Keats-=- in the sense that description more than self-expression seems usually to be Clare’s underlying point.
    Of course, a huge difference between Clare and Bishop is Bishop’s self-conscious irony. Irony is such a central force in Bishop’s poems that it seems to take the driving role that yearning does in Keats or Shelley. Irony being, in turn, such a major force in the shaping of late twentieth century thought and art, many would say this in itself qualifies her as a major poet,
    The wider point to be taken from this, it seems to me, is that the appropriateness and value of certain strategies to poetry is hard to discuss in a historical vacuum, since it is so highly determined by the historical/cultural context.

  • On March 21, 2009 at 9:56 am Patrick Gillespie wrote:

    Don,
    The question you ask and the assertions that Seth makes are so general as to be vacuous. (The texts of Seth’s phenomenally over-wordy arguments remind me of nothing more than Alan Sokal’s “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity “.)
    //Should poets write poems that describe things (like, say, this silly-looking rooster) … or not?//
    I guess there can only be one answer to such a breathtakingly general question:
    It depends.

  • On March 21, 2009 at 2:33 pm mearl wrote:

    Don,
    From Peter Cole’s first book Rift
    Not a rooster, rather a pigeon:
    unfortunately we lose Peter’s lineation, which is part of the meaning-making of the poem:
    I stood, watching
    the-pigeon-
    incredibly-jerking-its-
    head-
    back–and-
    forth
    as it walked.
    Neither
    ox nor
    lion:
    no whale;
    not
    hawk not anyone’s
    eagle.
    Pigeon: simpleton.
    The poem, “Rift”, with the correct lineation is republished in What is Doubled, Poems 1981 – 1998, Shearsman Books.
    Martin

  • On March 21, 2009 at 2:53 pm Tom Harr wrote:

    Patrick’s comment is… I was going to say vacuous, but actually it’s just insulting. If the question is too general and Seth’s remarks are too “wordy,” then why not say something constructive yourself?

  • On March 21, 2009 at 3:38 pm Don Share wrote:

    Berryman seems to talk about these things (albeit obliquely) in his characteristically quirky defense of Pound’s poetry, published in Partisan Review ca. 1949; he quotes Edward Thomas saying of EP’s “In Praise of Ysolt” that the poem’s “beauty” is that of its “intensity” – not that “of beautiful words and images and suggestions . . . . the thought dominates the words and is greater than they are.” Could be that in this day and age, however, the words are supposed to dominate…

  • On March 21, 2009 at 4:12 pm Tim Upperton wrote:

    In The Art of Attention, Donald Revell notes that “Language purports to fill a need. But what if, as the eye can see, there is no need? Why represent what is surely present?” Good questions, I think, for poets of every stripe, and the answers, of course, are various and by no means exhausted.

  • On March 21, 2009 at 4:27 pm Brian Salchert wrote:

    And that is why
    so much depends
    uopn
    a left wheel
    barrow
    filled with drain
    water
    beside the right
    chickens.
    [ Note: This jiggered trespass
    can mean whatever you want it to mean
    but please don't lose your head over it. ]

  • On March 21, 2009 at 6:48 pm Patrick Gillespie wrote:

    //Patrick’s comment is… I was going to say vacuous, but actually it’s just insulting//
    OK, Tom, you haven’t led by example, but maybe you have a point.
    Maybe I’m just being insulting. Maybe not. Let’s take a look:
    //Should poets write poems that describe things (like, say, this silly-looking rooster) … or not?//
    As opposed to what? What is a poem that doesn’t describe? And what does describe mean?
    //Traditional (i.e. fully-determined, fully-resolved, fully-bordered) narratives//
    What is a traditional narrative? As defined by whom? What is “fully-determined? Fully-resolved? Fully-bordered? Who is defining these terms and in what context?
    //have been regarded [...] as being inherently more emotional//
    What does “emotional” mean? As opposed to what? Rational? Then what does rational mean? What is representative of these two ideas?
    //(let us even say weighty, given Jason Guriel’s adjectival stylings,//
    “Adjectival stylings” means what? According to who?
    //The irony in this–in the continued near-religious belief, in short, in the adjective//
    How is Jason or Seth defining adjective? In what context?
    //–is that, whatever Jason may personally feel, many poetry readers are not particularly invested in hearing the sound a rooster makes described in the thousandth way//
    According to who? What does “many poetry readers” mean? How many? Which readers? Readers of what poetry? On what evidence?
    //…but is it truly powerful enough to overwrite all those intimate, hard-won, highly-personalized, highly-experiential associations I already have with the words “rooster” and “nail” and “wood”?//
    Who knows? In what context? In what kind of poetry? Does it matter?
    //I’m not personally interested in or invested in poetry concerned only with signs (LangPo), or referents (Imagism), or signifiers (the contemporary lyric)//
    Who is defining signs? referents? signifiers? Based on what poets? By whom?
    //what poetry can do to frustrate the relationships between these three elements of semiotics.//
    What poets? How do you interpret the “three elements of semiotics”? Who is defining them? Rather than letting others do our thinking for us, how does Seth (or anyone here) define these “three elements of semiotics”?
    //Writing is manifestly not equatable to “description”//
    Says who? In this case, what is meant by writing? What is meant by description?
    -//-not if one understands what the word “description” means, how narrow a concept that is. Indeed it is a narrow view of poetry that says its function is merely to reinforce (or just “spice up”) the reader’s pre-existing associations and worldviews;//
    Again, says who? What are a reader’s “pre-existing associations and worldviews”? Which culture? What study?
    //quite different complaint, which is that nothing new can be said about petals if the manner of speech (the method, not the content) is the same as it always has been since the epic poems of the Romans.//
    What is meant by “new”? Who defines “new”? The poet? The reader? What is a “manner of speech?
    //A lot of this involves the use of archetypes whose semantic content is, again, extra-rational and born of instinct rather than experience.//
    Translate this Tom. What does extra-rational mean? What’s the difference between instinct and experience? Is it the sub-conscious? – by the way, there is no hard evidence that the sub-conscious or un-conscious even exists. What qualifies as archetype? Whose defining it and in what way.
    So on and so on and so on…
    My question: How does any of this help someone write a better poem – a poem that the average reader wants to read?

  • On March 22, 2009 at 9:53 am Doodle wrote:

    Well, here’s another breathtakingly vast question: are poems written (and, separate question: should they be?) for what Patrick calls “the average reader?” What kind of generalization is “average” here?

  • On March 22, 2009 at 2:03 pm Patrick Gillespie wrote:

    //Well, here’s another breathtakingly vast question: are poems written (and, separate question: should they be?) for what Patrick calls “the average reader?” What kind of generalization is “average” here?//
    I’ll tell you what the average reader means (to me): my wife (algebra teacher); the builders I work with; the plumbers; the electricians; the farmers; the grocery store owner – readers who are not academically or professionally associated with poetry. A couple of weeks ago I went around asking them to name one poet from the latter half of the 20th century – only about 1 out of 10 could name someone. None could name a single poem let alone a line of verse. I then asked them if they could name someone from the first half. They all said, to a person, Robert Frost. More than half could name a poem or recall a line of verse from Frost’s poetry. (My apologies to anyone who has heard this unscientific survey elsewhere.)
    I’m not saying my definition is the only one, but that’s what I mean when I say it – readers who don’t think in terms of genres, or “schools of” or “literature”. They simply like what they like because it inspires them, and remember it for the same reason.
    As to whether poems *should* be written for the “average reader”. Poets should be true to themselves. By their own admission, many poets aren’t interested in writing for the readers I’ve described above. It all depends on how a poet wants to be remembered…

  • On March 22, 2009 at 6:59 pm james stotts wrote:

    the triadic model of signification is a peircean notion, a cornerstone of modern semiotic thought.
    but i don’t know how anyone is supposed to answer a question to someone who doesn’t accept any standard definition of the words new, adjective, narrative, emotional.
    seth abramson’s claim, about the difficulty/burden of overcoming the wide circumference of any given cliche, seems like a legitimate one, and it’s a shame that not everyone is willing to give it careful consideration.
    what else is interesting is–it seems to me, given seth abramson’s concession-to/promotion-of the MFA culture in america–that a willingness to subject poetry to strident criticism and slow reading is necessary to keep MFAs from destroying poetry. that is, his skeptical approach is invaluable, if only because there has to be a strong answer to the thousand deleterious consequences of poetry institutions. it doesn’t seem likely to me that we will come out of this wholesale academic commodification of literary values intact, or that an MFA, especially as it is defined now, has anything to offer. but if i’m wrong, it’s because an approach like seth’s is able to withstand the system, not because the system in any way engenders it.
    it’s a serious problem, being put in the hands of (if these streams are any indication) of unserious thinkers. i don’t necessarily agree with seth, but i do with what he’s trying to do.

  • On March 22, 2009 at 7:39 pm Matt wrote:

    Yay. Yet another instance of plumbers being piously held up as symbols of “real people.”
    The McCain campaign, Harriet commenters…same diff.

  • On March 23, 2009 at 7:32 am Patrick Gillespie wrote:

    //but i don’t know how anyone is supposed to answer a question to someone who doesn’t accept any standard definition of the words new, adjective, narrative, emotional.//
    I’m not saying I “don’t accept” standard definitions of words.
    I’ll be blunt, so I’m hopefully not misunderstood. I’m saying that Seth has good, if not valuable and insightful ideas (I like his blog) but that he’s a poor writer who needlessly falls back on specialized vocabulary, linguistic obscurities, and jargonized language. It’s as much as saying that, at worst, he references the ideas of others without concisely and clearly expressing his own.
    The sort of thing I’m pointing out was commented on by Edward Said, way back in 1993 – “Restoring Intellectual Coherence,” in MLANewsletter, Vol. 31, No. 1. He wrote: “…a new fragmentation, an often reckless abandonment of what could be a common intellectual pursuit in favor of highly specialized, exclusivist . . . approaches that destroy and undercut the historical as well as social bases of the humanities”
    So…I leave it at that.
    This isn’t the direction Don Share meant to go and for that I apologize.
    It’s gist for another blog post I suppose.
    As for accusations of piousness and un-serious thing… Grow up.

  • On March 23, 2009 at 7:54 am thomas brady wrote:

    Why do I suspect that Matt’s “real people” is himself?

  • On March 23, 2009 at 2:22 pm Brian Salchert wrote:

    http://www.feathersite.com/Poultry/CGA/Andal/BRKAndalusians.html
    If the above link code doesn’t get you there where photos are,
    try searching: Andalusian roosters. Andalusians come in
    three colors.


Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, March 18th, 2009 by Don Share.